Iraq is no longer raging with violence, but it is a broken country. More than a million of its citizens have fled, a few of them with government money. Many government ministries, divided among political and sectarian factions under a system devised by the U.S., are barely functioning. A budget crisis is depressing everything from expansion of the army to the repair of decrepit schools. In the bigger picture, the U.S. has
found itself in the middle of Kurd-Arab tensions it helped create by disbanding the Iraqi Army and deploying Kurdish forces to secure unprotected areas in 2003. All of this in a country pivotal to U.S. interests in the region.
Although its role has diminished, the U.S. military is still involved in almost every facet of Iraqi society, particularly in rural areas, where soldiers, marines, and special forces do everything from mediating disputes to providing drinking water to conducting combat operations. Counterinsurgency operations have essentially been placed off limits to the press. Reporters asking to cover specific missions are directed to
ribbon cuttings. This reduced access and reduced engagement with reporters has perpetuated the convenient fiction that the servicemen and women in Iraq are simply waiting around to go home. They’re not.
The U.S. still has perhaps the most transparent military in the world. Almost no other country allows the kind of scrutiny on the ground that the U.S. allows reporters during combat operations. Yet a confluence of factors—relief that Iraq is out of the news, the reality that the U.S. is taking a back seat, and the press-averse commanders who are no longer being required to engage with the media—has had the same effect. In the waning days of this six-year-old war, young men and women are being killed out of sight and apparently out of mind.
Journalists in Iraq cherish the memory of embed invitations from the days when the military was courting the media. They seem like quaint anachronisms today. The best of them read like spa menus—offering different options for one-, two-, or three-day stays. Now reporters must fight for military approval and then potentially spend days waiting for flights, all for uncertain access in the end. This has led many reporters to abandon embedding as a reporting tool.
Colonel Boylan, who saw the length of the average media embed shrink from more than five days to less than two after he left Iraq, has a different perspective on the decline of embedding. News organizations face cutbacks and shrinking staffs, he says, as well as declining reader interest in the war at home. “I think there is a tiredness on the part of the units with a microscope looking over their shoulder when the reporter isn’t willing to put in the time or effort to get to know who they are,” he says. “The embed process for the most part is dead.” The part about the shrinking staffs is certainly true. About two dozen reporters from U.S. news outlets are in Iraq on average, a fraction of the number at the height of the war.
Yet the military is increasingly reticent to deal with those who do remain. Even driving onto some military bases for interviews requires embed approval—a form which asks reporters, including those based in Iraq, to submit samples f their work and story ideas. Coverage is often killed by bureaucracy.
Embedding aside, the turnaround time for requests for basic information has gone from the same day, normally—essential for most stories—to three or four days, or more. An acknowledgement that the requests have even been received is considered a victory. Six years into the war, the public-affairs offices for entire Army divisions in Iraq send out contact details to journalists that indicate they have “no commercial number.” A note at the central press office says, “News media representatives are always encouraged to call to check on the status of their query.” The phone number listed routinely disconnects callers when they enter the extension. U.S. officials occasionally refer reporters’ queries to Iraqi officials. But some of those Iraqi officials then ask how the reporter got their name and number, and refer them back to the U.S. military. It would be amusing if it weren’t so disconcerting.