hail-and-farewell party is in full flow at a Spartan civilian restaurant in Clarksville, Tennessee. Clarksville is about fifty miles northwest of Nashville and is the proud home of the 101st Airborne Division and its 20,000 soldiers and their families. It is Friday night and, this being a military affair, everyone has arrived by the scheduled start, eighteen-thirty hours. There is no music. The floors and tables are bare.
The sound is the polite roar of voices of about fifty men and women: officers, senior noncommissioned officers, and their wives who are welcoming the new arrivals to the battalion and saying goodbye to those who are leaving before the unit deploys to Iraq in ten days. The drink of choice is American beer and it is being rapidly consumed straight from the bottles.
My camera crew and I are seated at a table next to one of the battalion officers, his wife, and his fathera retired general who has come to say goodbye to his son, a smart, likable young major who graduated as first captain from West Point. After about an hour of nonstop eating and beer drinking, the mood becomes more loquacious. The general shouts some advice over the noise to his son: “It is not a good career move to get a reporter killed while theyre with you,” he says, and then smiles. Everyone laughs and looks at me. I laugh, too. Then the general says as an afterthought, “Unless theyve been chosen.”
The others laugh lightly. I say nothing. Another hour passes before I get a chance to sit alone with the general. The words have not left my mind. Since covering the Vietnam War, I have suspected that U.S. military personnel have occasionally gotten rid of unwelcome reporters by getting them killed or wounded in combat. It nearly happened to me more than once in Vietnam and Cambodia. Hostile officers sent me on the most dangerous missions, with reconnaissance units, for example, knowing there would probably be casualties. Once, a clearly disturbed major, a public information officer, carried his cocked and loaded .45 pistol everywhere as he escorted me on a combat operation, his eyes wild with excitement. Conscious of the danger, I stuck close to my camera crew and never let the mad major get behind me. Now I ask the general what he meant by that phrase, “Unless theyve been chosen.” He seems embarrassed to be reminded. “Nothing I saw with my own eyes,” he says quickly. “ Its just something I heard.” For the rest of the evening, the general does not appear entirely comfortable around me.
My British camera crew and I, soon to be known disparagingly as “the Gang of Four” by the division public affairs officer, have been invited to cover one company, about a hundred soldiers, for the full year of their tour of duty in Iraq. Until now, the U.S. Army has not allowed a film crew to do such comprehensive coverage of a unit. We are being given freedom to cover most aspects of the soldiers livesprofessional and personalor, as one officer says, “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” We are making a documentary feature film and this is our first day of being embeddedSeptember 9, 2005. We are funding the documentary out of our own savings so that we can have editorial control. For now, we are getting acquainted with the soldiers. The mood is cheerful, helpful, mostly trusting.
As the camera crew rolls, the battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel James OBrien, introduces each of the officers and ncos who is new or departing. (Then the soldier being given his hail or farewell has to make a speech or sing a song. One sings, Jesus Loves Me. “Its the only song I know the words to,” he explains.) OBrien introduces us and says, “Welcome to the team.”
The drinking escalates to straight shots of tequila. At this stage, the crew and I make our own farewell. I do not want us to be associated with the possible embarrassments about to take place. A few days later, when I next see the young major, he smiles and says, “Did you ever have such a hangover in your life?”