Over the last five years, as I’ve consumed one dispatch after another from journalists embedded with U.S. soldiers in Iraq, I’ve wondered how accurate a picture of events such reports provide. Given the stark dangers journalists face in Iraq, embedding clearly offers a valuable means of getting around the country and seeing the troops in action—but at what cost? Does the presence of journalists affect the way soldiers behave? Do journalists—physically protected by soldiers—in turn protect them in what they choose to write? How willing are soldiers to talk freely about their experiences? And to what extent is it possible to talk with Iraqis while on an embed?
This past May, on a visit to Baghdad, I got a chance to explore such questions myself. On my embed application, I wrote that I wanted to visit a typical Baghdad neighborhood to see the effects of the surge and to get an idea of what more had to be done before the U.S. could begin to reduce its forces in significant numbers. I was assigned to the Second Battalion of the Fourth Infantry Regiment of the Tenth Mountain Division, a light infantry unit stationed in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora.
At 9 o’clock on a blistering morning in mid-May, I was met in the Green Zone by a four-vehicle military convoy. Emerging to introduce themselves were Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Watson, the battalion’s commanding officer, and Captain Brett Walker, the public-affairs officer (pao) assigned to watch over me. On the fifteen-minute ride to Dora, they told me how a year earlier the neighborhood had been one of the most violent in Baghdad, with Sunni fighters attached to Al Qaeda in Iraq setting off car bombs and leaving mutilated bodies along roadsides. But thanks in part to the stationing of hundreds more troops in the area, to the application of counterinsurgency techniques, and to the Sunni insurgents who had turned against Al Qaeda, Dora had become one of the safest districts in Baghdad. The Dora marketplace, which the previous year had been all but shuttered, was once again thriving, with some eight hundred shops and stalls open for business.
In the marketplace, I was met by an infantry patrol and taken on a walk-through. Over the next twelve hours, I would see a local church that had recently reopened; a joint security station where both U.S. and Iraqi soldiers were based, and where I could talk with some American troops; a school that the U.S. had helped to refurbish; another, smaller marketplace, where we encountered three “Sons of Iraq”—former insurgents now working with the U.S.; a house that U.S. soldiers had blown up after discovering bomb-making materials inside; and Forward Operation Base Falcon, a sprawling U.S. camp in southern Baghdad.
Though brief, my embed put to rest some of my concerns about the process. To begin, it dispelled any doubts I had about the willingness of soldiers to speak candidly. Several mid-level officers complained vigorously to me about the multiple deployments they’d been on. Some had been to Iraq and Afghanistan three, four, even five times, and their relationships at home had suffered. One captain told me that he had been stop-lossed; another said that he had stayed on only because he knew he would be stop-lossed if he tried to leave. A military-intelligence officer spoke on the record about what he saw as the weaknesses in U.S. strategy. While the surge had helped to bring Al Qaeda under control, Staff Sergeant Zachery Brown told me, the U.S. still needed to deal with Iraq’s many political and social problems and, as far as he could see, it lacked a coherent policy for doing so.
Not every soldier I met felt aggrieved, of course. Some expressed satisfaction at the help they felt they were providing to Iraqis. Others seemed guarded, making it hard to get a fix on their true views; had I spent more time with them, they might have opened up more. All in all, I came away convinced that embedding provides an excellent opportunity for journalists to talk with soldiers, see them in action, and get a sense of how they see their work.
Talking to Iraqis is another matter. I had a few chances to approach the locals, but these tended to be fleeting and awkward, and my lack of Arabic aggravated the problem. In the Dora marketplace, the soldiers accompanying me spoke expansively about all the microgrants and other assistance they were providing shopkeepers. Yet the shopkeepers kept to themselves, and neither they nor their customers even made eye contact with the soldiers. What, I wondered, was going through their minds? I had no real way of finding out.