The Embeds

What is gained, and what is lost

Dan Murphy
The Christian Science Monitor

Embedding is a fancy word for letting journalists go see what the military units do, although that was much more wide open in the Vietnam War, although that was much more of an anomaly of American history. It was much more locked down in the first gulf war, clearly. And now there is a bit of bureaucracy you have to go through and sometimes [the military] wants to steer you in some direction or another direction, but in general, in my personal experience — I guess I’ve probably done, maybe five embeds — I’ve always learned new things and I’ve always gotten great access to intelligence guys who’ll give you off-the-record briefings in the area and talk about what their points of concern are as well as what they think is going well. I’ve always found it fascinating. I consider it an incredible privilege in many ways to go out and see what these guys do. Unless you are a soldier yourself, very few people ever get to see infantrymen in combat. I’m into that and feel very privileged to do it. The only limitation is you are going where they want to go, on their schedules. You are not going to get all the access you want or be able to do all you want. And you are not going to get to talk to Iraqis when you do this.

Colonel William Darley
Military Review

Well, embedding is a tremendous thing for public affairs officers. Every embed is a straw. You’re seeing the war through a straw. So it’s a good thing for the military. The more straws you can get out there, the more coverage, I think, the better. The military’s not going to succeed unless it has political — and certainly in connection with that — public support. If you don’t have political support, if you don’t have public support — the translation of political support — the military can’t succeed.

Patrick Cockburn
The Independent

I think it’s a great mistake to go with American units and report on any Iraqi city because I think it’s in the nature of things that you’re not actually meeting local people, and if you are, you aren’t meeting them in circumstances in which they can actually speak.

Tom Lasseter
Knight Ridder (McClatchy)

To me, not embedding is like not going to a mosque. I can’t imagine going to Iraq without spending the time I’ve spent in mosques there. And I can’t imagine having gone to Iraq without spending the time that I’ve spent embedding.

Mitch Prothero
United Press International

Let’s say a civilian Iraqi car gets shot up at a checkpoint. Obviously this is a huge tragedy, but is it a crime? Well, if you’re never been embedded you’re not going to understand the procedure, you’re not going to understand the mentality, and you’re not going to understand that gut fear that you have when you’re sitting in Humvees and the car doesn’t stop, for whatever reason, whether it’s because they’re a suicide bomber or because it’s a confused, panicked Iraqi guy. If you want to cover the stuff, you have to know what that feels like before you do anybody justice, whether you’re trying to do justice to the Iraqis or to the Americans.

Nir Rosen
Freelance writer

The two weeks [in October 2003] that I was [embedded with the Army] I saw many things that broke my heart and made me angry, and there have been journalists who have been embedded for many, many months during the occupation throughout areas where there are a lot of operations, so they must have seen so many more things than I did. Each time [the soldiers] go on a raid they break down the walls in front of the house; they break down the door, they drag the men out — it’s a very violent, horrifying thing. And usually these are large families. So in the middle of the night you have these huge Martian-looking soldiers breaking into the house when you’re asleep, dragging your father out, stowing all the women to one side, not really speaking your language, pointing guns at you, stomping all over your house in their boots, and they’ve just learned that it’s not even the right house. In my experience, they arrested hundreds more men than they were looking for. They basically arrested all the men. At some point they arrested all the men in the town, it seemed, that were fighting age.

Vivienne Walt
Freelance writer
I was on patrol one night [in March 2004] with a platoon [from the First Armored Cavalry Division], and we were in the town of Abu Ghraib, which is next to the prison of Abu Ghraib. And the platoon, towards dawn — they’d spent all night kind of dragging people out of bed, looking for weapons, and it was unclear what they were looking for. It was just kind of an all-night raid on this town, and the platoon leader turned out to be kind of antiwar in general. All night [he] was saying to me, “I don’t know why the fuck we’re here.” You know, that was his big line. “What the hell are we here for? I don’t know why the fuck we’re here. They actually thought Saddam had weapons of mass destruction here — give me a break, what a joke.” You know, I was writing in my notebook all the time, and he didn’t care — and it was, I thought, a very important piece of the story, that not all U.S. soldiers are gung-ho about the war. And it got toward dawn and they decided to do one last raid on one last house, and they get to this big metal gate. The gate is padlocked and there’s this little dog yapping away, and it’s like four in the morning, the whole town is asleep, and the sergeant of the platoon goes nuts — he’s exhausted and crabby and starts screaming, “Shut the fucking dog up!” you know, and then finally, he pushed at the gates, he pushed the chain open a few inches and put his rifle through and fired a shot and mortally wounded this dog.

So then they shoot open the lock and the dog’s lying there bleeding and the platoon leader, who was the one who was somewhat antiwar, and who also turned out to be a big dog-lover, went completely nuts. You know the dog was like in terrible, terrible pain, and so he leaned over and basically delivered a mercy shot to this dog, by which time the owner of the house has come out and is sort of standing there in shock, and there were twenty armed American soldiers standing in his front yard and his dog was dead. So the whole thing was just a total mess, and then the platoon leader started shouting, “Why the hell did you shoot the dog, are you nuts?” and the other guy said, “It’s none of your business.” They actually took their helmets off and they laid into each other, physically. And then the other soldiers separated them.

We got back to the base at breakfast time, and I wrote an account of what had happened that night — the whole night was sort of interesting — which then wound up being a front-page lead story in The Boston Globe, as a result of which, this guy, who was the platoon leader, was court-martialed [it was eventually dropped after he resigned his commission]. So, the whole thing turned out to be a big incident from what had really been somewhat of a minor, passing incident in the greater scheme of things. Some of my colleagues sort of said, actually did say to me, “Oh, you might have kind of damaged our relations with this platoon.” And in fact I then subsequently went back to see the platoon, just to make sure I hadn’t damaged anybody’s relationship. And it didn’t seem like I had.

Jane Arraf

A story of Samarra again, with the military, embedded, that they had facilitated, where we went to the hospital and, lo and behold, there are women and children who are dead. We are able to do a story, at this morgue at this hospital, with pictures showing, that yes, there were civilian casualties. Not only did the military allow us to do that, they also took us to the cemetery, where they dropped us off some distance and again handed us over to Iraqi soldiers and we watched them bury their dead. Some of the soldiers complained, but there was no fallout because I’d explained to the commanders what I was doing. I had been upfront, I wasn’t pretending I’d seen anything else. The best of them, the thing they demand from you is that you are fair and you are accurate.

One story I was able to do while embedded — again facilitated by the military — was this story on this extraordinary man whose entire family was killed by U.S. soldiers. They fired on him. It’s a long way of saying, being embedded is not to have blinders on.

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad
The Guardian, Getty Images
I had spent two weeks on an embed, and then I went out in a raid, and one of the soldiers in the raid realized that I speak Arabic, because I was trying to translate what an old woman was trying to tell him. And I had like a nice, good relationship with those guys because I was with them for, I don’t know, a week with that specific unit, and I built up a relationship with the guys. We were joking, chatting, but the moment they realized that I spoke the language, this whole trust disappeared and there was a huge wall put up between us.

Colonel William Darley
Military Review

I only know of one reporter, one embed, that was briefly expelled. It was someone from The Wall Street Journal. It was a disagreement about what was on or off the record. That’s the only incident I know. I know lots of reporters that have written pretty damning reports from what they objectively believe they found. That other guy from The Wall Street Journal, Greg Jaffe, he wrote a scathing article with regard to Iraqi training and the success of Iraqi soldiers with the Eighty-second Airborne Division. It was really a downer. Nobody took any retribution against him. He’s still welcome back. He’s still invited back because he’s known to be a straight shooter. On balance, we have a pretty mature group of colonels and generals who recognize that if there’s a turd in the bowl, and somebody reports the turd, well, that’s the price of doing business with an embed.

Chris Hondros
Getty Images

By and large, the embed program — three and a half years into it — is still remarkably important, and while it has had problems here and there — there have been cases of soldiers confiscating someone’s sat [satellite] phone, taking media cards to prevent pictures from going out — so much has come out, so much of our understanding of Iraq has come from embeds. I mean, my God, the battle of Fallujah — that was one hundred percent covered by sixty, seventy journalists embedded with the U.S. military. We think we don’t know anything about Iraq now. Man, if we didn’t have embeds, we wouldn’t know anything about Iraq! And the notion that you sort of start identifying with troops and stuff like that when you’re relying on them for your security, well that’s true to some extent, but again, in ways that are true for any journalist covering anything.

Luckily for journalists, the military is not nearly as organized or centralized as people would like to think. In November 2003, there was a French photographer who was doing a sort of embed with insurgents. And he would claim that he never knew where he was going to go, and one day [the insurgents] said, “Okay, come with us, we’re gonna go someplace,” and he goes with them and they pull out to a field by the airport and whip out a big missile, a missile-launching tube, and they said, “Yeah, we’re going to shoot down an airplane.” And he’s sitting there thinking, he says, “Oh my God, what can I do?” And he was worried that they would just kill him. So he had no choice. So he photographs them setting up and then you see the guy — there’s a picture of the missile coming out of the tube, and then a picture of the plane getting hit in the sky — it was a cargo plane, a DHL cargo plane taking off from Baghdad airport — and the flames bursting out of the wings. On a side note, three very talented pilots actually managed to land that plane with only one engine — on fire — and they were okay.

And then he had them celebrating in the fields and all that. And then he went back, and was in a bit of a daze, and he sent the pictures to his agency, who distributed them and they ran all over magazines. Newsweek International ran them; European and Asian Newsweek ran them as a big double spread. The military saw them — the U.S. military — and was furious that a western journalist was with insurgents who are shooting down coalition aircrafts. Who is this guy? The military was literally looking to arrest him and bring him in to question him. So this guy basically got in a car and took off, and went on the road to Jordan and escaped from Baghdad.

Okay, that was October 2003, around there. By around fall 2004, I come back, and there was this photographer hanging out in our office. “What you been up to?” “Oh, I was doing an embed on Haifa Street,” which is in downtown — a U.S. military-patrolled street in downtown Baghdad that saw a lot of action. When you were embedded in Haifa Street, you didn’t have to actually stay with them on their base. You could just drive up there, go embed, and then come back and stay in the hotel at night. Anyway, he was doing embeds! This guy, who a year before had the entire U.S. military looking for him, was doing embeds in Baghdad!

Anthony Shadid
The Washington Post

I’ve heard stories about articles being graded according to certain colors whether they’re favorable or not, favorable or neutral. I think there’s a certain abuse going on within the embedding system at this point. I think this is something we need to be writing about.

And more and more, we’re becoming combatants. As reporters, we’re losing this noncombatant status. And it was much different — I remember back in Afghanistan in 1997, there was no question I was off limits. Even hanging out with the Taliban fighters outside Kabul, you were off limits. Just in ten years that I’ve been doing this, I think it’s dramatic how much more we’re considered combatants. And it’s not just insurgents in Iraq, but I think also the U.S. military. I think we’re only looking at it in its embryonic form, but if you look ten, fifteen years down the road, there might be a sense that reporters are either embedded and therefore legitimate or unembedded and therefore illegitimate.

Patrick Cockburn
The Independent

In November 2004 the U.S. Marines surrounded and captured Fallujah. Many foreign journalists were embedded with the Marines and reported on this and it was well reported; there were excellent reports from many people. But it was also presented as a victory, which is reasonable enough, but then also presented as a victory which showed that insurgents were on the run. Now, it so happens I know Mosul quite well. The population of Fallujah is 350,000 max; Mosul is about 1.7 million, so it’s a much bigger city. Now, the attack on Fallujah was on 7 November 2004. Four days later, on 11 November, the insurgents attacked Mosul and captured it. They captured thirty police stations: the entire police force either defected or went home. One brigade of the Iraqi Army also evaporated. This was a major defeat, which happened at the same time. Now nobody was embedded with the U.S. forces and nobody really reported it. There were a few scattered reports but it made no impact abroad, but this is extremely significant because it showed that whatever had happened in Fallujah, the insurgents were still powerful and capable of taking a large city.

Anne Barnard
The Boston Globe

From the very beginning, in April 2003, I had regularly gone out to Fallujah and met people there. I went into Fallujah again, right after the battle [in November 2004] with a civil-affairs team that was trying to put the city back together. And it was sort of a scary reenactment of the original Iraq invasion, a microcosm of the Iraq invasion. Here were civil-affairs teams that were going in, and they were supposed to rebuild the whole city, but they hadn’t been given any plans, any blueprints, any understanding of which ministries were responsible for what. And these were Marines who were suddenly supposed to make the banking system work and the plumbing system work and the water system. It already looked like a recipe for disaster, so I went back later and I tried to write in a textured way about what they’d achieved and what they were not achieving, but that was only two or three months after the battle was over, and that was the last time I personally was there.

So when I watched the coverage — and this goes back to the limitations of embeds — you can see that people are going on embeds to Fallujah, for say a week, and people are writing, “Fallujah is suddenly much better now than a couple months ago,” and then another article will say, “Fallujah, it’s a real disappointment,” and it almost depends on what that person’s benchmark is. You can almost tell from the story whether the person — or at least it raises the question when you read the story: Was this person in Fallujah before Fallujah became an insurgent stronghold? Was this person in Fallujah before the first aborted invasion attempt? Was this person in Fallujah during the battle? Was this person in Fallujah immediately after the battle? Are they with soldiers who just arrived? Or with soldiers who just left? Or are they with soldiers who know that they are near the end of their tour, soldiers who came in with these high hopes for how much they were going to achieve and it hasn’t been nearly achieved, and now they’re leaving.

That’s a limitation of embedding — that you’re seeing a snapshot of a place. A snapshot of the military and how it operates. You know, I find it very instructive if you spend time with a unit when they first arrive to their area of operations — you should also go back and spend time with them at the end, and see whether they’re still saying “our AO [area of operations] is one of the most successful ones in Iraq.” I don’t mean to sound flippant, but these guys often come in saying that they’ve heard a lot about the problems but in this area the people really want to work with us, they really want to make a fresh start. And you don’t want to be mean, but you say, “Well, you guys, I’ve been here and I’ve been with a lot of units and they all talk like you when they first arrive.”

Anne Garrels

I was assigned to a battalion of marines and to a platoon that went in on foot, and it was, without doubt, the scariest thing I’ve ever done; the night before I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to do it. It meant carrying fifty pounds on my back, and the marines clearly didn’t want me, an old woman, and they didn’t know what public radio was, for starters. If they were gonna have a correspondent, they wanted a guy from Fox. They did not want a fifty-four-year-old woman from NPR, about which they knew nothing. And all of us were scared the night before; this was really — we were much more exposed than I think we had ever dreamed.
And I still have nightmares, truth be told; posttraumatic, whatever you wanna call it. It doesn’t come in direct ways, it comes in weird ways. After I got home, some kids were celebrating down at the lake just a few hundred yards from here, and they set off fireworks and I found myself curled up, just sobbing. I went skiing — and I’d been to this place in Utah a million times, and there are avalanche dangers and they blow the mountain to precipitate avalanches, and I’ve seen this for twenty years. Well, they did it this year and the next thing I know I’m in the arms of my stepdaughter sobbing my guts out. I don’t have, I don’t regularly have nightmares — it just comes in odd ways, subtle ways. Anger — all of us — I know I’ve had anger issues; they’re hard to describe.
We were hit by RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] walking through the streets, and kids were killed or injured on either side of me, you didn’t have time at the time to reflect on it. It’s only sort of later that you just go, “Jesus Christ,” and I know from talking to the others, there were a handful of us who were in this sort of similar situation, basically on the ground with foot patrols, and I — just speaking for myself — will never do it again.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.