The tiny, scrappy Aussie army is one of the busiest in the world. Everywhere I go I seem to find Australian soldiers with their characteristic cheerfulness. In southern Iraq in 2005, an Australian cavalry unit took me dune-hopping in its eight-wheeled armored vehicles. In East Timor in April, some Australian officers invited me to their camp for a demonstration of native spears, crossbows, and slingshots. But in Afghanistan in June, I was with an Australian platoon that narrowly escaped a suicide bombing that killed a Dutch soldier and ten Afghans. In the aftermath of the bombing, the platoon leader ordered me to stay put while he raced to investigate. The Aussies are great at handling the press—until the shooting starts. Such risk-aversion reflects a military suspicious of the press and inexperienced in media relations.
Afghanistan: June 2007
Armored, air-conditioned sleeping trailers, dedicated workspaces with Internet access, and a relatively large staff of press officers make the Dutch one of the most comfortable militaries for embedded reporters. But political sensitivities among the decidedly antiwar Dutch public translate into a long list of restrictions for embeds. When fighting broke out in the Dutch- and Australian-occupied Afghan province of Uruzgan last summer, the Ministry of Defense tried to suppress reports from the three embedded reporters, me included. Army press officers fought the restrictions, ultimately forcing the ministry to relent. Still, the same press officers flatly refused to allow embeds anywhere near the fighting.
Lebanon: January 2007
Covering UN peacekeeping operations is like arguing with a superintelligent, cranky five-year-old. In Lebanon, I had to navigate bewildering layers of red tape just to accompany the Italian Army on a brief patrol near the Israeli border. Such bureaucracy is perhaps inevitable when you kludge together a dozen different armies, all with their own rules and political sensitivities, and deposit them in contested territory. The Italians were perfectly polite, but obviously uncomfortable with me and especially with my interpreter, whom they seemed to suspect of being an Islamic terrorist just because he was Lebanese.
Northern Iraq: April 2005
I was shocked when the U.S. Army captain commanding the unit I was embedded with agreed to let me hang for a couple of days with a nearby Iraqi battalion. Sure, the battalion was comprised mostly of pro-American Kurds, who have a reputation for honesty and loyalty. Still, the Iraqi military as a whole has zero experience handling the press, and the experience had a decidedly tribal flavor. I never left the battalion commander’s side, and the commander’s two bodyguards never left his side. At a memorial for 5,000 Kurds killed in Saddam Hussein’s brutal chemical attack on Halabja in 1988, the commander’s family joined us. Together our motley gang of soldiers, officers, one reporter, and a half dozen civilians rambled around northern Iraq in souped-up Toyota trucks.