In February 2006, I was detained by the U.S. Army and ejected from Iraq. My crime? Reporting on the weapons and tactics used to counter Improvised Explosive Devices, in apparent violation of the ground rules for embedded media. Unbeknownst to me—and to my on-the-record source, apparently—the military considers details about radio jammers (designed to block the signals that detonate IEDs) secret. They could have saved us all a lot of grief by telling me that in advance, but that kind of thoroughness, I soon learned, is too much to expect. I figured my two-year-old military-reporting career was over.
As it turned out, the arrest didn’t end my war correspondence—just the U.S. part of it. Before and after the arrest, I’ve ridden to war or to peacekeeping with all kinds of armies—a sort of world military tour. One thing I’ve learned is that the way in which an army handles media says a lot about its values, its confidence in its mission, and—dare I say it?—its effectiveness in modern warfare, in which perceptions are critical. Here’s a sampling of what I learned:
North-central Iraq:January and March 2005; February 2006
As the lead military service in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army handles a lot of press and that volume may help explain the service’s lapses. Since 2003, the Army has been playing catch-up to rapidly evolving media, alternately embracing and clamping down on bloggers, for instance, and constantly changing or reinterpreting the ground rules for embeds. One day, a certain tactic or technology is off-limits to reporters; the next, the Army is trumpeting the same weapons and practices as part of some PR strategy. (Shortly before my eviction, The San Diego Union-Tribune and other media conducted an on-the-record interview with a Marine general concerning the same technologies that I got into so much trouble for reporting on.) What’s more, the service’s media-relations effort has always appeared under-resourced compared with other nations’ militaries. I was neither the first nor last reporter to run afoul of the Army’s struggling public-affairs apparatus. Michael Yon, an independent blogger and former Special Forces soldier, famously stared down Brigadier General Vincent Brooks, a senior flack in Iraq, after Brooks tried to “dis-embed” him from a base in central Iraq in March because, as Yon recalls, he was “taking up too much space.” That space amounted to a single trailer. Reporters who lose their arguments with Army media handlers can wind up blacklisted, as I did. On the plus side, as long as you keep a low profile, you can have pretty much free reign while embedded with the U.S. Army. I’ve tagged along on ambushes and night raids.
U.S. Marine Corps
Western Iraq: January 2006
“We don’t lose reporters.” That’s what a Marine officer told me one night when he found me wandering around a U.S. base near Tikrit, lost yet again after another missed connection courtesy of the U.S. Army. A year later, I was embedded with a Marine fighter squadron in western Iraq, observing combat operations and hanging out with the pilots and ground crew between missions. It was easily one of the best experiences of my career. The Marines were flying round-the-clock missions at low altitude, in poor weather, snooping for insurgents, and coming to the rescue of pinned-down ground troops. It was heroic, and my stories reflected that. But despite repeated attempts, I’ve never been allowed back. The Army carries a lot of weight in Iraq, and the Marines told me that they had little choice but to deny my embed requests. (A Marine press officer told CJR their decision was independent.) The Marines have a reputation for excellent media relations; in my case, I got the feeling that they weren’t happy being pressured by the Army.
Southern Iraq: June 2005, September 2005, October 2006, December 2007
The British Army assigns escorts—usually captains with at least five years’ experience—to all its embedded journalists. This made me suspicious at first. But in my four embeds with British forces in southern Iraq, I’ve found my escorts to be invariably helpful in coordinating travel and security and navigating the bewildering labyrinth of military bureaucracy. And in October 2006, Captain Eugenijus Lastauskas, a media handler on loan from the Lithuanian army, literally dragged me to cover while mortar rounds exploded around us. By far, the British have the best embed program of all the armies I’ve known. They grant excellent access and devote significant resources to ensuring that the press is safe, comfortable, and equipped to do its job.
Southern Iraq: June 2005; East Timor: April 2007; Afghanistan: June 2007
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. David Axe is a military correspondent living in Washington, D.C. Since 2005 he has reported from Iraq, Lebanon, East Timor, Afghanistan and Somalia. He is a regular contributor to The Washington Times, C-SPAN and BBC Radio, among many others. His graphic novel war memoir WAR FIX made Amazon's 2006 top ten list. ARMY 101, his nonfiction tale about Army ROTC, debuted in January 2007. He blogs alongside tech writer Noah Shachtman at Danger Room and at his own blog, warisboring.com.