Embedding the press with military units, hatched as an innovative public relations experiment by the Pentagon, allowed an immediate and intimate view of the Iraq War. From my living room in the San Francisco Bay Area, I became obsessively immersed in the war’s coverage. This fascination with the experiences of war correspondents I followed on the Internet, TV and in newspapers and magazines triggered a desire to investigate their personal stories behind the news as part of an oral history book. Like my colleague in this project, Timothy Carlson, I’d never written a book nor had any experience as a war correspondent. While Tim worked as a reporter for a decade at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and four years with TV Guide, our recent work had mainly been in sports magazines. I emailed a five-page book proposal to The Lyons Press, a publisher that specializes in sports, adventure and military history. And to my disbelief, I received a response within 24 hours: “Go for it,” the editor said in reply. “Here’s a small advance to get you started.” He also informed me that the sales department liked my proposed title, “Embedded,” even though we proposed to include interviews with unilateral (non-embedded) reporters.
Interviewing War Correspondents
As the U.S. Army neared Baghdad’s perimeter, I made arrangements for Timothy to fly to Doha, Qatar to interview reporters at U.S. Central Command’s media headquarters—he is a braver man than I—while I began the lengthy process of tracking down reporters and continued to monitor war coverage. We feared that once the war ended in Iraq, worn-out journalists would immediately head home, so we needed to land interviews as soon as possible. We had no guarantee that these journalists would even talk with us. Nor could we assume that the personal accounts they might share with us would be engaging or compelling; we suspected that many of them would save their “best stuff” for their memoirs.
Tim’s first day in Doha, Qatar—April 19th, 10 days after Saddam’s statue fell in Baghdad—proved uneventful. By then, the media headquarters was thinly populated by low-level stringers from the major news bureaus. When we spoke, he sounded demoralized, but an interview the next day with an Al Jazeera reporter who had recently decided to no longer remain embedded gave him hope. One of the more risky of the Pentagon’s embedding decisions was to embed this Al Jazeera correspondent. The message behind doing so was obvious: to demonstrate that the U.S. military represented a democratic, open society with nothing to hide.
What happened, however, was that this Al Jazeera reporter, BBC-trained Amr El-Kahky, claimed he had been given back-of-the-bus treatment and suffered blatant discrimination from American officers in the field worried about security and believing that anyone from Al Jazeera represented the enemy. In time, El-Kahky left his embedded position in frustration and was castigated by Arab media colleagues and even threatened with death by a Free Iraqi Forces militiaman in the field.
Despite this revealing interview, Tim let me know in our dollar-a-minute cell phone call that: “No one is here. I must travel to Kuwait.” I wired him more money. After jumping through several visa hoops, Tim flew to Kuwait City. During the next week, he camped out in the air-conditioned lobby of Kuwait City’s Sheraton, from where he approached battlefield reporters on the way home or seeking a welcome respite. Many reporters he managed to speak with were unilaterals who had covered the war from rented SUV’s, encountering fedayeen and armed militia ambushes and stonewalling U.S. and British forces trying to keep non-embeds out of harm’s way.
In all, Tim interviewed about a dozen war correspondents and photographers, including several military public affairs officers in Kuwait. Interviews averaged about an hour. Many were eager to discuss their experiences and often remarked that they were still in a transitional period of decompression, of trying to make sense out of what they had been reporting. Their recollections and reflections were fresh, visceral and dramatic. The longer they spoke with Tim, the more their wary journalistic guard lowered. They discussed personal feelings about confronting fear or facing death, watching enemy troops dying in a fiery attack, and crossing a wavering line of objectivity in the desert sand.
If the book’s goal was to excavate the emotional cost borne by these witnesses to war, these interviews were hitting pay dirt. Some were haunted by what they saw. Robert Galbraith, a freelance photographer from Montreal, Canada, revealed: “Lately, I’ve had nightmares. Not the usual ones. Worse, far worse. I dreamed that bombs and rockets were blasting into my home in Montreal. I heard my children screaming. They were being shot at, and I couldn’t move. Then I knew it was time to leave Baghdad.” Others compartmentalized their feelings. Voice of America’s East Africa bureau chief, Alisha Ryu, said: “What makes it fascinating for me is why people behave the way they do. In Africa, I have watched hands being chopped off. I’ve watched a man being roasted alive and his heart eaten. There is so much brutality I saw that after a while I became numb to it. It is terrible to say, but it’s true. Now I have almost no reaction when I see dead bodies.”
Many reporters, in particular those from U.S. publications, try to maintain objectivity and impartiality in the ways they cover events. But in these interviews, war correspondents spoke frankly—and subjectively—about their experiences. Stored-up feelings were pried open. Seldom do journalists’ personal observations surface for public consumption. Peter Baker, The Washington Post’s Moscow co-bureau chief, said that after watching a live U.S. missile take out an Iraqi personnel truck on plasma TV screens in command headquarters, he felt that “it was an odd disconnect. It’s hard to sit there and watch a video like that and really process what it meant. It’s easy to be detached about it as they were and had to be. It’s their job. But there is also a humanity in that situation. Men are dying at that moment, and you are watching it happen live in front of you. That’s the problem with a high-tech war. In some ways it may appear more bloodless than it really is.” Still, Baker sounded surprisingly calm when recounting an incident when his wife, fellow Washington Post correspondent and Moscow co-bureau chief Susan Glasser, was under fire at a Basra hospital. Baker did ask command headquarters to see what they could do to help.
Embedded reporter Steve Komarow of USA Today echoed this sense of estrangement from the human side of war: “We’d be watching live video feeds at field command headquarters from hunter aircraft of night air strikes on Iraqi convoys. We’d hear them calling in the fires to take them out. Then the screen would go black and white with a flash. We’d just see the smoke. It was like a Tom Clancy movie. It sounds horrible, but we didn’t see the people who were killed. It was more striking when we came to a spot and there were just bodies rotting in the sun. The smell of human bodies rotting is an awful thing. It just hits you. I soon stopped looking.”
Moving on to Baghdad
After spending a week in Kuwait City, Tim insisted on pushing closer to media ground zero: Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel, home to news organizations such as CNN and The New York Times. With his only daughter heading off to college in the fall, I felt awkward asking him to go into Iraq to track down more reporters. In Iraq, journalists were dying. The causes ranged from traffic accidents to shellings and friendly fire and occasional ambushes. “I just have to be in Baghdad,” he said. More money for a driver and car was wired. On his way into Baghdad, two trucks loaded with menacing men tried to ambush Tim’s vehicle, but the driver made a quick U-turn, accelerated and beat the bandits back to a nearby British Army checkpoint.
Once Tim arrived in Baghdad, after four last-minute cancellations, he finally secured a key interview with John Burns, then Baghdad bureau chief of The New York Times. He also spoke with New York Times photographer Tyler Hicks and correspondents from CNN, Newsweek, Abu Dhabi TV, and a photographer from Time.
Back in California, I worked the phones. I called city desks at newspapers and asked to speak with reporters whose dispatches on the Internet or on television caught my attention. I also contacted reporters by e-mail and would often get a response a week or two later, usually with an apologetic note that their e-mail box had been overflowing with messages. I was pleasantly amazed that about 75 percent of those I contacted agreed to be interviewed.
On May 2nd, Tim started home. It was the day after President Bush landed on the aircraft carrier and declared the end of the combat phase of the war. While Tim transcribed his tapes and did more interviews, I spoke with a wide range of high-profile correspondents such as Jim Axelrod and John Roberts of CBS News, Martin Savidge of CNN, David Zucchino of the Los Angeles Times, Maya Zumwalt of Fox News, Mike Cerre of ABC News, and Gavin Hewitt of the BBC.
Reaction to ‘Embedded’
We completed a total of 75 interviews (10 were dropped for space or other reasons), and in mid-July I e-mailed the 420-page manuscript to the publisher. In our interviews, we didn’t adhere to our original list of questions that we had created at the outset of the book project, but gently guided and nudged the subjects’ responses along. With oral histories, it is best for interviewers to fade into the background. But even as we receded from view behind the words of those we interviewed, we have remained attached—in a proprietary manner—to these stories we collected and to those whose personal narratives we helped to shape.
“Reporting in Closed Societies”
– Excerpts from Burns’s interviewOur sensitivity to this aspect of putting the book together surfaced when The Wall Street Journal ran on its editorial page a lengthy excerpt from our provocative interview with two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist John Burns. Appearing on September 17th and headlined “An Absolutely Disgraceful Performance,” the text the Journal printed told what Burns had said about compliant journalists in Baghdad who, during the run-up to the war, gave bribes to Iraqi Information Ministry officials and ignored the rampant state-sponsored torture in exchange for access. As powerful and incendiary as Burns’s words were, the Journal mistakenly said that he had written them for “Embedded.” Tim and I had never and would never claim ownership to Burns’s words (or the words of any other journalist we interviewed), but this oversight by the Journal seems to come with the territory of what constitutes an oral history.
Soon after the Journal piece appeared, The Washington Post’s book editor called Lyons Press’s publicist and asked her if Tim and I “were compilers or editors, not authors.” His need for clarification seemed like a legitimate request. But the idea of being considered “compilers” was off the mark and demeaning. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “‘compiler,’ from Latin compilare to plunder, as to compose out of materials from other documents; to collect and edit into a volume.” Our book is an oral history as told in the words of those war correspondents who covered the Iraq War (arranged in story form by us, with questions removed), and it also contains introductory essays to place the interviews in context.
What purpose does our book serve for newsrooms and classrooms? It’s a question I’ve asked myself countless times. The answer mirrors the different narratives that emerged in “Embedded.” If forced to distill these accounts into general themes and observations, the list would include these highlights:
- Many reporters observed that it wasn’t possible to remain totally objective under fire. Others said it was difficult to do, but crucial.
- Some said embedded reporting was fine as long as it was combined with unilaterals for balanced and complete coverage. Some embedded reporters such as The Washington Post’s William Branigin, who reported about an accidental checkpoint killing of civilians, wrote outstanding articles on the tragedies of war. The military wanted their story told—and accepted that some negative stories would emerge in the process—because they saw the embedded press as an effective counteracting force to what the Pentagon felt was aggressive use of Al Jazerra and other Arab media by al-Qaeda and other anti-Western forces.
- Reporters grew close to the soldiers they traveled with, and some, such as Scott Nelson of The Boston Globe, pointed out a sniper, or were handed a grenade, as Gordon Dillow of The Orange County Register was during a desperate firefight. Others, like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Ron Martz, dropped his notebook to help a medic in battle.
- There was a cultural clash between U.S. news organizations, which shied away from showing dead bodies, and the European and Arab press, who showed their audiences the nonsanitized version of the brutality of war.
- Arab media took pride in showing all sides and felt CNN and the U.S. media pulled punches and only showed one side. They compared this happy news approach to the way Saddam and Arab government stations used to air only positive news of the government.
- Sometimes, 21st century instant coverage technology got in the way of reporting from the war. Some of the most thorough work was done with pencil and notebook, including coverage by Rolling Stone’s Evan Wright, who was with a Marine recon unit.
- There was network news camaraderie on the battlefield when ABC News “Nightline’s” Ted Koppel acted as a fatherly adviser and comforter to a colleague at CBS following the death of NBC News correspondent David Bloom.
- Although embedding appeared to work well, Pentagon officials have indicated that embedding might not be repeated, depending on the nature of the war and the battlefield.
These observations scratch the surface of what will surely be an evolving give-and-take relationship between the media and the military. The foot soldiers of today are not just those who carry weapons. They are also the press. If the 19th century German historian Karl von Clausewitz were alive today, his famous adage might now read, “War is the continuation of media by other means.” Still, it’s the simple truths about war reporting that resonate the loudest, at least to my ears. For example, there are the evocative words of Anna Badkhen, a young staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, who has filed stories from war zones in Chechnya, Gaza, the West Bank, Kashmir and Kabul. She was in northern Iraq when we spoke by satellite phone and lives in Moscow with her husband, Boston Globe Bureau Chief David Filipov, and six-year old son, Fyodor.
Because her assignments often require her to spend months away from her home, she admits to experiencing psychological fallout from her work. “For me personally, war reporting comes at a high emotional cost. I don’t know how many people wake up from nightmares with bullets in their forehead, but it strikes me as a severe price to pay. I have these recurring dreams of being executed. I have dreams of killing children. I have dreams of being tortured,” she told us. “I’m afraid the traumas of war must show even at home. Wars are bad, they are devastating, they are terrifying. There can be no good memories from a war.”
Bill Katovsky is the coauthor, with Timothy Carlson, of “Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq: An Oral History,” published in 2003 by Lyons Press.