Why I'm not embedded in Iraq

Posted: Mar 08, 2007 12:01 AM
Why I'm not embedded in Iraq

Most people would rather suffer a jaw’s worth of root canals than go to Iraq. Most reporters, too. But there are a tiny number who actually feel the need to do so – even to the extent that they're willing to pay all their own expenses in the hope, but nothing more – of recovering part or all of those expenses through donations and selling articles about their experiences. These are the citizen embeds, and I am one of them. I was supposed go over in February, but I didn't, and the reason I didn't is of more than personal interest.

I decided needed to cover the "surge." My editors at The Weekly Standard, for whom I freelance, agreed. I requested two embeds in the Baghdad area or one in Baghdad and one in Diyala, a hotspot hugging the Iranian border. These would allow the reporting I specialize in, which isn't "war" generally but combat. I like to report on the men doing the fighting – and I’m good at it. One person said of one of my Weekly Standard articles from Ramadi: "Great stuff with a great unit in a very tough neighborhood!" That was Gen. David Petraeus, now commander of coalition forces in Iraq.

I was first offered an embed in Tikrit and said no. Saddam's birthplace sees about as much combat as Malibu these days, for the best of all reasons – it has been pacified. If I'm going to be somewhere as peaceful as Malibu, I'd rather be in Malibu. It has a beautiful beach, you can buy beer, and you're not paying a fortune each day for war insurance. In response, the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC) in the “green zone” said they’d find me another embed. So I booked my $1,200 plane ticket only to find my “new” destination was . . . Tikrit!

But, I was told, that would only be the first half of the embed. The second half would be at Camp Loyalty in Baghdad. Nevertheless, that still didn't solve the problem of paying war insurance for a week of twiddling my thumbs in Tikrit. Moreover, I had an excellent indication of what would happen once I got to Tikrit based on my first embed in Iraq. I was told I’d get a combat unit in Ramadi second if I embedded with a civil affairs unit in Fallujah first. Once I got to Fallujah, Ramadi was yanked for no given reason.

So I decided to just skip Tikrit and go straight to Baghdad. Sure enough, I was quickly thereafter informed that Camp Loyalty had suddenly stopped taking embeds – I would have been stuck in Tikrit the entire time.

During this time I corresponded with the head of CPIC, Lt. Col. Christopher Garvin, and a public affairs officer named Col. Stephen Boyle who works under Petraeus. Boyle essentially told me that a good journalist can make lemonade out of lemons. The saying, of course, is to make lemonade "When life gives you lemons," not "When we give you lemons." He might as well have said, "Hey baby, just relax and enjoy it."

There seems no other explanation for all this than that I don't belong to the mainstream media. It's okay for the AP to claim four mosques were torched that weren't (the Washington Post claimed “at least five”), or that six Sunnis were horribly burned alive who weren't, or for the Los Angeles Times to report that an airstrikethat never occurred killed dozens of women and children. But when a citizen embed (albeit one attached to a magazine) wants in, he gets sent to the lemon stand.

In guerrilla warfare, perception is more important than reality. For example, the Tet Offensive saw the Viet Cong crushed, but the media made it an incredible communist victory. When military public affairs caters to reporters who are slaves to the dictum of “If it bleeds it leads” and are often openly hostile to the war effort, and then shunts aside reporters with a track record for veracity and supporting the troops, it shows utter ignorance of this truism. Public affairs needs to learn how guerrilla wars are won and lost – and they need to learn fast.