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Why It Feels So Good to Be Embedded With the US Military

Why do journalists have such trouble staying objective when they're embedded with the army?

| Mon May 16, 2011 3:53 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Objective reporting on the SEAL team that killed bin Laden was as easy to find as a Prius at a Michele Bachmann rally. The media simply couldn't help themselves. They couldn't stop spooning out man-sized helpings of testosterone—the SEALs' phallic weapons, their frat-house, haze-worthy training, their romance-novel bravado, their sweaty, heaving chests pressing against tight uniforms, muscles daring to break free...

You get the point. Towel off and read on.

What is it about the military that turns normally thoughtful journalists into war pornographers? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the US military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.

I'm neither a soldier nor a journalist. I'm a diplomat, just back from 12 months as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) leader, embedded with the military in Iraq, and let me tell you that nobody laughed harder at the turgid prose reporters used to describe their lives than the soldiers themselves. They knew they were trading hours of boredom for maybe minutes of craziness that only in retrospect seemed "exciting," as opposed to scary, confusing, and chaotic. That said, the laziest private knew from growing up watching TV exactly what flavor to feed a visiting reporter.

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In trying to figure out why journalists and assorted militarized intellectuals from inside the Beltway lose it around the military, I remembered a long afternoon spent with a gaggle of "fellows" from a prominent national security think tank who had flown into Iraq. These scholars wrote serious articles and books that important people read; they appeared on important Sunday morning talk shows; and they served as consultants to even more important people who made decisions about the Iraq War and assumedly other conflicts to come.

One of them had been on the staff of a general whose name he dropped more often than Jesus's at a Southern Baptist A.A. meeting. He was a real live neocon. A quick Google search showed he had strongly supported going to war in Iraq, wrote apology pieces after no one could find any weapons of mass destruction there ("It was still the right thing to do"), and was now back to check out just how well democracy was working out for a paper he was writing to further justify the war. He liked military high-tech, wielded words like "awesome," "superb," and "extraordinary" (pronounced EXTRA-ordinary) without irony to describe tanks and guns, and said in reference to the Israeli Army, "They give me a hard-on."
 

Fearing the Media vs. Using the Media

Such figures are not alone. Nerds, academics, and journalists have had trouble finding ways to talk, write, or think about the military in a reasonably objective way. A minority of them have spun off into the dark side, focused on the My Lai, Full Metal Jacket, and Platoon-style psycho killers. But most spin in the other direction, portraying our men and women in uniform as regularly, daily, hourly saving Private Ryan, stepping once more into the breach, and sacking out each night knowing they are abed with brothers.

I sort of did it, too. As a State Department Foreign Service Officer embedded with the military in Iraq, I walked in... er, deployed, unprepared. I had never served in the military and had rarely fired a weapon (and never at anything bigger than a beer can on a rock ledge). The last time I punched someone was in ninth grade. Yet over the course of a year, I found myself living and working with the 82nd Airborne, followed by the 10th Mountain Division, and finally the 3rd Infantry Division, three of the most can-do units in the Army. It was... seductive.

The military raised a lot of eyebrows in my part of the world early in the Iraq invasion with their policy of embedding journalists with front-line troops. Other than preserving OpSec (Operational Security for those of you who have never had The Experience) and not giving away positions and plans to the bad guys, journalists were free to see and report on anything. No restrictions, no holding back.

Growing up professionally within the State Department, I had been raised to fear the media. "Don't end up on the front page of the Washington Post," was an often-repeated warning within the State Department, and many a boss now advises young Foreign Service Officers to "re-read that email again, imagining it on the Internet, and see if you still want to send it." And that's when we're deciding what office supplies to recommend to the ambassador, not anything close to the life-and-death stuff a military embed might witness.

When I started my career, the boogieman was syndicated columnist Jack Anderson, then Washington Post columnist Al Kamen. Now, it's Jon Stewart and Wikileaks. A mention by name in any of those places is career suicide. Officially, State suggests we avoid "unscripted interactions" with the media. Indeed, in his book on Iraq and Afghan nation-building, Armed Humanitarians, Nathan Hodge brags about how he did get a few State Department people to talk to him anonymously in a 300-page book with first-person military quotes on nearly every page.

So, in 2003, we diplomats sat back and smugly speculated that the military didn't mean it, that they'd stage-manage what embedded journalists would see and who they would be allowed to speak to. After all, if someone screwed up and the reporter saw the real thing, it would end up in disaster, as in fact happened when Rolling Stone's Michael Hastings got Afghan War commander Stanley McCrystal axed as a "runaway general."

We were, however, dead wrong. As everyone now agrees, journalists saw what they saw and talked to whomever they chose and the military facilitated the process. Other than McCrystal (who has since been redeemed by the same president who fired him), can anyone name another military person whacked by reporting?

I'm waiting.

I saw it myself in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commander of all troops in Iraq, would routinely arrive at some desert dump where I happened to be, reporters in tow. I saw for myself that they would be free to speak about anything to anyone on that Forward Operating Base (which, in acronym-mad Iraq, we all just called a FOB, rhymes with "cob"). The only exception would be me: State had a long-standing policy that on-the-record interviews with its officials had to be pre-approved by the Embassy or often by the Washington Mothership itself.

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