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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 2:53 PM EDT

Getting such an approval before a typical reporter's deadline ran out was invariably near impossible, which assumedly was the whole point of the system. In fact, the rules got even tougher over the course of my year in the desert. When I arrived, the SOP (standard operating procedure) allowed Provincial Reconstruction Team leaders to talk to foreign media without preapproval (on the assumption that no one in Washington read their pieces in other languages anyway and thus no one in the field could get into trouble). This was soon rescinded countrywide and preapproval was required even for these media interactions.

Detouring around me, the reporters would ask soldiers their opinions on the war, the Army, or even controversial policies like DADT. (Do I have to freaking spell it out for you? Don't Ask, Don't Tell.) The reporters would sit through the briefings the general received, listening in as he asked questions. They were exposed to classified material, and trusted not to reveal it in print. They would go out on patrols led by 24-year-old lieutenants, where life-and-death decisions were often made, and were free to report on whatever they saw. It always amazed me—like that scene in The Wizard of Oz where everything suddenly changes from black and white into color.
 

Fear Not: The Force Is With You

But the military wasn't worried. Why? Because its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was—not to mince words—seductive. The world, it turns out, is divided into two groups, those who served in the military and those who didn't. For the rare journalists with service time, this would be homecoming, a chance to relive their youth filtered through memory. For the others, like me, embedding with the military felt like being invited in—no, welcomed—for the first time by the cool kids.

You arrive and, of course, you feel awkward, out of place. Everyone has a uniform on and you're wearing something inappropriate you bought at L.L. Bean. You don't know how to wear your body-armor vest and helmet, which means that someone has to show you how to dress yourself. When was the last time that happened? Instead of making fun of you, though, the soldier is cool with it and just helps.

Then, you start out not knowing what the hell anyone is saying, because they throw around terms like FOB and DFAC and POS and LT and BLUF and say Hoo-ah, but sooner or later someone begins to explain them to you one by one, and after a while you start to feel pretty cool saying them yourself and better yet, repeating them to people at home in emails and, if you're a journalist, during live reports. ("Sorry Wolf, that's an insider military term. Let me explain it to our viewers…")

You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you're riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You're the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they're cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can't believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you've been, and what you've seen—and you want to tell them.

Even though you may be only a few years older than many of them, you feel fatherly. For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you're treated as the most beautiful female they've seen in the last six months—and it's probably true.

The same way one year in a dog's life equals seven human years, every day spent in a war zone is the equivalent of a month relationship-wise. You quickly grow close to the military people you're with, and though you may never see any of them again after next week, you bond with them.

You arrived a stranger and a geek. Now, you eat their food, watch their TV, and sleep, pee, and work together every day. These are your friends, at least for the time you're together, and you're never going to betray them. Under those circumstances, it's harder than hell to say anything bad about the organization whose lowest ranking member just gave up his sleeping bag without prompting because you were too green and dumb to bring one with you.

One time I got so sick that I spent half a day inside a latrine stall. What got me out was some anonymous soldier tossing a packet of anti-diarrheal medicine in. He never said a word, just gave it to me and left. He'd likely do the same if called upon to protect me, help move my gear, or any of a thousand other small gestures.

So, take my word for it, it's really, really hard to write about the military objectively, even if you try. That's not to say that all journalists are shills; it's just a warning for you to take care when you're hanging out with, or reading, our warrior-pundits.

And yet having some perspective on the military and what it does matters as we threaten to slip into yet more multigenerational wars without purpose, watch the further militarization of foreign affairs, and devote ever more of our national budget to the military. War lovers and war pornographers can't offer us an objective look at a world in which more and more foreigners only run into Americans when they are wearing green and carrying weapons.

I respect my military colleagues, at least the ones who took it all seriously enough to deserve that respect, and would not speak ill of them. Some do indeed make enormous sacrifices, including of their own lives, even if for reasons that are ambiguous at best to a majority of Americans. But in order to understand these men and women and the tasks they are set to, we need journalists who are willing to type with both hands, not just pass on their own wet dreams to a gullible public.

Civilian control of our military is a cornerstone of our republic, and we the people need to base our decisions on something better than Sergeant Rock comic rewrites.

Peter Van Buren spent a year in Iraq as a State Department Foreign Service Officer serving as Team Leader for two Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). Now in Washington, he writes about Iraq and the Middle East at his blog, We Meant Well. His book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People (The American Empire Project, Metropolitan Books), will be published this September and can be preordered by clicking here. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Van Buren discusses the farce of nation-building in Iraq, click here, or download it to your iPod here. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

[Note: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in his private capacity and do not in any way represent the views of the Department of State, the Department of Defense, or any other entity of the US Government. The Department of State has not approved, endorsed, or authorized this post.]

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