Journalists deliver the real war, in real time

Reports from those `embedded' with combat units evade military spin

War In Iraq

April 04, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - When U.S. soldiers shot and killed Iraqi citizens at a checkpoint outside Karbala this week, Pentagon officials said the approaching vehicle failed to stop after warning shots were fired. They said seven of the 13 passengers had been killed.

But a journalist on the scene with the Army unit described the captain excoriating his platoon for failing to fire warning shots in time and said that 10 out of 15 civilians in the car, including five young children, had been killed.

Such firsthand accounts from hundreds of print and broadcast journalists who have been deployed, or "embedded," with U.S. troops - traveling, eating, sleeping with them - have provided some of the grittiest, most vivid and dramatic images of the war in Iraq, often live as events are unfolding.

They have also complicated the Pentagon's effort to shape perceptions of the war and its progress, at times forcing top military officials to reconcile witness accounts of Iraqi resistance, food and supply shortages, missteps and accidents with their cheerier assessments.

"It's obviously making it more difficult for the Pentagon to control the story," says Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel who heads the Center for International Relations at Boston University.

Some military officials, in fact, have expressed frustration at what Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this week called the narrow "soda-straw snapshots" of the war provided by journalists on the ground, saying they lack context and perspective.

Others say the Pentagon's leadership did not anticipate the 24/7 live coverage, primarily on cable TV networks, from embedded reporters and cameramen, that has forced them to constantly respond to reports from the battlefield.

"It certainly presents a challenge," says Rear Adm. Stephen Pietropaoli, a Navy spokesman. "Our goal wasn't to bring the war live into people's living rooms. We really wanted independent witnesses to history to be along with the troops, and to document what the troops were doing in defense of their country."

He says the firsthand accounts have provided a "kaleidoscopic view" of the war.

"Is that bad? It's confusing," Pietropaoli says. "It does make it difficult for the public to make sense out of the war as they watch it unfold in real time without much context. The challenge for us is to be able to weave together these widely disparate, kaleidoscopic reports. That's been tough."

The Pentagon says that nearly 600 American and foreign journalists are stationed on the ground and at sea with U.S. and British forces.

Defense officials say the idea for such unfettered access was championed by Victoria "Torie" Clarke, the Pentagon's assistant secretary for public affairs, who sold the idea to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Central Command chief Gen. Tommy Franks and Myers.

The purpose, they say, was to provide impartial eyewitnesses to both the heroics of the U.S.-led troops and the heinous crimes, including the possible use of weapons of mass destruction, of the Iraqi regime. They also hope to counteract Iraqi propaganda.

The decision to allow journalists to travel with the troops was a major departure for the Pentagon. In the major engagements since the Vietnam War, the military has greatly restricted access for journalists.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, for instance, most reporters were confined to a briefing room far from the battlefield with only a small "pool" of them, under escort, allowed to see any action each day.

"Our understanding of the [1991] war was shaped by the daily briefings from Central Command that were illustrated with video footage and photographs showing off the military's precision munitions - to which we all said, `Wow,'" says Bacevich.

He says the decision to allow frontline coverage of the war was one of great consequence, likely dispelling the image of the "antiseptic" war that had taken hold since the gulf war and shaping the way the nation views future conflicts.

"Warfare is not PlayStation 2," agrees Army spokesman Maj. Chris Conway. "At the end of the day, the public will come away realizing what a truly horrible thing modern warfare is."

For now, though, the "embeds" - reminiscent of the famed World War II correspondents who roamed the battlefield freely but whose copy had to be cleared by a censor - have forced military officials to confront facts and reports that don't always comport with their version.

"It counters the tendency to spin," says Ed Offley, editor of DefenseWatch, an online military newsletter.

Questioned at a briefing this week about the disparity between the Pentagon's account of the checkpoint shooting and the account from a Washington Post reporter who was with the Army unit, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks chalked it up to "the fog of war" and said the incident was under review.

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