View Full Version : To embed or not to embed?

06-25-09, 08:33 AM
To embed or not to embed?
Posted by Mike Tharp
Wed Jun 24, 10:11 am ET

Unless you have a kidnap or death wish, there's only one answer to the question for a reporter covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

You embed.

The question arose again this week because the U.S. Army's 1st Cav in Mosul barred a Stars & Stripes reporter from embedding with one of its units in that still hinky northern city. Military flacks justified the disbarment by citing a March story from the reporter that "refused to highlight" what amounted to good news the Army was doing in Mosul. They also said he "behaved unprofessionally" and wouldn't answer questions about stories he was writing.

Stripes denied all the allegations and said its reporter's stories from Mosul had been accurate and fair. Its editorial director said the newspaper "would not tolerate the Army's attempts to control it."

Banning a Stripes reporter is semi-pardoxical, since the newspaper, although independent, gets $10 million a year or so from the Pentagon. It's widely read by the troops in the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

Some ideological purists from both the left and right galaxies of the blogosphere have long criticized the embed system, arguing that reporters won't write nasty stories about guys whose M4s are protecting them on bang-bang missions. Or that they'll write only about the atrocities they witness (or make up)once they're safely back in their hotel rooms.

This is of more than passing interest here because I'm due to start an embed Saturday. It will be for four days with an infantry outfit withdrwing from suburban Baghdad. Hope to do one or two more while I'm here. I was also embedded last year for 10 days in Kirkuk with the 10th Mountain Division.

And an argument could be made that I was one of the first embeds--before the system itself was invented in the mid-'90s by a group of hacks and military flacks--when I rode into Iraq from Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War. The pool system used in that war created the embed system because the pool arrangements sucked for everybody. Reporters were tethered to public affairs officers who babysat them, and all our reports had to go through a clearing house (censor's bureau) in Dharhan. And the military suffered too because little of the heroism and ingenuity on display by American combatants was ever seen or recorded for the folks back home.

In the runup to Desert Storm, Maj. Randy Riggins, executive officer of the 37th Engineer Battalion out of Fort Bragg, simply told my PAO puke that there wasn't room in his Humvee for him and that he, the ranking officer, would be responsible for me. So off I drove with the combat engineers, unminded by this bank clerk activated from the reserves as a captain. We were sandwiched between a French Foreign Legion outfit and the 82nd Airborne. We wandered around southern Iraq till the 100-hour war ended.

My embed last year was successful for both McClatchy and for the 10th Mountain Division. I linked up with some public affairs officers and enlisted personnel who knew what the hell they were doing. Capt. Bruce Drake, for example, is a 'Mustang,' a former enlisted man who became an officer; even cooler, as an EM he was a Marine, then joined the Army and started getting bars on his shoulders. He made sure I got to everywhere I wanted to go and met danged near everybody I wanted to meet. As a result, I got several solid stories and even more blogs during my time up there.

Sure, some will say, you wrote the stories they wanted written. Nope. I wrote about what the unit was doing to prevent, treat and deal with PTSD. Not a lively conversation topic in the mess hall. And sensitive as hell because the VA--and the active military through guilt by association--was getting blasted back home for its non- or maltreatment of both active duty and former soldiers suffering from the psychological disease and, worse, TBI--traumatic brain injury from the IEDs blowing up all over both battle spaces.

But the 10th gave me free rein. The result was the first and still only--far as I can tell--story about what a military unit in a war zone was trying to do to help its soldiers facing pressures no soldiers and Marines had ever faced. While the rounds were flying and the bombs were exploding.

So you embed. I read the Stripes' reporter's March story that got the 1st Cav brass PO'd at him. I'd have written it much the same way. I thought it was a good piece of journalism. Not sure why the military got its knickers twisted to the point of banning a guy who works in a business that buys ink by the barrel--though those cheap little pixels are now trying to take us down.

Mike Hedges, managing editor of the Washington Examiner, gives talks to college students about the many wars he's covered (three of 'em with me). When the subject comes up, he tells the classes, “With reference to what Churchill said about democracy, embedding is the worst possible system except all the others.” Then he rolls out a list of stories, from the Apache pilot who killed him own men in friendly fire, to the U.S. soldiers who poisoned themselves in Saudi Arabia making homemade booze (a minor diplomatic incident ensued) to the capture of top Saddam lieutenants. The stories "I couldn’t have gotten without embedding."

Matthew Fisher, a good friend who's covered 14 wars (some of them many times over) and who's on his way to live in Kandahar, Afghanistan, for two and a half years in a tent, has been embedded many times. The correspondent for CanWest, Canada's biggest newspaper chain, says this about his embeds with Americans, Canadians and British:

'While it is true that they do not want you to highlight problems (that is normal behavior anywhere), if you are with any unit for a few days you will get a fair sense of what is right and wrong. I think it is immensely valuable to embed, particularly when has been the case in Iraq and is now the case in Afghanistan, it is virtually impossible to move around the country freely on your own to suss out information. Embedding is not a perfect construct, but it is a helluva lot better than sitting on your behind doing nothing. And when combat operations are at a high tempo, there is no other good way to get a feel for a war and the man doing the fighting."

And you can make friends as an embed. Bruce Drake and I are still in touch. And five years ago, in a lovely outdoor ceremony overlooking Puget Sound, I watched former Maj. Riggo Riggins marry his lovely Naomi.

I was their best man.

--Mike Tharp