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Commentary: How the media changed
By Martin Walker
UPI Chief International Correspondent
From the International Desk
Published 4/8/2003 9:13 AM
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BASRA, Iraq, April 8 (UPI) -- Something fundamental has happened to the British and U.S. media during this war. Those who have spent time on the front lines with the coalition troops, whether embedded with individual units or traveling independently through liberated Iraq, have learned to love the military.

Time after time, they saved our necks. They put our soft-skinned vehicles behind their armor when the shells came in. They told us when to duck and when it was safe to move. They shared their food and water with us, and were embarrassingly grateful when we let them use our satellite phones to call home. We were embarrassed that it was all we could for them.

We saw how hard they tried to avoid civilian casualties, and the risks they took by their self-restraint. We began to understand their quiet pride in their skills, and the plain decency of the men and women who follow the profession of arms.

When we got lost, U.S. Marines went out of their way to put us right, and British officers sketched "safe" areas on a map. They are kind to one another, and considerate to civilians like us.

"Thank God for the British army," said a grinning UPI photographer Chris Corder (an American) as we tucked in behind the comforting bulk of a Warrior armored infantry vehicle of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards one night outside Basra, and were offered a cup of tea.

Above all, they are no longer "the military." They have become individuals that we have got to know, like little Robert, who to his regret is too short to stand guard outside Buckingham Palace, and has to remain behind doing stores duty.

There is Paul from Northern Ireland who is genuinely upset at the poverty of the Iraqi people he sees and fills his pockets with biscuits and candy to give to the children. There is Sarge, who grumbles that this war is all about oil and is far from sure he likes it. There is Chris, a volunteer from Zimbabwe, whose dream is to play his bagpipes for the Queen, and who hesitantly asks if we can find out if Manchester Union won its match.

With the British troops and the U.S. 3rd Division, with the 101st Airborne and the Marines, with the gunners and the medics and the Air Force and aboard ships, there are hundreds of journalists learning the same lessons, getting to know the same kinds of troops, and realizing that we in the media had better rethink the way we do our work.

One of the consequences of the way the British and Americans have dropped conscription and now use professional armies is that the media and the broader population have become disconnected from their troops.

The military have become a private club, and one that has learned to distrust most of the media, who know little of the people who fight in their country's name. The legacy of wars in dubious causes like Vietnam or some of the British colonial wars has widened the gulf of mutual ignorance and mistrust.

This still happens. At one of the daily briefings at Coalition Command headquarters in Qatar (about 300 miles behind the lines), a large and skeptical media corps became restive at what they saw as military stonewalling or weasel words about responsibility for civilian casualties in the Baghdad bombing.

Journalists on the front lines took a very different view of the need for operational security. We did not even complain when we were ordered to turn off our satellite phones because the Iraqi guns seemed to be able to zero on their transmissions, or when we were asked not to report something.

"Screw the nut on it, mate," a British SAS Special Forces trooper told me when I came across him questioning one of his Iraqi agents inside Basra. "No photos, and not a word until Basra falls -- all right?"

Of course it was alright. Forget journalistic objectivity. There were armed men across the road trying to kill me, and my protection depended on these British troops, many of whom I knew by their first names. There was no question which side I was on.

In the same way, those of us in the field knew that those gloomy armchair pundit accounts from London and Washington of setbacks and "pauses" were missing the point.

We learned to understand the painstaking way the British were gathering intelligence in Basra and steadily separating the Saddam loyalists from the bulk of the population -- so the place finally fell like a house of cards.

Air Marshal Brian Burridge, the British commander, suggests that the hundreds of journalists who have learned a new understanding of the military could change the way the media covers war. It is about time.