January 26, 2009
A Marine's view of embedded reporters

Anthony Swofford, a Marine veteran of the first Gulf War and the author of the war memoir Jarhead takes a dim view of the US military's embedded journalist program in this week's NYT Magazine:
When I was serving in the 1991 gulf war, reporters visited my platoon and were treated to exactly what we'd been ordered to offer: smiling faces, bare, muscular chests and high levels of support for the coming war. We were ordered not to divulge our fears, our concerns about being uninformed about the long-term intentions of our mission and our lack of confidence in our gear. Also, we weren't supposed to tell them how hungry we were for combat, how exciting we thought killing might be. Most important, we weren't supposed to cuss. This, of course, was absurd. After two years in the Marine Corps, I'd earned 120 college credits taking the Lord's name in vain.

I agree with Swofford's basic point. Some reporters have managed to do worthwhile reporting as embeds, but that's mainly because they recognized the limits of their perspective and wrote accordingly. It's not a coincidence that the best embedded reporting has been about the experience of being embedded, as opposed to what the reporter learned about the war from inside a unit. (Cf. Generation Kill.)

The embed's position is fundamentally compromised, but the rejoinder to these criticisms is that the alternative is no news coverage at all. For most journalists, especially those whose outlet can't afford a private security detail, non-embedded reporting in Iraq is just too dangerous, not to mention logistically onerous in an age of cutbacks.

Embedded reporting feeds a vicious cycle. In Vietnam and the Second World War, independent reporters were viewed as non-combatants. Obviously, it was still dangerous to report from the battlefield, but reporters weren't generally considered to be legitimate targets because they were clearly unarmed civilians. The U.S. set a terrible precedent in Iraq by bombing Al Jazeera's headquarters.

These days, reporters are fair game. Having reporters embedded in units, sometimes even wearing military garb, reinforces the perception that the media are an arm of the military propaganda machine. Which in turn makes independent reporters less safe, which increases the attractiveness of embedded reporting.

Correction: This is from a back issue of the NYT Magazine, but I still think it's worth reading.