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The War, Up Close and Very Personal

An embedded reporter has an exhilarating, if terrifying, window on the unscripted world of men in combat. In ways, he was one of them.

May 03, 2003|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Our troop truck lost its way in a dust cloud at night, somewhere near the holy city of Karbala. It careened across a dirt causeway and plunged into the murky brown waters of a canal. Men pitched headfirst to the bottom, dragged under by the weight of their flak jackets. Heavy boxes of bottled water and rations tumbled down on them. Soldiers hacked away with bayonets at gear straps tangled around their necks.

After several terrifying minutes, 24 soldiers and one embedded reporter were pulled to safety, all accounted for. Some of the men vomited on the slick canal bank. Two had to be revived by medics. A few shivering young soldiers seemed ready to weep as their sergeants berated them for losing their night-vision goggles.

I felt like crying, too. My computer, satellite phones, clothes, tape recorder, cash, notebooks and everything else I carried was lost or ruined.

It was 5:30 a.m. on April 4. Journalistically speaking, I had become what the military calls "combat ineffective." My military embed, having brought me closer than I ever imagined to the perils of the front, seemed to have ended at the bottom of the canal.

Embedding -- that awkward and ephemeral term for being in the Army but not of it -- is a remarkable contrivance. It can be bent and manipulated by commander or reporter, often to the benefit of neither. It can also provide an exhilarating, if terrifying, window on the unscripted world of men under stress and fire.

Not since the Vietnam War have journalists worked so closely with soldiers in combat. The embed, in which reporters live 24 hours a day with their assigned units, was instituted on a limited basis in Afghanistan after the heaviest fighting had ended. Expanded, it was to be the grand journalistic experiment of the Iraq war, and a departure from the briefing coverage of the Persian Gulf War 12 years earlier. About 600 journalists volunteered.

During seven weeks spent with half a dozen units, I slept in fighting holes and armored vehicles, on a rooftop, a garage floor and in lumbering troop trucks. For days at a time, I didn't sleep. I ate with the troops, choking down processed meals of "meat, chunked and formed" that came out of brown plastic bags. I rode with them in loud, claustrophobic and disorienting Bradley fighting vehicles. I complained with them about the choking dust, the lack of water, our foul-smelling bodies and our scaly, rotting feet.

At 5:30 a.m. on April 7, precisely 72 hours after plummeting into the canal, I was in the belly of a Bradley, its 25-millimeter cannon pumping out rounds, as an armored column of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division rumbled under fire into downtown Baghdad. And 72 hours after that, I was sleeping on the marble floor of Saddam Hussein's Presidential Palace.

I saw what the soldiers saw. And, like most of them, I emerged filthy, exhausted and aware of what Winston Churchill meant when he said that "nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without effect."

Getting the Story

Most important, I wrote stories I could not have produced had I not been embedded -- on the pivotal battle for Baghdad; the performance of U.S. soldiers in combat; the crass opulence of Hussein's palaces; U.S. airstrikes on an office tower in central Baghdad; souvenir-hunting by soldiers and reporters; and the discovery of more than $750 million in cash in a neighborhood that had been the preserve of top Iraqi officials.

Yet that same access could be suffocating and blinding. Often I was too close or confined to comprehend the war's broad sweep. I could not interview survivors of Iraqi civilians killed by U.S. soldiers or speak to Iraqi fighters trying to kill Americans. I was not present when Americans died at the hands of fellow soldiers in what the military calls "frat," for fratricide. I had no idea what ordinary Iraqis were experiencing. I was ignorant of Iraqi government decisions and U.S. command strategy.

Embedded reporters were entirely dependent on the military for food, water, power and transportation. And ultimately, we depended on them for something more fundamental: access. We were placed in a potentially compromised position long before the fighting began, and we knew it.

Lt. Col. Patrick Fetterman, who commands an elite infantry battalion of the 101st Airborne Division, told me many times that the most lethal thing on the battlefield was his own forces.

For journalists, the greatest enemy was ourselves -- our ingrained human tendency to identify with those beside us. Bombarded with drama and emotions, it was impossible to step back, or to report every story with absolute detachment. We didn't just cover the war -- we were part of it.

This newspaper, like many, also assigned reporters and photographers to Iraq who were not embedded with U.S. troops. They covered what we could not -- the Iraqi government, civilian casualties, humanitarian crises, military strategy, political fallout and everything else beyond our cloistered existence.

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