While I was at the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad on my recent trip to Iraq, a pair of Spanish journalists--a newspaper reporter and a photojournalist--walked in, fresh from their embed with the 1-4 Cavalry of the First Infantry Division (the unit with which I embedded only days later). They had spent two weeks amongst the troops there, living and going on missions with them, including house-to-house searches and seizures, and their impressions of these soldiers were extremely clear.
"Absolutely amazing,"said David Beriain, the reporter (and the one who spoke English), said of the young Cavalry troops.
"In Spain, it is embarrassing--our soldiers are ashamed to be in the army. These young men--and they seem so young!--are so proud of what they do, and do it so well, even though it is dangerous and they could very easily be killed."Mr. Beriain explained that the company he had been embedded with had lost three men in the span of six days while he was there--one to a sniper and two to improvised explosive devices, both of which had blown armored Humvees into the air and flipped them onto their roofs. Despite this, he said, and despite some of the things they might have said in the heat of the moment after seeing another comrade die, the soldiers' resolve and morale was unshaken in the long term, and they remained committed to carrying out their mission to the best of their ability for the duration of their tours in Iraq.
It was in the process of performing that mission, of coping with the loss of loved ones, and of just being themselves as American soldiers that these young men were able to win over the admiration and affection of more than one journalist who had arrived in their midst harboring a less-than-positive opinion of the Iraq war, and of those who were tasked with prosecuting it.
"I love those guys,"Mr. Beriain said, looking wistfully out the window of the media cloister in the Green Zone that is the Combined Press Information Center.
"From the first time you go kick a door with them, they accept you--you're one of them. I've even got a 'family photo' with them" to remember them by. "I really hated to leave."
Such a radical transformation--and such a strong bond of affection--can rarely be forged in so little time outside of the constant, universal peril of a wartime environment. "It is those common experiences," Mr. Beriain explained, "where you are all in danger, and you go through it together. It builds a relationship instantly."
It doesn't matter how skeptical of the war a journalist might be, according to an Army public affairs officer who spoke with me about it on condition of anonymity. "So often, they come out of that experience and--even if their opinion of the war hasn't changed--they're completely won over by the troops."
"I was one of those,"admitted Mr. Beriain, speaking broken English and blinking away tears.
"No matter what you think of the war, or what has happened here, you cannot be around the soldiers and not be completely affected. They are amazing people, and they represent themselves and the Army better than anyone could ever imagine."A retired Army officer concurred, telling me that
"young troops are some of the best goodwill ambassadors we've ever produced. It would never occur to one to not tell you what he's really thinking, and they are so earnest"that it is almost impossible not to be won over by them if given enough time.
The most spectacular recent case of a journalist with an antiwar mindset being completely overwhelmed into a change of heart by American soldiers, according to the public affairs officer, was a Greek public television reporter who had been embedded with an infantry unit that became entrenched in a 45-minute firefight with insurgents. Yanked out of the line of fire by a soldier who put the journalist's life above his own, he waited under cover and in fear of his life for the almost hourlong duration of the battle, with the best view possible of American soldiers in action against an armed and murderous enemy. He credits his having lived to tell the tale directly to those young troops.
"He had tears in his eyes as he talked about it," said the public affairs officer. "He just kept saying, 'They saved my life, they saved my life. . . . These are great men; they are heroes.' Even after telling it several times, he couldn't get through the story without choking up--and this was a man who had arrived here with all of the disdain for the Iraq mission and for the American soldiers who he [like seemingly most Europeans] had seen as the bad guys in this fight."
While embedding may be decried by some for causing journalists, who claim the utopian titles of "objective" and "neutral" for their reportage, to lose their cold detachment and actually begin to see the soldiers they live alongside as humans, it is that very quality that makes the practice of embedding reporters with military units so beneficial to both parties. Rather than observing events from a safely detached distance--and thus being able to remove the human element from the equation--embedded reporters are forced to face up to the humanity of their subjects, and to share common experiences--often of the life-and-death variety--with those they are covering.
Human nature being what it is, such close working conditions, and such common, life-threatening experiences, will have an effect on both parties involved--and it is a testament both to the soldiers themselves, and to the journalists who volunteer to live and work alongside them, that that effect has, in so many cases, been so positive.
Mr. Emanuel, a special operations military veteran who served in Iraq, is a leadership fellow with the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia. He is also a contributing editor for RedState.com, and is a columnist for the Athens (Ga.) Banner-Herald.
Talk Show America 5/25/2007