Sunday, December 18, 2005

In Iraq...troops and reporters...

From Editor & Publisher:

How Troops in Iraq View Reporters

American reporters in Iraq often don't have the trust of the troops, according to this two-time embed--and father of an Iraq veteran--and here's why. But when "there's a good one on the ground, the word gets around."
By Dennis Anderson
(December 17, 2005)

Not that reporters are particularly trusted anyway, but as a class of people having a high and visible participation in the war in Iraq, dozens of GIs and Marines I’ve spoken with allow as how they just don’t trust reporters.There was Staff Sgt. Cory Blackwell of Lancaster, recently headed for his second tour in Iraq with the 4th Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Ivy Division” and “The Regulars.”Blackwell, 27, is a professional soldier. He holds the customary glum view of professional news gatherers in the Iraq war.

“We tried to stay away from them,” he said. “You had the feeling that whatever you might be doing, they wanted to catch you at something on tape. That would make their career.”Blackwell related that when the camera crews showed up, some helpful GI in his squad would give directions — directing the crew to the location of a nearby unit. “We’d just say, ‘Hey, go down the street there with second squad ... it’s gonna be awesome.’ ”When the news crew scurried off on the decoy tip, they were out of the high and tight hair of the unit that sent them packing.

Funny with reporters: If there’s a good one on the ground, the word gets around. It’s similar to how it goes with your congressional representative. People may believe Congress is doing a lousy job, but they like their own congressman who they keep sending back, time after time.That, in a way, is how it is with the embedded corps of reporters.

My news daddy and mentor, Joe Galloway, helped get me hired into United Press International a quarter century ago. Now he prowls the E-Ring at the Pentagon as chief military correspondent for Knight Ridder, and we carry his column in the Valley Press.

Galloway, a civilian, was decorated with the Bronze Star with Valor device for rescuing wounded at the battle of Ia Drang. His accounts of the battle form the basis of “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young,” co-written with retired Lt. Gen. Hal Moore. Moore was portrayed by Mel Gibson in “We Were Soldiers” and Barry Pepper played Galloway.

With his accumulation of more than 40 years of war reporting, and abundance of combat time, Galloway believes the Bush administration is so far off course in running the Iraq war that a global positioning satellite fix couldn’t get them steered right.

Our mutual views do not fall in strict agreement on all matters related to the war, but Galloway’s experience and integrity give his views such weight that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently hosted Galloway at lunch. Rumsfeld makes no moves without calculating, and the lunch wasn’t social. He intended to bust Galloway’s chops and “turn” Galloway to seeing the Rumsfeld view of the world.

It didn’t work (as he later told E&P's Greg Mitchell for a Pressing Issues column on this site).

Galloway is enraged about soldiers shortchanged on armor, sent to battle without the best body armor, sent out on the bad bomb-laden roads in lightly armored vehicles. He’s enraged that heavy equipment like tanks and tracked vehicles got left stateside because it’s cheaper to run the fuel tab for Humvees than for Abrams tanks, which have high survivability.

If Galloway’s wrong, he just wants to be shown where and how. He’s enraged that contractors were getting big, fat, dripping war-profiteering profits while the families of GIs and Marines shipped equipment they needed bought from catalogs instead of being issued.

So there was my son, Garrett, during his Iraq deployment. A number of reporters for big name outfits tracked the progress of his Marine grunt outfit during the assault on Fallujah, the fight waged to turn the nastiest center of insurgency into a community with a decent shot for a future. Garrett informed me, “I told my captain, ‘I grew up with reporters. They were in the house, and I grew up in a newsroom. I can tell when you’ve got a good one, and when you’ve got a bum,’ and there was one guy with us who was a bum. I told the captain, ‘This guy’s gonna burn us.’ ”

So, I’m getting this second-hand, but the way it went was that the reporter held in low esteem by my media-whelped child did the usual small tricks. Handed out cigarettes, joked a lot, generally ingratiated himself. Bonding with the troops, see.

Stuff was blowing up in Fallujah. Pillars of smoke plumed from buildings hit with joint direct attack munition, or JDAM, bombs, and from stuff that caught fire from incendiary ammunition. Oddly, the terrorist insurgent goons who wanted Fallujah to be their Alamo stored a lot of munitions in hide sites. So when you hit a building, it was like hitting an ammo dump — because it was an ammo dump.

One of those buildings exploded, and it could have been the bomb, or it could have been whatever ignited all the “bang bang” stuff stored inside the many fortified buildings. But there was one brother Marine that everyone else in the squad referred to as “The Mutant.” A bit dim. A bit slow, and only recently attached to the unit. The guy everyone bags on.So, the building blows up, and “Mutant Marine,” as my son affectionately called him, shouts at the top of his lungs, “Burn it down! Burn it all!” What do you suppose made the headline and what our typographers call “the pull quote?”

So, the outfit got investigated for arson, or some other dubious interpretation of the ever-mutating “rules of engagement.”

“Arson,” my son said, disgusted. “We were in a war zone. Everything was burning. And we’re going to be investigated for arson.”

So, what about the “good ones?” Galloway related that when you earned the troops’ trust, you became “their reporter.” They’d kid you, tease you and make free with your booze and smokes if you had them, but they’d put their own lives on the line to protect you.

One such reporter, Gordon Trowbridge of Marine Corps Times, earned such affection and respect from my son’s unit. Owned by Gannett, Marine Corps Times publishes entirely independent of the military or the Department of Defense.

“He snored so loud, we really thought we might have to kill him,” my son said, jokingly. “Trowbridge snored as bad as you, old man. He was a great reporter. He told it straight.”

That’s about the highest praise you can get from the troops. And in this war, such praise is rare.

Dennis Anderson ( editor of Antelope Valley Press in Palmdale, Ca. He was twice embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq and has frequently written about the war for E&P.


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