In bed with the Army: why the media is a hit with the military

The media and the respective defence ministries in Washington and London are in rare, if temporary, agreement: the practice of "embedding journalists" is proving a big success, so far at least. But it is quite another matter whether this real-time, frontline coverage is actually elucidating events.

The media and the respective defence ministries in Washington and London are in rare, if temporary, agreement: the practice of "embedding journalists" is proving a big success, so far at least. But it is quite another matter whether this real-time, frontline coverage is actually elucidating events.

Both sides are delighted. Television and to a lesser extent radio have been able to provide astounding live accounts of soldiers going about their business at the sharp end. Already, footage from correspondents such as Walt Rogers of CNN, sweeping across the Iraqi desert on an Abrams tank of the US 7th Cavalry, getting brought to a standstill by sandstorms, and suddenly breaking off a report as missile trails streaked across the sky, are among the abiding images of the 2003 Gulf war.

Soon there may be bloodier and more terrible footage, if the war does end with a climactic battle for Baghdad, and the "embeds" are there to witness the street-fighting first hand. The impact of such scenes on public opinion can only be guessed at. But, so far, both the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defence in London reckon the gains of "embedding" have far outweighed the losses.

For Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, the images sent back have been of huge value for the war effort, and are believed to have been at least partially responsible for swinging a dubious British public behind the war.

The "embeds" – 600 American and 128 British – do their utmost to be objective; but it is only human nature that they should grow close to the military units with whom they live, sleep, eat and maybe risk their lives. Ted Koppel of ABC, among the most experienced and respected news journalists on American television, told The Washington Post yesterday: "There's obviously a very fine line between being protective and being careful that you don't somehow provide information that could be helpful to people trying to kill the men you're travelling with". His feelings towards the soldiers were "very, very warm".

So far, the "embeds" have not crossed that line. Only one correspondent – Phil Smucker of The Daily Telegraph and Christian Science Monitor – has been expelled from Iraq, because his radio reporting gave information on where and how the 1st Marine Division was fighting. But Mr Smucker was not part of the official embedding programme.

Sympathy, however, is no guarantee that if things go wrong, the "embeds" will pull their punches. At that point, the reports could yet undermine the popularity of the war, just as the dispatches of combat zone journalists in Vietnam contradicted the official optimism of the Johnson administration.

Given the instant nature of news from this war, that process may be starting already. It has been in progress for 10 days; but the 24-hour coverage makes it feel like 10 weeks. An impatient public naturally demands why – after all the tank advances, and the bombs over Baghdad – isn't Saddam Hussein already history?

But proximity and authenticity do not breed clarity. War is inherently confusing. Often the worst place to understand how a war is going is the battlefield itself – as Stendhal understood when he told in La Chartreuse de Parme of how his hero Fabrizio joined Napoleon's army in 1815. Fabrizio found himself amid smoke and explosions, without realising that it was the Battle of Waterloo.

Thus it is with the frontline reports from different units in Iraq. They generate heat but little light. And one of these reports, unbeknown to everyone at the time, may be chronicling the Waterloo of the 2003 Gulf campaign.

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