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Lessons to Survive By

Mar 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

To: The Embedded and About-to-Be Embedded
From: Someone Who Has Been There
Those of us who’ve “had our war” and have seen some combat along the way, have been watching this embedding thing with a fair measure of amusement. Not because it is funny, but because all of you who have gone to Camp Combat just do not know what you are getting into. And the reason is you don’t know what you haven’t been told. In the interest of keeping you sane and maybe even alive, here’s an added primer from someone who was there as part of the CBS News Vietnam Class of ’68. That was Tet, Hue and Khe Sanh, all of which you can look up if the names do not ring a bell.
We went out into the field back then and “embedded serially,” which meant we talked our way onto choppers that were heading toward or into combat and joined the first unit we could find that would take us in our hopes of being in the neighborhood when bad things turned to worse. And once out “there,” we learned a lot that all of you heading toward combat need to know-little things and big-about life in the field, combat itself and what all of it will do to the reporting you hope to do.
First some little stuff.
Sure, they told you to bring baggies for “severed digits.” That was, I suspect, just to scare you and get your attention. If you get a digit severed, you’re more likely than not going to need a body bag and not a plastic baggie, because much of you will be attached to that digit. What you do need are lots of socks and toilet paper. You’ll run out of both. And you’ll run out of batteries and-guaranteed-you will run out of power at the worst possible time. Has to happen. And paperbacks. Bring paperbacks. The waiting time for “it” to happen will be immense and a place to hide your mind is a good thing to have. The paperbacks will also have a secondary use when you run out of toilet paper.
Now, here are some bigger things.
You are all going-be honest now-to see and feel and taste combat, to be able to say when you get back “that was close.” That’s the game-best bang-bang-no matter how you frame it in some bigger-picture context. So here are some things about combat they didn’t tell you pre-embedment, because most of those who were taking you through Embedment 101 probably haven’t seen combat themselves.
It happens in slow motion. Sounds are incredibly crisp and colors brighter and more intense than you have ever experienced. And it is over with striking suddenness. Engagements never last long; they just seem to, which means if you get into it, make the most of every second you experience and observe because it will end quickly and in remarkable and stunning quiet. Oh yes, it is OK to be scared. Being scared will help keep you alive.
And then there are the dead. People you know and people you do not know will die and it is not pretty and you will never forget it.
But that is not, as we know, why you’ve opted to be embedded. Not for combat. Not that. You’re all going over to report. Truth. Honesty. The real story. But that is going to be difficult because once you get into a unit, you are going to be co-opted. It is not a purposeful thing, it will just happen. It’s a little like the Stockholm Syndrome.
You will fall in with a bunch of grunts, experience and share their hardships and fears and then you will feel for them and care about them.You will wind up loving them and hating their officers and commanders and the administration that put them (and you) in harm’s way. Ernie Pyle loved his grunts; Jack Laurance and Michael Herr loved theirs; and I loved mine. And as we all know, love blinds and in blinding it will alter the reporting you thought you were going to do. Trust me. It happens, and it will happen no matter how much you guard against it.
Remember also, you are not being embedded because that sweet old Pentagon wants to be nice. You are being embedded so you can be controlled and in a way isolated.
Once you’re in the field, all those officers and commanders you now hate, because you love your grunts, you will hate even more because they will have total control over where you can go, what you can see and what you can do. Vietnam was easier, we came and went-serial embedees-essentially uncontrolled which made for a great deal of reporting the Pentagon would rather have buried. And this embedding plan, which is being adopted now like war summer camp, has been put together by guys, now senior officers, who were burned or felt burned by the press as juniors 35 or so years ago. Fool me once …
Cheery, isn’t it?
Let me leave you with one last and most important piece of advice, which I got from Keith Kay, combat cameraman and cameraman extraordinaire who pulled me down by the collar one night in January 1968 and said, “Get your f**king head down. They are shooting at us too.”
One more thing to remember. War is a macro kind of thing. Units in the field and their grunts are the micro parts of it. So if you are in the field with a unit where bad things happen, you are seeing only what is around you. Nothing else. You have no idea how the war is going, only how your war is going, so never turn what you have in front of you into something that ends with cosmic conclusion about the war and policy themselves. Many of us 35 years or so ago-hawk reporters or dove-did just that and many of us regret it to this day.
What you’ve got in the combat and war is enough. Don’t make it bigger or worse than it is, because your little piece of war is big enough and bad enough already.
Tell that story. It is enough.
And keep your heads down. The alternative sucks.
Jeff Gralnick has been in broadcasting for 42 years, working for CBS News-for which he did a six-month tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968-for ABC News, NBC News and most recently for CNN as executive VP of financial news. Today he is an Internet and broadcasting consultant and analyst.