Shooting the Messenger

Apr 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

After we arrived in Kuwait a month or more ago, it became immediately apparent to us that there were two ways to cover this war: as an embedded reporter (not an option given my obligation to anchor an evening newscast at the end of the work day) or to employ the time-tested method perfected in Vietnam 35 years ago-hitch a ride with a unit and hope they head somewhere interesting. We did and it did.
When the Army granted our request to cover a Special Operations air mission inside Iraq, we held a staff meeting to discuss the relative risk. We knew we’d be operating in Iraqi airspace, part of a four-chopper armada delivering 17,000-pound sections of a steel bridge over the Euphrates. We agreed to embargo what we shot, because at that time the operation and its location would give away the travel plans of the Third Infantry Division. I even remember someone, and it might have been me, referring to it as a “milk run.”
Had we consulted our friends in Army Intelligence (or even an up-to-date map) we perhaps would have learned what we later had to learn the hard way … that we’d be flying into a hot zone, full of armed, mobile Iraqis in pickup trucks who would, in their own small way, end up playing a huge role in this war.
When our lead Chinook twin-rotor Vietnam-era helicopter took a rocket-propelled grenade in the tail and an AK-47 round in the cockpit, we all dropped our loads and put down quickly on a patch of Iraqi desert not unlike the surface of Mars. We were immediately surrounded by an armored mechanized platoon of the 3rd Division. The Bradleys and M-1 tanks fanned out around us as infantrymen dug foxholes they would end up occupying for the next three days, as the weather had quickly closed in and made our departure impossible.
Four Iraqis were killed not far from where we slept inside the empty Chinook during the first night. The platoon lieutenant repeated the obvious: Without the protection of his unit, we’d be on our own and wouldn’t last long. It was not without its moments.
Nor was it without value. Quite the contrary. Scanning the countryside from an altitude of 150 feet, we had seen what the rest of the world was still days away from learning. The war had changed. It had become Somalia. There was an all-the-king’s-horses quality about the mighty armored equipment of the 3rd Division being slowed down by the pot shots of Saddam’s Independent Contractors. While they were literally little more than a chink in the armor of the U.S. force on its march to the North, they forced the Coalition effort to make changes. This time, these Iraqis were fighting for the Motherland, albeit under threat that they’d be killed if they didn’t.
The tank commander who protected us for those three days and two nights in the desert said it “wasn’t the war they’d briefed us on.” When his three-star commander, General William Wallace, said the same thing to an embedded reporter days later, he drew heavy fire for it.
In this thoroughly modern war of embeds, roving cameras, gyros, dishes and generally dizzying real-time technology, it has also become clear that some things have not changed in the years since Vietnam: Grown men still cry out for their mothers on the battlefield, Pentagon briefings yield little useful information and hitching a ride is often the best way to get to the action. I should also probably add: It is not without its risks. Even the milk runs.