Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Embed


I've returned to Iraq.

People ask how journalists get embedded. This seems a fair moment for synopsis of some firsthand experience.

The process begins with an application to the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC). This is simple to complete with emails. If a journalist works for a credible media organization, and can pass some kind of background check—quick and transparent—in all likelihood, CPIC will instruct the applicant to fly to Kuwait.

My second application for an embed was recently declined, a process from which I learned that simple is not always straightforward. For me, one of the sharp turns came just before the intersection of independence and affiliation. Although the guidelines for embedding with the military stipulated an affiliation with a media organization, I was previously embedded, for more than eight months, as a completely independent writer.

For some reason, this time my independent status caught up on a snag and seized the embed machinery. Some have speculated that dispatches like "Proximity Delays" might have brought deliberate, even disgruntled, scrutiny to my work, but whether or not there's merit to that claim does not alter that I did not have a formal affiliation with any media organization.

CPIC insisted that I needed affiliation to re-enter Iraq. Many newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media had used my photographs and writing, and more than a dozen had offered different types of affiliation. Although some were tempting financially, and others appealed more to prestige, my independence mattered most. In the end, The Weekly Standard supported my re-entry by offering affiliation with independence.

With that obstacle down, the CPIC granted the embed. I was instructed to fly to Kuwait, and told the best place to stay would be the Hilton.

The Embed Equation

People who wonder about the limited number of reporters on the ground in Iraq probably think it's the danger that keeps many away. This certainly is true for some. For others, the persuasive problems are more practical: the expenses can be severe. There's expense associated with planning and applying for the embed. There is specialized gear to be purchased: protective equipment alone can cost thousands of dollars per person, and even in peaceful times, the desert climate is still extremely hard on electronic equipment. Getting to the Middle East requires a long, expensive flight. And the Hilton that came so highly recommended also came with a high room rate: $590 for a room that would have been worth maybe $150 in Florida. There was nothing to drink in the room, but the front desk offered to send up two bottles of water for about $23. There was no internet cable in the room. For $590 per night, a guest shouldn't have to pay for water, or call for an internet cable. For that kind of money, there should be a helipad on the roof. (The next night I got a room at the same Hilton for closer to $200, and negotiated the first room down.)

These would be trivial matters if the prices were reasonable. Across years spent exploring remote areas, in jungles and deserts, I've never been bothered by lack of electricity, phones, or even running water. But start charging hundreds per night . . . well, the mallet schlags the frustration gong.

An Army Captain arrived to meet me around 4 p.m., and we waited together in the lobby for a radio journalist from the Netherlands, a Dutchman who introduced himself as Hans. The three of us ambled down to the restaurant to discuss the details of our trip to Iraq over coffee and tea.
After the Army Captain departed, Hans and I had dinner. This was one of many trips to Iraq, he said, having just been to Texas to cover Hurricane Rita. Apparently he'd crisscrossed the globe many times. When our discussion moved to the more practical considerations of life as an embedded journalist, it underscored just how dear it is to cover this war intensively.

It cost Hans' employer thousands of dollars per week just for the insurance to cover his time in Iraq. Add that to his wages, the cost of his airplane tickets, the ground transportation and hotel charges he incurred, and his company was on the hook for thousands of dollars per day to put their reporter in the field, where he spoke into a microphone with no camera.

Television crews often use two- or three-person teams, spending dollars by the bucketful, covering events that few people in major markets still consider a priority. Add danger to that pile of money, then subtract all the information freely and widely available from the military, and the result is a small number of journalists in Iraq.

In World War II, writers like Hemingway and Ernie Pyle loaded up and packed off, sweeping across places like northern Africa, Italy, France, Germany, and the Pacific islands. They wrote about war, but also about fascinating cultures scattered across new landscapes. And the war itself seemed to obey simpler rules: there were tremendous human losses, but when Europe's cities were liberated one after another, they stayed liberated. Victory was cumulative and satisfying, not slapped together with slogans covering festering resistance. But since WWII there have been few "great adventures" in war, and even less glory in reporting war, and most people tasked today with naming a "living war correspondent" would come up blank.

For most journalists considering Iraq, where the frustrations and dangers are high, where there is little glory and less money, and where the expenses vomit—I've now got probably $35,000 worth of gear that might burn up in the next IED explosion—nobody needs a calculator to figure out this one. Food and lodging are free after the embed process—which greatly helps—but that does not settle the account.

There was a different calculus for me. I started with the premise that this war was extremely important, whether or not many people agreed. While I hear radio and television crews often lamenting about how it takes a whole day just to file one story, it can take me two weeks of dangerous research, photography and writing to get a single major dispatch out. I am not a war correspondent or journalist. I am only a writer who came to Iraq after it became apparent that we might be in trouble, and I did not trust the news. I had never covered a war before and, with any luck, never will again.

But there I was, sitting at the Kuwait Hilton with Hans the Dutch radio journalist, comparing notes about gear, costs and value. We dined under a tent billowed by warm breezes sweeping in from the Arabian Gulf, while Arab men sat nearby, laughing as they smoked their shisha pipes.

We were to meet our ride to the Air Force base at 2 a.m. at the Hilton. The front desk printed out my bill: $862.86 for a total of maybe 30 hours at the hotel. I hadn't worked in more than five days and realistically wouldn't get a chance for any output for at least another four.

Broken Airplanes

Kuwait is mostly safe, but driving through the night we kept all the window curtains on the bus closed, making it a little harder for machine gun bullets to find us. Just in case. When we arrived at the Air Force base it was maybe 4 a.m., but nobody would tell us our flight time. Security, you know. The passengers were an assorted lot of military personnel, civilian contractors from all over the world, and journalists like Hans and me who settled in for a-wait-of-undisclosed-duration, at two picnic tables in the desert.

Two of the journalists joining us were from Denmark TV2. The quiet cameraman moved from one cigarette to the next, while I struck up a conversation with the reporter, Rasmus Tantholt. We might have spoken for an hour, I don't remember; we were all tired. But as the sun came up, it was time to fly. We loaded onto a C-130 airplane headed for Baghdad. When we landed, we learned we were actually back in Kuwait. The plane had broken somehow in midair and we had turned around.

So we were back in the Kuwait desert, sitting under some shade at the picnic tables. Rasmus and I picked up the trail of our previous conversation, but we were all mostly waiting for another plane. Some hours later, we loaded on a second C-130, which broke before we could even taxi down the runway.

We unloaded from the second airplane, again sitting at the two picnic tables in the Kuwaiti desert, while others slept on the bus where the air conditioner was running.

Finally, we loaded onto a third C-130. When this one also broke before we could take off, I wondered: Is God trying to tell me something?

But this time, the crew said they could fix the problem, and they did. We landed in Baghdad Sunday afternoon.

The Art of Waiting

The CPIC had issued ground transportation instructions that required us to perform a series of maneuvers, involving taking a shuttle bus, then a "Rhino," for a drive through Baghdad to the International Zone at two in the morning.

The International Zone was previously called "The Green Zone." Green usually means safe, but the place is dangerous and people die there often. A car bomb exploded at a gate there just days ago, killing several people. People have been kidnapped and murdered there. Sometimes bombs have exploded inside the IZ, splattering bits of body parts on the ground. There is nothing Green about it.

I did not want to wait until 2 a.m. and waste another precious day doing nothing—this time sitting in the Iraqi desert at picnic tables, begging for MREs (military prepackaged food). The military gladly hands them out, but you do have to find one. The soldiers get paid extra to be here, waiting or not, which can provide a "We are still getting paid" ameliorative. But it's different for the journalists and their sponsors, because dollars are flying out of bank accounts every time the logistics grind to a halt.

Soldiers often try cheering up journalists by smiling and singing words like, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," but that journalist doesn't get paid for just being there. Soldiers often go an extra mile to keep the journalists upbeat—maybe whistling "Hakuna Matata"—and the journalist might genuinely smile for a second. But smiles fade fast on a satellite phone when it's her editor in London or New York and she's walking in the desert holding the phone saying, "I don't know. Still don't know. Hopefully soon."

Rasmus and Hans were concerned about lost work time, so I showed them how to catch a helicopter to the IZ. It worked. But just for two of us. Wearing helmets and body armor, Hans and I boarded a Blackhawk with the windows off. Soon we were roaring low over Baghdad, making hard turns, sometimes skimming the higher rooftops. I wondered how many snipers might take shots. Thousands and thousands of satellite dishes adorned the rooftops below. Some Iraqis waved, others did not.

The two helicopters were like commuter trains—stopping in about seven places, disgorging and picking up passengers at each station. Finally we landed at the IZ, unloaded our gear, and the Blackhawks roared away. I heard a sharp burst of machine gun fire and I ducked, and started to run for cover, but it stopped as suddenly as it had started. As the helicopters retreated above us, Hans asked, "Was that a helicopter shooting?"

"Yes, I think so, it was a machine gun, but what in the hell would they be shooting at in the Green Zone?"

Rasmus and his cameraman from TV2 were still far away, trying to catch a helicopter to our location. I'd left him with good instructions and hoped they would find their way. There was nobody there to meet Hans and me; we had been unable to alert CPIC we were coming on that helicopter, nor could we reach CPIC with the numbers we had. We hauled our bags around and found a shuttle bus in the IZ, where just by luck there was an off-duty CPIC sergeant on board. After much hassle and more time passed, we finally managed to get into the CPIC office.

The CPIC officers were polite and professional, and a naval officer escorted us (we needed an escort) to dinner at the Al Rasheed, where Hans wanted to stay. The Al Rasheed Hotel is directly across the street from CPIC, just a few hundred meters.

Hotel Al Rasheed

Before Hans could check in, an American Army officer at the Iraqi-run hotel gave an in-briefing. Among other precautions, Hans was told to keep his dark curtains closed at all times to foil snipers. The Al Rasheed serves beer, and the officer told Hans that if he drank, he was expected to keep himself in order. So Hans checked in, paying $170 in cash, but I wanted to see his room before deciding on whether to rent one. During all my time in Iraq, I had never seen a Baghdad hotel room.

We rode the creaky elevator up to the eleventh floor. Hans' room was dreary and dirty, the carpet tattered and stained. He immediately opened the curtain to look out his window. I dashed into the bathroom and told him to close the curtain. He chuckled. Then he noticed the bullet hole in his window and closed the curtain, still chuckling. A good sniper could have killed him in the interval of open curtains.

That calculation was easy: I could pay $170 plus tax for a dreary room and maybe take some bullets through the window, or sleep on a CPIC cot for free, and probably not take bullets through the window. We rode down on the old elevator, found our escort, and walked to the dining hall in the hotel. The place was filled with civilians, a few soldiers, and many Arab men and women. I took special note of a couple of Arab men sitting at a table across the way.

Dinner finished, Hans headed up to his sniper-shot room, and I took my cot at the CPIC.

Some hours later, Rasmus and his cameraman from TV2 arrived, and they also opted for cots. They had caught the helicopter, but their trip involved more hassles than ours, and now they were tired but wanted to get to work.

There was also an American TV reporter who'd just arrived. The office phone for visiting journalists was beside my cot, and soon enough, the American TV man was on it, negotiating with small stations in America. I was hoping to slumber in my sleeping bag, using a rucksack as pillow, trying to avoid listening to a conversation I couldn't help from hearing. He was only a few feet away.

"I'll try to keep this quiet," he said politely. He did, but it didn't matter.

I later learned he was a completely freelance TV journalist: a one-man news team. He puts his camera on a tripod, and talks into the camera, then sells the footage to local stations where the soldiers are based. He hops around to different bases, plops down, does a quick spiel, sells the reel, and goes onto the next stop.

"You are completely freelance?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"You don't work for anybody?"
"Nope, I just do what I do."

So there were two tired Danish TV2 journalists, the American TV man, and me, all sleeping on cots in the CPIC office. It's easy to take shots at "the media" in Iraq—literally, as well as for the quality of their coverage. Forget for a moment the lopsided expense versus returns ratio. The bullet holes in the hotel rooms and the picnic tables in the desert tell a back story about why so few journalists make the journey. All this, while knowing that insurgents have specifically targeted members of the media.

Apparently the terrorists like it better when fewer reporters are around to peel back the layers of their insurgent press machine and reveal its rotten core. The Americans may think they get bad press, but apparently the terrorists think they get worse. Everybody, it seems, is a victim of bad press, including (ironically) the professionals who print it, because they get shot by everybody, with words and bullets.

But some things about the media are good. Like when a smart journalist sits nearby at breakfast. I sat beside Rasmus who at one point said, "That guy sitting over there"—and he indicated subtly—"is one of the Iraqi election commissioners."

"Really?" I asked, "How do you know?"
"I interviewed him last year."
"What's his name?"
"I don't remember, but he is one of the commissioners."
"That man was sitting in the same seat last night," I said.
"That's him. I'm sure of it," said Rasmus.

If Rasmus was correct, the man was a key Iraqi official.

"I'm going to go talk with him," I said.

The man was, in fact, Dr. Farid Ayar, a well-known figure on the international stage. As spokesman for the Higher Independent Electoral Commission, and one of its eight commissioners, Dr. Ayar's job is more dangerous now than any soldier's or journalist's—every terrorist in Iraq would have a special bullet reserved for him, and Dr. Ayar's face was all over the news all over the world.

The extra hour I had spent the night before trying to shower and shave and put on fresh clothes was about to pay dividends. I walked over and introduced myself, and asked Dr. Ayar if he could spare a few minutes. "Surely, have a seat," he answered. I opened by congratulating him on the stunning election success in January, telling him that I had witnessed the voting in Baquba. He smiled politely and slightly nodded his head.

"Thank you," answered Dr. Ayar. "Who do you write for?"
"The Weekly Standard," I said, and Dr. Ayar's eyes showed recognition, his head tilted slightly in respect. There was a clear advantage in placing a solid name on the table.

Seeing the ice broken, Rasmus from TV2 swooped in and asked to join us, assuring he would be quiet. But Rasmus apparently couldn't resist, and started asking questions. Since they were smart questions, I remained quiet for a time, jotting notes, wanting to get the details of the conversation down accurately.

Dr. Ayar expressed confidence in the upcoming referendum, saying that with 30,000 polling stations, and many Arab Sunnis having agreed to vote, turnout was expected to be strong. He said the Sunnis have several problems with the Constitution as proposed. They do not accept Federalism, and they want to see a statement in the Constitution denoting Iraq as an Arab country. They are also against wording stipulating Former Regime Ministers are not allowed to share power in the new government. Yet, despite their ongoing differences, he pointed out, most Sunnis have agreed to vote.

According to Dr. Ayar, there are 15.5 million eligible voters, and the commission expects about 11 million of them to vote, saying this would be an even better turnout than the January election results. The number seemed optimistic, but Dr. Ayar said that with a high Arab Sunni turnout, it might actually happen.

Rasmus interjected with a question about places where voting might not occur. Dr. Ayar said there were a few such places, like Haditha, Qaim and Rawa, where there is too much fighting now.

"And Tal Afar?" I asked, "Will there be voting in Tal Afar?" Dr. Ayar expects "maybe" 33 polling centers to open in that city, where much fighting had recently occurred.

Perhaps recalling the problems that plagued the January elections, leading to widespread predictions that the elections would be a disaster, Rasmus asked about problems hiring election workers. Dr. Ayar said there are so many volunteers that people are complaining they cannot get hired. He emphasized that there "has not been a single resignation this time," and that the volunteers were mostly coming from the same cities they would work in. During the first elections, there were so many killings and security threats that many election workers had to be shuttled around Iraq for protection from reprisals.

Dr. Ayar explained that the security for the election sites will have three rings. The Iraqi Police will provide inner security. The Iraqi Army will provide the second ring. The Coalition will be the third ring and used only for backup.

Unfortunately, we had to end the impromptu interview abruptly. We had an appointment at 9 a.m. to get credentialed, and so we thanked Dr. Ayar for his time.

"He's a brave man," said Rasmus as we walked away.
"Surely he is."

The Embed

By about 10 a.m., credentials in hand, I was heading out for a helicopter to my final destination. As I struggled with the cumbersome gear—I don't pack light to war anymore—I saw a CNN reporter sitting on the floor downstairs from the CPIC office. Although we'd never met, I recognized her from television. I'd just spent thirty or more hours with tired reporters, and frustrated reporters, and bored reporters. But this reporter looked to be in a state of despair.

Since I was rushing to get to a helicopter, there was no chance to even say hello. I asked my Army escort about the reporter sitting on the floor. According to the officer, she'd been through a lot lately, traveling with Marines out in Al Anbar province, where they had been involved in some long days of combat. She'd been living like a Marine. I recalled how she looked tired and rattled when those reports aired. On one taped interview, when she clearly expressed doubts about staying in Iraq; the fatigue and fear seemed to have grabbed her. Keeping up with Marines in combat is not easy. Marines are Marines.

Before breakfast, I read this from the Associated Press:

"In the last 15 days, at least 338 people have been killed across Iraq, including nine American soldiers who died in a series of offensives the U.S. military has been waging in western Iraq to try to knock al-Qaeda militants and other insurgents off balance and prevent attacks during the referendum on the constitution.

In Monday's worst attack, a suicide car bomb exploded near a U.S.-Iraqi checkpoint leading into the highly fortified Green Zone [A few hundred meters from where we now were standing], where Iraq's parliament and the U.S. Embassy are located. The blast killed a U.S. soldier, three Iraqi policemen and three civilians, U.S. and Iraqi officials said."

We were heading for the helicopter. Just moments later, two more American soldiers would die in Baghdad from yet another car bomb, sending that familiar thunder rumbling over the city. One of the soldiers would die with both legs and an arm blown off. Any one of the journalists there that morning might imagine the headlines: "Reporter's legs blown off in Iraq."

The journey was almost over. I boarded another helicopter, this time landing over at Griffin Field on Camp Victory, where an Army sergeant met me at the helipad. We loaded my gear into the back of an armored Humvee, and without so much as stopping for lunch, departed on an interesting mission into Baghdad. It was good to be back with combat soldiers. Embed complete.