The Media Column: War journalists should not be cosying up to the military
By Robert Fisk
21 January 2003
It looks like a rerun of the 1991 Gulf War. Already American journalists are fighting like tigers to join "the pool", to be "embedded" in the US military so that they can see the war at first hand – and, of course, be censored. Eleven years ago, they turned up at Dhahran in Saudi Arabia, already kitted out with helmets, gas capes, chocolate rations and eyes that narrowed when they looked into the sun, just like General Montgomery. Half the reporters wanted to wear military costume and one young television man from the American mid-west turned up, I recall well, with a pair of camouflaged boots. Each boot was camouflaged with painted leaves. Those of us who had been in a desert -- even those who had only seen a picture of a desert – did wonder what this meant.
Well, of course, it symbolised fantasy, the very quality upon which most viewers now rely when watching "live" war – or watching death "live" on TV.
Thus, over the past four weeks, the massed ranks of American television networks have been pouring into Kuwait to cosy up to the US military, to seek those coveted "pool" positions, to try on their army or marine costumes and make sure that – if or when the day comes – they will have the kind of coverage that every reporter and every general wants: a few facts, good pictures and nothing dirty to make the viewers throw up on the breakfast table. I remember how, back in 1991, only those Iraqi soldiers obliging enough to die in romantic poses – arm thrown back to conceal the decomposing features or face down and anonymous in the sand – made it on to live-time. Those soldiers turned into a crematorium nightmare or whose corpses were being torn to pieces by wild dogs – I actually saw an ITV crew film this horrific scene – were not honoured on screen. ITV's film, of course, couldn't be shown – lest it persuade the entire world that no one should go to war, ever, again.
The Americans are actually using the word "embedded". Reporters must be "embedded' in military units. The fears of Central Command at Tampa, Florida, are that Saddam will commit some atrocity – a gas attack on Shiites, an air bombardment of Iraqi civilians – and then blame it on the Americans. Journalists in the "pool" can thus be rushed to the scene to prove that the killings were the dastardly work of the Beast of Baghdad rather than the "collateral damage" – the Distinguished Medal for Gutlessness should be awarded to all journalists who even mention this phrase – of the fine young men who are trying to destroy the triple pillar of the "axis of evil".
Already, the "buddy-buddy" relationship – that's actually what the Ministry of Defence boys called it 11 years ago -- has started. US troops in Kuwait are offering courses in chemical and biological warfare for reporters who might be accompanying soldiers to "the front", along with "training" on the need to protect security during military operations. CNN is, of course, enthusiastically backing these seemingly innocuous courses – forgetting how they allowed Pentagon "trainees" to sit in their newsroom during the 1991 Gulf War.
So here's a thumbnail list of how to watch out for mendacity and propaganda on your screen once Gulf War Two (or Three if you include the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq conflict) begins. You should suspect the following:
Reporters who wear items of American or British military costume – helmets, camouflage jackets, weapons, etc.
Reporters who say "we" when they are referring to the US or British military unit in which they are "embedded".
Those who use the words "collateral damage" instead of "dead civilians".
Those who commence answering questions with the words: "Well, of course, because of military security I can't divulge..." Those who, reporting from the Iraqi side, insist on referring to the Iraqi population as "his" (ie Saddam's) people.
Journalists in Baghdad who refer to "what the Americans describe as Saddam Hussein's human rights abuses" – rather than the plain and simple torture we all know Saddam practices.
Journalists reporting from either side who use the god-awful and creepy phrase "officials say" without naming, quite specifically, who these often lying "officials" are.