The nature of war and warriors seldom changes. The ways wars are fought do change. And the way they're covered by the news media has shape-shifted a lot since the Vietnam War.
I've been lucky to have witnessed the generational changes up close and personal -- sometimes too close and too personal.
As a soldier in Vietnam for 13 months, I wrote for an Army magazine, "Hurricane," a glossy monthly that stressed winning hearts and minds more than blood and guts. As a "pool" reporter in the Persian Gulf War, I spent two months trying to work within a system guaranteed by its design to restrict access to troops and the battle space. The result was a U.S. military triumph few got to read about or see.
As a correspondent in Somalia, Bosnia and Albania/Kosovo for monthlong hitches, I relied on myself, fixers, bodyguards, comrades, Russian jeeps, a clunker Mercedes and luck.
But covering the military side of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has been done through the "embed" system. It came about after the debacle that was the pool system imposed by the Pentagon in 1990-91 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
As a reporter in these conflicts (including Nam, when I carried a rifle), by far the best scenario was Vietnam. I was never a civilian correspondent there, but most people know about the freedom civilian reporters enjoyed for a decade reporting that war. They also faced the prospect of death, and 71 died.
Embedded in Iraq
Apart from the free-wheeling "living room war" style of Vietnam, the embed system for war correspondents matches what Churchill said about democracy: the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.
Mostly, it works. Here's how.
Three soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division and I sat in a 25-ton MRAP (mine-resistant armor-protected) vehicle on a dirt road called Route Macy's outside Kirkuk in northern Iraq. It was June 2008.
Our seven-vehicle convoy had found an IED, a homemade bomb, hidden in the middle of the road about 100 meters (328 feet) ahead. After the first small vehicle in the convoy pinged something metallic underground, we all stopped. The first vehicle wasn't heavy enough to detonate the device. A robot was sent up to probe.
It found an object about the size of a fire extinguisher (which it turned out to be) and rolled back to a rig next to ours. Bomb disposal specialists equipped it with C-4 plastic explosive and sent it back to the bomb. It placed a charge.
Once the 'bot came back, we waited. A few seconds later, someone said, "Fire in the hole!" over the internal comms link.
We heard the blast and saw the explosion of dust at the same time the front windshield spider-webbed. The huge MRAP wobbled but the cracked windshield was the only damage.
"Damn!" said the staff sergeant in charge of the vehicle. "Guess we weren't far enough back."
The IED turned out to be a fire extinguisher packed with ammonium nitrate (the same compound that destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City) and nails.
That episode sums up how most of the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan have been covered by the news media -- at least the bang-bang parts. We embed with troops. We patrol with them, eat with them, sleep with them, go on missions with them and hear about their Dear John letters, sexual exploits, dirty jokes, prayers and the first thing they'll do as civilians.
All embedded reporters must sign a multipage agreement with the military that tells us what we can and can't report. Mostly it's common sense -- don't write about future operations -- and doesn't prevent a correspondent from doing his job.