Camp Virginia (Kuwait), March 9 (Reuters): When it comes to media coverage, no war may be followed more up close and personally than the impending conflict in the Gulf.
In an experiment backed by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, more than 700 journalists — reporters, cameramen and photographers — are set to advance alongside the US military units if and when an attack on Iraq happens.
Not even in Vietnam — a conflict that severely strained the relationship between the US military and the media — has such a throng of media eaten, slept and worked alongside soldiers.
“In this day and age, a lot of military people see the benefits of the media — Vietnam’s a long time ago,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Franklin Childress, the chief of media operations in Kuwait City and the overseer of what is being called media “embedding”.
“When the history of this (embedding) is written, I think it will be seen as the turning point for the way the military and the media operate with one another. This will set the tone for the way wars are covered,” he said yesterday.
Childress and the officers co-ordinating embedding from within army units say it will give unprecedented access to the workings of the military, allowing the world to see the full picture of modern conflict — warts and all.
But there are also concerns about media manipulation, with the military laying down 50 strict ground rules for journalists that many fear could force reports to be watered down or diluted before they can be sent.
While reporters will have access to classified information — and recognise that checks may have to be made to ensure that is not compromised — only trial and error will determine where media independence ends and military oversight begins. “It’s going to be a process of suck it and see,” said a correspondent for a US weekly journal who asked not to be identified.
“Overall, though, it’s got to be a positive thing that we’re here — it’s an insight that you’d never normally get.”
While some “embeds” are with the navy or air force, most are with ground forces or the Marines, currently spread in camps across the Kuwaiti desert just south of the Iraq border.
While dressed in civilian clothes and unarmed, “embeds” have been issued with army chemical and biological warfare suits and gas masks and are expected to be allowed up to the frontline of any conflict.
In the field, journalists are billeted cheek-to-jowl with soldiers in 100-man tents — conditions that are expected to grow rapidly more austere as events unfold -- and feast on the same vacuum-packed meals-ready-to-eat as soldiers enjoy.
Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Grosskruger, commander of the 94th Engineers Battalion, believes the programme can work, but his big fear is that there may be journalists who can’t cope with conditions in the field, or worse, there could be casualties.
“We want the media, but we don’t want anyone hurt,” he said.
Army public affairs officer Max Blumenfeld sent a group off for “embedding” yesterday with these words of encouragement: “It’s the worst camping trip you’ve ever been on.”