May 26, 2008
The Coldest Winter
Watch the program: Part 1 | Part 2

Back in January 2004, when I first went to report in Iraq, I was one of those reporters who believed embedding with friendly forces was a lazy and one sided way to report a conflict. Embedding only led to “cheerleader” reports that simply showed what the military wanted the public to see. In the course of writing a book and filming reports that year I only rarely accompanied US troops in Baghdad and preferred to travel to places like Fallujah, Basra, Kerbala, Kirkuk and the Kurdish north, unarmed, and only with a translator. I believed that it was essential that journalists appear strictly neutral and even travelling with a weapon in the vehicle would jeopardize that neutrality.

It was a point I remember arguing with my Australian colleague Michael Ware (then TIME bureau chief, now with CNN) one night in October 2004. I remember that discussion well because the very next day I was kidnapped outside my hotel along with my driver and translator. Thankfully we were all released 24 hours later after convincing our captors I was indeed a journalist and not employed by the coalition as they had believed. Grudgingly I had to admit Mick had been right. The situation in Baghdad had become that bad that our position as impartial observers was no longer tenable.

But the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan still had to be covered so the embedding system become one of the few options for reporters to get out in to the field in these conflicts.

Embedding and getting a story is a tricky business. The military does try to control what embedded reporters see and it does try to impose its own views on reporters, as it does to its own men and women. Sometimes though the military also reveals its own mistakes. In August and September 2005 I was in Afghanistan and another Australian colleague of mine, Stephen Dupont, was embedded with the US Army 173rd Airborne Division near Kandahar. The footage that Stephen brought back of US soldiers burning Taliban corpses and taunting Taliban soldiers over a loudspeaker caused widespread condemnation of US military tactics when we aired it as part of my report. All US psychological warfare operations were immediately halted in Iraq and Afghanistan, the soldiers involved reprimanded and new codes of conduct issued to troops. Then US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said of the incident, “It’s always disappointing when there are charges like that. It’s particularly disappointing when they are true”.

Unfortunately for me in January 2008 in Afghanistan it was the 173rd Airborne based in the northern Afghan-Pakistan border province of Kunar where I requested an embed. Because of my 2005 report that request was refused. But in testament to the fairness of some of the US Army the 82nd Airborne Division agreed to my request to compile a report in their section of the border in Paktia province, which is where I filmed this report. I had done an embed with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq in 2007 covering operations in the province of Diyala and filmed exhausted men struggling with the searing heat and the insurgent threats. This year in Afghanistan it was the extreme cold that was as much as an enemy as the Taliban. That was what I wanted to capture.

Back in Australia I was asked on breakfast radio by an insistent interviewer why on earth I kept going back to these places after being kidnapped in Iraq in 2004. I deflected the question a few times but in the end just blurted out “look there are two massive wars going on in the world at the moment and someone has to cover them”.

I do believe that, as journalists, we have to try and show what is going on in Iraq and Afghanistan and if the only way we can do that is to be embedded with US or NATO forces then so be it. It is up to us as journalists to maintain our distance and impartiality and to try and reveal what is actually going on in these conflicts. Unfortunately, due to the very nature of these wars, there are large parts of Afghanistan and Iraq where western journalists cannot go, and it is to access and show what is happening in those places that it is necessary, to sometimes, do an embed.

-- From John Martinkus
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