Former Embed Hopes for ‘A Better Year’

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By: Dennis Anderson

Reporters love ?hanging out? with each other, like doctors, lawyers and cops. When we do such socializing, we have to remind each other to get back out on the streets and ?check it out,? as my old news daddy editor, Wayne Lee, of the Hutchinson News, put it.

But this was a happy occasion. We were in fellowship at the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism at University of Maryland. In February 2006, it was cold outside, snow on the ground. But we were warm inside, wrapped in the comradeship of the military reporting fraternity.

One of our honored fellows was Naseer Nouri, one of those streetwise correspondents for the Washington Post, a guy who hazarded the bomb-laden streets of Baghdad in search of the story. Naseer, an Iraqi, could venture out. Many — not all, but many Western correspondents — spent time trapped in the fortified Green Zone, or ventured out embedded with the military.

One of our fellows at the Knight Center was Jon Stephenson of New Zealand. He was a ?unilateral,? a gutsy sort who traveled across Iraq without embedding, usually riding on the floor of the back seat of a car, his only protection the trust of his Iraqi friends.

?You keep moving,? the New Zealander told us. ?You never stay in one place more than a few minutes. The moment you know someone has you identified as a Westerner, you leave.?

So, those were a couple of ways to get outside the Green Zone. Be an Arab journalist. Or, trust your Arab friends and take your chances.

One year ago, we were in some ways a class reunion of a class that had never met. The Knight Fellowship consisted of about 30 selected for a week?s intensive in all aspects of covering the war, at home and abroad. About a dozen of us had been embeds at one time or another.

That week we heard speakers like Lt. Gen. H. Steven Blum, commander of the National Guard Bureau in Washington — the organization that oversees Guard operations nationally. We listened to Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., the maverick whose Vietnam combat experience makes him profoundly pessimistic about any good from the Iraq war.

We commiserated and shared our worry and concern about Jill Carroll, the Christian Science Monitor freelance reporter still held hostage. Our Washington Post colleague, Naseer, confided his optimism that she would be released alive, based on some of his observations of her videotaped captivity. In a war where nobody knew nothin? Naseer had country knowledge and insight that could tell us something. Soon after our fellowship separated, Carroll was released. Along with the world?s decent people, we rejoiced.

That week during the fellowship, we heard from generals and hawks and doves, from neocons and progressives, from think tank wonks and Pentagon forecasters. As the week wore on, it dawned on a few of us that as far as the Iraq war went, the team that made the decision to go — the policy team at national level — didn?t know nothin?.

Or, at least, they didn?t know enough when they unleashed the furies that leave the trail of scattered dead on blood-splashed streets.

We knew the ones paying the bill for this poor planning were our G.I. friends and kinsmen. And the others who paid were the continuously suffering Iraqi people. If U.S. troops were not the cause of the Iraqi people?s misery, they were not powerful or numerous enough to prevent the misery unleashed by insurgents and extremists.

During that week in the Washington D.C. area, we — the formerly embedded and regular military beat writers — got one bouquet that we all hung onto like a bridesmaid. Lt. Gen. Blum told us ?We were the soldiers? best friend — along with the Congress.? He told us that because of the stories we wrote ?we put armor on the backs of the troops? that would have taken years longer if the Pentagon acquisition system was left to its own devices.

What he meant was that American reporters had written stories that told truth to power, and embarrassed the national leadership — say, former SecDef Don Rumsfeld, for example — into getting the lead out with the body armor.

Most reporters don?t need public praise. The general?s compliment was balm. It was elixir. Somehow, together, we had gotten something done. Certainly, that wasn?t the case before the Bush administration railroaded the case for war past the press, the Congress and the American people. I stood in the ranks of the credulous then. Like most of us.

In the university saloon, the Oracle, we raised a glass to survival — and honored the memories of good men and women, and children — consumed by this war. We hoped for a better year.

And while we listened and learned a bit more, Sunni insurgents blasted the Shiite shrine, the Golden Mosque in Samarra. They demolished it, and with it the slender margin that distinguished insurgency from civil war. We have seen the furies of the past year.

A new American general is now in command in Baghdad. Gen. David Petraeus is by reputation and deed and accomplished and gifted leader. Will it make a difference? We can only hope and pray.

But as they say in Hollywood, nobody knows nothin.

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