War Correspondent’s Advice: Stay Off the Press Bus

By: Barbara Bedway

On a day the Pentagon was announcing its guidelines for the more than 500 “embedded” reporters accompanying U.S. forces in any attack on Iraq, veteran war correspondent Chris Hedges remained worried about what, on the face of it, might seem extraordinary measures by the Pentagon to facilitate press coverage.

Hedges, who has spent much of the past two decades as a foreign correspondent for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times, has been ambushed in Central America, shot at in southern Iraq, shelled in the former Yugoslavia, imprisoned in Sudan, beaten by Saudi military police, captured by the Iraqi National Guard, and deported from Libya and Iran. Vowing to stay away from war zones, he now contributes to the “Private Lives” column, which appears in the Times‘ metro section, and was part of the team that won a 2002 Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism. His book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (PublicAffairs), published in September, is a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

But all his experience doesn’t easily translate into advice for reporters about to cover this seemingly imminent war. To Hedges, a good war correspondent is a personality type, one whose motto might be: “I don’t get on press buses.”

Hedges came to the 1991 Gulf War “as a very seasoned war correspondent, a rarity,” he points out. “I’d covered five years of the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, as well as the first intifada, and I worked in the Punjab in India, in Algeria, and in southern Sudan. When we got off the plane in Dhahran [Saudi Arabia], the first thing the military did was take us in a room and have us sign papers that said, ‘I’ll do everything the military tells me to do.’ I had never covered a war that way.”

When he was not offered a slot in the press pool (partly administered by The Wall Street Journal‘s Carla Anne Robbins, who later confessed, “I feel like I should have my head shaved for that experience”), he got permission from the Times to head out on his own. He took a jeep to the Saudi border town of Al-Khafji, and for the duration of the war never worked within the pool system.

The military invented a new term to describe Hedges and the dozen or so reporters who worked outside the pool in the Gulf War: “the unilaterals.” The reporters constantly assessed whether to risk expulsion by the military or abide by the rules.

“I have a problem with reporters who play war correspondent, sit around hotels in Saudi Arabia bitching about restrictions,” he tells E&P. “It was the press that administered the system — it couldn’t have happened without the cooperation of the press.”

The Pentagon’s new “embedding” policy, while less restrictive than a press pool, prohibits journalists from having their own vehicles. To Hedges, who says the first thing he would do if he were covering this war is get a jeep, the limitations are significant. “I’m not saying people shouldn’t be embedded,” he insists, “but they’re not going to get an accurate picture unless people are allowed to do their job. When you’re embedded in a unit, you rely on the military for transportation: they will decide where you go, what you see, and what you report. They’re not going to drive the press vehicle to sites if things go terribly wrong.”

He cites what happened early in the Gulf War in Al-Khafji, where he witnessed Saudi soldiers fleeing in panic from Iraqi soldiers. U.S. Marines were called in to push back the Iraqis. But back in Riyadh and Dhahran, “the press put out that the Saudis were defending their homeland. When the military has a war to win, everything gets sacrificed before that objective, including the truth.”

Hedges believes only a small percentage of the assembled press truly want to cover the conflict and the rest “just want to be hotel-room warriors, don’t want to get anywhere near the fighting. The 10% that tries to get out will be stomped on. We saw that with Doug Struck, The Washington Post correspondent, when he tried to investigate civilian casualties in Afghanistan, by the U.S. military. He was made to lie down with a gun pointed to his head.”

Given the “derogatory comments” U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld has made about the press, Hedges can’t imagine “how anyone can think this is a guy who is going to allow the press to operate freely in this war. The control will be just as heavy as it was in the Gulf War, in Grenada, and in Panama.”

The Pentagon’s impressive sophistication in managing the news presents a formidable challenge to the press, Hedges says. “The military has come a long way since Vietnam,” he explains. “It’s comfortable with live satellite feeds, and can provide the video clips the networks need, to create a perception of war that’s false. People think in the Persian Gulf War we were using precision-guided weapons to hit specific targets, and knock down planes. But that was only a tiny percentage. I was on the front lines with the Marine Corps — they were using Vietnam [War]-era B-52s for saturation bombing. I saw that in southern Iraq after the war. We’d smashed all the water plants, so there was no clean water, the place was devastated. But that was not the perception handed to the press, and no one was there to report it. The war looked like a giant video-arcade game.”

In the current conflict, he offers no guidelines to reporters other than his own experience. “I’m not going to encourage someone to go off on their own if they don’t have the stomach and skills for it,” says Hedges, whose ability to speak Arabic proved useful when he was captured and held for a week, along with 39 other reporters, by the Iraqi Republican Guard during the Shiite uprising following the Gulf War. He was able to entertain his captors with bad jokes learned from his astute Arabic teacher. (He later wrote the teacher a thank-you note.)

Hedges sounds decidedly skeptical about the value of the one-week training sessions the military has been running for journalists. “That’s a Boy Scout Jamboree — you can’t train people in a week,” he states flatly. “They initiate you into their little fraternity, but the real purpose is to bond, to feel part of a unit, and to get the military good press.”

If war comes, it will be a very different encounter from the first Gulf War, he believes. “The ways in which this war could go wrong are long,” he warns. “It may not be that bloody going in, but what worries me is the use of chemical or biological weapons. That takes a tiny group of people to administer.” The increased danger only underscores the need for the press to bear accurate witness, as they live and travel with the troops who are part of their ongoing story.

“Most reporters in war are part of the problem,” he cautions. “You always go out and look for that narrative, like the hometown hero, to give the war a kind of coherency that it doesn’t have. Every nation does that. A Serb reporting on their war reports on it very differently from me.”

Hedges’ current book is an impassioned meditation on how the seductive attractions of war obscure its harsher truths, and that, even when necessary, it is a sickening, not a glorious, enterprise. He has said that he wrote the book because he fears that “we are losing touch with ourselves, with our role in the world, and with the danger such enthusiasm for war ultimately brings to our nation. … I wanted to lay bare war’s contagion. And I wanted to do it now as we enter a new and volatile moment in our history, one where introspection is so necessary and so lacking.”

He has brought that introspection to his “Public Lives” columns for the Times, profiling peace activists as well as Lt. Gen. William J. Lennox Jr., who poignantly — and pointedly — recited lines of the disillusioned British poet and soldier of World War I, Wilfred Owen. “I’m giving a voice to dissidents,” he acknowledges. “That has made some people at the newspaper uncomfortable.” Hedges does believe the Times has done a good job on reporting about the war, “but the broadcast media has been so corrupted it is just parroting the jingoistic message from the state.”

Hedges himself has no plans to cover war again. “I’m 46 years old, and I’m lucky to be alive,” he explains. “I have two children. You can’t go on lying to yourself about the extent of your resilience, physical and emotional. I don’t want to be 55 and running down an airport tarmac to cover a coup in Uganda. It’s not a very healthy lifestyle.”

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