Press Corps

War Journalists Go to Boot Camp, Get Hazed

War may be hell, but can a contrived boot camp prepare you for it? The media has answered the question with a "Yessir!"—acquiescing to Pentagon directives that journalists be treated to faux-combat sessions staged at Quantico and Fort Benning before gaining status as front-line war reporters.

But if the proof is in the product, you didn't actually have to attend camp to suss it was a rigging. Observation of bylines posted from the training fields indicate the reporters have been kept busy with empty process, a good diversion by military men leery of scribes who might insist on passing on meaty news rather than feel-good promotional materials.

This is all for the sake of embedding, a Department of Defense euphemism that is supposed to carry a promise that reporters will be travel with front-line combat units if they are willing to undergo the military life and not get in the way. Webster's, however, defines "embed" as "to set or fix firmly in a surrounding mass" like tiles in cement. Will our combat tiles be allowed to do significant work?

So far, the going along to be taken along has not led to better journalism but just more supine pre-war coverage—excited reporting on Boy Scout-level accomplishment (I learned to use a compass! We were shown how to dig a field toilet!), straight cheerleading (MRE's taste really good! I got to hang out with the men!), and the mutton of inconsequential physical training dressed up as lamb.

According to the latter, treating the military with respect apparently means being willing to be hazed by a five-mile march—unavoidable because being critical of it superficially puts the ol' backbone in question. The experience of basic training new boots notwithstanding, I saw no mention in any byline on war camp noting that the conflict journalists are prepping to cover probably won't feature five-mile marches—unless you're a surrendering Iraqi trudging toward the POW cage.

The five-mile march also floats the idea that reporters are out-of-shape slugs. The last time I looked, however, there was no strict law against being overweight in the armed forces, either—it's a modern organization that employs a great many desk-jockeys and PC console riders. And reservists and National Guardsmen who are making up a significant part of the war deployment share the same cardiovascular failings of the U.S. populace-at-large.

In any case, the U.S. military machine doesn't walk distances when it needs to take care of business. (Even during the knuckling of the Taliban, much TV news was seen of special forces sallying forth on horseback.) The Third Infantry Division with its heavy tank brigade, the "Iron Fist," expected to be in the middle of any fight with the Republican Guard is now more modernly referred to as the Third Mech (short for mechanized), a fast-moving armored outfit with an attached helicopter aviation wing.

In short, the military rides. Even the Marines hit the beach in amphibious personnel carriers or landing craft riding on cushions of air. Any journalists left to march in Gulf War II won't be anywhere near the action unless and until the army halts on the outskirts of Baghdad. But perhaps that's the plan.

Boot camp did not even appear to familiarize war correspondents with pseudo-war. It did certainly acquaint them with the military phenomenon called chickenshit—demeaning and/or useless activity that has little or nothing to do with warfighting. This was duly and dully reported as getting ready for the real thing.

One of the "real things" mentioned repeatedly was nuclear, biological, and chemical (or NBC) training. PowerPoint slides of mustard gas victims were shown, it was said. No one really mistook this for training, did they? In the past the U.S. military has actually burned soldiers and civilians for observational purpose with quantities of real poison gas—exercises in raw realism it now tries to cover up. Back in graduate school, I recall briefing an army reserve unit on chemical warfare and showing the "class" a small sealed vial of a nerve agent. This sure as heck wasn't going to get them ready for biochemical combat—nothing short of experiencing it would—but it sure was less patronizing than a desktop computer show.

Part of the NBC follies also involved being game for a tear-gassing in an enclosed space. For the PBS newshour, an AP photographer said, with no obvious trace of humor: "That kind of gives you a little bit of confidence in the [gas mask] and confidence in yourself—getting it off and on, keeping your eyes closed, and you're holding your breath. You know, it's good to know how to do that."

Yes, it's good to know how to hold your breath when underwater, maybe, but masks—even against tear gas—don't work too good. The latter fact was noted by a few, but what seemed to have been missed was that the chemicals said to be in Hussein's arsenal are bad news on contact—no breathing required—rendering the lesson another dreary military-style hazing of little particular value. Left unsaid by Pentagon minders is that its best defense is its firepower and quick mobility in keeping it out from under potential gas attack by an inept foe it realistically thinks probably lacks the combat ability to launch an effectively terrifying mass assault with such weapons. (Now, if you're stuck on that slow five-mile march . . . in military-speak it's called "a target of opportunity.)

But perhaps the most intelligence-insulting spectacle was that of reporters wearing strips of fluorescent tape plainly marking them as "TV" or "press." As far as war dress goes, it's an open invitation to be the first sniper casualty, the benefits of battlefield anonymity being why command officers don't wear Day-Glo placards identifying themselves.

But, let's face it, anyone who has already been willingly treated like crap by Don Rumsfeld in Pentagon war-on-terror briefings for a whole year is probably too leery of angering the military to protest it.

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