Ever since the end of the Vietnam War, covering US troops in action in conflict zones has been a dangerous and frustrating experience for photojournalists.
Vietnam was the last time that the press would have free and unfettered access to GIs in battle. In fact, the beginning of the end of that kind of coverage came with the US incursion into Laos, when suddenly cameramen were denied permission to freely board American helicopters flying into the battle zone. This decision, implemented by the Department of Defense in the hopes of keeping the incursion a "secret", immediately had disastrous consequences. In one day four of the best photographers covering the war were killed after being forced to wrangle a ride on a South Vietnamese helicopter that strayed into communist fire, all because they had been banned from the American aircraft.
From there, coverage of troops in battle went straight downhill. The Pentagon irrationally blamed the press for the loss of the Vietnam War and they made sure that they weren't going to make that mistake again. In Grenada, Panama and Afghanistan, the press was kept as far away from US troops as possible. In fact, during these conflicts some photographers actually found that they were the targets of American bullets. In the first Gulf War a rigid "pool" system was enforced. Although some press members were allowed to accompany American troops into battle, all reports, photographs, and tape had to be sent to military censors, who could spike any offending material in the interests of security. In order to circumvent this process many members of the press put their lives at risk, sneaking across the Kuwait border into Iraqi-held territory. Some were captured and imprisoned, while others were killed.
Earlier this year the press and the Pentagon tried to come up with a new plan. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who has been a friend of many photographers, decided to take a chance and simply allowing the press to accompany the troops, letting the chips fall where they may. There were, however, a few caveats. The Pentagon would decide to which units the press would be assigned, and most importantly, once a reporter or photographer was embedded, the assignment would last until the job was done. If an Embed decided to leave a unit, he or she could not return. There was to be no switch-outs, even for the likes of Ted Kopel, who distinguished himself by staying with his unit throughout the bumpy ride to Baghdad.
This was a wise choice. It gave the photographers a chance to become a "member of the family" with the units in which they were embedded. They got to know the men and women they were covering, and shared the same discomforts and dangers. NBC reporter David Bloom, who had done a brilliant job on the drive to Baghdad, never got to see the city. A blood clot formed in his lungs as a result of riding for days with his legs drawn up in a military vehicle, and he suffered a fatal coronary embolism. Atlantic Monthly Editor-At-Large Michael Kelly drowned in a ditch when his vehicle flipped over while evading gunfire.
Over 600 journalists were deployed to embed with troops during the month-long war. Out of that number about 60 actually got to see combat. It became the luck of the draw as to whether your unit made it to the action. This means that most of the embeds found themselves, as photographer Todd Maisel of the New York Daily News reports in our Dispatches section this month, with units such as the Seabees covering construction and civil works projects.
This is why so many photojournalists chose a far more dangerous course, by staying out of the embed process, and working unilaterally. In most cases this resulted in weeks under bombing in Baghdad, or as David Turnely describes in this issue, being smuggled across hostile borders. It was in the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad that cameramen Jose Couseco and Reuters TV's Taras Protsyuk were killed when an American tank shelled their rooms. The BBC's Kaveh Golestan, a distinguished still photojournalist turned television photographer, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporations Paul Moran, were killed in Northern Iraq. Another cameraman, the ITN's Fred Nerac disappeared when Moran was killed, and has not been heard from since.
In an article comparing the past and present working environments during times of war, The Los Angles Times noted that during the 10 year Vietnam War, 63 journalists were killed, compared to 13 killed in the three-week Iraq war. They calculated that at this mortality rate, 4,368 journalists would die if the Iraq conflict lasted as long as the Vietnam War.
There is no doubt that what motivated the Pentagon to undertake the Embed system was the fact that in today's world of satellite phones, the internet, and digital cameras, there is simply no way to keep a lid on the flow of information. They wisely chose to "weaponize the media." One of the reasons that Baghdad fell so quickly may be that Saddam Hussein and his cohorts could watch the advance on TV. They probably did not swallow the line their spokesman was putting out.
Finally, photojournalists provided the most remarkable performance in military history. Never before have so many good photographs been taken and circulated around the world so quickly. The technology is great, but the photojournalists are even better. We are proud to have published so much of their work in the past two months.
The Digital Journalist salutes them all.