Dispatch: The Clock Ticks... and Ticks...
March 2003

by Spencer Platt

We are five miles off the coast of Iraq and the moon is full. Our vessel, a brawny Navy raft with a heavily armed U.S. Coast Guard law enforcement team aboard, rocks gently in the shallow opaque waters of the Arabian Gulf. I’m photographing the Military Interdiction Operations (MIO) and we’re waiting for the nightly ‘breakout” of dhows, a traditional Middle Eastern cargo vessel that has been plying these waters for centuries, and has been the backbone of a lucrative trade in embargoed merchandise both entering and leaving Iraq. On the eve of war with Iraq, these missions have taken on a particular importance as the U.S Navy is trying to secure the flow of traffic doing business with Saddam’s regime. With our anxiety heightened at the prospect of an encounter with one of the numerous Iraqi Navy boats that are in possession of these waters, we suddenly see something to our port side. “What’s that?” cries someone as three silhouettes emerge and then quickly submerge into the water. Silence overcomes our crew as we wait intently for the silhouettes to define themselves. Slowly, the silver backs of a school of dolphins break the waters surface, as if to quickly condemn the political games above before rejoining the quiet below. After a few relieved laughs we continue to wait for the dhows to break out and for the war to begin.

Waiting for war is an adage that modern society should have dispensed with some time ago. Its connotations reflect a macabre sense of willing the unthinkable. While few may actively want war, 21st century reality usually affords us a kind of “heads up” when actions such as war are to be commenced. There are probably few instances in modern history where the media has been as prepared both physically, psychologically and technically as with the looming conflict in Iraq. As I write, certain hotels throughout the Middle East have become a sort of defacto battleground where thousands of journalists, some who have been here for months, are anxiously vying for military access, scoops and a place at the starting gate that will ensure a timely entry into Iraq if war beckons. Four-wheel drive trucks are being purchased, chemical suits are being sized and satellite phones of various qualities are being assessed. It’s all enough to make a perfectly fit peacenik keel over with a triple bypass.

The Radisson Diplomat Hotel on the tiny archipelago Island of Bahrain, is where I, and hundreds of other reporters, photographers and television teams are calling home while waiting for something to materialize. The first sign that life in sleepy Manama, Bahrain’s lackluster capital, has been insidiously altered is found in the hotel’s ornate lobby where dozens of journalists are franticly surfing the web aided by the newly installed wireless connection. The installation of the WiFi connection, an idea that was probably conceived as a congenial tool to aid oil executives on their visits to Bahrain, has mutated into a kind of cyber newsroom where fistfights have been known to break out over the potential veto nations on the Security Council. It hasn’t helped matters that the area abuts a raucous nightclub that features a nightly leather-clad Philippino cover band.

The saving grace for the media in Bahrain is the overnight embarks, or tours, we’ve been afforded to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet in the Arabian Gulf. Embarking on a ship is a surreal wake-up call to the reality of the low level war that has been going on high above Southern Iraq for some time. Day and night, planes are being catapulted off the flight decks of the carriers USS Lincoln and the USS Constellation at violent speeds to run bombing missions in the Southern no-fly-zone. For the thousands of pilots, mechanics, cooks and deck hands on the ships, it’s not about weapons inspectors or the UN Security Council, but the painstaking job of keeping these floating cities a menacing and intimidating threat to the adversary.

Being a visiting journalist on a ship is a painstaking lesson in Navy etiquette. Because of the confined living and work quarters, ships are a kind of condensed, floating city where any break with the equilibrium can have embarrassing and catastrophic effects. Embarked media are usually spared any pampering and are issued a bed, or “rack”, like any other seaman. Racks are stacked 3 high, leaving only about a foot of headroom between your bed and the next. For the dilettante, attempting to maneuver in this atmosphere is an exercise in advanced planning. Any rash move or superfluous act can agitate the 20 or so tired sailors that are within 10 feet of you. This will begin with some hushed grumbling and quickly advance from there.

The access we’ve been given as journalists, while not unprecedented, is impressive. We’re generally allowed to shoot and interview whomever we want. While some ships are demanding that visiting journalists have an escort with them at all times (more of a problem for writers trying to conduct candid interviews), there is a sense that the military is finally beginning to understand the needs of the media. When possible, the navy has provided us with workspaces on the ships and email facilities. So far there has been no cries of censoring of stories or images. This, in itself, is a positive first step in this new-fangled liaison between the press and the military.

Over the coming weeks the nature of our work here will likely change as many of us are embedded with military units and others join the caravan towards Baghdad. Maybe this will be the last war we actively wait for, maybe there will come a day when we wait with equal conviction for an international declaration of brotherly love. But for the time being there are chemical suits to buy, gas masks to try on and predictions to dispel. War is on the way and we need to be ready.

Spencer Platt
Getty Images

Spencer Platt is a staff shooter for Getty Images, based in New York.


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