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© David Leeson

A Soldier In An Army of Citizen Journalists

by David Leeson
May 2003

It may surprise some to know that I have never taken pleasure in foreign assignments. Each came as a duty to fulfill – another dirty job that others didn’t want.

I’m an advocate of daily community journalism and believe that if newspapers and photographers would invest as much personal sacrifice into their own backyards as they would overseas, we could do immeasurable good and possibly change the world.

The war in Iraq seemed at first to be just another foreign assignment – worse, actually, because it would involve dreaded dealings with the US military. The media’s recent history with the armed forces since Vietnam has been less than ideal. The Gulf War, which I covered, was the apex of this strained relationship. I was treated as an enemy in their camp, as though my sole ambition was to ruin their little war. It was unsettling at best, and, at worst, a genuine roadblock to freedom of speech. Furthermore, soldiers gloated that more than 80 percent of the public supported the military’s intense control of the media during the Gulf War. That hurt.

So, when the assignment to cover “Gulf War – Chapter Two” came my way, I was suspicious of anything said about “embedded media.” The term itself smacked of control – being seen as something one “embeds” rather than a journalist exercising his constitutional right to speak freely. When something is “embedded,” it’s usually a bad thing. Embedded, in my mind, meant “stuck.”

Yet, in some ways I’ve always felt “stuck” when it comes to war assignments. I have been stuck between my dedication to report the news, and concerns for my personal life. A community of friends and family stands with each of us - no man lives alone. That is the most difficult part of any war coverage – the knowledge that I have involved loved ones in a battle they did not sign up to fight. In the end, it cost me a lifetime of lost moments. Hopefully, it left a legacy of concerned reporting.

One cannot blame me for cynicism when given the assignment to photograph the war in Iraq. My opinion, shared among my peers, was that the Pentagon had merely perfected their control over the media and was now calling it by a different term. Back then it was called a “pool,” now it was called “embedding.”

I took the assignment out of loyalty to my newspaper. There was no excitement, and almost no anticipation of the good work that might follow. There was only loathing of the job ahead, regardless of the promise of an opportunity to witness history unfold before me. I had long since grown ambivalent about the intrigue of foreign reporting. I prepared again to bear the hardships I had known in the Gulf War, of fighting the military brass as a martyr in the cause of a free press.

First, one learns that you’re an embed – whatever that means – but where? I was told it would be with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, so I browsed the web to learn something of who these guys are. I readied my documents as quickly as possible, and arrived in Kuwait City the night before the embed began. I had little idea of what was happening. Other journalists seemed to be more informed – but only barely. I had questions and no answers, so I made choices based on feelings rather than information.

It’s a familiar feeling, though, to be tossed into a foreign assignment with no grasp on what is happening to your life. I felt as though I was floating in a river, unable to escape the currents that dictate my ultimate fate. I found a measure of peace only in letting go of my concerns. Ultimately, it seemed, it doesn’t matter where the river runs – only that you will be part of the stream.

By the time I boarded a bus going somewhere, I was still quite unsure about what was ahead. A soldier stepped onto the bus where we had been subdivided into groups of journalists. The man read from a list telling each of us where we were going. “Leeson,” he said abruptly, “3rd Brigade Combat Team.” I turned to a journalist next to me and asked, “Is that a good thing?”

For many embedded journalists, this was their first time going to war. The process opened foreign reporting to any newspaper or TV station that could afford the satellite phone charges. A conversation by two TV reporters sitting on the seat behind me was comedic as they discussed how they would soon be hanging out the doors of an Apache helicopter shooting great images of war. They talked excitedly, as though they were children on their way to a carnival.

It took hours to reach the 3rd Brigade’s location in the Kuwaiti desert. To this day, I have no idea exactly where I was. We were herded into a dusty tent where we received a briefing. There were roughly 25 journalists in the room – surprising to me since I thought I would be alone.

At the end of the meeting, another soldier read from a clipboard. “Leeson,” he said in the same manner as the guy back in Kuwait City, “Task Force 2-69 Armored.” This time I remained silent. I was accustomed to the idea that I would know what I would know when I knew what it was. In short, I was still clueless, but content in the idea that this would be the way I would live for the coming weeks.

After the briefing, I went with a couple of German TV guys to another place. All I could see in the dark was a group of tents in what felt like the middle of nowhere. This, I was told, was my new home. My escorts that evening, a captain and his driver, were pleased that I had my own tent and would not have to stay in their already-cramped quarters. I was equally happy, because I wanted to be alone. Solitude is exactly what I needed at the moment.

I set my tent up and laid down to rest. I had slept less than 4 hours in more than 36. The culture shock was extreme. I felt like a sentenced convict as I lay on the ground inside my tent and wondered how the hell I ended up somewhere in the Kuwaiti desert, when I loved my comfortable life in Dallas. I made a mental list of the people most responsible for this misery, and secretly planned how I would return the “favor.” Of course, I am joking, but the truth is that I knew few back home understood what these assignments entail, and complaining about the hardships would do little to affect their blissful ignorance.

The next day, I got a better look at the camp. It felt desolate, the view being sand, tents, tanks, and some kind of armored vehicles I couldn’t describe. I was escorted around the camp by a sergeant major and introduced to the troops who eyed me with what appeared to be suspicion. “Yup,” I figured, “Same crap. Different name.” But by day two, I had some idea that I could be wrong.

I approached the commander and said there were some areas at camp I would like to visit to take photos. He looked at me in a strange way, as though wondering why I was bothering him with such a stupid request. He said, “Go do it.” I asked, “Do I need to arrange for an escort?” His reply was astonishing, “I trust you. Go do your mission.” Again, I had to ask, “So, I don’t need an escort? I don’t need to clear it with someone first?” He smiled and said, “I trust you.” and added with an emphatic tone, “Go do your mission.” Did he say – “I trust you?” It seemed too impossible to be a member of the evil media corps entrusted with the responsibility of a “mission.”

I stood there with an incredulous look and wondered what was happening. He may have said he trusts me, but I did not trust them. There had to be a catch somewhere. I realized that the best way to find the hidden agenda was to take him at his word.

What followed was nothing short of amazing for a journalist accustomed to mistrust and manipulative efforts by corporate and government institutions. Instead, I entered into a world where I was free to follow my mission. The truth is, covering the war in Iraq was nothing like what I thought it would be. The truth is sometimes beguiling in its simplicity. We can easily miss it between folds of cynicism and doubt.

The rules instituted by the Pentagon were an amalgamation of common sense and decency. Most of them were related to the operational security of troops. Journalists were not allowed to mention the exact location of base camps, or the timing or intent of impending operations. I found such ground rules to be obvious. After all, journalists were basically hostages to the military. Where the troops were, we were too. It seemed natural to not mention exact locations – unless one favors artillery attacks.

Another rule required a period of time before showing American wounded or dead, allowing for notification of next of kin. This was also similarly obvious for anyone who has any sense of personal ethics and responsible reporting. I would not want to be guilty of informing a family member of the death of their son or husband through a photo displayed on a web page.

The difference in this war was that any attempt by a non-embedded member of the media to cover actual US military operations in the field outside of the embed process would have been futile at best – deadly in fact. In the past, I’ve always been able to function freely with foreign armies, with all risks becoming my responsibility. I remember being warned at a checkpoint by the Salvadoran army many years ago that the road ahead was mined. But the choice was mine. Drive at your own peril. I made the trip anyway. 17 kilometers to a place called Tenancingo took more than two and a half hours. No choice like that is afforded with US troops. There is only one choice – sign the paper or go away.

But for embedded media the process was often just as dangerous. Traveling with troops means you have no control. The assignment takes you where they go. Although I could quit at any time, to do so would be to return home a failure. I suspect that many newspapers, like mine, gave their photographers the opportunity to choose whether to stay or go.

My newspaper gave me the freedom to choose, but it left me conflicted. Unlike soldiers, I could leave, but didn’t. My family knew my choice. I longed to explain that it was just another assignment, as though I couldn’t come home for dinner because I was on duty. Unfortunately my boss could only say, “It’s your life.” It seems incongruous with the mission to believe it was entirely my choice because in so many ways I did not choose this war or any other. But, I chose to serve readers. Without the newspaper I have no readers to serve.

Perhaps that is how it should be, a personal decision made in the true sense of America’s legacy of the citizen army. A man enters his burning house and dies. One witness says he was rescuing his gold. Another says it was to save his children. Which tale you believe decides whether the man was a fool or a hero. I am no hero – but the reasons for risking my life was for belief in a free press – the public’s right to know.

In the end, personal sacrifice to tell the story is a blessing and a curse. The events of life I missed, things that will never happen again, such as my teenage son’s track season, are presented as feeble offerings. Simply stated, foreign coverage means you aren’t home. For many journalists, the war you seek to win, pales in comparison to the personal war you may lose at home.

Much has been said about the suffering of journalists in this war. The dust storms were epic and destructive to our very mission. Piece after piece of our needed equipment fell victim to clouds of talcum-like sand. You heard stories of filthy reporters, like me, who didn’t bathe or change clothes in more than a month. My socks were so dirty I could tap the crust along the sole. And you heard about the dangers – artillery attacks, direct fire from snipers and the lingering effects of both.

Each story is interesting, but what are we to think? Certainly a mean sand storm is an extreme experience, but what did we expect? Did we reckon that war would be easy? Did we think that there would be no tests of mettle against the harsh forces of the desert, no epic experience to test our resolve as journalists? Perhaps my view is tainted by ten previous wars, each presenting its own hardships – each claiming the lives of passionate journalists who came to the their story with dedication and resolve. Does anyone remember my friend John Hoagland and his death in Suchitito, El Salvador? Probably not.

So why do we do these things? What can cause us to believe that we can make a difference in war? War is as old as love and thus infamously honored by immeasurable descriptions – each generation forced to seek it out as though sent by His Majesty to discover new land.

As journalists, I hope we are drawn to war because we believe in a power greater than barking guns. I hope we are there because we believe in almost any sacrifice that could reveal the horrible terror, the unspeakable concept of war. We do our part, but war never ends, just as no story ever ends. They are simply abandoned in sad exhaustion.

I am a cynic of war. But cynicism did not prepare me for this war. I was not prepared to actually become fond of soldiers, but I did. More than that, I found myself in admiration of their discipline and their simple understanding of mission. For them, each battle was merely another step closer to home. These were not warriors in the true sense of bloodlust. They were lethal, yes; but killers, no.

They viewed their lives in the context of a job to be done rather than an experience to savor. I found a connection with them because I saw myself as one assignment from home. Ultimately, their job, like my own, was not for kudos. They endured for one purpose – to rejoin the world.

Strangely, we, the media, became a part of the war in ways we never imagined. While In Iraq I did interviews with several publications. In the first week that I was home, strangers patted my back and told me what a great job we did “over there.” I was a guest on three radio shows. A soldier’s dad wrote to say that he “honored” me as much as the troops. Before I left Baghdad, I was even given a military toast and presented with a regimental coin by the soldiers of Task Force 2-69 where I was embedded. I am speechless at such events.

Thus a mission was accomplished in a way I never dreamed – as a soldier in an army of citizen journalists, fighting for the cause of a free press. But now it’s time to retire. Next year’s track season will be here soon.

© David Leeson

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