A Journalist Crawling with the Grunts

After a training stint with U.S. troops, I have new respect for today's G.I.s. Now, can the military learn to trust the press?

By Stan Crock

I wouldn't call it boot camp. After all, I didn't take boots with me in mid-December when I went to the Army's Fort Benning near Columbus, Ga., for five days of intensive training for journalists who might go with U.S. troops into Iraq. Breaking in new boots on a five-mile march would have been traumatic for my feet, so I took a pair of well-worn sneakers instead. Cross-Trainer Camp, maybe?

Not that I plan to go if the U.S. attacks Iraq, even though I'm BusinessWeek's national-security correspondent. A 52-year-old with a bulging disk, a slight heart murmur, and claustrophobia isn't a prime candidate for foxholes. But if I write about the conflict from an armchair in Washington, it will be important for me to have an idea of what the troops and their hardware can do.

Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury may lampoon these sessions -- and some of the PowerPoint presentations and lectures on such topics as tooth-brushing deserve it. But I learned a great deal in days that began as early as 4:45 a.m. and ended after 10 at night. The hands-on sessions, from a Blackhawk helicopter ride and an aborted C-130 parachute-school jump to walking into a teargas chamber garbed head-to-foot in protective gear, were educational and at times rigorous. Sometimes, they were hilarious and other times poignant.


  Fort Benning is where such storied American generals as Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and MacArthur learned the infantry trade. The Army has changed from those days, though. New recruits say not all drill sergeants bark orders like the old school. In a different setting, several privates said, some drill sergeants could be their friends. And in the Signal Corps, officers even listen to suggestions from subordinates. That's because the new blood often have more technical know-how, and their ideas can prove worthwhile.

But order in the military is still a high value, and the presence of 60 unruly journalists had to be a shock to the Army's system. We looked less like Patton than like the hapless former Democratic Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis atop a tank. An episode of MASH could have served as the training tape for the camp. When my squad used a compass for land navigation, we always seemed to drift a little to the left. Rather predictable for the American press, I thought.

The idea was to give members of the Fourth Estate a taste of military grunt life. First came the rigor of jam-packed, 17-hour days. Then there was the designation of two platoons, with three 10-person squads in each platoon. It didn't take long for intrasquad camaraderie to develop. Through some ineluctable process, we ended up sitting with other squad members at meals and on the bus, even though we weren't required to do so. It was easy to see how the fabled bonds of a unit -- and a determination never to leave an injured buddy behind -- could develop rapidly.


  Another element of basic training was the food. All forms of carbohydrates were well represented. At the first meal in the Officers Club, we were served rolls, corn bread, fettuccine, and macaroni salad. The ready-to-eat meals -- I had chicken tetrazzini and chicken tortellini -- weren't bad, although I'm not known for a refined palate.

The carbo loading gave us the energy for the extensive field training. After a short course in different ways to crawl, for example, we went out with a squad of soldiers who were only nine weeks into basic training. I was dressed in Gortex camouflage gear, my face painted with lime-and-loam camouflage coloring. Around our Kevlar helmets were bands with laser receivers, and the vests we wore had additional receivers. We'd know we were hit if we started beeping, and though our squad and the enemy were firing only blanks, it felt a lot more real than laser tag.

This was as close as we would get to being in the field. And the adrenaline started to surge as we focused on trying not to put ourselves or the troops at risk. We walked slowly through a wooded area, on the lookout for standing trees or fallen trunks that could provide protection. When enemy shots rang out, we dove to the ground and sought shelter.


  Despite the short time the privates had spent at Fort Benning, they seemed to know what they were doing. They kept the enemy at bay and called for reinforcements. When another squad came to provide cover, we pulled back. We escaped without casualties, which wasn't true for all the other squads. It was an impressive performance all around.

The 10-minute ride in a Blackhawk was quite another memorable experience. It was close quarters, and for someone with claustrophobia, the good news was that the helicopter's doors stayed open. Of course, that was the bad news, too. As we banked at an altitude of 120 feet, my knuckles turned white as I held onto the bottom of my seat.

We had a bivouac one night, too. I slept in a tent with two dozen other guys, one of whom we'll call Mt. Vesuvius for the decibel level of his snoring. At 5:30 the next morning, when a sergeant thought he was waking up those of us who hadn't slept a wink, I said, "Sarge, you gave us earplugs for the C-130. You gave us earplugs for the Blackhawk. But you didn't give us earplugs when we really needed them!" Mt. Vesuvius would be the first to be voted off the island, another scribe quipped.


  We saw an impressive array of military hardware, from a 68-ton Abrams tank to a 2.5-pound Baretta machine gun. Much has been written about the accuracy of precision-guided munitions dropped from the air, but we saw how computers have given ground weapons remarkable accuracy as well. The Abrams tank can hit a pie plate from 1,800 meters, we learned, although we never saw any splattered lemon meringue.

The troops seemed quite confident in their protective gear, a particular concern for battle in Iraq. One specialist noted that nonpersistent chemical weapons dissipate in as little as an hour. And he was certain the boots, pants, tops, and masks donned by the soldiers will work as advertised to counter more persistent chemicals.

The shortcomings of military equipment were in evidence as well, however. The C-130 I boarded never got off the ground for the jump school because of engine trouble. The guns on the Bradley armored vehicle whose turret I manned jammed repeatedly. I was told blanks give off more carbon than regular ammo so they cause jamming more frequently. And my $4,000 night-vision goggles quickly gave me a headache. They made it look like high noon late at night, but when I took them off, the moonlight was adequate for me to walk through a wooded area without a problem.


  I left camp wondering if all of this new military technology will live up to expectations. The computer pictures inside the Bradley were sharp, but I wonder how many times that computer will crash during combat. Even global-positioning equipment has its drawbacks.

As we used compasses to find our way during one land-navigation exercise, a sergeant told us a story about a similar exercise in Panama a decade ago. Some Air Force guys showed up with Cheshire cat grins, boasting that they would set a record for completing the course. They had slyly brought along some of the first GPS gear. They went to the course site and jumped off the truck, dropping and breaking the GPS equipment. They were lost for two days.

As one sergeant noted, the primary tools must still be the compass and map, with GPS as augmentation. Batteries can go, satellites can go, and signals can be jammed. War isn't a Fort Benning exercise for journalists.


  My deepest impressions from the five days didn't come from the presentations and exhibitions, though. One came from conversations with some of the recent enlistees at dinner. These were teenagers, and they acted like it, with a sense of invincibility and no sense of their mortality. They joined the Army to see what it's like, to earn their college tuition, to obtain some discipline, to serve their country, or some combination of these reasons.

It troubled me that fresh from their senior proms they aren't yet able to comprehend the ultimate risk they run. Yes, war has ever been thus -- old men sending the young to serve as cannon fodder. After all, given a choice, most people who are mature enough to understand the risk wouldn't accept it. We should feel grateful toward these kids, but as a parent I was heartsick.

The other troubling impression came during a feedback session near the end of the five days. Some of the journalists suggested that these sessions shouldn't be covered by the press. These journalists feared that if their feedback and presence in camp made it onto the Web, Iraq or some other potential adversary may think the journalists were American spies.


  They also were concerned that efforts to treat simulated casualties at the end of the five-mile march turned into a media circus, as journalists turned into mugsters, trying to get in front of television cameras filming the event. Learning went down the tubes.

I find it the height of hypocrisy that folks who are constantly jamming their microphones, cameras, and notepads in people's faces don't want such equipment in their own. And it seems to me the best way to convince Baghdad or anyone else that journalists aren't spies is to broadcast what they're doing. The CIA doesn't usually film its operatives' training, after all. If the reporters don't want these training sessions to turn into media spectacles, don't mug for the cameras.

I hope the Pentagon makes good on its promise to include reporters with the troops. For a long time, I doubted the Defense Dept. wanted reporters any closer to the front than the Pentagon briefing room, as was the case for for much of the early days in Afghanistan. That approach could change in a conflict with Iraq.


  Look at what happened recently in the Palestinian town of Jenin. Palestinians falsely accused Israel of a major massacre, but the story hung out there for days because no one could verify either the Palestinian claims or the Israeli denials. Washington fears Saddam Hussein would make similar scurrilous accusations, but with independent journalists on the ground the stories could be knocked down quickly.

Some of today's generals favor bringing reporters along, even if they thought the press betrayed them in Vietnam. The commander of Fort Benning, Major General Paul Eaton, was disappointed that journalists didn't accompany soldiers into Afghanistan and wants to end the Vietnam-induced distrust between reporters and the military. The press "allows America to see what its sons and daughters are up to," he says. "Soldiers are our best advocates."

After five days at Fort Benning, I think he's right. These sessions can help rebuild mutual respect between the military and the press. And after such training, journalists will have a better idea of how to minimize the dangers they pose to soldiers and themselves. They provide reporters with access to a slice of life that only a small, self-selected group of society sees, now that the draft is over. We're all better off for it.

Crock has returned to Washington, where he covers national-security issues in BusinessWeek's Washington bureau and writes BW Online's Affairs of State column

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