Reporter's Notebook: A Journalist among Soldiers
When I felt the jab of my anthrax vaccination, reality finally set in: I was about to be "embedded," and there was no backing out. As one of the nearly 600 journalists chosen by the Pentagon to be integrated with the U.S. military, I had been so preoccupied with preparations in the previous few weeks -- finding a flak jacket, getting my satellite phone to work, buying baby wipes to use as a substitute for washing with running water -- that I had little time to contemplate what awaited me. Now, with 24 hours to go before joining my unit in the desert, I'm feeling fear and excitement in equal measure.
Until now, life in Kuwait City has been slightly surreal. Most of us are lodged at the five-star Hilton Kuwait Resort, where the U.S. and British coalition forces have set up their media center. The hotel commands a breathtaking view of the Persian Gulf, and my room comes with fancy French toiletries, an ice bucket with nonalcoholic sparkling wine, and a fishbowl with a single goldfish, circling endlessly. In the lobby, the hotel harpist begins her nightly set by strumming Lara's Theme, from Dr. Zhivago, as scores of soldiers stride by in full camouflage with gas masks strapped to their belts.
For you taxpayers out there wondering how your money is being spent, fear not: The military staying at this plush hotel are guests of the Kuwaiti government. For media companies shelling out $260 a night per room, I have this to say: In another day, we will become cheap dates. We'll be living on MREs (meals ready to eat) and sleeping on army cots.
Many journalists who have been cooling their heels for weeks have complained of buffet fatigue at hotel eateries. But one fellow vegetarian I met shared some valuable advice for surviving military food. Vegetarian MREs come in four varieties. The tastiest is the cheese tortellini, but it's far too rich to eat every day. Ditto for the pasta Alfredo. The vegetable pasta offers the best nutritional value, and the bean burrito is to be avoided at all costs, says my fellow reporter, a veteran of the Afghan conflict in 2001. He advised me to pack my own peanuts and to throw in as many Kit Kat and Snickers bars as I could -- a route to winning friends and influencing people in the ranks.
He wasn't the only colleague to provide useful tips. I shared the hotel elevator with Oliver North, the former Marine, talk-show host, and Iran-contra leading man, who will cover the war for Fox News. I asked him where he got his freezer bags -- essential equipment in the field, used for everything from protecting your computer from sand to carrying a hand blown off in combat. "There's a great little Filipino store around the corner," North told me. "Ah, it's good to be back out again," he added. Whether he meant as a reporter or a combatant was hard to tell.
Yet I'm still wondering how the young men and women are going to feel about having journalists in their midst. After all, soldiers and reporters live at opposite ends of the spectrum. They are taught to obey orders; we instinctively question them. The mutual distrust between the fourth estate and the U.S. military dates from the Vietnam War. The relationship eroded further in the first Gulf War, when 95% of journalists got no further than their hotels. We should expect to see a lot more this time, according to Major General Buford Blount, the commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, which will soon become my home. "We've got a great story to tell," said the general, "and we want the world to know it."
Blount has already briefed journalists about the division, nicknamed the Rock of the Marne after a heroic 3rd Division stance in a key World War I battle. The 3ID is full-strength on the ground in Kuwait, comprising nearly 20,000 troops. Once we get rolling, the company will burn through half a million gallons of fuel per day. Supposedly we can cover between 200 and 300 miles daily, assuming no resistance until we reach the outskirts of Baghdad. The division is ready to deploy 200 M1A1 Abrams tanks and nearly 270 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, backed up by 18 of the latest version of the Apache attack helicopter.
Still, it remains to be seen how things will pan out once the bombs start to fly. As a condition of becoming "embeds," we've had to sign an agreement restricting what and when we can report. For example, information regarding future operations will be embargoed -- an easily imposed constraint, as the military can prevent anyone from accessing satellites. Other common-sense rules will also apply, such as a taboo on photographing the face of a dead U.S. soldier.
Death. I've covered my share of upheavals in East Timor and Pakistan. But it still came as a shock to be inducted into the world of killing. Like most other embeds, I took a five-day Hostile Environments training course before coming to the Middle East. During the course, we were kidnapped, ambushed, caught in a make-believe minefield, and taught everything from how to spot a letter bomb to applying first aid to a lung punctured by shrapnel. (Don't remove the shrapnel.) We also learned about chemical and biological weapons: Some smell of almonds, others of garlic or freshly mown grass. We practiced donning our gas masks in less than nine seconds and learned how to inject ourselves with antidotes for nerve gas. (The needle is strong enough to jab into the leg straight through the protective suit.)
General Blount admits the threat that such weapons will be used is a serious one. "The potential use of chemical or biological weapons is my biggest concern," he told us. "But I don't lie awake thinking about it at night." Well, I do.
By Frederik Balfour