The divide grows
FALLUJAH, IRAQ: I’ve completed the first leg of the journey to Iraq, after having moved through Dubai, Kuwait and Baghdad. I am now at Camp Fallujah. While in Fallujah, I’ll embed with a Marine Police Transition Team (PTT) and also meet with the Civil Affairs Group. The next stop will be Ramadi.
The trip – from my front door to Fallujah – took 3 ½ days, accounting for the 8 hour time shift between the East Coast and Iraq. This is remarkable considering Iraq is a war zone. I spent all of 35 minutes in the Green Zone getting my ID badge and another two hours waiting for a flight to Fallujah. Most of the time was spent waiting at military airbases, trying to catch that next flight out on a plane or helicopter.
During my movement to Fallujah, I was on 3 bases and one camp: At Ali Al Salem (Kuwait), BIAP (Baghdad International Airport), Camp Stryker, and LZ Washington (inside the Green Zone).
The travel is long, and it can be boring if you let it get to you. But you’re surrounded by a bunch of soldiers, Marines and contractors that are also traveling, many of them alone. They are either coming back from or going on leave, or moving into or out of the region. Most of them are quite friendly and happy to strike up a conversation. This is an interesting time to speak to them, because they are not as engrossed in the daily grind of Iraq as they are when I see them while I’m embedded. Here is a brief overview of some of the discussions I had with those I met while shuttling around Kuwait and Iraq.
Ali Al Salem:
At the transient tent (where you get to sleep and store your gear while waiting), I spoke to an Explosive Ordinance and Demolitions (EOD) contractor. These are the guys that blow up the leftover explosives and munitions from the Saddam era. He told me about how the media isn’t telling the full story about the nature of the enemy, and specifically complained about the manipulation and distortion of the Kay report. He said he’s run across bunkers and the equipment and chemical precursors to WMD buried in the deserts of western Iraq.
During a smoke break, an Army private discussed his time in Balad. He said mortars (which are blind-fired) are the greatest threat his unit faces. Not IEDs, I asked? Nope. While waiting to board the flight to BIAP, a Marine Major complained about how the progress in western Iraq has virtually gone unnoticed, and was furious over the characterization of the Devlin report on Anbar province. I gave him my card.
I had the pleasure being the only person on the shuttle bus from BIAP to Camp Stryker, and the driver, an Army specialist, struck up a conversation with me. I needed a SIM chip for my cell phone so I could call the States and in Iraq, so he took me across the base on some extremely bumpy roads looking for a place that sold them. During the drive, he explained his forays into Sadr City, how the residents were largely hostile to U.S. forces, and some engagements he’s encountered. Yet he spoke admirably of the Iraqi people. He said they were hard working and willing to fight, and hoped we wouldn’t abandon the Iraqi people.
We couldn’t find an open store that sold the SIM chip, so he kindly offered to give me his as he knew I was desperate. I paid him for the card and a little extra to call home. He said he’ll get a new card tomorrow.
While waiting to catch the flight to the Green Zone, I spoke to two Army captains, one who works in Civil Affairs, the other with the Military Transition Teams. Both explained how the situation could look very different based on your job, but that the Iraqi police and Army were making real progress. They said the Iraqis’ skills ranged from poor to excellent, but they always saw improvement.
I also overheard an Army specialist sitting behind me curse the media (and I mean curse), saying they didn’t know what they were talking about when it came to Iraq. I talked to him, and explained I’m considered a reporter, and that I won’t argue with his points. I made him uncomfortable. Had he known I was ‘the press’ I think he would have kept it to himself.
While waiting to manifest on the flight to Fallujah, CNN played a news segment of President Bush announcing there would be no “graceful exit” from Iraq, and that we’d stay until the mission was complete. Two sergeants in the room cheered. Loudly. They then scoffed at the reports from Baghdad, and jeered the balcony reporting.
In nearly every conversation, the soldiers, Marines and contractors expressed they were upset with the coverage of the war in Iraq in general, and the public perception of the daily situation on the ground. They felt the media was there to sensationalize the news, and several stated some reporters were only interested in “blood and guts.” They freely admitted the obstacles in front of them in Iraq. Most recognized that while we are winning the war on the battlefield, albeit with difficulties in some areas, we are losing the information war. They felt the media had abandoned them.
During each conversation, I was left in the awkward situation of having to explain that while, yes, I am wearing a press badge, I’m not ‘one of them.’ I used descriptions like ‘independent journalist’ or ‘blogger’ in an attempt to separate myself from the pack.
What a terrible situation to be in, having to defend yourself because of your profession. I’ve always said that the hardest thing about embedding (besides leaving my family) is wearing the badge that says ‘PRESS.’ That hasn’t changed. I hide the badge whenever I can get away with it.
This isn’t the first time I encountered this sentiment from the troops. I experienced this attitude from the Marines while I was in western Iraq last year, and the soldiers in the Canadian Army in Afghanistan also expressed frustration with the media’s presentation of the war.
Perhaps this tension between the media and the military is nothing new. But it appalls me none the less.
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