Embedded in Najaf

The Marines Don't Want Press, They Want Good Press
Notes from different corners of the world.
Nov. 2 2004 12:53 PM

Embedded in Najaf

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The funniest, blackest moment of the month came after a funeral for two soldiers—Spc. Mark Zapata, of Edinburg, Texas; and 2nd Lt. Mike Goins, of Copperas Cove, Texas—who were killed when a guerrilla fighter jumped onto their tank and shot them through its open hatch. I hadn't seen a full military funeral before; they are tightly scripted but moving nonetheless. After friends of the men delivered eulogies, the commander of their squad read roll call.

"Pvt. Jones?"

"Present."

"Spc. Ramirez?"

"Present."

"Spc. Zapata?"

"Spc. Zapata?"

Then, for the third and final time, "Spc. Zapata?"

Despite myself, I hoped to hear a voice and not the silence that followed.

The difficulty came at the end of the ceremony, after the hymns and 21-gun salutes. There are no caskets at military funerals, because the bodies are sent home. The dead are represented by a pair of boots and a helmet mounted atop a rifle. To finish the funeral, soldiers step in front of the boots and helmet and salute, one by one. With two companies of soldiers, more than 200 men, paying their respects, the ritual took quite some time. To cover the silence that accompanied the salutes, sappy country music was piped through the public address system—an awkward end to a touching ceremony.

About then, I mentioned to another reporter how moving I had found the funeral. "Yeah," he said. "But the music sucks. I hate it when they play stuff like this." Of course, I was thinking the same thing. But that didn't stop me from razzing him once we got back to the reporters' tent. Two guys died, and you didn't like the music? Did he have other suggestions about how the funeral could have been improved? Would he have preferred longer eulogies? Shorter? The battalion's commanders would surely appreciate his suggestions—they could be incorporated into future funerals. Oh, how we laughed …

We probably sound like a couple of heartless jerks. I would prefer to think that we were just blowing off steam—and, unconsciously, trying to keep a little psychic distance from the troops around us. On the battlefield, it's us and them, Americans and the enemy. We reporters depend on soldiers and Marines to keep us alive. And some of the people we're fighting are so savage that only a saint could stay neutral. Yet embeds sometimes have to challenge our protectors if we are to do our jobs right.

I felt firsthand the downside of being embedded after I wrote an article that the Marines didn't like. The Marines cultivate reporters, advertising themselves as less bureaucratic and tougher than the Army. The Marine motto is, "Every Marine a Rifleman," and even Army officers admit that the average Marine is a better fighter than the average soldier.

But the Marines have a love-hate relationship with reporters. They don't want press; they want good press. They don't like criticism, and they don't like talking about bad news. This attitude was worse than usual in Najaf, because after the first three days of the battle, the fighting was largely taken over by two Army battalions that had been sent from Baghdad as reinforcements. The Marines hated playing host to the Army and abhorred being stuck on the sidelines of their own fight. A couple of days after we arrived, the Marines stopped letting us into their combat operations center. They claimed that reporters might compromise the security of their missions, as if we were dumb enough to jeopardize soldiers' lives—and our own—by giving advance notice of attacks.

Then I wrote an article explaining how the Marines had escalated the fight against Sadr's guerrillas without getting approval from their higher-ups in Baghdad. The decision was hugely risky, given the importance of the Imam Ali shrine, which Sadr's forces were using as a base. The article infuriated the commanders at Camp Hotel, who stopped talking to me.

Under other circumstances, the silent treatment might have made my job impossible. Fortunately, it didn't matter much in Najaf, in part because the other embedded reporters were princes throughout. Though they suffered from their association with me, they kept me informed on those rare occasions when the Marines told them anything useful. And one of the Army battalions—the 1-5 Cav, the 1st Battalion of the 5th Regiment of the 1st Cavalry Division—was also living at Hotel, and its officers were more than happy to talk.

The 1-5 commanders treated us like reporters, not spies. They gave us full access to their operations room, where a dozen officers sat at computers plotting artillery strikes and mapping suspected enemy locations on a giant flat-panel TV screen. Every day—sometimes every hour—they updated us on their battle plans, which changed as the fighting continued and the Iraqi government negotiated with Sadr.

War is politics by other means, or so I've heard, and during the battle of Najaf, politics and war were inseparable. As a military contest, the battle was no battle at all: the finest army in history against 1,500 poorly armed guerrillas. But the guerrillas had the shrine, and blowing up the shrine wouldn't have looked very good on Al Jazeera.

So the soldiers fought very carefully. The combat operations center had to OK the firing of any tank rounds that could land near the shrine; helicopter attacks and airstrikes needed even higher approval. Sadr's guerrillas took advantage of that by staying close to the shrine, where they couldn't be easily attacked. The delays that resulted cost some Marines their lives, though they were less dangerous for the Army. The Army's tanks and Bradleys offered soldiers protection that the Marines, who fought mostly on foot, did not have. Having the protection of a steel hull takes some of the sting out of being mortared when you can't fire back.

That caution extended beyond the shrine. From everything I saw, the U.S. military made a serious effort to avoid killing civilians, a task made easier because Najaf was basically a conventional battle with defined front lines. Most fighting in Iraq is sporadic, and civilians get caught in the crossfire. In Najaf, everyone knew that the area around the shrine was a combat zone, and civilians evacuated as American soldiers closed in.

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