We Need Embeds on Both Sides

Alex Thomson argues in a Guardian commentary that, “To get the whole picture we need embeds on both sides.”

Falluja has been a one-sided battle, and we have had one-sided news coverage to go with it. We’ve become accustomed to the first part of this. From Operation Desert Storm in 1991 onwards, through the invasion and occupation of Iraq to the reinvasion of Falluja last week, the world has come to accept the Pentagon war-fighting doctrine of overwhelming force as normal. I wonder, though, whether we might be in danger of accepting the one-sided coverage of Falluja, the invasion and occupation of Iraq and, yes, the global so-called war on terror as normal too.

Since 9/11 we have seen the evolution of the embed, the transition from traditional war hacks who got lucky and tacked themselves on to a particular unit for the duration, to a strictly controlled invitation-by-ticket-only. Go embedded or face the – often lethal – consequences.
The coming of age of the embed has coincided with an utterly ideological world conflict. As one side gets into embedding, the other side are into crusaders versus martyrs. Utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they don’t need any journos along to record their war and their motivations.

But even Saddam learned about the propaganda value of having western reporters in town. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 saw the Ba’athists get totally shirty the minute the air-raid sirens wailed over the Tigris. Out went the assembled hacks, with the exception of Peter Arnett and CNN and bizarrely, a single enterprising correspondent from El Mundo. By the time of last year’s invasion, Saddam had learned a lesson or two. OK, so Comical Ali’s briefings were not exactly Uncomical Ali Campbell. But at least the hacks remained in town, and were able not just to capture the “shock-and-awe” fireworks but to visit Baghdad’s hospitals and discover the impact of modern British and US high explosives upon the flesh and organs of children. To a limited extent, then, we got something of the other half of the picture. There was something against which to measure the claims of the British and US media-briefing operation. It wasn’t great – but at least it existed.

But Saddam bore as much relationship to al-Qaida as Pluto does to wind-surfing. And, boy, don’t we now know it in the international media. In the ideological and military clash of Christian fundamentals with Islamist fundamentals, the western media are simply off-limits to the latter. I am still getting emails every week from viewers demanding why we are not in Falluja, Tikrit, Amara covering this war properly and showing the other side.

Many viewers appear to think the media still have some kind of conferred neutrality. That the press badge can still act a bit like the Red Crescent. That Ken Bigley’s appalling death could surely not happen to western journalists. Well, those days have well and truly gone.

So we come to the assault last week upon Falluja. I’ve been embedded and I’m not against it. Those who think embeds are the very spawn of Satan should sit down in a dark room, take a long hard look at the coverage Channel 4 News’s Lindsey Hilsum and the BBC’s Paul Wood have produced and ask themselves: would you rather you didn’t know this? Would you rather not know about the embeds appearing to show a wounded Iraqi being summarily executed – or a wounded prisoner being shot? For the first time Falluja brought military embeds hard up against bad news for the Pentagon – and the news sometimes still got past the censor. Without embeds, would there even be military investigations? There were, too, some images allowed out of wounded marines – though Hilsum, for one, pointed out that her attempt to film such material was duly censored.

It was a very mixed affair. There were plenty of examples of reporters psychologically embedding to their detriment. A person who sat it out in an edit suite shouldn’t name names, but it’s not appropriate to use words like “enemy” or even “terrorist” and “we” instead of “they” in reference to the military. Far too much embed material was broadcast without mentioning that reporters were operating under censorship rules signed, sealed and delivered.

The idea that Western coverage of the war (as opposed to that of al Jazeera) has been a propaganda tool for Bush and Blair is absurd. Indeed, the positive developments in Iraq get virtually no coverage whereas every truck bombing is presented as evidence that we’re losing and that the ordinary people of Iraq hate us. The networks don’t hesitate to show rogue American troops abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib or killing an insurgent that turned out to be unarmed–yet people have to flood to the Internet if they want to see images of the numerous hostages who have been tortured and beheaded.

Furthermore, there is a fundamental difference between being “objective” and “neutral.” One would hope that journalists from the U.S. and the U.K. would root for our side. Certainly, American soldiers should be viewed as “we” by an American reporter. The idea that they should view the death of a terrorist and a British paratrooper identically is frightening, indeed. One can give both an honest account of events and still prefer one outcome over another.

And, of course, the other side is “the enemy.” What else would one call people who are trying to kill American soldiers as they rebuild the infrastructure of Iraq? And how should one refer to those who take humanitarian aid workers hostage, make them film videos begging for their lives, and then saw their heads off with a knife if “terrorist” is inappropriate?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John says:

    The “insurgents” in Fallujah had, in fact, invited media to embed with them. There weren’t any takers, amazingly enough.

    I’m sure that in some ideal universe it’d be wonderful to have journalists who had no particular view of an event to cover it, banning those with dogs in the fight. But I don’t see that happening soon, particularly with stories like Iraq, which are almost totally polarizing.

  2. James,
    I hope it’s o.k. that I read part of your post on my Podcast today. Every day I read what people are saying in the right wing blogosphere into an MP3 and make is available via RSS feed from http://feeds.feedburner.com/ripnread. I used your description of the Guardian article to highlight the craziness in the idea of not naming your enemy as an enemy.