War, Out of Context
Pros and cons of embedded reporters.


Mackubin Thomas Owens

The decision to embed reporters within coalition military units during the war in Iraq was fundamentally sound. First of all, it has undoubtedly reduced the potential for tension between the military and the press; second, it was a prudent response to technological advances in telecommunications — even if the military wanted to limit the presence of the press on the battlefield, cell phones, satellites, lightweight video cameras, and the like would make it impossible to do so.

Clearly the practice is also fraught with risk for the U.S. effort. The carnage of war can be very disconcerting, especially if it is broadcast in real time. One can imagine the impact on public opinion of real-time transmissions from Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944.

On the other hand, such images can enrage public opinion. One has only to recall the anger that characterized the public reaction to the killing of Americans in Mogadishu and the spectacle of a U.S. soldier’s body being dragged through the streets. It was not American public opinion that ended the U.S. intervention in Somalia, but government leaders who were spooked by the images.

However, the real problem here is not the possibility of negative images per se, but the lack of context; it was exactly such a lack of context that struck me as I watched TV coverage of the war today (Sunday, March 23).

Consider the negative reports that dominated the day’s reports: events around Nasiriyah, including heavy casualties suffered by the Marines and the apparent capture, torture, and possible execution of U.S. soldiers by Iraqis when a resupply convoy in support of the 3rd Infantry Division took a wrong turn near the city (a clear example of Clausewitzian friction); continued fighting around Basra and Umm Qasr, cities that reporters had already said were under coalition control; and the apparent “fragging” incident involving a disgruntled 101st Airborne Division soldier.

The cumulative effect of such stories reported out of context is to convey the impression that the offensive is beginning to bog down. They crowd out the big picture: that the United States and Great Britain have projected an immense force half way around the world and have launched an attack of unprecedented scope; that ground forces effectively control the southern portion of Iraq, including the massive oil fields around Basra, and are now engaged in rushing north on two axes; that the vanguard of the allied force is within 100 miles of Baghdad; that U.S. and British air forces have struck and destroyed political and military targets, making Iraqi command, control, and communications difficult, if not impossible. The danger is that without such context, the negative events of Sunday can obscure the undeniable successes of the campaign.

There are a number of reasons to expect that the campaign inevitably will slow down: friction, the fog of uncertainty, and the fact that resistance can be expected to stiffen as the allies approach Baghdad and the war enters its decisive phase. The danger of real time coverage of the war is that TV viewers, fed piecemeal reports by embedded journalists, will expect immediate success and grow impatient, not recognizing the unprecedented nature of what is happening before their very eyes.

— Mackubin Thomas Owens, an NRO contributing editor, is on leave from the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., to write a history of U.S. civil-military relations.