How To Embed and Why Not
War makes strange giant creatures out of us little routine men who inhabit the earth.
Last December I entered the “Theatre of War” when I flew into Kuwait International Airport armed only with a camera and recorder. I wanted to see what war was like, to push myself professionally and enter the fog of war. I did that, and much much more once I flew into Baghdad. It’s a great time for media to go to Iraq. Storytellers, now more than ever, are needed to help write the last chapters of this long long war.
But first, the How.
How to Embed
Before you go:
It’s fantastically easy to apply for an embed slot. I won’t labor on the specifics because they’re all here at the OIF—Operation Iraqi Freedom embed site.
One challenge as an independent producer might be a credential letter, but I used my longtime supporters: Hearing Voices. In Baghdad I got my first-ever PRESS ID badge.
If you’re station-based, it may be easier, or harder, not sure how those things work. Reporter Adam Allington did this story about his embed process.
The best practical advice I found was through Lightstalkers, the wandering photographer’s website. I talked to a few people who had already been, a wealth of helpful tips.
There are rules you have to agree to, all listed on the website: basic stuff like not broadcasting specific troop movement (that’s the rule Geraldo didn’t follow), not releasing wounded or killed soldier’s names until approved to do so (families shouldn’t hear it from you), etc. The rules keep changing, here’s the latest download.
As part of the application they ask what your story angles are. Not for censorship, I hope, but placement. My story goals were: 1) To spend Christmas with the troops and 2) find out what music they were listening to on their i-pods, what their personal soundtrack to war was (samples follow). They asked where I wanted to go and gave some good suggestions based on my angles, and as I’d never been to Iraq before I simply asked other journalists, researched news stories about areas, etc.
Unless you manage to hitch a ride on military transport from a U.S. base (rare and uncomfortable), you have to get yourself to Kuwait for the intake process, likely the greatest expense. The other major expense is a bulletproof vest and helmet, I got mine, I kid you not, from bulletproofme.com, but you can always sell them later, especially through Lightstalkers.com.
Once you’re in the care of the system there are no costs unless you frequent on-base cafes, Burger Kings, McDonalds, Cinnabons, or the shops where you can start layaways on (American) cars and motorcycles back home. I hit a few souvenir shops, the Hajji shops, to get some spoils of war like Saddam currency.
If you forgot something, you can always buy it on base: I bought a durable pair of pants, favorite boots ever, and other comforts including soap, towels and pillows when needed. You’re asked not to dress like soldiers but it’s suggested you should blend into the environment, which means dressing like soldiers (Catch 22 is an excellent book about military contradictions).
Since there is so little press going to Iraq these days there’s not a lot of assistance for reporters once you get there, especially in Kuwait (I’m happy to answer more specific details of logistics, like where to meet the military – Starbucks at the Kuwait airport – in the Discuss section) I was often bunked in transient tents with private contractors. I suggest wearing something that says PRESS on it; I found that once soldiers know you’re not a contractor they REALLY want to talk to you. I was the first media person most soldiers had ever met. I became a roaming therapist. Summing up most of the soldier’s woes would be: we shouldn’t be here. The book Fiasco by T.E. Ricks was on at least two commanders’ bookshelves. I digress, another topic perhaps for the Discussion section.
Crash course in military acronyms:
LSA: Life Support Area (where your CHU is)
CHU: Containerized Housing Unit (A shipping container containing your bed)
MRAP: Mine Resistant Ambush Proof (your main ride)
DFAC: Dining FACility (chow hall)
MWR: Moral Wellness and Recreation (Gym, movie theatre, games, internet)
HMMWV: High-Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (not a Hummer, those are for civilians)
MRE: Meal Ready to Eat (instant dinner box, updated with cappuccino heating packs)
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot: WTF (yes, WTF)
Most of the time I had my own CHU (I suggest bringing a very compact sleeping bag and liner). As media I was treated like visiting rank. I had full reign to explore and hop on any mission once I got to a base.
The food was great! KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root) provided the hyper-cost-incentive food choices (Steak, Crab legs, Lobster, BACON?!) and my media badge allowed me ample access to DFACs and MWRs. Don’t worry ethicists—I ate the military’s food but I never drank the punch (we can go into this in the Discussion page if you like). KBR even does your laundry.
Why to Embed
Anyone who isn’t confused doesn’t really understand the situation. – Edward Murrow
Unless you speak the language, know the culture, and have lots of money, I wouldn’t suggest going to Iraq independently. Since I wanted to talk with soldiers, hear their stories, learn about the war and the country through them, embedding was the best way for me to get access. I met very few Iraqis and wasn’t allowed to leave the base alone, not even to wander into a village for example. Most of my views of daily Iraq were through blast-proof MRAP windows.
Really though, why not embed? Can you get killed? Sure, but have you ever driven on a highway to report on a story? Climbed a ladder to get a good angle on something? Covered a riot? Jaywalked in a busy city? Danger is all around us, and there are special insurance companies that cover embedded journalists.
I felt very safe most of the time as I was mainly in secure bases. The closest to danger I got was one morning at an Iraqi police base: An IED blast 1200m away forced an “oof” from my body and my soul; five civilians died, seventeen wounded. Can read about that day here.
Most of my time was downtime, but never boring. I was with the army, not the front-line Marines or soldiers involved in daily combat. There are few front lines when you’re drawing-down. So I was with engineers, logisticians, maintenance people—basically, the support brigade. Which is what I wanted. I wanted “last one out turn off and take the lights home” angles. I didn’t want to document the bang-bang of conflict, it’s hard to interview someone when they’re being shot at, and I wasn’t too keen to get in the path of bullets. War reporting is seductive, but I just wanted to flirt with it.
What inspired me most to do this embed was reading Ernie Pyle, famous WWII correspondent who gave readers intimate individual stories of their sons, the nation’s sons (and now daughters). Pyle wrote of the daily, sometimes profound, often mundane, struggles of the average Joe, bringing the reader into a personal space that “official sources” never bothered with. His unique tree-for-the-forest approach, I realized, is perfect for Radio. There are reporters out there who do a much better job at giving us the tragically brief top-of-the-hour updates on the larger picture; what I wanted to do was capture the details, the individual experiences. Blog-wise, print-wise, I leaned on the inspiration and style of Edward Murrow as best I could.
An issue: Does the journalist have an opinion? You bet. Does the journalist exist on the field, or is s/he merely a tripod or recorder? Old school, No. New school? I believe denying bias has lead to great failures in journalism. I try to stay out of every piece I do, but it’s impossible: I ask questions, I edit, I omit, I allow…I welcome further discussion, but Sean Cole explains it best here.
War is Loud—Sample Audio Clip Tour
Since this is Radio, here’s some sound clips to illustrate my embed adventures. Most base-hopping was done in helicopters, Black Hawks, that fly at night to avoid enemy fire, but at sunset there was enough light for a quick picture.
A tip: When you’re waiting on the ground for a helicopter, don’t face them as they land on a gravel pad, you’ll be pelted with LZ (Landing Zone) pebbles. I figured that’s why we have to wear full battle-rattle (vest, helmet, eye-protection, ear-plugs, etc).
Riding in a UH-60, a Black Hawk, you’re basically inside a jet engine. A VERY loud engine. To appreciate the following in-flight clip you should plug your computer into an array of concert speakers, duct-tape them to your head and crank the volume to 11.
Test Fire, Test Fire, Test Fire!
Every time a vehicle leaves the base, they have to test their weapons by firing into a sandpit. The back seat of a HMMWV is a tight squeeze. In the next clip, I was in the backseat under a gunner standing on a little platform and discovered that my seat happened to be where really hot shells from an M-240B machine gun came raining down.
First you’ll hear the vehicle ahead of us, then the machine gun above me, then potshots with a rifle out the side window by the other back seat passenger. Again, turn the volume all the way up, to 12.
Books to read before:
War is ancient—both causes and practices. I want to offer a reading list that biases towards the individual’s story (save for #1):
1. Art of War, Sun Tzu (we need, as a nation, as a foreign policy, to re-read this one)
2. My War: Killing Time in Iraq, by Colby Buzzell.
3. Generation Kill, by Even Wright (the BOOK, not the HBO crap)
4. In Search of Light: The Broadcasts of Edward Murrow
5. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brian
6. Embedded: The Media At War In Iraq, by Katovsky/Carlson
7. Anything by or about Ernie Pyle.
The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.
– Chris Hedges
War is a terrible thing, yet it keeps happening. The chapters of human history and textbooks are defined by conflict. The world has been at peace only 8% of recorded human history (Hedges, 2003), so conflict must be inherent in the human condition. As is reading about it, watching it—that swelling inside when we see smoke blowing past a flag. War is seductive, so is reporting on it. Sadly there is no hurry, there will always be conflict, “Only the dead have seen the end of war” (Plato). I believe, for journalists, it’s a good time to head to Iraq (so said the Mongols, Ottomans, British, Americans…). The final chapter is being written (yeah right), and they need better writers, real storytellers to inform and archive this long long war from the “cradle of civilization.”
I went because, in this moment, Baghdad doesn’t feel all that far away, but will hopefully feel very far to my young god-son, like Saigon felt to me, like Normandy felt to my parents. Each generation has their distant war. Maybe someday he’ll ask me about it, about that chapter in his school textbook. And when he does, I’ll be able to say I was there, and that I’m so very sorry; for like each generation before, we failed to learn.
Jake Warga’s “Iraq: Soldier’s Soundtrack to the War”
I had never really talked to a soldier before and knew nothing of ranks or the deep culture of service. I discovered something wonderful once I started meeting them: they’re just regular people stuck doing a tough job. The modern teenager or 20-something has an i-pod or personal music player of some sort. We all love our music. The plan I fermented before leaving was to talk with soldiers about their music: what they listen to, and from there, through their music, talk about them.
Sound Targets by J. Pieslak (2009) is an excellent book that looks, with academic thoroughness, at the history of music in conflict and current soundtracks to wars:
During downtimes (majority of the time), I asked soldiers to cue their favorite song for this deployment (if multiple) on their i-pod, the track they listen to most. With a simple male-to-male mini-cable, I would patch their device into my recorder and together we would listen to the song. I would then switch to my mic and interview them about the song…and them.
Staff Sergeant Adam Treen – Song “Send in the Clowns”I discovered how you can slow the mightiest army in the world: let it rain. MRAPs have a hell of a time not getting stuck, so to avoid a quagmire we did a dismounted patrol (went on foot) to get a feel for what residents needed, etc. The biggest complaint from the few that didn’t immediately hide when we arrived was about the slow progress on repairing the main bridge into town—one the U.S. destroyed by driving over it a while back in an MRAP. Then we met at the mayor’s house to talk about a micro-grant loan (we used to just throw money towards reconstruction, now we do loans). I was surprised; this was an engineering battalion doing things like diplomacy, micro-grant lending…politics. They’re not trained in much of what they’re asked to do, so says Adam Treen.
Specialist Kriegshauser – Song “Raindrops”I did all I could to make soldiers feel comfortable with the experience of being recorded and sharing personal views. I first met Kriegshauser at the little Hajji Shop at FOB Bernstein—a basic store run by Iraqis that sold sodas, smokes, souvenirs, kitsch, and lots of pirated DVDs. I was bored and buying more cigarettes (I don’t smoke, I shared them with soldiers, another ice-breaker technique) and some Mountain Dew, commonly called Squiggly-Dew since one side of the can is in Arabic. He was really worried about what he said to me about Iraq, about his experiences, about the interview in general. To put him at ease I let him listen to it along with his commander. I got really in with his group; they even invited me along on their mission that night. I went, even after I discovered they were a “route clearance” team—going ahead of convoys to look for IED’s.
Private First Class Dalere – Song “Undead”A typical music choice of soldiers: metal/death/rock/ImStillNotSure genre. It cost me a pack of cigarettes, but he eventually opened-up and let me know what he was feeling about serving in Iraq and his friend who was killed.
Specialist Bowers – Song “Kiss My Country Ass”Unlike the textbook conflicts of WWI and WWII, there were quite a few female soldiers around, and after listening to a lot of metal, death metal, a country song was most appreciated by this reporter.
I recorded first with a Sony PCM-D50. But for portability and less frustrating battery life, my back-up recorder became my primary: the fantastic Olympus LS-11. I recorded on the internal 4gb and loaded the SD card with music for the ample down and transit times the military excels at. Thanks to Barrett Golding from Hearing Voices for re-mastering the final audio.
The only microphone I’ve ever used, Sony ECM-MS907. A $70 camcorder mic (plus additional windscreen). I had a shotgun mic (AT-835b) but didn’t like waving it around at people with real guns and used it only rarely, often leaving it behind for missions.
Field editing on my computer using ProTools.
My camera was the Canon 5D. Lenses: 16-35mm and a 50mm.
Official site for the group I was embedded with.
About Jake Warga
Jake started in radio by recording his friends and sending the stories to Transom. You can hear those stories here: Home From Africa – 13 Symptoms of Peace Corps Withdrawl, Street Dogs and When Brian Took His Life. After graduate school in London for visual anthropology (he’s still not exactly sure what the study is) he returned to Seattle where he continued his dabbling in radio. Now he’s a photographer, writer and freelance journalist. With microphone and camera he’s traveled to places common and exotic to photograph the destinations for PR, travel industry and stock agencies. A retrospective of his African portraits is now on view at the Seattle Art Museum. He sends radio pieces off to shows like All Things Considered, The World, Studio 360 and always HearingVoices. You can learn more about Jake and his work here.