Journalists are up in arms after photographer Zoriah Miller published photos of dead Marines on his web site and was consequently kicked out of his embed. Predictably, the U.S. military is being accused of censorship; the Marines, for their part, say Miller’s photos desecrated the memory of their fallen comrades, added to the grief of their loved ones, and “provided the enemy with an after-action report”.
My advise to the media: calm down.
I’ve been embedded twice in Iraq with U.S. units. There was no concerted effort to curtail my reporting or the work of the photographers I was travelling with. In fact, I was surprised and impressed by the access I was granted.
On my first embed, with the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad in April 2007, I witnessed the deaths of several American soldiers, watched as limbs were amputated, and was present as a constant stream of Iraqi civilian casualties came in. According to the ground rules, I could not interview American wounded without a public affairs officer present; my photographer needed a written permission from the wounded he wanted to photograph, if they could be identified in the photos; and all “suspected insurgents” were off-limits. We had no trouble agreeing to this. I wasn’t there to interview the wounded; I don’t believe in trying to force empty quotes out of traumatised people. And my photographer, following the journalistic code of conduct accepted in Finland, pointed his Canon somewhere else when a person passed away. He didn’t need pictures of bodies to portray the horror that was Baghdad. (The story is here.)
My second embed, with the 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment in Mosul in March 2008, was different only in that the access I was given was even wider. I got to see everything I wanted, from foot patrols to route clearance and cordon and search. All I had to do was ask. Once with the line units, I was on my own — the PA officers stayed in Marez. The only restrictions were logistical: they wouldn’t send a patrol through the dangerous streets of West Mosul just to pick me up. I doubt anyone can argue that’s censorship.
Here’s the thing, though:
From the soldiers’ perspective, journalists are a nuisance. They take up valuable space in your Humvee, poke around when you’re trying to rest, and require constant babysitting in combat. They’re generally pushy and inconsiderate. And most of them can’t even explain why they’re there, so you end up feeling they just want to use your sweat and tears to make money.
I don’t believe there is a plot to sanitise our coverage of the war. I believe the Marines and their commanders who’ve expressed outrage are genuinely shocked at what they perceive as our insensitivity and arrogance. And I believe the ordinary Iraqis, whose relatives appear in Miller’s photos dead and mangled, would be equally disgusted, if anyone would care to ask them.