Thursday, June 25, 2009

Journalism and Embeddism

The first time I heard the word “embed” was in sixth grade Physics class – the protons are embedded to the nucleus like sesame are to a bread, so forth and so on. As I embarked on the first ever embed (sadly it’s a noun now) of my life, traveling with the security forces in Afghanistan, the only thing I didn’t want to be was the sesame that fell of the bread.

Like protons, I was positively charged – maybe a little overcharged – about coming to Afghanistan. Reality about the dangers of going out on patrol with the soldiers did not hit me fully until I took a first aid class with the Canadians at the Joint Task Force base in Kandahar Airfield. Faces blown up, bones sticking out of limbs, blood gushing out of the arteries – all of these made me look like a fool who packed a dozen handiplasts I bought from the CVS pharmacy in DuPont Circle. When I arrived at the base, I was given a tourniquet, the grand daddy of all handiplasts, the use of which could mean a likely amputation. (Likely, but not always.)

Half of the fear about embedding comes from the fact that you put on a flak vest that weighs about 25 pounds and holds two ceramic rifle plates; a Kevlar helmet tied tightly around the chin; a pair of ballistic-proof glasses and a pair of fire-retardant gloves. I gladly put them on.

I climbed the Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) and sat toward the edge. The two Canadian soldiers who were guarding the convoy, spoke French and very little English. As the LAV roared on the dusty road, one of them increased the volume on the stereo to the maximum - the theme song for the ride was Papercut by Linkin Park, their favorite band. It reminded me of the HBO series, Generation Kill where the American marines shake their heads to AC/DC in their Humvees on their way to invading Baghdad. The only difference was that the Canadians weren't as pumped up as the Americans - because they weren't invading, they were rebuilding.

Once we got to Deh-E-Bagh, we waited in a small building where the shura between local leaders from Dand district and Canadian officials was about to begin. The war against terror probably changed the meaning of a traditional shura. While the idea of consultation remains the same, most of the shuras these days are spent listening to the grievances of the locals, which usually comes with a long wish list, and then getting vital intel about the Taliban. But at the least, shura gives an opportunity for the members of coalition forces to show the locals that they care and in return expect them to provide information about activities of the Taliban in local areas.

After the shura, we spent about 20-30 minutes in a small bazaar in Deh-E-Bagh, an area under heavy protection by members of the Afghan National Police and the Canadian forces. I mingled with the locals, who looked all excited to see their photos on the screen of my digital camera. "Akhbaar, Akhbaar," they said, asking me to put their photos on a newspaper. I was excited to see the locals, but was quite surprised that there were no women in this bazaar, not even little girls.

We got back on the LAVs and headed back to the base at Kandahar. Midway during the journey, the armored vehicle in front of us suddenly stopped. A cross-street electricity cable was hanging low obstructing the road. The pessimistic side of me immediately thought it was some kind of ambush - but before I could even ask what happened, the soldiers were able to push the wires up and we were moving again.

I hope to go back to Deh-E-Bagh again, except this time without being embedded. People tend to respond to your questions quite differently when they don't see a robust man with a massive gun sitting next to you. As safe as these embeds usually are, it is hard to move around flexibly if what you are really trying to get at is the lives of the locals in these small towns. But again, without embedding, I would probably make a really good feast for the Taliban.

One of the first books I ever read on war correspondents was “Chechnya Diary” by Thomas Goltz in which Goltz skillfully narrates his reportage as Grozny burns into ashes. The last book I read on war correspondents was “Forever War” by Dexter Filkins, a man who I hope would make me his disciple and teach me everything about reporting from conflict zones. The difference between these two books could be the best explanation for how modern war reporting has changed, as embedding with the military becomes a necessary evil, at least to get a lopsided view of the war.

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