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Journalists 'Embedded' With US Troops Face New Kind of War Coverage - 2003-03-13

The U.S. Defense Department has allowed hundreds of journalists from around the world to live and travel with U.S. military units in the Gulf region, as the units prepare for a possible war in Iraq. VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu is one of those journalists and reports that the so-called media embedding process is getting mixed reviews from both sides.

It has been nearly a week since the first groups of journalists began embedding with their assigned Army or Marine units in Kuwait.

Embedding is what the Pentagon is calling its new experiment in military openness. An embedded journalist is not only free to interview, photograph, and videotape any of the troops within that unit, he or she lives with them as well.

That means sleeping next to soldiers or Marines and eating what they eat. It means being trained in the use of gas masks and chemical warfare protection suits. And it means experiencing the same conditions the troops experience, living in tents, enduring sand storms and waiting through the long hot days for the decision on whether to go to war.

And if there is a war in Iraq, the journalist will also share the risks, following their units wherever they go.

The idea is to make the journalist a working part of the unit instead of treating him or her strictly as an outside observer.

The Pentagon views embedding as a way to ease decades of hostility and mutual suspicion that left journalists largely on the sidelines during the 1991 Gulf War. It is also a chance for the military to provide an insider's view to millions of people back home.

Journalists view embedding as an opportunity to get the kind of access to troops and to the battlefield not seen since the Vietnam War. With more than 450 journalists now in place in Kuwait, and another 200 aboard ships and at U.S. bases throughout the Gulf region, some journalists say initial hopes on both sides may have been too high.

"We all have an idea of where we want to be if and when the war starts. I think they're having a hard time accommodating everyone and there's bruised feelings on both sides of it. But I give them credit," said James Kitfield, a correspondent for the National Journal weekly magazine in the United States with 15 years of military reporting experience. "They are making a good-faith effort in the middle of a potential war zone."

A public affairs officer for the U.S. Army's Fifth Corps, Captain Tom Bryant, downplays any problems. He says the embed process for the Fifth Corps has gone extremely well, considering his office had to contend with requests from dozens of reporters and photographers, all pleading for the most desirable front-line positions.

But he acknowledges that it has been more than challenging to try to meet journalists' expectations and needs. "Most journalists expected, when they arrived at their unit, to immediately jump on a tank or jump on a truck and take off north, despite us telling them that there are going to be large periods of boredom," he said.

The majority of the embedded media gathered here are from the United States. But there are some 100 embedded journalists from various other countries as well.

For most of them, like correspondent Carl Dinnon from Britain'S Channel Four, this has been the first chance to get to know U.S. troops first hand. Mr. Dinnon says his view of American soldiers has changed now that he has interacted with them.

"People have been extraordinarily friendly. People are easy-going. There is not much of this sort of gung-ho sort of attitude that you might think there would be if you watched too many movies," he said.

Other journalists, like South Korean newspaper reporter Ahn Sung-kyu, say they have been surprised by how open the U.S. military units are with their embedded journalists. He says the American commanders have shown him sensitive equipment he believes the South Korean military would never show to journalists.

"That's a big difference from our country. In Korea, we cannot do that," he said.

The Pentagon has pledged not to censor stories and recently ordered unit commanders not to hide information from journalists who have been approved for embedding. In return, each embedded journalist has signed a set of ground rules, promising not to disclose any information that could compromise U.S. military operations or security.

American satirical writer P.J. O'Rourke says he fully supports the idea of the military and the media forging a better relationship. But he says he is not sure the two sides can ever be more than friendly adversaries.

"Reporters and soldiers have very little in common in their attitudes, in their backgrounds, but mainly in their experience of what we're experiencing right here in Kuwait," he said. "Something like this brings in all sorts of people with no prior experience of covering conflicts, combat or the military and it can be a real eye opener for them."

How the media and the military will get along in battle is still not known. And what happens there will largely determine whether the U.S. military gives this kind of access to the news media in the future.