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Journalistic brigade to dig in on front lines of Iraq war

CAMP DOHA, Kuwait — In this frenetically busy American military camp on the edge of Iraq, officers are planning not only the campaign to take Baghdad but what, if it works, will be one of the greatest revolutions in military/media cooperation in our history.

It is called simply the "Embed" program. More than 600 journalists from America and across the world (including at least one from the Arab nationalist al-Jazeera television network) are being trained and readied to take part in it. If the war starts, they will be "embedded" into American units; they will live with soldiers, travel with them and, for the unlucky, suffer and die with them. They will carry their own equipment, file from the battlefield and see everything that is going on first-hand. Many are already trained in chemical and biological warfare.

Such a mission has never been attempted before on this scale. On D-Day in World War II, 30 to 40 journalists went in with the invading U.S. forces. In Vietnam, we correspondents were pretty free to visit forward bases but were not assigned to particular units. And in the Gulf War, there were so many correspondents in eastern Saudi Arabia, most of them young and inexperienced, that the military kept them from covering very much. ("What are they trying to hide?" Walter Cronkite demanded at the time.)

That approach, the public affairs officers realized later, meant that at the end of the day the American public knew little about the war and its sacrifices.

But a new thinking seemed to blossom among the more innovative public affairs officials during the Bosnian and Kosovo campaigns.

Army Col. Rick Thomas, the outgoing and persuasive chief of public affairs from Lexington, S.C., sat back in his chair in the huge, makeshift PAO offices here at Camp Doha one recent late night and tossed out ideas about the program.

"There are two things I don't want to see in the books about this war," he began. "One, that there was censorship (the press this time will see things at the same time that President Bush sees things), and, two, that they couldn't file out there and they had to bring their copy all the way back to Kuwait City." He paused.

"This time, the spokesmen for the war will be the kids next door in America, not the Gen. Schwarzkopfs."

But the military does, after all, need to maintain secrecy on the battlefield. How do you do that with a second army of journalists, many of them television crews with their intrusive cameras and electronic equipment, all over the landscape? The rules released recently by the Pentagon say that reports of live, continuing-action operations or postponed or canceled ones cannot be released without the permission of the commander. The PAOs frankly don't expect a lot of problems here.

That definitely does not mean that the place is not being overrun by journalists. There are probably close to 3,000 now, either waiting (impatiently) in Kuwait or orbiting around the region, ready to come at a moment's notice. The entire Ritz Hotel has been taken over by CNN, and the Sheraton Hotel is filled with young, curious and eager reporters (and all in a country woefully "dry," alcohol-wise!).

But there are far too few of the old-style foreign correspondents, who dedicated themselves to living in a region like the Middle East. For them, the first thought when they heard the syllable "bed" certainly had nothing to do with "embed."

However you consider it, it's a curious word. "To embed" means "to place in so as to form an integral part of a whole." The really good foreign correspondents are not much good at becoming integral parts of any whole. I'm not quibbling. In fact, I think the program is very promising. There is just a certain basic conflict of military expectations and journalistic realities here.

Two thoughts in closing, both admittedly somewhat unworthy:

First, I can't wait to see what our militaristic but non-serving civilian leaders in Washington think when they are not in control of the news but get it on TV from the battlefield, at the same time that Americans are getting it from the young and eager journalists-next-door.

One second thought: I'm glad I did my own war correspondence in earlier, simpler times.

Universal Press Syndicate