War with Iraq

Posted on Tue, Mar. 11, 2003 story:PUB_DESC
Ken Dilanian
Ken Dilanian
Ken Dilanian

Ken Dilanian is The Inquirer's Rome correspondent. He came to Rome in November after stints in Philadelphia's City Hall Bureau and the state Capital Bureau in Harrisburg. He will be accompanying the 173d Airborne Brigade.
Email Dilanian with questions and comments at iraqjournal@phillynews.com.

March 16, 2003

Vicenza, Italy - There are no sandstorms here. No tents and no cots, either, although my bed at the Hotel Campo Marzio could be wider. The only military Meals-Ready-to-Eat for miles are in storage over on the army base. Me, I've been dining at the local trattoria, which serves a nice house wine and a lovely roast lamb.

I'm embedded all right - embedded in a paradise.

I'm The Inquirer's correspondent based in Rome, and I'm one of four of the newspaper's reporters who, working with more than 30 from the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, have been assigned to follow a U.S. military unit into combat in Iraq. This is the first installment of a diary of my experiences I'll be filing for the web.

If you checked in hoping to read about some tenderfooted journalist suffering the harshness of army life, give me about a week and I'm sure Iíll have some good stuff for you.

For now, though, I've gotten lucky. While some of my embedded colleagues are waiting for war while picking sand out of their teeth and washing with wet-naps in the Kuwaiti desert, I'm living in a quaint hotel amid the stunning Renaissance palaces of this picture-postcard Northern Italian city.

Itís a tough job, dear reader, but somebody has to do it.

Vicenza, 30 miles west of Venice (Yup, did some sightseeing in Venice Saturday - wouldnít you have?), is home to the 173d Airborne Brigade, the unit I'll be accompanying. Monday (March 17) morning, I'm scheduled to report to Camp Ederle, the base here, to start meeting the soldiers and begin a few days of orientation.

But it's not just my current digs that make me happy about this assignment, because those will soon be a distant memory. I'm happy because, while the 173d Airborne has one of the plum postings in the army, they are no rear-echelon outfit.

They are paratroopers - some of them are elite Army Rangers - who form the backbone of the Southern European Task Force. Their mission is to be able to deploy worldwide on 24-hour's notice, jumping into hotspots and fighting as a light infantry brigade.

If, as is becoming increasingly likely, the Pentagon is unable to put a heavy army division in Turkey before the fighting begins, the 173d may join other airborne units in parachuting directly into northern Iraq during the war's first hours. They would seize airfields and open a second front that may surge south and attack Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's birthplace.

I couldn't imagine a more dramatic mission to chronicle.

No, we reporters wonít be jumping out of airplanes with them, although I pondered that possibility for a half-second myself after I read that the 173d allowed a female photojournalist to jump with them in Vietnam.

I'm told that in the event of a jump, the embedded journalists would be flying in several hours later with the brigade's heavy equipment.

If the Turkish government reverses its position and there is time to put the 4th Infantry Division in Turkey, the 173d is expected to fight with it, and may not undertake a parachute insertion.

But whatever the 1,800-person brigade ends up doing, the military promises that I and three other journalists embedded with them (a two-person crew from CNN and one reporter from Gannett-owned Army Times) will be in an unparalleled position to tell you and the rest of the world about it, warts and all.

It's hard to understate the magnitude of the change represented by the access granted to journalists for this possible war, at a time when we have nifty new technology that allows us to beam our stuff back to you almost immediately.

You may have seen and heard a few things about the program (I wrote about it this week's Sunday Review section of The Inquirer), but a lot of the stories about embedding seem to give short shrift to what a revolutionary moment in journalism and war this could be if it works as the Pentagon says it will.

That's a big "if." There are worries that commanders in the field will tell us not to report something on the grounds of "operational security" - which we all signed an agreement not to compromise - to prevent embarassing or unpleasant disclosures. There are even fears that use of the "e-bomb," as it's been called, will knock out all our transmission capabilities.

There are legitimate questions about whether those of us who are embedded will be able to objectively report on the troops we're with, who may be protecting our lives. I'll give you my thoughts on that in a later dispatch.

But this much is true: For three decades since the Vietnam War, including the recent war in Afghanistan, Pentagon officials have all but frozen journalists out of U.S. combat operations. Now they have invited us along, at a time when new technology allows better and faster reporting than ever before. Nobody really knows what will result. But it's hard to imagine that Americans and Britons won't have more information than they've ever had before about what's being done by their militaries in their names.

In the Persian Gulf War, for example, only a handful of journalists went into combat with front-line troops. And even if they could have managed to lug the suitcase-sized satellite phones that were available, the military didn't allow their use. So, a lot of their reports didnít make it back for days, and in the case of television, they were often obsolete.

If this war happens, there will be more than 700 reporters embedded with American and British military units, and almost all of them will have portable satellite equipment. Journalists have been accompanying troops into battle for 150 years, but never in this number, and never have they been able to call in and talk live to viewers or listeners while it's happening.

The Pentagon says it will not censor or prescreen the reports, which is a departure from what happened in World War II, for example.

I've been told that I'll be living, eating and sleeping with one or more of the 173d's infantry companies in the field. To prepare for that, I've had to get a tent and assorted camping gear, plus solar chargers for my SAT phone and laptop. Infantry companies don't carry electric generators.

Like most of my media colleagues, I also have a Kevlar helmet and body armor. And the army is providing all of us with a suit and mask designed to protect against a chemical or biological attack.

The Pentagon's guidelines call for reporters to be given as much access to combat operations as possible.

You may be wondering how a reporter lands an assignment like this, and what qualifies me for it. Answer: By chance, and nothing specific.

I'm here because it falls under my beat, in essence, as one of the Inquirer's foreign correspondents. (Although we also happen to be sending one of our Harrisburg reporters, who has had military training.) I reopened our Rome bureau in November - by "bureau," I mean me in my apartment with a computer and an expense account - after five years covering politics and government for The Inquirer, first in the Pennsylvania State House and then at Philadelphia City Hall.

Last fall, I went through five days of very useful "hostile environment and first aid" training with Centurion Ltd., a firm run by former British commandos. But I haven't reported much about military matters, aside from a long piece on former Gov. Tom Ridge's Vietnam experience and a week spent in January with the 1st Armored Division in Germany.

I'm 34 and keep myself in decent shape, which I guess qualifies me better than some in this profession to carry a 50-pound backpack in a unit that travels without vehicles. But I know Iíll be sucking wind next to 19-year-old paratroopers.

There's no doubt that my lack of experience serving in or covering the military will make this tougher. But I donít think it will ultimately impede the larger goal, which is to let you see, hear, smell, taste and feel what the troops of the 173d are going through -to tell their story. One of the essential skills in this job is to be able to immerse yourself in a world with which you're unfamiliar, learn it and explain it to readers.

I'm not naÔve, though: I know that conveying the full picture to you is probably unachievable, especially if I follow a rifle company into combat. Many far better writers than me have felt inadequate to fully convey the horror and excitement of war.

Even World War II's Ernie Pyle, who became famous giving the grunt's-eye view before he was killed by a Japanese machine-gunner on Okinawa, believed he had failed.

"I've spent two and a half years carrying the torch for the foot-soldier," he wrote in a letter to Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, "and I think I have helped make Americans concious of and sympathetic toward him, but haven't made them feel what he goes through. I believe it's impossible."

All we can do is try.