The Embeds' War

Article excerpt

In a 3-week period during the spring of 2003, a U.S.-led coalition won an impressive victory over the badly overmatched forces of Saddam Hussein. During that same period, the U.S. military seemed to have won a victory over its fear of the media. This collateral triumph was due to the hundreds of embedded reporters who accompanied the invasion into Iraq and who brought instantaneous and near-instantaneous print and video coverage of the blitzkrieg to Baghdad.

The spin imparted to the story by these reporters was overwhelmingly positive. Soldiers and media representatives seemed to bond in the shared privation and danger of the operation, and, while some critics complained about the dangers of lost impartiality, U.S. military leaders judged the embed experiment an overwhelming success.

The embedded reporters brought a variety of credentials to the war, but two of the best qualified were David Zucchino of the Los Angeles Times and Rick Atkinson of the Washington Post. Zucchino was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1989 and has shared a pair of Overseas Press Club awards for his coverage of the War on Terrorism. Significant among his other achievements is the editing of Mark Bowden's best-selling books, Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War and Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw. (1)

Atkinson's vitae is even more impressive. He received Pulitzer Prizes for both history and journalism and is the author of the bestselling books Long Gray Line: The American Journey of West Point's Class of 1966; Crusade: The Untold Story of the Persian Gulf War; and An Army at Dawn: The War in Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation. (2)

Both men have an understanding of things military that is unusual for journalists, and both know how to capture in print the drama and tragedy of modern war. That both decided to write books about the U.S. Army's experience in the Iraq War should arouse our attention, especially because both have written books that transcend the limitations of normal "instant" histories.

The books are quite different, yet curiously complementary. Atkinson's In the Company of Soldiers: A Chronicle of Combat is a first-person account of his experience with the 101st Airborne Division Command Group from the weeks leading up to the war to the campaign's successful conclusion. (3) The book is a study of command and commanders at the division and corps levels. (I overheard a U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) student quip that the book should more properly be called "In the Company of Generals.")

Atkinson is a central character in his own book, and his impressions and analysis are offered in every chapter. By contrast, Zucchino's Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture offers a third-person narrative of combat from brigade level and below (stylistically, think of Black Hawk Down with tanks). (4) Zucchino leaves himself out of the narrative and gives the bulk of his attention to the battles fought by battalion and company commanders of the 2d Brigade Combat Team (BCT) of the 3d Infantry Division OID).

There are other important differences as well. Zucchino passes no judgments on the pretext or outcome of the war. But, Atkinson plainly believes U.S. warriors were "better than the war they were fighting." He finds George W. Bush's Administration's stated reasons for going to war "inflated and perhaps fraudulent" and that U.S. postwar rhetoric in face of a growing insurgency ranged from "resolute to hallucinatory." While in Iraq, Atkinson kept such views to himself, according to members of the 101st Command Group.

Certainly, he was concerned with building a rapport with the key leaders of the unit he accompanied--Major General David Petraeus in particular. Petraeus is the central figure of Atkinson's book, and judging by the way Petraeus confided in him, Atkinson was successful in fostering a relationship of friendly respect with the general. …