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An embed’s tale from ‘the dark side’

It was perhaps the most astounding media story to come out of the war in Iraq. This past Sunday, Jules Crittenden, the Boston Herald reporter embedded with the Army’s Third Infantry Division, described how he " went over to the dark side. " While rolling through Baghdad, Crittenden called out the positions of three Iraqi soldiers aiming rocket-propelled grenades at the vulnerable, " lightly armored " vehicle he was riding in so that an American gunner could kill them. " I saw one man’s body splatter as the large caliber bullets ripped it up, " Crittenden wrote. " The man behind him appeared to be rising, and was cut down by repeated bursts. "

Crittenden then added: " Some in our profession might think that as a reporter and non-combatant, I was there only to observe. Now that I have assisted in the deaths of three fellow human beings in the war I was sent to cover, I’m sure there are some people who will question my ethics, my objectivity, etc. I’ll keep the argument short. Screw them, they weren’t there. But they are welcome to join me next time if they care to test their professionalism. "

Crittenden’s pre-emptive defensiveness notwithstanding, you’d have to search high and low to find anyone willing to criticize him for what he did. He found himself in a life-and-death situation, and he acted in self-defense. But his story does raise another question. Has the military’s program of embedding journalists with fighting units placed those journalists in the difficult position of being seen as combatants — and, sometimes, of actually being combatants, as Crittenden briefly was?

Bob Zelnick, who chairs Boston University’s journalism department and who covered the Gulf War for ABC News, believes the benefits outweigh the risks, saying, " I would not blame the embed system. You either have correspondents covering the frontline troops or you don’t. I think you should. And if you do, you are going to have situations — hopefully rare — where they approach participation in combat. The alternative — sterile briefings in headquarter areas far from the battle — has proven deficient. "

Expressing a similar view is Tom Kunkel, dean of the University of Maryland’s Merrill College of Journalism, who recently wrote a column praising the embed program for the American Journalism Review.

" I don’t know to what extent your enemies make these nice distinctions about the people on the other side of the field. But there is no question that if a reporter is literally attached to that unit, he’s attached to that unit. From a combatant’s standpoint, he’s fair game, " Kunkel says, adding, " There are occasions where they’re going to have to act in the unit’s interests first. "

Kunkel observes, though, that if the war had lasted, say, three months instead of three weeks, problems such as the situation that Crittenden found himself in might have become more common. " You’re depending on these people for your lives, " he says. " You’ve got a little bit of Stockholm syndrome coming into play. You’ve got the natural reporter’s inclination to go easier on people that you know really well as opposed to people who you don’t know at all. "

In addition to covering the war for the Herald, Crittenden has been writing a war diary for the media Web site Kelly McBride, who’s on the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, says that Crittenden acted in self-defense. But she says she was troubled by the " tone " of his article, describing it as " revealing his bias " toward the American soldiers with whom he was embedded.

That’s a fair observation, though Crittenden’s pieces — which carried the label " At the Front, " along with his photo — were clearly intended to provide a view of the war through the eyes of US troops.

Crittenden — who, along with Herald photographer Kuni Takahashi, is heading back to Boston later this week — did not respond to an e-mail query. But managing editor Andrew Gully sees the firefight in which Crittenden nearly lost his life as a throwback to earlier wars rather than as ethically hazardous new ground.

Gully points out that Joseph Galloway, co-author of the 1992 book We Were Soldiers Once ... and Young, wrote about picking up a gun and shooting North Vietnamese soldiers who were overrunning the position of the unit he was reporting on. (As the Military Book Review once put it: " He had to drop his camera and grab a rifle to survive. " )

" I think if you’re embedded you’re as vulnerable as the soldiers around you, " says Gully of reporters in the Iraq war. " We’ve just gotten away from it so long that we’ve forgotten it. "

Crittenden’s account of surviving on the streets of Baghdad was a gripping read, and said more about the terror and exhilaration of combat than a year’s worth of briefings in Qatar. Whether the embed program that made it possible needs to be re-examined is an issue for another day.

Issue Date: April 17 - 24, 2003
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