A Founding Reunion: Embedment Reacquaints Freedom of Speech and National Defense

Mackubin T. Owens

April 1, 2003

My good friend Peter Schramm, executive director of the Ashbrook Center, recently posted the following account on the Center’s excellent blog site, "No Left Turns."

Martin Savidge of CNN, embedded with the 1st Marine battalion, was talking with 4 young Marines near his foxhole this morning live on CNN. He had been telling the story of how well the Marines had been looking out for and taking care of him since the war started. He went on to tell about the many hardships the Marines had endured since the war began and how they all look after one another. He turned to the four and said he had cleared it with their commanders and they could use his video phone to call home. The 19 year old Marine next to him asked Martin if he would allow his platoon sergeant to use his call to call his pregnant wife back home whom he had not been able to talk to in three months. A stunned Savidge who was visibly moved by the request shook his head and the young Marine ran off to get the sergeant. Savidge recovered after a few seconds and turned back to the three young Marines still sitting with him and asked which one of them would like to call home first, the Marine closest to him responded with out a moments hesitation " Sir, if is all the same to you we would like to call the parents of a buddy of ours, Lance Cpl Brian Buesing of Cedar Key, Florida who was killed on 3-23-03 near Nasiriya to see how they are doing". At that Martin Savidge totally broke down and was unable to speak. All he could get out before signing off was "Where do they get young men like this?"

Such a story strikes most of us as a good thing. But not everyone approves. Opponents of the war and media critics are slamming the embedded reporters for getting too close to the troops and for presenting an overly favorable picture of the U.S. military operations in Iraq. The purists are shocked when embedded reporters use the pronoun "we" in their stories. For the critics, the embedded reporters are "in bed" with the military and hence cannot be objective.

For my money the program of embedding reporters is going pretty well. As I argued in "War, Out of Context," the biggest problems with embedded reporters is that their reports often lack context. One commentator described the embedded reporter’s views as akin to trying to see the war through a soda straw. One result of a myopic perspective is that it can magnify the impact of bad things, as happened on the first Sunday of the war when a rash of things went wrong after two days of extraordinary progress. But the networks seem to be trying to provide context by the use of military analysts, some admittedly better than others.

I know that Karl Zinsmeister had some unflattering things to say recently in National Review Online about the attitudes of some of the embedded reporters. His impressions may be correct. After all, he has observed them in person and I have not. But I hope I will not be accused of hyperbole for suggesting that the embedded reporter is a throwback to the style of Ernie Pyle, and that’s not half bad.

Many observers thought the Pentagon was taking a big chance by embedding reporters with fighting units. They contended that DoD was setting itself up for a repeat of the Vietnam experience, where reporters, though not embedded, had almost universal access to any unit that they could reach by hitching a ride on a helicopter. Rightly or wrongly, a generation of officers blamed these reporters for turning the public against the war and those who fought it, and those officers conveyed their distrust to the generations that followed.

The reason for this distrust was nicely captured on videotape several years ago during a symposium on the media and the military. In his book, The Military and the Media, William Kennedy describes this revealing exchange during the symposium. The moderator of a panel including Peter Jennings of ABC News, Mike Wallace of CBS, and Marine Colonel George Connell, offered this hypothetical scenario. In wartime, you are invited to accompany an enemy unit who says it will prove that an ally of the United States is committing atrocities. While accompanying the enemy patrol, you find yourself in the midst of preparations for an ambush that may very well cause the death of Americans. Do you try to warn the Americans?

After hesitating, Mr. Jennings replied that he would try to warn the Americans. But Mr. Wallace responded that he would regard it as just another story and that he would not feel a "higher duty" to warn the Americans. Col. Connell watched this exchange in what can only be described as a cold rage. When asked to comment, Col. Connell said of Mr. Wallace, "I feel utter contempt. Two days later those same two journalists [could be] caught in an ambush and are lying 200 yards from my position, and they expect that I’m going to send Marines to get them. They’re not Americans. They’re just journalists."

This episode illustrates the depths to which military-media relations had fallen in the aftermath of Vietnam. It confirmed to military members that reporters were part of the counterculture trying to "get them" and explains why the military tried to limit press access to battlefields.

As the sniping by reporters during CENTCOM and Pentagon briefings demonstrates, there is still plenty of hostility on the part of some reporters toward the military. But the embedded reporters are a different matter.

First Amendment absolutists act as if freedom of the press trumps every other consideration. But the Founders understood that freedom of the press is not an end in itself, but a means to republican government. So is the military. I may be over optimistic, but I for one am glad to see the reunion of these two instruments intended to protect the form of government designed to protect life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI, and an adjunct fellow of the Ashbrook Center. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the War College, Navy Department, or Department of Defense.