I have argued this again and again, and have been reviled and criticized for it again and again. And yet, nothing produced by any of the many number of reporters and photojournalists who have chosen to embed with the US military in Iraq or Afghanistan has convinced me to change my mind that embedded journalism is many things but never journalism.
It has been with nothing but great dismay that I have watched photojournalism’s highest awards and recognitions go to work that was produced in conditions and restrictions that we would have denigrated and mocked had they been imposed by one our ‘flavor of the year’ enemy states. I doubt that any reportage done from an embed with the Soviet Army that invade Afghanistan in 1979 would have been considered a crucial and appropriate documentation of the war in Afghanistan. And yet, we are ourselves happily convincing ourselves that ‘our’ boys are in fact producing crucial and appropriate documentation of our wars.
I was reminded of all this as I read a fascinating and funny piece by Peter Van Buren in Le Monde Diplomatique called ‘The War Lovers’ where he begins by asking the most relevant question we often avoid:
What is it about the military that turns normally thoughtful journalists into war pornographers? A reporter who would otherwise make it through the day sober spends a little time with some unit of the U.S. military and promptly loses himself in ever more dramatic language about bravery and sacrifice, stolen in equal parts from Thucydides, Henry V, and Sergeant Rock comics.
I have made my own arguments about the embed approach in a number of pieces, including The Transformation Of Pathology Into Pathos Or The Military Does What It Does And It Does It Well, and Wrapping Photographers Into The Packaging Of War, and a partial tongue-in-cheek piece called How We Refused To Embed With Brittany Spears, and Fighting Ghosts And Selling The Good War Or Why Are The Toy Soldiers On The Front Lines!, and others of course.
But there is a fascinating insight in Van Buren’s piece that is worth thinking about. He points out that in fact the embedded reporter has tremendous access within the military, to its soldiers, and even to classified details coming across over the wire. They also have more liberty to report what they saw than we may imagine. And yet, few do. Van Buren’s argument for why the military can allow this to happen and not worry is striking, pointing out that
…the military wasn’t worried..[b]ecause its officials knew perfectly well that for reporters the process was — not to mince words — seductive…[E]embedding with the military felt like being invited in — no, welcomed — for the first time by the cool kids.
And the camaraderie and companionships that develop ensure the appropriate voice and the appropriate check on serious reporting. As Van Buren continues:
You go out with the soldiers and suddenly you’re riding in some kind of armored, motorized monster truck. You’re the only one without a weapon and so they have to protect you. Instead of making fun of you and looking at you as if you were dressed as a Naughty Schoolgirl, they’re cool with it. Bored at only having one another to talk to, fellow soldiers who eat the exact same food, watch the exact same TV, and sleep, pee and work together every day for a year, the troops see you as quite interesting. You can’t believe it, but they really do want to know what you know, where you’ve been, and what you’ve seen — and you want to tell them.
For women, it works similarly, but with the added bonus that, no matter what you look like, you’re treated as the most beautiful female they’ve seen in the last six months — and it’s probably true.
Of course, we reporters and photojournalists never talk about this. As always, there is such little self-reflection within the practitioners of the craft that it is staggering to think that they are being asked to go out and document the world for us. In fact, in a world drowning in images, they may be producing the permanent and definitive images of a world. And it is an image where the ‘other’ is increasingly and consistently seen through the sights of a gun. Or, as Van Buren points out, through …wet dreams passed on to the public.