Thursday, February 07, 2008

"Mom likes you better!": Living on the government teat in Iraq

When I was embedded in Iraq last year, one reporter pulled me aside and carefully spelled out the U.S. military's "Rules of Embedment" for me.

"Don't say anything negative or they will withhold your access to news or even send you back home." Oh, okay. Nothing negative. Check.

And so I praised our brave troops to the heavens -- and that was really easy to do. Those guys are doing a great job! But it still didn't do me any good. I still got no access to news. And I still got unceremoniously sent home. Why? Because I couldn't keep my mouth shut about George W. Bush. Hey, my mentor-reporter never warned me about that!

The first time I was embedded in Iraq, I got watched like a hawk because of my unfriendly attitude toward the White House (and also apparently because, at John McCain's famous "stroll through the market" press conference, I couldn't keep my mouth shut and actually asked him some actual important and news-worthy questions such as was anyone planning to invade Iran. Hey, I thought Americans might want to know this sort of stuff.) And after that, Condi's State Department apparently started reading my e-mails and I was sent home without ever being allowed to leave the Green Zone -- while other, more compliant, reporters were granted access to come and go as they pleased.

The second time I went to Iraq was a fluke. I truly believe that someone let me back in purely by accident. But then they sent me off to Anbar province, the one place in Iraq that was safe. I loved Anbar. I loved the Marines. I sent home GLOWING reports about how the Marines were helping with the reconstruction and working hand-in-glove with the Iraqis and...all of it true. The Marines ARE doing a good job in Anbar. But Bush ain't doing a good job in the White House. The man is a thief and a war criminal -- and I wrote about it. My bad. Oops.

Then, in January of 2008, I applied to go back to Iraq one more time. Hey, what can I say? I'll go to anywhere for a good story. Plus I'd only seen the Green Zone and Al Anbar so far and I still wanted to see what was happening in the rest of Iraq.

"Come on over," said one of those guys who sit in pre-fab cubbies in the Green Zone all day and routinely rubber-stamp reporters' embeds. "We'll send you out with the Third Infantry Division. They cover Iraq from the north to the south. They are your one-stop shop for embedding! You'll love it here." Or words to that effect. Yea for the 3ID!

Based on this enthusiastic invitation from CentCom in Baghdad, I ran out and bought a plane ticket for February 12, pulled my helmet out of the closet and dusted off my Kevlar. I was good to go.

But what happened next? Someone in the CentCom front office must have read some of my articles from OpEd News or the Lone Star Iconoclast or something. "Yikes!" he must have screamed. "She doesn't like George Bush!" I bet you could have heard him all across the Green Zone. "Cancel that embed!" And they did.

Now I am sitting here in Berkeley with my non-refundable plane ticket to Kuwait City in my hand, lamenting about all that money that I've just wasted -- money that I can ill-afford to just throw away. But my flight leaves from SFO on February 12 -- and I am going to be on that plane. Why not? At least this way I'll get to see some inflight movies and eat some free food and the ticket won't be a total waste. And when I get to Kuwait, I can sleep in the mosques, hang out at the internet cafes (if they still work after four underwater cables were mysteriously cut in the past week) and be there in the Middle East when the action heats up.

"What action, Jane?"

"The action that will happen when Iran opens its non-dollar-based oil bourse next week and all Hell breaks loose." And I'll be right there when it happens, watching the Kuwait economy inflate and the American dollar collapse and...." And when the spit hits the fan, you had better believe that I will have lots of really really really nasty things to say about George W. Bush.

"Jane, why are you all hatin' on GWB this time?" Because there are all too many signs these days -- like Dubya's recent trip to the Middle East to browbeat his allies into submission, the mysteriously-cut internet cables connecting Tehran to the rest of the world, the US anti-missile ships now in Israeli harbors and the Iranian navy in the Mediterranean -- that all point out that Bush is probably planning something stupid (again) such as another disastrous Shock and Awe.

What did JFK used to say? "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." That thought has NEVER crossed our George's mind. Trust me on that one. What America means to him apparently is that it is just another good bank to rob. But I digress.

The Green Zone guy wrote me again. "Jane, you can't come back to Iraq because it's a battlefield over here." Duh. That's why I want to go over there! Why else would I want to go to some war-torn country, spend three weeks wearing Kevlar and live in a tent? That statement didn't wash. So the guy thought up another one.

"Jane, you can't come over here because you don't have enough readership to justify the expense." What! Arggh. The Bushies misplace SIX BILLION DOLLARS in Iraq, spend something like two million dollars a minute over there trying to justify Dubya's brain-dead decision to go ahead with the invasion of Iraq -- the worst military blunder since Hitler invaded Moscow in the middle of winter -- and now they can't afford to put me up in a tent for three weeks? Because I don't have the readership? Well. YOU are reading this, aren't you? I rest my case.

Which gets us back to my main point again -- "Mom likes you more than me." There is far too much bias going on in Iraq regarding who gets access to the news stories over there and who does not. For instance, there is one reporter in Iraq right now who has almost no readers, who is almost unknown, who has been over there living off the government teat for YEARS now and who, rumor has it, even has his own freaking office.

What is the difference between this guy and me? We both are willing to live in a tent (or at least I am). We both write wonderful things about our heroic troops. But this guy knows how to kiss Condi's [bottom] and how to give GWB good [PR]. Whereas I just write about what goes on.

Is this guy doing a service to America by keeping his mouth shut about the terrible blunders that he sees Bush committing at the expense of a whole generation of the finest fighting men and women ever to serve in our country's military? Is this guy helping our troops? No. Not at all. But this guy knows how to make "Mom" like him better and I don't. And that's what counts these days. Hence he's there and I'm not.

So. What's my ultimate point? That the grand and glorious tradition of Freedom of the Press is in danger here in America? Well, sure, that. But also that, under the thumb of Bush and his friends, freedom of access is being lost as well. And America, my wonderful and idealistic country that used to be the light of the world, has not become a better place from its loss.

To quote embedded journalist Michael Yon, "The media [is] far from perfect. War reporters, like everyone else, get things wrong. Some of them, unsympathetic to the war aims, undoubtedly try to twist the news. But no coverage at all is even worse. It does a disservice to American soldiers. It is cruel to their families. It leaves the American public in the dark."