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To Embed or not to Embed

The recent deaths of two journalists killed by roadside bombs while travelling with Coalition troops in Afghanistan should surely make media bosses wonder about the value of embedding their employees with the military.

Media outlets love embedding because appears to be a cheap way to cover a war. The host military picks up the cost of bed and board, and even transportation around the war zone. But quite possibly, the most dangerous thing a journalist in Afghanistan can do these days is travel in a military vehicle. The bad guys hadn’t perfected what we have all come to know as Improvised Explosive Devices when I was in Afghanistan and traveling on roads regularly used by military convoys was nowhere near as dangerous as it is now. Though I have to say, I was always a little concerned about the line-up of heavy trucks along the side of the only road into the Canadian base in Kabul near the derelict King’s Palace. I was never sure how the military could be so certain that one of lorries hadn’t been switched for one packed with explosives.

But though a comparatively cheap way to cover events in Afghanistan, embedding is not necessarily a good way to get a feel for what’s really going on there. Only a very naive reporter would believe Afghan villagers will be honest with them if he or she turns up with a bunch of heavily armed Coalition soldiers. One approach is to embed but go off on unescorted side-trips. That’s what several of us did during the first Presidential Elections in Afghanistan a couple of years back. But hiring a vehicle, a translator, and perhaps a couple of body guards gets can be a little too expensive for some media outlets. And without good information about where is safe to go and where it might not safe to go on a given day, it’s not always a great idea. I got away with it. But you could run across the Trans-Canada Highway blindfold several times and not get killed – that doesn’t make it a good idea. I hate the macho posturing of some reporters who sneer at colleagues who never “go outside the wire” during their stay at the Kandahar base. I remember being quizzed about how many times I’d been off base during my trips to Afghanistan. The answer was “every chance I got” but I kept my mouth shut because I wasn’t in the mood for a dick-swinging competition.

Embedding worked for me because I worked for a paper in a city which had a large army base. I was there to cover what the local lads and lassies were up to. I only went to Afghanistan when troops from the Edmonton Garrison were there. But anyone who thinks being embedded means you're covering what’s happening in Afghanistan is sadly mistaken.

I just hope that media bosses on both sides of the Atlantic think hard about sending reporters to Afghanistan. Embedding is not a series of risk-free dog and pony shows laid on by the military. And what can reporters with little experience of war zones really expect to write that hasn’t been written before in the years since Coalition troops first went into Afghanistan. The arrangements for cutting hair on the base? The Bunker Barber of Kandahar: done already.

 

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