In "Doonesbury," the duty of placing journalists with troops bound for combat in Iraq falls to B.D., the gung-ho Army reservist who never takes off his helmet. At a beachfront Hilton resort here, it falls to Lt. Col. Rick Long, a cigar-smoking Marine who's suddenly become every would-be war correspondent's best friend.
"Great to have you," Long tells a newly arrived Los Angeles Times reporter, as he handshakes his way through a media mob that's descended on the posh headquarters of the U.S. military's PR operation in Kuwait. "Whatever you need, I'll take care of you."
A onetime artillery officer, Long is public affairs pooh-bah for the 60,000-strong 1st Marine Expeditionary Force here. He pauses to reload his formidable grin. He aims it simultaneously at a New York Daily News scribe and a CNN correspondent: "You just tell me what you want."
In the annals of war coverage, the military has viewed reporters as either hostile forces or helpful propagandists, or both. It's no different in this new era of "embedding," when the Pentagon is deploying hundreds of correspondents to live among the troops.
This time the brass seems to want to make nice, outfitting the media with gas masks and dispensing anthrax vaccinations, talking about how this process will help reporters understand military culture. They'll share chow and endure hardships, just like a band of brothers (and sisters).
The Marines and the other military services promise lots of access and exclusives, though of course there will be "escorts" for the embedders. To supervise them?
Long's smile suddenly flattens. "I think 'supervise' is a poor choice of words," he says. "We have to ensure that you're getting accurate information."
In war, it's appropriate for the media to serve as watchdogs, but "you should not walk into a situation being a skeptic," he says in an interview. Reporters shouldn't be digging for dirt or even independently probing for facts, in his view. If something bad happens, it's the military's job to investigate, Long says, not the media's.
"Our job is to provide the truth and provide context." He fires up his stogie. He puffs. "The truth will set you free."
During the Civil War, some 500 reporters provided coverage on the Union side alone, furiously filing by telegraph and, in the words of Gen. William T. Sherman, "doing infinite mischief." One correspondent whose words caused offense "was placed backwards on an old horse, a placard marked 'Libeler of the Press' was tied to his chest, and he was paraded through the army to the tune of 'Rogue's March,' " Phillip Knightley recounts in "The First Casualty," a history of war reporting. The book takes its name from this 1917 quote from Sen. Hiram Johnson of California: "The first casualty when war comes is truth."
During Vietnam, military spokesmen had a term for nonaccredited correspondents: "renegades." Here a correspondent who has agreed to Pentagon ground rules, but isn't embedding, wears a badge emblazoned with the word "unilateral" in red. The same term was applied to reporters who attempted to operate outside the strict pool system during the 1991 Gulf War.
The correspondents being deployed in the Gulf theater -- more than 600 are being placed with U.S. forces -- far outnumber the military's public affairs force, optimists point out. But in the field an embedder's access will depend on how he behaves and whether he is trusted.
"You are not going to be mother-henned," Long promises in his briefing to embedders. "There are not going to be [escorts] over you all the time. They will be there to open doors for you."
And, he says, they'll help protect reporters from many dangers -- minefields, chemical attacks and so forth.
Journalists fret about the potential for control, but not too loudly. "I've come to think that 'embed' refers to the microchip they put in the back of your neck," says one reporter for a major daily who asked not to be identified. News-hounds don't want to risk antagonizing the PAOs.
"Hoo-hah," one correspondent shouts to his friends, trying out the Army's signature greeting as he treads polished marble en route to the press center. Actually it's pronounced Hoo-ah.
At a support base about 100 miles south of the Iraqi border called Camp Arifjan, a squad of journalists is escorted through a maze of warehouses, trucks, tanks and helicopters. They dutifully interview soldiers who are preparing for war by revving engines and painting bumpers.
"You're observing a first here," says public affairs officer Bob Whistine, explaining that previous media visits missed the actual arrival of Army trucks. He's one of four military minders shepherding seven journalists on a tour of the sprawling facility.
A TV crew from Spain complains about the lack of action shots. The flacks summon a Spanish-speaking soldier to do a brief stand-up on a landing pad filled with Blackhawk helicopters awaiting medical evacuation duty.
The PAOs also warn that no photos can be taken of a wooden sign erected by an Indiana-based National Guard unit. It's a totem that gung-ho soldiers display in every conflict: Fort Wayne, 6,770 miles; Hanoi or Berlin, or wherever, so many miles that way.
Censors have forbidden us to identify the capital of a certain Arab country on the sign. An earlier photo ran on the wires and it offended the "host nation," as military officials describe Kuwait.
So Kuwait didn't want the U.S Army to advertise its military intentions toward a particular nation?
"It may sound silly but that's the guidance we got," says Sgt. Maj. Larry Stevens, another spokesman at the base.
Suddenly, the ethical debate over the sign gives way to an urgent report: At Camp Fox, in northern Kuwait near the Iraqi border, hostile forces may have dropped canisters of biological agents. Fox is 70 miles from Arifjan.
Citing the possibility of similar attacks, officials suspend the media's planned visit with soldiers on the perimeter of the supply base. "I want to take them but the risk just isn't worth it," announces 1st Sgt. Charlie Cox. The reporters didn't bring gas masks.
The reporters broil in the sun for more than an hour until officials give the all clear: The "attack" on Fox turns out to be just a training drill.
"The Pentagon is mortified that something might happen to a journalist," says Ed Felker, a correspondent for papers in Moline and Rock Island, Ill. "They don't want a dead reporter, an injured reporter or even a scratched reporter."
Now the debate takes another turn: Is this a form of control or just common sense?
In World War II, Ernie Pyle embedded himself among the troops, taking terrific risks to report on "the boys" on the front lines. In 1945 he was shot in the head by a Japanese sniper and died instantly.
If a PAO had steered him away from all danger -- the gunners' foxholes, the mined beachheads -- he may never have written this right after D-Day:
I took a walk along the historic coast of Normandy in the country of France.
It was a lovely day for strolling along the seashore. Men were sleeping on the sand, some of them sleeping forever. Men were floating in the water, but they didn't know they were in the water, for they were dead.
The water was full of squishy little jellyfish about the size of your hand. Millions of them. In the center each of them had a green design exactly like a four-leaf clover. The good-luck emblem. Sure. Hell yes.
Recalcitrant, reckless, hard-drinking bang-bang junkies once dominated the war-reporting trade but not here in Kuwait. The group that has settled into Camp Hilton, which boasts airy villas with views of the Arabian Gulf, includes many amateurs from a wide array of outlets. Even MTV has dispatched a correspondent.
It's hard for uniforms and hacks to bond over the peach smoothies and other nonalcoholic umbrella drinks served here, but it gives them all something to complain about. Booze is banned in this Muslim emirate.
A smuggled bottle of whiskey costs $120. Some imbibers are making do with home-brewed beer and bathtub wine (concocted with grape juice, sugar and yeast). One Kuwait-based news agency staffer fondly recalls his last taste of tequila -- in 1994.
But many of the war reporters are grateful for one thing. The Marines have taken the tactical lead in Operation Embed. They're widely known as the most media-friendly of the U.S. services.
"You're about to be a Marine," PAO-in-Chief Long tells a reporter wondering how authentic the experience will be. "We're going to tattoo you!"
Projected behind him are some recent "Doonesbury" strips lampooning the whole thing. One panel has an excited soldier begging B.D.: "Permission to embed Ashleigh Banfield, sir." Later, he savors a cigar sent by his wife to Camp Commando, a post in the northern desert where tobacco is in short supply. He mentions to a journalist that he really loves authentic Havanas.
Turns out they sell them here. And you start to think that maybe it'd be a good idea to bring the lieutenant colonel one, when you make it out of Camp Hilton. He thinks that's a good idea, too.