Pressed: Dispatch from Kuwait

The New Republic
March 31, 2003

Last week, I watched nearly a dozen British tanks and armored vehicles storm across the Kuwaiti desert on cue–literally. The British military had arranged a “press facility,” as they call such affairs, and, although the men and women of the media had been delayed for 90 minutes at a police checkpoint on the highway leading to the border with Iraq, there was no danger of missing the maneuvers. Staged with the panache of a Broadway play, the spectacle would commence at whatever hour the audience arrived with its cameras and notepads.

After the press convoy showed up at a British desert base 20 miles south of the Iraqi border, an officer from the 1st Royal Fusiliers of the 7th Armored Brigade gave us a quick security briefing–so we could “leave with the same number of body parts” with which we arrived–and instructed us to stand behind a length of white ribbon placed about 20 yards from a serpentine trench. He pointed to the horizon, where the silhouettes of Challenger tanks and Warrior fighting vehicles were visible. In one minute, he said, they would arrive at the trench.

Smack on time, the metal monsters ground to a halt in clouds of dust and disgorged a squad of combat soldiers who rushed forward, bayonets drawn, to attack imaginary Iraqis who lacked the wisdom to surrender. One of the Brits lost a boot as he lunged forward. (The humiliation of having it returned to him by a journalist would come later.) After the mock assault, an officer stood in front of us–there were nearly 100 journalists on the scene–and said he’d heard that some cameramen wanted to get shots of the now-idling tanks moving directly at them in a “V” formation. The money shot was duly stage-managed. Afterward, we were invited to interview the victorious soldiers and inspect their imposing weaponry.

This is old-fashioned war propaganda. The images of hardworking grunts bravely preparing for battle are intended to bolster support back home and, if the enemy happens to be watching or listening or reading, to convey the message that resistance will be futile and, in all likelihood, fatal. With more than 600 journalists “embedded” with military units in the desert and field trips offered every day for “unilateral” journalists (as we, the un-embedded, are branded on our orange press cards), a lot of canned journalism has been occurring in Kuwait. Until a few days ago, this propaganda war seemed different from previous ones only in its breadth, rather than in its content or effect. But things have taken a startling turn, as I learned from Colonel Chris Vernon, the congenitally blunt and jovially boastful spokesman for the British military. “We’re showing what we’ve got, and we would like the message to get out to the people and to the regime of Iraq,” said Vernon, whose broad shoulders and chin-back, chest-forward posture make him a casting director’s dream of a British officer. “We would wish to translate success into a message. Therefore, if we were to have success in some part of Iraq, we would like that success to be seen by elements of the leadership and the population.”

A few days before the press facility, I had chatted with Vernon at the Hilton Hotel and Resort (where the United States and the United Kingdom have set up their military press center) about Basra, the southern Iraqi city less than 50 miles from Kuwait that is expected to be the first target of the invasion; the Brits are to take Basra while the Americans move north to seize Baghdad. Vernon, who in the 1990s was a spokesman in Bosnia for the U.N. peacekeeping force, went out of his way to say the Brits would likely provide a military escort to carefully selected members of the international media so that news of the liberation of Basra might ignite an uprising in Baghdad and the collapse of the regime. “If I bring Christiane Amanpour into Basra to broadcast from the roof of the Sheraton, it’s not because I want her to earn another one hundred thousand pounds in salary,” Vernon told me. “It’s because I have a military objective that is served by broadcasting the liberation of a city to the rest of Iraq that has not been liberated. We want the regime and the people to know it and feel it.” Vernon made the same point during the press facility in the desert and apparently has been making it to my colleagues. A March 13 story by Newsday’s Edward Gargan quoted “a senior British officer”–no prizes for guessing who that might be–as saying, “I’m not doing this so that the CNN correspondent gets another £100,000 in their salary. I’m doing it because the regime watches CNN. I want them to see what is happening. … Yes, we are using them. We use everything we have.” And, while those few lucky correspondents are being “used” in Basra, the rest of us will presumably have to settle for watching them on television: Word is that the U.S. and British military will try to deny access to Basra to journalists who are traveling on their own.

If his scenario plays out–and, by the time you read this story, it may already have–the coup de grâce against Saddam Hussein will be delivered not by Delta Force and the 82nd Airborne in Baghdad but by Christiane Amanpour and CNN in Basra. Regardless of what happens in Iraq in these crucial days, a strategic Rubicon has been crossed by the Pentagon: When the occasion arises, the press will be used, and will likely permit itself to be used, as an offensive military weapon.

The war in Bosnia gave rise to a catchphrase, “the CNN effect.” It meant that television in general, and CNN in particular, possessed the power to force governments, and especially the U.S. government, to pay attention to particular issues or crises; priorities and even policy could be set by klieg lights. And, while this was true to an extent, it was nonetheless exaggerated. Tenacious reporting from Bosnia by Amanpour (and many other correspondents who did not work for CNN) certainly kept Bosnia at center stage even though the Clinton administration would have preferred to see it disappear. Yet military intervention occurred only after four long years of warfare, and, when it came, it stopped far short of reversing the ethnic cleansing that journalists had struggled to bring to light and in some cases died for.

Although Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was an avid viewer of CNN and the BBC, he had nothing to fear from them. Thanks to his darkly brilliant manipulation of the domestic media in Serbia, all but a handful of Serbs were so sure they were doing no wrong in Bosnia (and, later, in Kosovo) that they didn’t believe a word of what they heard on CNN and the BBC. To them, it was just anti-Serb propaganda.

The situation is far different in Iraq, where–unlike in Serbia–the domestic press is widely disbelieved, and CNN and the BBC (especially its short-wave Arabic service) are closely followed. The regime in Baghdad is brittle and weak; Colonel Vernon and his superiors know quite well that the violent house of cards that is the Baath regime could be toppled by irrefutable proof that Basra is free and that Saddam’s days are numbered. Hence the prospect of CNN being shuttled to Basra by Blackhawk helicopter. Or, as Vernon explained to me, “War is not just tanks and armor. It’s also psychological. Hearts and minds. The other guy’s move is affected by what he sees happening or thinks is happening. I think the American defense secretary has a very good understanding of it. He has read the books. He said warfare is psychological. Spot on. Not many politicians get that.”

The last decade has not been kind to journalists covering wars; from Bosnia to Rwanda to East Timor, they have been targeted for death. One of the reasons this seemed unfair, and broke a moral code, is that journalists were not supposed to be treated as partisans of one government or another. In Bosnia, we did our jobs with what now seems, nostalgically, minimal cooperation from the military authorities on either side. But today, with American journalists going through widely publicized survival courses run by the U.S. Army, with so many of us embedded with GIs, and–the coup de grâce to our withering claim of neutrality–with the prospect of selected outlets being given privileged and controlled access so they can participate in a deadly game of psychological warfare aimed at toppling an enemy regime, the case for journalistic independence is becoming awfully difficult to sustain.

The fall of Basra would be a big story that, it goes without saying, should not be ignored because one side or another might benefit from its coverage. But the only reason CNN or the BBC would need a Blackhawk to Basra is because access may be denied to journalists traveling without a military escort. The roads, we have been told by Vernon and other military spokespeople in Kuwait, will likely be blocked until the situation is “benign”–a determination that will be made, of course, by the U.S. and British military. Some journalists will doubtless slip through, as a few did during the first Gulf war. But the surest way to the roof of the Basra Sheraton will likely be with a military escort, at a time of the military’s choosing, broadcasting a message the military desires, for a duration the military wishes. After all, the generator that powers the transmission gear will probably belong to the military, as will, in all likelihood, the food and water that sustains the journalists.

Their story will be a great scoop. It may also be a great shame.

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.