- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 14, 2003

Once upon a time citizenship and loyalty mattered. There was also a time when the job of war correspondents was to report the news, not make it. Even in Vietnam, a conflict seen as purposeless by most reporters, they were still as American as those they were reporting on. Now, the latest generation of journalists covering conflict says it must remain neutral and therefore should not wear camo (camouflage combat fatigues). That way, presumably, they can play the role of umpire when American and Iraqi troops duke it out in the desert.

Today, when CNN prides itself on being a global news organization without a country and therefore loyal to no one in particular, neutrality on the battlefield has become the better part of valor. The International Herald Tribune, once America's voice abroad, became the bifurcated progeny of its sole owner, the New York Times, on Jan. 1, and quickly dropped any pretense of neutrality. It has become a global voice of anti-Bush dissent with elite readers in some 200 countries and territories.

As the U.S. is about to go to war against Iraq, it might be useful to pass on a few tips of what worked best for their elders. The simplest and easiest way to report on U.S. troops in battle was to wear the same fatigues as U.S. soldiers. Reporters didn't hit the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, in a combination of civilian and military clothes, hoping German gunners would recognize them as neutral observers. They were indistinguishable from GIs except for cameras and notebooks instead of weapons.

In the Vietnam War, as in the Korean conflict, military dress was de rigueur. Vietnam was the first of these wars without censorship. Battle-dressed war correspondents between 1965 and 1975, unhampered by censorship, didn't pull any critical punches because they wore camo. Media critics of the U.S. war effort were already in Vietnam covering U.S. military advisers attached to South Vietnamese units when the first U.S. Marines arrived, ordered ashore by President Lyndon Johnson.

In Vietnam, reporters were not only obligated to wear military fatigues in the field, but certain units would not accept to take us into combat with so much as a small white triangle of T-shirt showing below the neck. It would only help an enemy sniper draw a bead. T-shirts had to be olive-drab or khaki. But we were free to hitch rides on military flights to anywhere in South Vietnam and once there to hop onto a chopper on its way to resupply a unit under fire and to medevac the first casualties. And there was never any doubt whose side we were on irrespective of how we felt about the larger picture.

The International Press Institute in Switzerland once complained because the Marine unit we were covering was ambushed on the top of a hill just south of the demilitarized zone and four reporters were issued cases of grenades that we threw as fast as we could pull the pins. The ordeal lasted 36 hours. The alternative was to stand up as mortar shells exploded all around our hastily dug foxholes and shout "Bao Chi" (Press). Which is what those who had never heard a shot fired in anger said we should have done during the "Battle for Hill 400."

Grenada and Panama produced a new generation of combat reporters with little, if any, military experience. Anxious not to be mistaken for combatants, they prided themselves on civilian dress. One black reporter in Panama complained bitterly about being detained in a U.S. barracks overnight. He was wearing a red shirt with tan slacks. Had he been wearing camo, with his name sown on above his right breast pocket and the name of his organization above the left one, chances are he would not have been arrested and would have been allowed to move freely at his own risk, of course.

Embedded with the 101st Airborne in Kandahar, Afghanistan, UPI reporter Richard Tomkins, one of the few journalists in camo, was vehemently upbraided by a colleague in civvies. Mr. Tomkins was told he had to be neutral and that by wearing camo he was endangering the safety of every other reporter in the country. Mr. Tomkins returned verbal fire by telling him that he was putting his own life at risk by standing out among camo-wearing soldiers and possibly being popped by a sniper.

Military dress in the field enables war correspondents to fit in inconspicuously and establish a rapport with the combatants. As a veteran of 18 wars plus one in which I served for four years I frequently used the camos of other nations when civilian dress would have stopped me at the first military roadblock. In 1967, I covered the Six-Day War on the Israeli side. Life magazine's Bill Wise and this reporter, mistaken for Israeli reservists rejoining their frontline units, were waved through half a dozen roadblocks until we caught up with the lead tank in an Israeli column south of Jenin. Once there, the Israeli captain, under orders to send journalists back to division headquarters, clearly wanted us to measure for ourselves the speedy success of the Israeli offensive.

In the October 1973 war, we were on the Egyptian side, in Egyptian camo purchased in the Cairo souks, and again made it all the way across the Canal with the lead Egyptian unit (that later got clobbered by Gen. Ariel Sharon's lightning counteroffensive). In civilian dress, we would not have made it beyond the outskirts of Cairo.

On the south side of Tora Bora inside Pakistan a year ago, lying in wait for escaping "Afghan Arabs," our UPI party of three traveled on rickety local jitneys, dressed in camez shalwar with pancake hats, and passed several military roadblocks inside the forbidden tribal zone unchallenged.

For today's aspiring war correspondents, camo alone won't always do the trick. In combat fatigues, both sexes must try to blend in with (1) short hair; (2) a military bearing when walking from place to place; (3) no slouching; (4) no beer bellies for the men; (5) knowing the difference between incoming (hit the deck) and outgoing (no flinching) fire; (6) in the field, always walking a respectable distance behind the soldier in front of you, never to his side. Remember you are not paid to be the first to set off a booby trap or an anti-personnel mine.

During Desert Shield in 1990, as the editor-in-chief of The Washington Times, I had assigned four reporters to cover the coming Gulf war. The daily refrain was invariably a complaint about not being able to go anywhere without a U.S. military escort. I then decided to see if my own experience and MO might not get me to the Iraqi border sans escort.

Arranging for an interview with President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on Jan. 15, I persuaded the Egyptian head of state to get me accredited to the Egyptian army. Outfitted with Egyptian camo, webbing belt with two canteens, chemical protection gear, I landed at King Khaled Military City near the tri-border area (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq) on Jan. 18, the day after the war started. As luck would have it, there was no one to meet me and, in a borrowed Saudi military 4x4, I had the run of the entire battlefield for a week, which included drop-in visits to British, French, Czech, Egyptian, Syrian units and interviews with the first seven Iraqi deserters. My disguise even worked with a U.S. unit because of the Egyptian accreditation document.

So bluff is a key ingredient to war reporting. But camo is an essential prerequisite.


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