Q. “Thunder Run” details an event that presumably will be studied heavily in creating future doctrine for the military. Another example from the Iraq War could be the Apache raid on Karbala that resulted in the downed Longbow and captured crew. What lessons do you draw from your experience about the ability of the US military to learn from its experiences, and do you think civilians give it appropriate credit for that?
A. The military places heavy emphasis on after-action reports and lessons-learned reports. The Iraqi campaign is being studied now by the Army Center for Lessons Learned, by military think tanks and by academics. Hundreds of reports will be issued detailing what went wrong and what went well, and why. Whether the military learns anything from these studies and applies the lessons to training to future wars remains to be seen. I can say that Col. Perkins and his command staff learned from the brigade’s first thunder run on April 5th and applied those lessons to the April 7th attack. For instance, they realized that controlling the overpasses would be crucial, so they fired artillery and rockets at the interchanges just before the tank battalions sped through them— the only time in the war that artillery was combined with an armored assault. Perkins and his commanders also had their tank and Bradley crews remove all gear from the outside bustle racks on the 7th because so much gear caught fire and burned on the 5th. And finally, they decided not to have the armored columns stop if a tank or Bradley was disabled; the armored column on the April 5th thunder run sat exposed on Highway 8 for half an hour on the 5th while the crews tried to put out a fire on a disabled tank.
Q. What perceptions did you have about the military prior to being embedded, and did the embedding process change your views in any way?
A. I grew up in the military as the son of a career first sergeant, so I am well acquainted with the military culture and am comfortable around the military. I have covered the U.S. military as a reporter since the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1982. I was embedded twice in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne, covering attacks against Al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts along the Afghan-Pakistan border, and once with a Special Forces “A” Team hunting down Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters on a three-week mission through the mountains of western Afghanistan. I have seen a gradual shift over the years from suspicion and hostility by members of the military towards the press to a new sense that the media can be used to tell the military’s story. The embedding process had many limitations — a lack of perspective; the utter reliance on the military for access, food, and transportation; the danger of getting too close to the people being covered; and the expectation by some commanders that reporters should be cheerleaders for their units and avoid controversial subjects. But the access provided to reporters was unprecedented and allowed us to witness events rather than rely on the accounts of military spokesmen. I reported on subjects that made the military uncomfortable — civilian casualties, looting, friendly fire and the theft of cash by U.S. soldiers — but I was also able to report first-hand on the way the military fought the war and what it was like for individual soldiers and commanders to carry out U.S. strategy in Iraq. Overall, I think the embedding process benefited the military, the media and the American public.
Q. Yours is probably the third or fourth major title to come out about the Iraq War by embedded reporters. Tell us a little about your feelings on the embedding process. What were the challenges or advantages as a reporter?
A. The main challenge was to maintain a sense of perspective. I saw only a tiny corner of the overall war – whatever happened to play out in front of me on a particular day. I had no idea what was going on elsewhere, particularly because I had lost my two satellite phones and laptop when the troop truck I was on plunged into a canal near Karbala. If The Los Angeles Times had to rely on me alone to cover the war, the paper would have been in deep trouble. I provided only a fraction of the overall coverage. Our paper had three other embedded journalists and three more “unilateral’’ journalists reporting on their own in southern Iraq. The LA Times also had three journalists reporting from Baghdad, plus others reporting from northern Iraq, Arab capitals, the Pentagon, and from CENTCOM headquarters in Qatar and CFLC headquarters in Kuwait City. We also had a two-person editing team posted in Doha. With all these reporters and photographers and editors contributing, the paper’s coverage was detailed, invigorated and comprehensive. I’m biased, but I think The LA Times’ coverage was superior to any other newspaper. The advantage of the embedding process was that it provided our reporters with a first-hand view of the war on the ground. Even with all its limitations, the process allowed us to attend intelligence briefings, to interview commanders before and after firefights, and to be on the scene during combat operations.