“My mum knew more about the war than I did”

As an embedded journalist covering the 2003 Iraq War, Evan Wright was something of an anomaly. First, as the former chief pornographic film reviewer for Hustler magazine, he arguably lacked the prerequisite hard news background. Second, covering the war for The Rolling Stone publication, Wright’s reports were not published until the summer of 2003 – two or three months after his embedment ended. These series of three reports entitled “The Killer Elite” were the basis of Wright’s book “Generation Kill” that was published a full year later. This is a key element that this paper shall focus on, in arguing that Wright’s reportage was not representative of a typical embedded journalist’s coverage. Unlike the majority of embedded journalists who self-censored and produced sanitized versions of the war[1], Wright’s account more closely resembled that of an independent, more critical hybrid “unilateral”. The delay in the writing and publishing of his accounts, allowed him the opportunity to distance himself from the events and the relationship he had struck up with the marines, and so re-construct some semblance of objectivity. This paper, referencing Wright’s book, shall look at some central themes that pertain to the embedment of journalists in war zones: a localized, restricted view of a conflict, objectivity, social penetration theory, self-censorship, accuracy and the debate of embedment versus unilateral journalists.

Wright was embedded with the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the U.S. Marine Corps for 2 months from March 2003. He chose not to ride with the support company and, in return for giving up his satellite phone, was embedded with the Bravo Platoon’s Team One. Wright later recalled, “This was a relief. If I had no satellite phone, I would be unable to talk to my editor. My editor wouldn’t be able to ask for a story, and I wouldn’t have to explain that my computer was broken. I would just take notes, and write the stories when I returned to civilization.”[2] Wright’s book is an unflinching account of the battalion’s foray into Iraqi territory, detailing officer’s incompetence, technological mishaps, civilian fatalities, humanitarian failures and marine bloodlust. Wright’s depiction of the marines is nuanced, alternating between their scatological banter, their eagerness to fight, and their tales of life back in the U.S, to their views on the reasons for the war. The majority of the book’s criticism is reserved for the commanding officers, particularly the leading commander Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Ferrando. Accused of being more of a politician than a soldier, one marine stated he frequently put his men in needless danger “to kiss the general’s ass. The reason Dowdy didn’t go through that town yesterday is he probably cares about his men. Ferrando is trying to get promoted on our backs.”[3] Wright was also critical of the purpose of the battalion’s campaign. It was later revealed to him that their campaign was a feint to draw Iraqi forces away from Baghdad to Al Kut.[4]

Wright highlights a few other unflattering events: how officers nearly ordered an artillery strike on their own position[5]; how the blitzkrieg nature of their mission resulted in the “un-surrendering” of Iraqi POWs (contravening the Geneva Convention)[6] as well as not having the time to fully secure towns from residual Fedayeen forces[7]; how despite the best technology, dust and cloud cover inhibited the use of spy planes and satellites[8], and the misuse of heat signature optics resulted in 10,000 pounds of bombs being dropped needlessly in the middle of the desert[9]; how officers like “Captain America” acted hysterically firing wildly[10] and bayoneting prisoners[11]. Lieutenant Nathaniel Fick summed up the military, stating “[it’s] the incompetent leading the unwilling to do the unnecessary.”[12]

However Wright’s account is, on the whole, unrepresentative of embedded journalists in Iraq. His relative objectivity, criticism of the military command, unemotional detachment from events and broad, contextual view of the conflict were uncommon in the daily reports being filed during the conflict. Yayha Kamalipour stated that most “reporters presented exultant and triumphant accounts that trumped any paid propagandist.”[13] Jeff Gralnick, a seasoned war correspondent, stated “You will fall in with a bunch of grunts, experience and share their hardships and fears and then you will feel for them and care about them. You will end up loving them and hating their officers…that put them in harm’s way…love blinds and in blinding it will alter the reporting you thought you were going to do.”[14] Historian Phillip Knightley confirmed that most correspondents came to identify with their units, and “began to use the pronoun ‘we’ in their reports. ‘We are coming under fire…we are advancing…we can see.’”[15] Self-censorship replaced objectivity and accuracy. Knightley related how one correspondent, the BBC’s Chris Myrie, was even called upon to help light flares at one point. Crucially, Knightley states that he could only find two instances of embedded journalists who reported critically on the U.S. troops[16] – two out of the total 775 embedded correspondents[17].

It has been argued that the U.S. military was banking on this camaraderie, “social penetration”[18] or “Stockholm syndrome”[19]. Gralnick warned, “You are not being embedded because that sweet old Pentagon wants to be nice. You are being embedded so you can be controlled and in a way isolated…those officers…have total control over where you can go, what you can see and what you can do.”[20] CNN correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, corroborated this cynicism. When she complained that she was not getting the same quality footage as the independent unilaterals, she was told that she could go with them but that she would lose her embedded position. She translated this as “play by the rules or f— off.”[21] In relation to Vietnam, Gralnick added “this embedding plan…has been put together by guys…who were burned…by the press…35 or so years ago. Fool me once.”

In addition to a loss of objectivity, and military control, another criticism leveled at the coverage of the 2003 war was the “soda-straw” view of the conflict[22]. Not all correspondents had the benefits of 20/20 hindsight that Wright had. This “soda-straw” analogy relates to how embedded coverage is “deep” and detailed, but often “narrow” in terms of context. Being embedded meant you were restricted to a particular time and place. One embed, Chris Ayres, stated “my mum knew more about the war than I did” whilst another related that “he had to constantly resist the temptation to generalize about what was going on across Iraq as a whole from the evidence available from my own isolated viewpoint.”[23] One example was of NBC reporter Kerry Sanders who reported that Iraqi soldiers were fleeing Basra[24]. It later transpired that Basra was hardly under coalition control.

Whilst touted as a success by the military[25] and many correspondents, the embedded system has its critics. Many championed the unconstrained coverage of independent, “unilateral” journalists who were not restricted by military influence or emotional bonds with troops. However, whilst Kamalipour acknowledges that unilaterals did provide the most accurate coverage of the war[26], including military mishaps, it seems this fact is outweighed by the negative factors. In addition to having no protection or unlimited supplies, the Globe and Mail’s Geoffrey York stated how they were often obstructed by the military: “unilateral is the Pentagon’s bureaucratic term for the distrusted rabble of independent minded journalists in Kuwait…it is virtually impossible to visit the U.S. military base or get anywhere into the northern half of Kuwait without American escort…it is almost impossible…to obtain a face-to-face meeting with a U.S. military spokesman.”[27]

In conclusion, it is evident that “Generation Kill” is not a standard embedded journalist’s account of the 2003 Iraq war. It is clinically detached, highly critical of the battalion’s command and places the account in the greater context of the conflict. Wright’s visceral account also contrasts greatly to the largely “sanitized” depiction of the war[28]. One report recorded that only 21% of televised reports showed any combat action – which included no coverage of human casualties[29]. Moreover, according to Kamalipour, it seemed that the U.S. audience itself was in denial concerning the brutality of war. Walter Rogers, an embedded CNN reporter, recalled all the viewer complaints the network received on showing footage of a single dead Iraqi soldier[30].

However, it is clear from Wright’s account that he had bonded, and developed a sense of trust, with the troops. However, even in recounting scenes in which the battalion is under fire[31], where he was handed a gun going into a skirmish[32], or where one of the soldiers pulls him to safety[33], he still maintains a sense of relative detachment. However, again Wright is an anomaly. Most embeds were “highly supportive of the units they were with (and by extension the overall military enterprise), and did little to inform the public of either the course or consequences of the war.”[34] Analyst Christopher Paul labeled the embedding system as a “win-win-win” situation. He stated “journalists were given remarkable access…the military got much more favorable coverage than they would have had had there not been embedding…the public saw a type of picture that they had never, never had an opportunity to see before.”[35] Therefore, one can only surmise that the delay in Wright publishing his accounts allowed him to not only reflect on events more dispassionately, but to report more critically as a pseudo-unilateral.


[1] Kamalipour, Yahya and Snow, Nancy. War, Media and Propaganda. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2004: 73.

[2] Penguin: Moleskine notebooks and Reporting for Generation Kill article at http://us.penguingroup.com/static/html/blogs/moleskine-notebooks-and-reporting-generation-kill-evan-wright

[3] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 146.

[4] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 269.

[5] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 157.

[6] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 157.

[7] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 162.

[8] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 63.

[9] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 180.

[10] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 68.

[11] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 268.

[12] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 18.

[13] Kamalipour, Yahya and Snow, Nancy. War, Media and Propaganda. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2004: 73.

[14] Tumber, Howard and Palmer, Jerry. Media at War: The Iraq Crisis. London and California: Sage Publications, 2004: 51.

[15] Knightley, Phillip. The First Casualty. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004: 532.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Sylvester, Judith and Huffman, Suzanne. Reporting from the Front. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005: 54.

[18] Haigh, Michel. “A Comparison of Embedded and Nonembedded Print Coverage of the U.S. Invasion and Occupation of Iraq” in Press/Politics, Vol. 11 (2), Spring 2006: 143.

[19] Paul, Christopher and Kim, James. Reporters on the Battlefield. California: Rand, 2004: 112.

[20] Tumber, Howard and Palmer, Jerry. Media at War: The Iraq Crisis. London and California: Sage Publications, 2004: 52.

[21] Knightley, Phillip. The First Casualty. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004: 533.

[22] Paul, Christopher and Kim, James. Reporters on the Battlefield. California: Rand, 2004: 111.

[23] Tumber, Howard and Webster, Frank. Journalists Under Fire. London and California: Sage Publications, 2006: 170.

[24] Project for Excellence in Journalism: Embedded Reporters: What Are Americans Getting? Article available at http://www.journalism.org/node/211. Page 9.

[25] Tumber, Howard and Palmer, Jerry. Media at War: The Iraq Crisis. London and California: Sage Publications, 2004: 58.

[26] Kamalipour, Yahya and Snow, Nancy. War, Media and Propaganda. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2004: 73.

[27] Tumber, Howard and Palmer, Jerry. Media at War: The Iraq Crisis. London and California: Sage Publications, 2004: 33.

[28] Kamalipour, Yahya and Snow, Nancy. War, Media and Propaganda. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2004: 73.

[29] Project for Excellence in Journalism: Embedded Reporters: What Are Americans Getting? Article available at http://www.journalism.org/node/211. Page 4.

[30] Kamalipour, Yahya and Snow, Nancy. War, Media and Propaganda. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2004: 74.

[31] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 99-100.

[32] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 150.

[33] Wright, Evan. Generation Kill. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2004: 142.

[34] Tumber, Howard and Webster, Frank. Journalists Under Fire. London and California: Sage Publications, 2006: 20.

[35] Paul, Christopher and Kim, James. Reporters on the Battlefield. California: Rand, 2004: 110.