WHAT A DIFFERENCE first-hand experience makes:
While I was at the Combined Press Information Center in Baghdad on my recent trip to Iraq, a pair of Spanish journalists--a newspaper reporter and a photojournalist--walked in, fresh from their embed with the 1-4 Cavalry of the First Infantry Division (the unit with which I embedded only days later). They had spent two weeks amongst the troops there, living and going on missions with them, including house-to-house searches and seizures, and their impressions of these soldiers were extremely clear.I'm far from surprised. And I wish most Spanish journalists lived through the experience instead of tapping their hatred on their keyboards day in, day out, safely in their air-conditioned offices. Particularly the ones who lash out with the chickenhawk insult to those who defend the Iraq thing.
"Absolutely amazing," said David Beriain, the reporter (and the one who spoke English), said of the young Cavalry troops. "In Spain, it is embarrassing--our soldiers are ashamed to be in the army. These young men--and they seem so young!--are so proud of what they do, and do it so well, even though it is dangerous and they could very easily be killed." Mr. Beriain explained that the company he had been embedded with had lost three men in the span of six days while he was there--one to a sniper and two to improvised explosive devices, both of which had blown armored Humvees into the air and flipped them onto their roofs. Despite this, he said, and despite some of the things they might have said in the heat of the moment after seeing another comrade die, the soldiers' resolve and morale was unshaken in the long term, and they remained committed to carrying out their mission to the best of their ability for the duration of their tours in Iraq.
It was in the process of performing that mission, of coping with the loss of loved ones, and of just being themselves as American soldiers that these young men were able to win over the admiration and affection of more than one journalist who had arrived in their midst harboring a less-than-positive opinion of the Iraq war, and of those who were tasked with prosecuting it.
"I love those guys," Mr. Beriain said, looking wistfully out the window of the media cloister in the Green Zone that is the Combined Press Information Center. "From the first time you go kick a door with them, they accept you--you're one of them. I've even got a 'family photo' with them" to remember them by. "I really hated to leave."
Such a radical transformation--and such a strong bond of affection--can rarely be forged in so little time outside of the constant, universal peril of a wartime environment. "It is those common experiences," Mr. Beriain explained, "where you are all in danger, and you go through it together. It builds a relationship instantly."
It doesn't matter how skeptical of the war a journalist might be, according to an Army public affairs officer who spoke with me about it on condition of anonymity. "So often, they come out of that experience and--even if their opinion of the war hasn't changed--they're completely won over by the troops."