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Guarding Cheesecake

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If the Bush people want to take credit for something brilliant they pulled off in connection with the war in Iraq, they should take a bow for the idea of embedding the press. It happened a long time ago, of course, it's been more than three years since the war began and journalists in camouflage jackets accompanied the United States military into battle, but it was a diabolical and brilliant scheme, definitely one of the reasons why America marched off to this misguided venture as blindly and happily as it did. Embedded -- the word is so harmless, like raisins in coffeecake. At the same time it's so clearly, unambiguously frank and literal. How much more obvious can you be about what you're up to? Because no question that once you embed someone, they've curled up with you, they've slept with you, they've gotten confused about where you begin and they end, and what's more, they don't seem to know they've been screwed. There's a reason why journalists in Vietnam were quick to see that the war wasn't working - they weren't embedded. Embedding gives a reporter a grunt's eye view of the war. A grunt almost never sees the big picture.

I was thinking about all this because I went downtown this weekend to see ABC News' Christopher Isham, Jarhead author Anthony Swofford, Time Magazine Baghdad Bureau Chief Aparsim Ghosh and documentary filmmaker Debra Scranton on a panel at the Tribeca Film Festival called "Embedded." The title of the panel gave me every hope that the question of embeddedness would be addressed, but it wasn't really; the topic mostly concerned Scranton's movie, "The War Tapes." Several years ago, the New Hampshire National Guard offered Scranton the opportunity to embed with a unit and she came up with the idea of embedding the soldiers instead. She gave three of them video cameras and cut her 90-minute movie from the almost 800 hours of footage they shot.

Her movie is truly a grunt's eye view of the war, and Swofford and Ghosh both had problems with it: they seemed to be suggesting that on some level, it was the equivalent of a blog, something generated too close to the actual event to have any real meaning. "Distance is quite important," Swofford said, noting that it had taken him ten years to make sense of his own Gulf War experience, which forms the basis of Jarhead. Ghosh said: "The war has been changing and morphing, and today it's a very different war."

Still, all three soldiers in Scranton's movie are compelling, and my heart was in my throat as I heard each of them justify his tour in Iraq; I can't really imagine the war being worth even a month of anyone's life away from one's loved ones, much less the two years these men spent there. But what do I know? I'm a New Yorker, and according to ABC's Isham, the panel's moderator, people in New York see the war as "an abstract," "something they talk about at cocktail parties."

One of my favorite moments in "The War Tapes" focuses on a parking area in Iraq that's full of trucks owned by Kellogg Brown Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton. There are hundreds of these trucks, stretching out to the horizon, and according to one of the soldiers in the documentary, each truck requires its own individual soldier to stand guard. Sometimes the trucks contain food, so the detail of guarding the KBR trucks is called "Guarding Cheesecake." A certain amount of venting takes place among the soldiers in the movie about Halliburton and Dick Cheney and whether it makes sense to use so many troops to guard cheesecake; this is almost the only political moment in what's otherwise a frustratingly-evenhanded look at the war.

The war has of course changed since the beginning; Ghosh is right about that. And today, most of the journalists still covering Iraq aren't embedded. But I couldn't help wondering whether things might not have turned out differently if the press had refused to be embedded in the first place; after all, it was the journalistic equivalent of guarding cheesecake.

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