When American soldiers and Marines finally make their move against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, the journalists riding with them will have unprecedented opportunities to report from the front line in real time.
The combination of satellite technology with the broad access the military is giving journalists in this war means that the reporters, photographers and camera crews "embedded" with the troops will — in theory, at least — be able to transmit portions of the war either live, as it's happening, or within minutes or a few hours of the action taking place.
It should provide television viewers in the United States and around the world with an unprecedented view of the battlefield.
"This is going to be historic. It really is," said Ross Simpson, an Associated Press radio correspondent embedded with the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Division.
Vietnam: Access, But No Technology
Much has been made of the tensions that built up between the press and the military in Vietnam. But when I was a young war correspondent in Vietnam between 1967 and 1970, I can honestly say I never experienced it.
In those days, we had almost total access to the troops. We traveled aboard U.S. planes and helicopters. We rode with the Army and Marines in their trucks and jeeps. We slept and ate with the troops. Out in the field at least, the relationship couldn't have been better.
Back then, television journalists used film, not videotape. Our film reels had to be carried from the battlefield back to Saigon; then shipped by plane to Hong Kong, Bangkok or Tokyo; then trans-shipped to Los Angeles and, ultimately, to ABCNEWS headquarters in New York.
There the film was processed and edited. By the time it got on the air, two and a half to three days would have passed. Satellite technology was still in its infancy; and we almost never had access to it.
Desert Storm: Technology, but Little Access
By the time of the 1991 Gulf War, we had moved on to videotape and satellites were readily available, allowing us to report live from Kuwait or Saudi Arabia.
However, the U.S. military gave journalists little or no access to the fighting. The 43-day war was a brilliant victory for the United States, but most of us were never able to report on it directly.
The only pictures Americans saw of the ground war were of the aftermath — like the graphic footage of Iraqis killed while fleeing Kuwait along the "highway of death." They saw nothing of the fighting that preceded the retreat.
After the enormous success of Operation Desert Storm, senior U.S. military officers were not happy about the fact that there had been no one on the battlefield to record the actual war. They want to be sure that doesn't happen again.
This Time: Broad Leeway, No Censorship
From what the Army has told us, we'll be operating under generous ground rules this time. As long as we don't include operational details that could be helpful to the Iraqis, we're being given pretty much of a free hand.
We won't be showing you the faces of American casualties. For obvious reasons, the Pentagon wants time to inform next of kin. Families shouldn't be learning about injuries or worse from television reports.
Such ground rules have existed for decades. For the most part, they are perfectly sensible and reasonable; indeed, most news organizations adopted them long ago in their own guidelines for reporters in combat.
There isn't expected to be any actual military censorship in this war.
"We are going to rely on you to use your judgment," said the commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, the force I am embedded with. "We're going to make some mistakes and you're probably going to catch it on film. If that's what happens, you're free to show that."
Taking a Risk
The military is taking a risk. "If some squad shoots a group of civilians by mistake it's entirely possible that could get carried live now," said Michael Kelly, who is traveling with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division for The Atlantic Monthly.
But the military also understands that having independent observers on the scene — including foreign journalists from foreign countries — can protect them from allegations that might come from Saddam's regime and other governments opposed to the U.S. campaign.
They learned from the bombardments of Baghdad in 1991 and Yugoslavia in 1999 that the public — at home and abroad — does not always believe the military's account of its own operations when it comes to civilian casualties.
Also, if U.S. forces come across evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, having foreign reporters witness it could help convince the world that the U.S. campaign was justified.
What's totally unpredictable, of course, is the impact that all this coverage will have back at home and around the world. If the campaign doesn't go as quickly or as well as anticipated, if friendly casualties are high, if some of the reporting is deemed too critical, or if some of the information proves inadvertently helpful to the Iraqis, the military may quickly rethink the value of having us journalists along.
How Well Will the Technology Work?
We won't know how well the system works until we are a couple of days into the operation. There are huge logistical problems still to be tested.
The 3rd Infantry Division, for example, plans to be moving hard and fast for most of the first two or three days of war, stopping only to refuel. We don't know whether we'll be able to transmit while we're moving.
Much of the fighting will take place at night. Our cameras are equipped with nightscope lenses, but how much we can actually shoot from moving vehicles in the dark is anybody's guess.
If the Iraqis use chemical or biological weapons, we'll all be wearing masks and protective gear, including rubber boots and gloves. Can we even videotape under those conditions?
This is the season for sandstorms in the desert of southern Iraq. Recent storms had winds of up to 70 miles an hour, with visibility as low as 5 feet. We don't know what impact that will have on our equipment. We're carrying two portable satellite ground stations, one video phone, eight cameras and several satellite phones. Will it be enough? Will they function? We'll find out.
The AP's Simpson raises another potential problem: "We've been told that if we get slimed, if we get some kind of chemical or biological agent in the area and we get contaminated, everything that's not in a Ziploc bag — meaning your laptop, your satphone, all of it — gets junked. So essentially you're out of the ballgame. It's over for you. You have a pad and pencil."
Referring to Ernie Pyle, the legendary World War II correspondent, Simpson said: "Those of us who carry the latest in electronics may wish we had Ernie's old typewriter so we can manually peck out the story."
This report aired on March 17, 2003.