Burying the Dead

Famous war correspondent Gordon Dillow struggles with his truth

Tame the media, the thinking went, and you'll win wars. That thinking became policy in the 1980s. The British government is credited with limiting press access during its controversial Falklands War; a year later, the Reagan administration stalled reporters for six days while U.S. special forces seized control of Grenada; the first Bush administration was just as strict during the U.S. invasion of Panama. Two years later, media access to Gulf War troops was moderated through Pentagon officials hosting highly polished press conferences and cameras embedded in the noses of smart bombs.

Perhaps it was the smart bomb that inspired Defense Department officials to create the Iraq War's embedding program. Touted as a liberalization of press access rules, embedding was in fact a brilliant strategy to convert the media from massed skeptics into a rolling public-relations field force. Hundreds of wannabe Pyles would roam the battlefield with the troops; their natural instincts to protect the soldiers protecting them would rein in skepticism.

It's a miracle that Dillow–a predictable columnist who rarely strays from paeans to cowboys and cops–got one of the plum embed assignments of the war. He says Marines at Pendleton called the Reg last November and asked if they wanted to enter the embedding program. Dillow, who in 1971 served in Vietnam as a sergeant in the U.S. Army military police, leaped at the chance. Once in Kuwait, he said, he begged the Marines to hitch him to a combat unit from Pendleton. The Marines okayed his request.

So, while most reporters were assigned to rear-area cooking and cleaning units that never saw even a muzzle flash, Dillow found himself with Alpha Company of the 1/5, the first U.S. combat unit to enter Iraq. According to Dillow, the armored personnel carrier he rode in was the seventh vehicle in the U.S. invasion force to cross the border.

"They told the Marines we were to be treated as an 'adverse condition,'" said Dillow. "Some of the officers and most of the NCOs [noncommissioned officers] looked at us like we were snakes who crawled into their tents."

Dillow said the men eventually warmed to his presence, which should have provided his readers with an unparalleled view of the war. Yet the Register never ran Dillow's stuff on Page 1–they reserved the front page for Associated Press or New York Times war reports. Dillow's dispatches ran on Page 4, or even deeper, perilously close to narcotic stories on state budget issues.

It's easy to see that Reg editors made the right decision. Dillow's war journalism was olive drab. His first eight dispatches–all written from Kuwait–dealt with such topics as where to get a gas mask; the dos and don'ts of eating field rations; vaccinations; foxhole digging; and how to detect incoming chemical attacks. Even when the Pentagon unleashed the invasion on March 15, Dillow seemed stuck in the mundane. One March 30 dispatch began promisingly enough, with a quote from the company commander warning his men that an attack on their position was expected that night. But then the story meandered through a long discussion of how the men got some sleep in the meantime. The attack never came.

***

The problem wasn't that attacks never came, but that, when they did, Dillow dishonestly reported what was happening around him. The effects of being constantly surrounded–and protected–by the Marines had destroyed his objectivity. For over a month, Dillow ate, slept and joked with them, drank the same swimming pool-tasting purified water and shared space in an APC the size of a prison cell. But mostly he relied on them to save him from death or capture. The pressure to return the favor–in the form of favorable coverage–was enormous. And Dillow succumbed.

It's not so bad that Dillow passed his satellite phone around the company so the Marines could make their first calls home in over a month. The act was harmless, though it violated embedding rules. More important, Dillow admits he censored his own reporting to make the men of Alpha Company look better than they actually were. In a piece on embedded journalists that appeared in the May/June 2003 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Dillow said he never published the fact that the Marines in the 1/5 so consistently used the term "Haji"–presumably the name of the turbaned Indian kid in Jonny Quest–as a derogatory slur for Arabs that he was unaware of it "about five minutes" after arriving in Kuwait. Dillow also said he bowdlerized the Marines' language. "The astonishing crudity of young men in wartime–your average Marine wouldn't say, 'I have to go on guard,'" wrote Dillow, "but rather, 'I fucking have to fucking go on fucking guard.' It wouldn't fly in a family newspaper . . . . The result was that the Marines sounded much more like choirboys in my stories than they really are." Most ominously, Dillow admitted holding back "some things [that] were simply too gruesome to describe in detail."

Though Dillow mentioned this self-censorship to the Bahia Corinthian crowd, he would not elaborate. But his stories suggest his handling of less-than-gruesome details. When Dillow reported on real fighting, he typically pushed the bloodiest events to the ends of his stories. We've already seen how he buried the Baghdad ambush in the back of his big April 20 feature. Buried within his March 27 dispatch "Days of Danger and Misery," Dillow described how Alpha Company Marines opened up on a van speeding toward their position. Three civilians were killed. Inside the van the Marines found not weapons of mass or even limited destruction, but a load of rice. The reason the van didn't stop at the checkpoint is unknown, left unexamined by Dillow, who reported the incident in eight spare paragraphs. He paid even less attention to the incident in his special April 20 feature on Alpha Company.

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