Published December 01, 2003
LOS ANGELES – Embedded journalists brought the Iraq war live into America's living rooms.
But now, actor and anti-war activist Tim Robbins has written and directed a play depicting his version of what he thinks happened in Iraq.
Robbins, an ardent critic of President Bush, as well as the war, isn't a journalist, nor is he a soldier who has been to Iraq. In fact, he's never been embedded with the troops.
But his play, "Embedded," profiles the journalists who traveled with and reported on U.S. soldiers in Iraq and features the president's war cabinet. It was written in Los Angeles and produced in Hollywood.
Robbins portrays journalists as Pentagon puppets, U.S. soldiers as thieves and killers of innocent women and children, and the Bush cabinet as war mongers willing to start a war to escape the negative publicity of the Enron scandal.
In production less than a month, the play received not one, but two glowing reviews from the Los Angeles Times. Robbins' audience appears to accept his version of the war as the gospel truth.
"It is not propaganda. It is a voice of dissent, which is different than propaganda," said audience member Kadina Dayal-Halday.
When Laura Israel, another audience member, was asked if she thought the play was accurate, she replied: "Yes, not only on what is going on there, but it also showed how we are being lied to by all the networks."
One person who wasn't convinced by the portrayals was Marine Maj. Rich Doherty.
"It was spun to make it look like that leadership started this war simply for its own political agenda … and that can't be further from the truth," Doherty said.
Doherty, who has a Ph.D. from Berkeley, fought in Iraq and worked alongside several embedded journalists. After the show, which Fox News was not allowed to tape, Doherty discussed the performance with some of the audience and cast members.
"You're not on the ground, there is no historical, no empirical evidence to say...that what you're believing or saying politically (is true)," Doherty said.
"With all due respect sir, a lot of people in this country feel this administration went to this war with an agenda of their own and this play resonates with a lot of people who come to see it," countered V.J. Foster, an actor who plays the character of Col. Hardchannel in the play.
"That is your opinion based on what you saw in the newspaper," Doherty shot back. "I'm giving you an opinion based on what I saw with my boots on the ground and in the sand."
In the play, Hardchannel calls reporters "his bitches" and says that if he doesn't like what they write, he'll write it himself and simply use their names. He also censors all reports coming out of Iraq. Fox News journalists embedded with the troops, as well as other journalists interviewed for this story, said they never experienced any kind of censorship. Reporters were only told that they could not reveal operation details that might threaten the safety of U.S. troops -- a condition the Pentagon put on the embedded journalist program.
In reality, no one from the military or the government looked at copy produced by Fox News, touched the videotape, or edited scenes, and no one told reporters what to say.
"Not everything is factual, and maybe that is our fault through satire," added another "Embedded" actor, Kirk Pynchon, who plays a journalist. "Sometimes we make those errors, but it's the same kind of laughter that one gets watching an episode of MASH."
But most people, particularly journalists who actually were embedded with the troops overseas, will argue that Operation Iraqi Freedom was nothing like MASH.
"That demeans the Marines that were killed in my battalion, (to say they) died because five guys in a room thought it was fun to go create a war," Doherty said. "That is bad, bad theater, bad taste."
Robbins had declined to discuss "Embedded" with Fox News until after someone from the channel saw the play. But even after the viewing, Robbins declined interviews.
As in any work of fiction, playwright Robbins was free to invent his own reality of what led to the war in Iraq and what happened there. But for the men and women who served and for those reporters who actually covered them, "Embedded" -- while entertaining -- is far from the truth.