Journalist in war ponders troubling questions

All around, men roared and rifles thudded. Sprawled in the earth in an open field, an American soldier to the left handed me a wounded man's ammunition belt. Even as Taliban bullets whipped overhead, I thought about professional codes of conduct. Carry the belt? Or not?

I was a journalist, not a soldier. My job was to observe without bias, not take part. Yet surely it was a time for instincts rather than circumspection; a time for decisions geared to survival.

In four weeks of reporting on the war in Afghanistan as a journalist embedded with the U.S. military, I found many such troubling questions about my role — and about why I was there in the first place.

So raw and instantaneous, combat inspires introspection. The premise that war exposes the essential nature of people is hard to dispute, once you have witnessed it. Centuries of literature attest to its magnetism. Combat is the most elemental act, and the most intricate. For all its spectacular horrors, it will never lack an audience.

Most spectators feed their fascination from a safe perch — in front of a television screen, or in a movie theater, or with books and games. For journalists, the questions begin with the decision to leave home and head into a combat zone. They have the choice, unlike many soldiers who accept grave risk as the institutional trade-off in a military career that can provide education, stability and adventure.

"Are you thrill-seekers?" a military medic asked Associated Press photographer Pier Paolo Cito and me after we climbed into a Stryker infantry vehicle for the first time.

"Not really," I replied, mealy-mouthed. Maybe he was right. What exactly were we doing there? Nobody forced us.

Time and again, insurgents have hit Strykers with bombs hidden in roads. The underside is flat and low, so a well-timed, powerful blast can rip right through the armor plating. A casket on wheels, the soldiers joke. A mobile coffin.

Many soldiers have died in these attacks, and some journalists died with them. They shared the ultimate intimacy: a last instant alive. Death does not distinguish between journalist and soldier.

An embed assignment with the U.S. or any military can erode a journalist's sense of the professional distance needed to report hard truths. Embedded journalists are the most dependent of guests. Their hosts, military units on deployment, provide not just information, but food, shelter, transport and, with luck, some measure of safety.

Embedded journalists sign a statement acknowledging the risks and waiving any legal claims. The journalists don't take orders and don't assist in military operations. But they are expected to adapt, and like it or not, they are part of a group.

On balance, the access is a privilege, the antithesis of quick-hit journalism. Firsthand observations of combat are critical to telling the story. But the downside is that embedded reporters have a blinkered view of the war.

As an embed in the Marjah area, for example, I had to rely on military interpreters to talk to Afghan civilians in the Pashto language, often in circumstances where they were unlikely to speak freely. A lot of the time, they might as well have been cardboard cutouts, mute figures "outside the wire."

Even in keeping their distance, journalists can learn from soldiers who are, after all, trained to accept the prospect of death at almost any time.

American soldiers in Afghanistan traffick in harsh humor and fatalism. Everyone knows someone who died. They banter about losing limbs. At first, the comments are alien and disturbing. After a while, tasteless makes sense. You laugh, and participate to bury the tension.

One morning, 1st Lt. Gavin McMahon of New York City rousted the men in his platoon out of their sleeping bags after a cold night on the ground. Someone said something about going home with both legs intact. "Legs are overrated," McMahon quipped.

"At this point, I'm like, if I die, whatever," said Spc. Jake Wells of Petersburg, Virginia, a soldier in another unit. "You can't really control it. If it's your time, it's your time."

My friend and colleague, Pier Paolo, got into the spirit. A man jumps out of a skyscraper, he said, and announces half-way down: "So far, so good."

Later, he compared his life to a light switch. Turn it off, and it's over.

That thinking works in the zone, but not with home. Three weeks into the embed, I received a personal e-mail: "You give the impression to be able to indulge in the risk of dying. A luxury you seem to be able to afford at no cost, or at whatever cost."

My terse response, short on sympathy: "I am not here for fun and thrills or inspiration. Don't judge or conclude, please. There's a risk here, but I'm working within certain limits . ... Let's save this conversation for another time."

The unspoken questions shadowing the exchange were: Do I care less about my own life than those closest to me, and isn't choosing to cover combat then an act of extreme selfishness, or even dysfunction?

Public service, professional acclaim, adrenaline rush, financial gain: none of these are primary to the motive, at least for me. It's curiosity, the desire to experience, push boundaries, and witness the intensity of the connection between life and death. Or, perhaps, between life and a third, darker, shunned area: the cold, grinding universe of severe injury.

It's a special kind of knowledge, to read what others have written about the battlefield — an Ernest Hemingway character, for example, who ran "until his lungs ached and his mouth was full of the taste of pennies" — and understand more than just the words.

None of this would be enough of an incentive to wade into danger without the chance to relate the story. There is a call to duty. But for some, the close calls only increase risk tolerance. Complacency is a constant temptation. It can't happen to you.

And who can resist the sullied thought: If a hit must occur, let it be someone else in the vehicle, on the patrol. Attempting to plant feet in the prints of the man in front might reduce the chance of stepping on a boobytrap, but the extra sliver of safety comes at another's expense.

On the day of the Feb. 14 ambush, the ammunition belt beside me, I pondered two or three splashes of bright blood on my fingers in the grime. Was it my blood or the blood of the wounded man? Mine, I think, from digging my knuckles deep into cracked earth while under fire. There was no pain.

I turned to U.S. Army Spc. Nathan Perry of Cedartown, Georgia, lying a couple of feet to the right.

"Shall I take this?" I said, motioning to the belt. "It's you or me," was the gist of his reply. He had his own gear and weapon, while I had a notebook in my back pocket and a few pens jammed in chest straps on my flak jacket. I thought: I am living, eating and breathing with these guys. They need a little help here.

I took the belt. And for the rest of the firefight, I ran, dove and crawled with it until, chest heaving, I dumped it in the back of the Stryker that carried me to relative safety.