This article was originally published in the New Republic on March 31, 2003, and is reproduced with permission.
Last week, I watched nearly a dozen British tanks and armored vehicles storm across the Kuwaiti desert on cue -- literally. The British military had arranged a "press facility," as they call such affairs, and, although the men and women of the media had been delayed for 90 minutes at a police checkpoint on the highway leading to the border with Iraq, there was no danger of missing the maneuvers. Staged with the panache of a Broadway play, the spectacle would commence at whatever hour the audience arrived with its cameras and notepads.
After the press convoy showed up at a British desert base 20 miles south of the Iraqi border, an officer from the 1st Royal Fusiliers of the 7th Armored Brigade gave us a quick security briefing -- so we could "leave with the same number of body parts" with which we arrived -- and instructed us to stand behind a length of white ribbon placed about 20 yards from a serpentine trench. He pointed to the horizon, where the silhouettes of Challenger tanks and Warrior fighting vehicles were visible. In one minute, he said, they would arrive at the trench.
Smack on time, the metal monsters ground to a halt in clouds of dust and disgorged a squad of combat soldiers who rushed forward, bayonets drawn, to attack imaginary Iraqis who lacked the wisdom to surrender. One of the Brits lost a boot as he lunged forward. (The humiliation of having it returned to him by a journalist would come later.) After the mock assault, an officer stood in front of us -- there were nearly 100 journalists on the scene -- and said he'd heard that some cameramen wanted to get shots of the now-idling tanks moving directly at them in a "V" formation. The money shot was duly stage-managed. Afterward, we were invited to interview the victorious soldiers and inspect their imposing weaponry.
This is old-fashioned war propaganda. The images of hardworking grunts bravely preparing for battle are intended to bolster support back home and, if the enemy happens to be watching or listening or reading, to convey the message that resistance will be futile and, in all likelihood, fatal. With more than 600 journalists "embedded" with military units in the desert and field trips offered every day for "unilateral" journalists (as we, the un-embedded, are branded on our orange press cards), a lot of canned journalism has been occurring in Kuwait. Until a few days ago, this propaganda war seemed different from previous ones only in its breadth, rather than in its content or effect. But things have taken a startling turn, as I learned from Colonel Chris Vernon, the congenitally blunt and jovially boastful spokesman for the British military. "We're showing what we've got, and we would like the message to get out to the people and to the regime of Iraq," said Vernon, whose broad shoulders and chin-back, chest-forward posture make him a casting director's dream of a British officer. "We would wish to translate success into a message. Therefore, if we were to have success in some part of Iraq, we would like that success to be seen by elements of the leadership and the population."
A few days before the press facility, I had chatted with Vernon at the Hilton Hotel and Resort (where the United States and the United Kingdom have set up their military press center) about Basra, the southern Iraqi city less than 50 miles from Kuwait that is expected to be the first target of the invasion; the Brits are to take Basra while the Americans move north to seize Baghdad. Vernon, who in the 1990s was a spokesman in Bosnia for the U.N. peacekeeping force, went out of his way to say the Brits would likely provide a military escort to carefully selected members of the international media so that news of the liberation of Basra might ignite an uprising in Baghdad and the collapse of the regime. "If I bring Christiane Amanpour into Basra to broadcast from the roof of the Sheraton, it's not because I want her to earn another one hundred thousand pounds in salary," Vernon told me. "It's because I have a military objective that is served by broadcasting the liberation of a city to the rest of Iraq that has not been liberated. We want the regime and the people to know it and feel it." Vernon made the same point during the press facility in the desert and apparently has been making it to my colleagues. A March 13 story by Newsday's Edward Gargan quoted "a senior British officer" -- no prizes for guessing who that might be -- as saying, "I'm not doing this so that the CNN correspondent gets another £100,000 in their salary. I'm doing it because the regime watches CNN. I want them to see what is happening. ... Yes, we are using them. We use everything we have." And, while those few lucky correspondents are being "used" in Basra, the rest of us will presumably have to settle for watching them on television: Word is that the U.S. and British military will try to deny access to Basra to journalists who are traveling on their own.