For journalists in conflict zones, embedding is invaluable. It gives you one essential perspective on the war – the view from the front among the soldiers who are fighting.
And for foreign journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan, it can take you to places where otherwise you simply could not go. But it has its pitfalls.
To make the most out of an embed, do your homework. Find out all you can about the area you will be visiting, and think about the stories you want to write – not just about the military but about the communities you will visit.
The military is usually extremely helpful in helping journalists get to remote areas and speak to locals. You’ll find you have a surprising amount of freedom. But you need to know in advance what you want to do.
Make sure you have the right equipment. You’ll need body armour and a helmet, plus eye protection for helicopter rides. You will usually need a satellite phone. A sleeping bag makes sleeping in cramped – and sometimes freezing – military tents more comfortable.
And, crucially, you need all the right adaptors to make sure you can charge your equipment. Few things are more frustrating than being stuck on an embed with your equipment dead and no way to contact your editors.
Be friendly, open and honest with the soldiers you embed with. Some of them distrust the media and will be wary or hostile. Most will go out of their way to help you. And by talking to them, you will find a whole host of stories you may not have considered.
Be clear about what risks you are prepared to take. Usually, the more senior the officer you are travelling with, the safer you are likely to be. But all combat operations are dangerous, and you need to expect the unexpected.
My closest shave in 13 years in journalism was earlier this month, when I was in a Black Hawk helicopter with a US general. Insurgents opened fire on the helicopter with AK47s and then mortared the base we were landing in.
I’d promised my parents I’d stay away from dangerous assignments and had a hard time explaining that travelling with a general should have been a pretty safe trip.
Take a good book. Much of journalism involves long periods of waiting around, interspersed with bursts of frenetic activity. Life on an embed is the same, but more so. You can be in the middle of combat operations and then spend hours – or days – stuck at a base in the middle of nowhere waiting for a helicopter ride. It’s not a good time to try to give up smoking.
Finally, and most importantly of all, don’t lose your objectivity. You are living among soldiers, getting to know them, learning about their lives. More than that, you are entrusting your life to them. It is an invaluable way to see the war from their point of view. But don’t unquestioningly allow that to become your point of view too. Embedding offers an invaluable perspective on a war. But it is only one perspective, and you must never forget that.