Front Lines: Covering The Military

It's called the Battle of 73 Easting. The 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment under Capt. H. R. McMaster was cruising through the Iraqi desert back in 1991 when the company came upon a convoy of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard.

THERE WERE scores of Iraq's T-72 tanks. McMaster's Eagle Troop--with its 10 tanks and 13 Bradley Fighting Vehicles--took out the enemy in just 23 minutes. It was the seminal tank battle of the Persian Gulf War and few people have ever heard of it because not a single reporter was within a hundred miles of the fight.

When the battle was over, McMaster, who went on to teach at West Point, sat down on the end of a Bradley and wrote down everything that had happened on a legal pad. He shipped those 36 handwritten pages to his mother, who sent them on to Joe Galloway, the journalist who made his name as a UPI photographer covering Vietnam and who co-wrote "We Were Soldiers Once ... And Young" with Lt. Gen. Hal Moore. The gripping tale of the Ia Drang battle--the first major ground fight of that war--showed both the heroism and tragedy of Vietnam. When Galloway, who by 1991 worked as a reporter for U.S. News and World Report, got home from the gulf war and finally got through his stacks of mail, he found McMaster's manuscript. He went straight to the editor and said, "I need the cover. I've got the exclusive of the war." His editor replied, "Joe, the war is over." He tried again, "You're not hearing me. I need the cover." But his editor was unmoved. "You're not hearing me. The war is over."

The Battle of 73 Easting--named for the map designation--did eventually make it into magazine's pages, but long enough after the battle that it lost currency with readers. And it remains little known outside military circles, where what happened is now used as a strategic tool for teaching. It has also provided a great lesson in terms of military media strategy. The herding of reporters into restrictive "pools" during the gulf war served nobody's purpose. Now, for the first time since Vietnam, the Defense Department has agreed to let reporters "embed" with troops if another gulf war happens. The Pentagon believes that reporters will not only help write history but counter Iraqi disinformation. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has sent a personal memo to commanders strongly encouraging them to cooperate with reporters. The kind of working relationship that Galloway and Moore developed at Ia Drang may never occur again, but those two men deserve credit for advocating a change in Pentagon thinking.

When I was at Fort Benning, Ga., a few months ago, General Moore spoke to visiting reporters. With top brass listening on, he argued for the military to let reporters accompany soldiers into battle just as he had let Galloway. Last year, their book was made into a movie; Mel Gibson played Moore. Pictures of the actor still sit on office shelves on base and people still recall the excitement of the having the movie crew around, but it's Moore who is the real local celebrity. Despite the reverence he inspires, Moore remains a simple, plain-spoken man. He explained to us his rules of engagement for soldiers and reporters during Vietnam. "I told reporters, 'Don't get in the way. And don't give up my plans'," Moore said. "And I told my troops, 'Talk from your level. Don't speak for the highers. And tell the truth'."

After Ia Drang, Moore went on to command a battalion and he and Galloway continued to work together. "If I was off somewhere else, he would not only send word to me, but he'd send a helicopter to get me," remembers Galloway, who has been lecturing the military about access for reporters for more than a decade. Not once did he or another reporter break Moore's rules of engagement, he insists. On the speaker circuit after his book came out, Galloway says he would tell military audiences: "Let reporters and soldiers become friends on the battlefield. It will last all their careers."

That was certainly true in his case. While covering Vietnam, Galloway met a young major named Norman Schwarzkopf. When the gulf war rolled around, that major had become a general, and that 20-year-old friendship served Galloway well. He remembers that Gen. Barry McCaffrey summoned him into the operation center during the war and showed him an upcoming battle plan. "I trust you because Schwarzkopf trusts you," McCaffrey told Galloway. "But more than that, I trust you because you're coming with me." The only thing that might outweigh reporters' desire for a scoop is their desire to stay alive. Galloway, who now works for Knight Ridder in Washington, won't be covering any future gulf war from the field. "I'd go in a heartbeat, but my wife lost her father in Vietnam, and she says she'll be damned if she'll lose her husband," he explains. He and Moore have earned the right to sit this one out.