Best Defense

How a reporter should embed with a unit

A friend going to embed with Ukrainian forces asked me for advice. This is what I told him.

A friend going to embed with Ukrainian forces asked me for advice. This is what I told him:

I’ve never done an embed with foreign forces, except one that kind of didn’t work out with the Hondurans (they thought all I wanted to do was have dinner with el coronel, which was the opposite of what I wanted to do).

General advice:

— Be as clear as possible about what you would like to do, which I would bet is get down to the squad level.

— Permission flows downwards, so start at the top. These conversations can be very informative — try to get their theory and notion of what they are doing, so you can compare it with practice and reality as you progress. My formula was to ask the brigade cdr which was his best battalion, and then go to that btln cdr and say, “Your commander says you have the best btln. What are you doing? And what is the best company to see that in?” And so on to platoon and squad and even fire team.

— At some point you may sense where theory meets practice. That is the level to focus on. In WWI probably would be corps level. In the Iraq War it tended to be btln level (and so btln cdrs often were hated).

 — At the end, it sometimes pays to go back up the chain and honestly ask, “Hey, I saw this, but didn’t understand it. Or, I didn’t understand how it comports with what you told me.”

— And as always in an embed, keep a line between them and you. This should be easier with a foreign unit. You are not there to give advice, unless you see something that is threatening that they don’t see. (I would point out mine markings in Bosnia.) To that end, do not wear military fatigues. Wear civvies. Get as many credentials as possible. And letters stating you who are. Keep them on you, with your passport.   

— I would love it if you wrote something for Best Defense. 

Photo credit: Michael L. Casteel/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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