The Long Night
A conversation with a public affairs officer after a night when things went wrong.
4:20 PM, Mar 24, 2003 • By MATT LABASH
Some 500 of my colleagues have literally gone into combat by embedding with troops. Scores of others have made suicide runs into Iraq without the benefit of being escorted by M-16-toting Marines. What many lack in brains, they make up for in balls. They are guys like Slate's Nate Thayer, who is camped out in Baghdad, and willing to become a human shield instead of a journalistic deserter. They are guys like Newsweek's Scott Johnson, who just flipped his truck in the desert after having it riddled with bullets, barely escaping with his life. They might not do these things for the lofty, noble purposes of duty, honor, and country. But they do them--often for no other reason than that they're there to be done.
The flip side of the war reporter is the military public affairs officer. They too, suffer sometimes unfair stereotypes--many of them perpetuated by journalists. We often cast them as neutered soldiers and company men--the friends of bureaucracy and obstructionism, the enemies of access and truth. But Major Chris Hughes, a Marine public affairs officer, is not one of these.
Hughes works the graveyard shift at the Coalition Press Information Center here at the Kuwait City Hilton. (It's actually the day shift back home, on account of the time difference.) My advance men in Kuwait told me to get to know him, and to become his fluffer--that he was a gregarious sort you could do business with, which is necessary for unembedded reporters, since what stands between us and any military access is the often uncooperative figure of the public affairs officer. When I initially called him, we set up an appointment for midnight, which he had to move to 1:00, then 2:00 a.m. Still overwhelmed with calls at the appointed time, he kicked our interview to 5:00 a.m., which he then moved back once more until he knocked off at 8:00 in the morning. I initially tried to sweeten the pot, offering to bring over some special-recipe "Listerine." But he declined politely. "Can't do it," he said, "There's a war on, man."
When I met up with him outside the press desk at the end of his normal 12-16 hour shift, he was bleary-eyed and haggard. The night shift, he says, is "kind of a self-inflicted wound. Bad things happen at night. And last night was a bummer." Indeed, it was. After this conflict is over, historians will debate its various turning points. But Sunday will be known as the period in which the war became realer and darker--when bad things happened to good people.
A British RAF Tornado had been accidentally blown out of the sky by a U.S. patriot missile. An attempted fragging incident at the 101st Airborne Division's camp in northern Kuwait left one soldier dead, and 16 injured. Throughout southern Iraq, soldiers and Marines were getting chewed up by non-uniformed militia types after towns had supposedly been taken. Dead Americans began showing up on Al-Jazeera, their bodies set out like grocery window displays. Unembedded journalists, cowboying around hostile territory without military protection, were being felled. Three ITV news crew members were missing and presumed dead after coming under fire in southern Iraq. And in the north, an Australian television cameraman was the victim of a car bomb.
After spending all night discussing these horrors, Hughes makes his way with me to the incongruous Songbird Café, where pretty Filipina waitresses offer salmon on focaccia to anyone who still has an appetite. Hughes doesn't. He sticks with the Diet Coke he brought himself. He's much more interested in sleeping, than eating.
Looks-wise, Hughes is all Marine--squared off and squinty--a young James Caan whose eyes slant upward from their outside corners in, forming quotations around his expressions. He has worked numerous media operations in some pretty hairy settings--places like East Timor and Afghanistan. And it never ceases to amaze him the cavalier attitude journalists often bring to war. "With the old guys and gals," says the 37-year-old Hughes, "they know the deal. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't. With the work-up for the whole embed [of which he was a big champion], the mentality was kind of 'we're going camping.' No you're not. You're going to war. People will die."