Combat School for Journalists

NPR's John Burnett Learns How to Go to War, Safely

Infantryman with scope

Ranger infantryman in battlefield camouflage, with night-vision scope attached to his helmet, undergoes training at Ft. Benning, Georgia. John Burnett, NPR News hide caption

itoggle caption John Burnett, NPR News

If American troops invade Iraq, the Pentagon says it will invite hundreds of journalists to report from the front lines. The idea is to have reporters chronicle actual battlefield casualties, to counteract Saddam Hussein's expected propaganda.

However, as the media has learned from past conflicts, the U.S. military can engage in plenty of "spin" of its own. Distrust has festered between the military and the press since the Vietnam War, so the Pentagon's decision to hold week-long training camps for reporters is a big departure.

NPR's John Burnett recently attended one such training session at Ft. Benning, Georgia, along with 60 other journalists. On the first day, they were given a startling reality check on the horrors of war — they were taught how to stop the bleeding on a wounded soldier until a medic arrived.

"In addition to practical exercises, Ft. Benning... put on lots of splashy demonstrations of firepower," Burnett says. "At an artillery range in a sort of combat rock opera, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and an M1 Abrams tank took turns annihilating a dummy tank to the tune of George Thorogood's 'Bad to the Bone.'"

The main goal of the training sessions is to teach reporters how to stay out of the way of fighting soldiers and stay safe on a battlefield. Burnett and the others practiced getting on and off a Blackhawk helicopter, detecting land mines, land navigation, camouflage and the low belly crawl — "also handy with assignment editors," Burnett says.

"Our escorts for the week were mostly Army drill sergeants," Burnett says. "They compared supervising correspondents to herding cats."

Journalists, Burnett concluded, must be vigilant about remaining impartial observers. "One veteran war correspondent warned us of the greatest threat: After spending weeks with the same soldiers under harsh conditions, he said a journalist must remain independent and always remember, 'I'm not one of them.'"

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