Retrograde. It seems an unfitting term for America’s longest war, but it’s the word of the moment for the U.S. military when it talks about Afghanistan. In plain terms, it means something like moving backward as other things move forward — or just opposite the normal flow.
For almost 13 years I have been in the normal flow of journalists — and later the military — to Afghanistan, covering the war that followed Sept. 11. When I first arrived in the fall of 2001, there was no such thing as being “embedded.” Journalists depended entirely on local Afghan drivers, fixers and translators.
The official military embed program really began in 2003 with the start of the Iraq War. And from that point on — for better or for worse — that was what you did if you wanted to cover combat operations involving U.S. forces. Cumulatively, at this point, I’ve spent nearly four years living with soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And on an embed, you really do live with them. Every aspect of your daily life is the same as it is for the troops you are covering. They dig a hole in the dirt to sleep in: You get in, too. They eat a two-year-old MRE (Meal Ready to Eat): bon appetit. Maybe the only difference is that as a journalist, you don’t carry a weapon.
Photo Credit: David Gilkey/NPR
Editor’s Note: On his most recent trip to Afghanistan, NPR staff photographer David Gilkey shot this personal iPhone photo essay in his downtime. You can find some of his reportage photography here, here and here.