BROOKE GLADSTONE: As dozens of reporters chaff in the gilded cage of the White House press room, hundreds more are flowing into the Middle East, many imbedded with the U.S. military. NPR's John Burnett is one of those. We spoke to him last week from the splendor of the Kuwaiti Hilton, now he's living in the desert at the Marine camp called Matilda. When we called him this week it was midnight in Kuwait. He spoke into his satellite phone so as not to disturb the sleeping soldiers he's coming to know.
JOHN BURNETT: Actually, it's a wonderful group of guys because they all belong to the Marine band. They're all musicians. They're not quite the warriors that you get with other Marine platoons. I'm actually staying in the band tent but I'll be covering a two-star general and the colonels that actually run this enormous division, which will be one the spearheads as the invasion of Iraq begins, if it begins.
BOB GARFIELD: If it begins. Is there much talk, given what's been going on in the U.N., among the people you're with about the possibility that it may not begin or it may not begin anytime soon?
JOHN BURNETT: When you're around a bunch of 19-year-old Marines they're extremely impatient to--to get going and to start fighting, even if they play tubas and clarinets. Everyone in this camp is completely gung-ho about invading Iraq. One of the path sergeants, when a fellow held up some Iraqi currency with a picture of Saddam Hussein on it, he pulled out his nine millimeter pistol, unloaded it, cocked it, and then shot it at the image of Saddam. Inside the stall in one of the port-o-johns here, someone has drawn a picture of downtown Baghdad in flames. This is a group of soldiers that really wants to get moving.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about your fellow journalists, have some of that gung-ho spirit found its way into that cadre?
JOHN BURNETT: When we live in the same conditions, as these thousands and thousands of soldiers do, which is sand storms, sleeping on the floors of tents, the fine dust the consistency of talcum power everywhere, this is what the Marines like to call an austere environment. I would say that you may start having journalists who left the United States as doves turning into, if not hawks, at least blue jays.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I remember last week you were a little skeptical about the presence of, of an escort--not an escort--of a Marine buddy to help you along your--
JOHN BURNETT: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: --your news-gathering tasks. Has your buddy presented himself?
JOHN BURNETT: Yes. [LAUGHS] In fact, the U.S. Marine Corps has assigned me my Marine buddy. He's a very sweet young corporal, 19 years old. His name is Kwana and he is anything but a censor or a minder or anything that we would associate with trying to spin the content of what I'm doing. If anything, he's here to help me get my gas mask on when we have chem-bio alerts. He's here to show me around the camp. And so far I'm really encouraged that the military is following through with what they said they were going to do. I mean, I've only actually been out here in the desert with the troops for three days now. But in those three days we've met the commanding general of the First Marine Division, we've met the chief of staff, we've met the assistant commander. They've all said what can we do to help you do your job, which is just not something you really expect from the Department of Defense. So I'm encouraged so far.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are there any concerns that remain as you look ahead to covering a possible war?
JOHN BURNETT: Well, a sense, I mean, this is all a dress rehearsal, Brooke. Nothing really matters until the war starts. And then everything matters because everything starts in earnest and we find out if the war plan is working, whether there have been terrible mistakes, whether there have been dramatic casualties, whether there have been civilian deaths. And all these things are very difficult for the Pentagon as an institution to talk about. And so I'm very interested to see how forthcoming they will be. But there are certainly some encouraging signs of openness.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the job that you have to do now? As you say, this is a dress rehearsal. Are there any stories that you've reported that you felt needed to be reported?
JOHN BURNETT: Oh, I'm actually doing sort of Ernie Pyle stories right now of these Marines and who they are and how they feel about the possible coming battle and what their lives are like out here. I mean, frankly there's been so much about potential military tactics and so many pundits predicting what's going to happen, I'm pretty sick of that. And the little war reporting that I've done has told me that so much of what generals and colonels say about a coming war, about what they're going to do and how strong they are and what their forces can accomplish, it's all propaganda that is aimed at the enemy to confound them, confuse them, to scare them. This is also why I'm not really interested in doing a lot of quoting from some of the top commanders right now. They can't say a whole lot about what the battle's going to look like, and what they can say you do have to be aware of the propaganda purposes. In some ways it's easier to focus on the troops right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John, thank you so much.
JOHN BURNETT: It's good to be here, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: NPR's John Burnett speaking to us from Camp Matilda in northern Kuwait. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, when the press keeps mum. Sometimes it's squeamishness, sometimes it's bullets, sometimes it's simple starvation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, from NPR. [MUSIC]