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Return of the Embeds

Since the start of the Fallujah offensive, almost 500 wounded U.S. military personnel have been airlifted to Germany – but you wouldn't know it to read the coverage.
 
 
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Dozens of embedded reporters re-enlisted this week, and hundreds of newspapers recounted the invasion of the insurgent stronghold (which turned out to be not quite as strong as expected) as if it might prove to be the turning point in the war. The embeds were far from the scene, however, when several other rebel centers exploded in death and fury.

And they are completely missing from the American tragedy unfolding at the military's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where most of the seriously wounded U.S. troops in Iraq are taken. As of Saturday, according to hospital officials, at least 413 U.S. military personnel had been airlifted to the facility from Iraq since the start of the offensive, forcing them to add beds and expand their operations.

And the pace has only slacked off slightly since the U.S. commanders announced on Saturday that they had seized the entire city. An additional 46 troops from Iraq were en route to the hospital Monday, Landstuhl spokeswoman Marie Shaw said. That's just below the daily average of 60 arrivals at the height of the attack on Fallujah.

To be fair to the brave men and women serving in Iraq, shouldn't the press place a few embeds at Landstuhl? While American fatalities receive major play in press accounts, you have to look deeply to find the numbers on the wounded and maimed. You don't get airlifted to Landstuhl for a nick or scratch. A hospital spokeswoman told Stars and Stripes today that at least half the damage came from burns, blasts and gunshots, with spinal and brain injuries and "traumatic amputations" among them.

As bad as it is in Fallujah, imagine if most of the rebels had actually stood and fought? Having been warned for weeks of the coming attack, and knowing it would be tied to the results of the U.S. election, many melted away, perhaps to Mosul. Of course, if the assault had not been postponed until after the White House was re-secured, perhaps that mass flight could have been prevented (not that any newspapers I've seen are pressing this point).

Even so, the American dead and injured toll is bad enough.

As for the Iraqis in Fallujah: Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said Thursday there have been "hardly any, if any, civilian casualties so far." This has already been disproven, but the scope remains unclear, partly because medical relief teams are still not being allowed into the city.

One thing we do know: for the Iraqi civilians still in the city and in the refugee camps, a humanitarian crisis is unfolding, according to local officials. There's no water, little food and too much disease. And when the smoke clears, it will be interesting to discover whether battered Fallujah will become known as the Hue of Iraq.

Jackie Spinner, the Washington Post embed with the Marines in Fallujah, said in an online chat from the battleground (the mind boggles) on Thursday: "No one I've talked to believes that solving the Fallujah problem will end the violence in Iraq. But, as one Marine officer told me, not solving the Fallujah problem will not end it either."

Well, that just about covers it.

Spinner also relayed without comment the official military explanation for why it seized a Fallujah hospital, and tied up all its doctors, on the first day of the invasion: they had to make sure the docs were not "insurgents" and also, "One of the persistent problems for the military ... was the misreporting of civilian dead and wounded by the propaganda machines at the hospitals."

This comes just weeks after the Allawi government itself released figures showing thousands of civilian casualties in the country, with estimates from others reaching into the tens of thousands.

Given Gen. Myers' claims today of no civilian casualties in this week's assault, it is odd that the Marines told Spinner that they had secured the "propaganda" hospital first "to make sure that civilians had access to medical care during the offensive."

What's to be done if the chaos continues in Iraq? Thursday, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman joined his paper's editorial board in calling for more combat boots on the ground, two divisions worth. Now, where are those boots going to come from? The Times' editorial, earlier this week, suggested that all the military had to do was raise "recruitment quotas" and, presto, enlistees would appear. Why? With the promise of 40,000 more troops in Iraq, the editorial declared, these young men wouldn't worry so much about their safety if they got sent there.

Just don't show them any footage from Landstuhl.