On an eerily quiet May 2008 afternoon, a Canadian soldier shows us around the deserted, boxy homes of this Kandahar terrain. Dressed in Afghan garb and military wear-a purplish-brown tunic and pants, contrasted by a sand-camouflage vest and black reflective sunglasses-he directs our attention to an open field where an old car sits. A Taliban insurgent sets up a rocket about 50 metres from the car. There’s a crackle over the radio from our guide’s vest. Then there’s a high-pitched whirring. A thin stream of smoke pierces the air. With a loud crash the car disappears under a white cloud. We clap and holler. Suddenly, from behind, a voice screams, “In the name of Allah!”

* * *

The military and the media. Two institutions, two cultures. Soldiers wield weapons; journalists deal in words and pictures. Soldiers stay in line; journalists push the limits. Soldiers shut up and follow orders; journalists question everything. So we don’t get along a lot of the time, but we still need to play nice and talk with each other. The military is funded with public money, is a government body and consists of fellow citizens-all good reasons for journalists to want to keep tabs on it. And the military wants to make sure its soldiers don’t look bad-a trend that has become especially evident in the past few years.

The war in Afghanistan started in 2001, but became a much bigger national news story when Canada’s mission shifted to a leading combat role in the dangerous southern province of Kandahar by early 2006. The Canadian Forces Media Embedding Program, as we know it now, formally began in Afghanistan in 2003, allowing journalists to live, eat, sleep and work right next to soldiers while reporting on them and the mission. Embedding is controversial for two reasons. The first is the fear that reporters will become too close to the soldiers, living and working alongside them. The second is the embed agreement: a lengthy contract all journalists must sign that restricts what they can report. Journalists make professional compromises each time they embed. And each time, they struggle with the frustrations of battling the military public-relations machine.

* * *

The military wasn’t always so diligent in burnishing its brand. It didn’t need to be. For decades, the Canadian Forces had a reputation as global peacekeepers. It was a status well-earned. Lester B. Pearson established Canada’s international standing in 1956 as secretary of state for External Affairs in Louis St. Laurent’s Liberal government. In October of that year, several months after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, fighting broke out between Egypt and Israel (the latter supported by Britain and France). Pearson proposed the United Nations create a force of soldiers from neutral countries to serve as peacekeepers, separating the warring armies and supervising a ceasefire. The UN accepted this plan and named then Major-General “Tommy” Burns commander of the force. Pearson won the Nobel Peace Prize for his idea and went on to become Canada’s 14th prime minister from 1963 to 1968. Since then, Canada has conducted peacekeeping missions in Cyprus, the Middle East, Haiti, Bosnia, Cambodia, El Salvador and Angola.

But the nation’s image of fairness and neutrality became tarnished in 1993. As civil war tore apart Somalia, the UN organized international operations to secure parts of the east African country to allow for the distribution of aid. Canada agreed to participate and arrived in December 1992. Brian Mulroney, then prime minister, sent the Canadian Airborne Regiment (car), despite concerns about recurring discipline problems and allegations that some members were white supremacists. In March 1993, soldiers captured Somali teenager Shidane Arone and took photos while brutally beating him to death. A court martial later convicted Private Kyle Brown of manslaughter and torture, while Master Corporal Clayton Matchee was declared unfit for trial following a suicide attempt that left him with significant brain damage.

After the national press reported the incident, Canadians were outraged. Public affairs officials from the Department of National Defence allegedly tried to cover up the misdeed by attempting to alter and destroy documents. Jean Chrétien’s Liberals, who came to power in 1993, launched the Somalia Commission of Inquiry in 1995, the same year car was disbanded. The military became the subject of intense media criticism during this period. To top it off, as part of its effort to reduce the federal deficit, the Liberal administration severely cut the defence budget. While public trust in the military eroded, the Forces had to change public-relations tactics.

Before Somalia, soldiers’ contact with journalists was limited. But the inquiry and attendant media scrutiny reminded military leadership how much reporting can influence public opinion. The Forces started to design its message and began training soldiers on how to talk to journalists. At the first media training courses, soldiers sometimes played the role of reporters. But senior officers with experience in communications saw this as a mistake. Soldiers were overly aggressive because this was how they thought reporters acted, though many had never spoken to one before. So journalists were hired to help soldiers learn the basics of dealing with the media, and in 2006, the Canadian Manoeuvre Training Centre formalized media play into its exercises. Knowing that many working reporters wouldn’t have the time, or the inclination, to help the other side, the military lured senior journalism students and recent grads with good pay and the chance to build their resumés.

I have to admit I succumbed. One weekend in November 2008, I crossed over to the dark side…

* * *

It’s Saturday, 9 a.m. For the next two days I’ll be working at Denison Armoury in northwest Toronto. The military is training regional units for domestic operations, which include responses to natural disasters such as flooding. The days are broken up into one-hour sessions, and I’m part of the media communications exercise. Taking turns with two other student journalists, I role-play, asking soldiers a set of relatively easy questions-“What are you doing here this weekend?” “What kind of training have you done so far?”-because most have never been interviewed before. My first soldier seethes in anger.

“Could you please tell me your name and rank?” I say with a smile.

“First, tell me your name and who you’re working for, and what this story is about,” he snaps. I’m determined to loosen him up and stay sweet for the rest of the questions, but he remains stern and brief.

Afterward, we play back the tape. The other soldiers in the unit immediately crack up at the sight of their friend’s face. “You look so pissed off!” one shouts. One of my co-workers makes suggestions about how the soldier can tailor his responses to promote a positive message about the military. I go into “good worker” mode and offer my own opinion. “You should … ” I pause mid-sentence as the words form in my mind, because suddenly, I wish I’d never started at all. I realize I’m training them on how to give PR spin to journalists instead of explaining why it’s important to be honest, free-thinking individuals. I look down, swallow and feel everyone’s eyes on me. “You should be more easygoing and see the journalist as a friend. When you come off as hostile, it can be used against you.” That was the last critique I gave.

At the end of the weekend, I sign my contract to get paid what may be the easiest $360 I’ll ever earn. The next day at school I tell a colleague what I did over the weekend. “Sellout!” she deadpans, but I can’t help feeling the sting of truth in her epithet.

* * *

For soldiers learning to shoot rifles, search vehicles and cordon off insecure areas, talking to the media is just one more skill to learn. All the teaching comes together during significant field exercises held several times a year. Journalists often accompany soldiers during these training scenarios, which could be combat operations and, in the case of Afghanistan, involve approaching a known Taliban area. They report on the events as they would if they were in the embed program. Later, the stories and news clips are often analyzed by military public affairs officers, who critique the soldiers’ military-and media-performances and tell them what they’ve done right and wrong.

Soldiers have strict instructions to “stay in their lane,” military slang for sticking to the facts about their roles. For example, if a private’s job is to drive a light-armoured vehicle (LAV), he can answer any question about the LAV and driving it. But soldiers are not allowed to give personal opinions on questions such as whether they think the mission is a good idea. That, they are told, is a policy question for senior commanders and government.

The flip side to this media training is journalists becoming acquainted with military culture, procedures and language. Captain Robert Kennedy, brigade public affairs officer at Denison Armoury, laments how few journalists can even correctly distinguish a soldier’s rank. A former radio and newspaper reporter himself, he knows how important it is for the military to get along with the media because he wants the public to hear an informed (read: positive) message about the Forces. This has been especially critical since the Afghan war began. But while the military tries to project and protect a certain image, there is also a genuine desire to educate journalists. “Dealing with reporters can be regarded as either a threat or an opportunity,” says Kennedy. “But I do not regard them as a threat by any means.” The tricky part for reporters is figuring out how much of what’s being said is real, and how much of it is just for show.

* * *

Months earlier, back on our “Kandahar terrain,” we brush the white powder off our jackets, laughing in relief. Our “suicide bomber” stands up and gives us a shy smile as the military guide introduces him as a fellow member of the Forces. I look around at my peers to see how much washing everyone will have to do.

Twelve of us are enrolled in the Canadian Military Journalism Course run by the University of Calgary and Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. With the goal of teaching student journalists about the military, the course combines classroom study with field trips to places such as Camp Wainwright, a Kandahar-replica training base in Alberta, about a three-hour drive east of Edmonton. Soldiers pass through here before heading overseas. The land is hay-yellow and dusty, and I imagine this is probably as close as it can get to the real thing. The military hires various actors for the simulations, including about 35 to 40 Afghan-Canadians to role-play as villagers and refugees, so that soldiers can practice talking through translators and work on cultural sensitivities. Fake livestock are also set up on the base. Soldiers mustn’t kill the animals since they can be the locals’ primary source for food or income; they can’t even disturb them, lest the animals make noise during a sneak attack. Every actor and soldier wears a sophisticated sensory vest. Attached to the vest is a speaker box that announces injuries (left arm has been blown off) and fatalities. In the case of a “grievous injury,” a timer counts down how long a soldier has left to live, so the pressure stays on nearby soldiers and medics to offer aid. If that doesn’t work and the victim “dies,” the device will continue beeping until he or she lies down.

Unfortunately, we don’t get to experience any of this. We’re only on a tour and it’s the actors’ day off. But I wonder how weird it is for journalists to work in those conditions, simply playing reporter instead of actually being one. I don’t have much time to ponder the question as our guide has us on a schedule. We clamber into three enormous SUVs and strap on our green-camouflage military helmets. Next stop: Kandahar Airfield.

When travelling to Afghanistan on assignment, embedded journalists typically arrive at Kandahar Airfield (KAF), the Canadian military base outside Kandahar City. Thousands of troops walk around carrying guns. But take away the guns, and the base resembles any Small Town, U.S.A., says Kelly Cryderman, reporter for the Calgary Herald and a former embed for Canwest News Service. Journalists work from media tents with desks, phones and internet connections for laptops. “When I first arrived on the ground, it was the day two Canadian aid workers got killed outside of Kabul,” recounts Scott Deveau of the National Post, who was embedded for the first time this past August and September. “You find out where your desk is, plug in your computer and write this story. But you’re basically fucked. You don’t know how to do it.” Deveau learned quickly enough. He read an initial wire report on the incident with a quote from a provincial governor. He called Canwest’s fixer, a local who acts as a guide and assists in reporting, told the fixer he was new and asked him to try to get a statement from the governor. The story eventually began to write itself.

Because working from KAF is like working out of an office, journalists realize reporting from the base is limiting. To fully capture the story of Afghanistan and the Canadian military’s role there, they have to go “outside the wire,” or off the base. There are two basic ways to be part of the action. The first is to temporarily “unembed” and travel with a fixer. The second is to accompany soldiers in armoured vehicles on operations such as visiting Afghan villages, fighting in Taliban areas and ensuring the security of NATO-held land. A journalist could be gone for a couple of hours, days or weeks, depending on the situation. The physical toll of travelling with soldiers is a challenge in itself.

* * *

“Who wants to be the gunner?” the soldier asks as students assemble around the back of a LAV. It looks like a clunky metal box that would swallow me whole if I tried to run away. Someone else nabs the gunner spot after answering a skill-testing question about the military (Q: What is OMLT? A: The Operational Mentor and Liaison Team, a program run by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force to train, mentor and support the Afghan National Army). She climbs over the side and slips into a narrow hole. Once seated, she’s faced with a multitude of controls and a periscope to view the target. She can put her hands on her hips to stick her elbows out, and turn her head from side-to-side-that’s the extent of the available room to move. Twelve people won’t fit into the back of one LAV, so we’re divided into two groups. The back door comes down like a spaceship ramp, but it’s not very high-tech inside, just dirty empty space. On the left is a hard bench, covered with green tarp, that barely fits the five of us-all fairly small-framed women. Even though it’s only a five-minute ride, we’re instructed to strap on our helmets for safety and climb in. At five-foot-five, I have to duck my head, and I can’t figure out how they could possibly fit eight soldiers along with their equipment in here. As we drive along the gravel road, we take turns poking our heads through the two rooftop hatches, which would normally remain closed in a conflict. I half believe I’ll feel the heat and humidity, and see empty desert when it’s my turn to stand and look outside.

In Afghanistan, journalists ride with soldiers in armoured vehicles for hours at a time, and in Kandahar’s summer climate, it’s easy to get sick. CTV national affairs correspondent Lisa LaFlamme, who compares the inside of a LAV to a hockey bag, remembers asking where she should throw up.

“In your helmet,” a soldier replied.

“I was not about to throw up in my helmet and then have to wear it for days on end,” she says.

She emptied a food rations bag and used it instead. “Vomit dripped on the knee cap of every soldier as it went to the sentry who threw it out,” she laughs. The soldiers cracked up but commended LaFlamme for holding her own.

She stresses the importance of not appearing as if you’re dead weight. Soldiers must protect journalists, but they become resentful if they feel like glorified babysitters. Smart reporters realize this and seek to establish a good rapport with the rank-and-file. But working with the military team is not simply about making a good career move and writing better stories. It’s also about self-preservation: outside the wire, your life is always at risk and frequently in their hands.

* * *

Deaths are rare at Camp Wainwright. But earlier in the week, Specialist Joseph M. Cerfus, a visiting U.S. soldier, died in a freak training accident. He was moving heavy equipment with a Chinook helicopter when the cargo rolled onto Cerfus and crushed him. The 25-year-old was pronounced dead at the hospital. We arrive at the mock KAF in time for the ramp ceremony honouring his life. Hundreds of troops stand neatly lined up on the tarmac. Soldiers play solemn tunes on trumpets; officials read memorial speeches. We watch from the periphery, next to white tents. If this were Afghanistan, we’d see almost the exact same ceremony.

* * *

When journalists travel independently, they rely on their fixers to conduct interviews during times when it’s too dangerous for them to do so or in places non-Afghans can’t go. To verify military information, reporters or fixers can talk to the Taliban at clandestine meetings in the back seats of cars or in tea shops. There is no official way to verify a Taliban member’s claims, or even his identity. Worse, when someone else is doing the talking, journalists can’t personally get the information or ask follow-up questions, so they must teach fixers the nuances of the trade-for example, to deliver a quote and not paraphrase what they hear. The reliability of this practice is a matter of some debate.

Graeme Smith, The Globe and Mail‘s chief Afghanistan correspondent, has spent most of his time in the country over the last three years, though he’s currently on leave to write a book. Once established there, Smith wanted a reliable information-gathering system, one that would also let readers hear from the insurgents themselves. “It was becoming clear that meeting the Taliban face-to-face was getting increasingly dangerous,” he says. “They appeared to be kidnapping journalists and were killing aid workers, doing things that made me very reluctant to meet them in person.” So Smith prepared a list of 20 questions for his fixer to ask Taliban members, and the fixer delivered 42 videotaped interviews over three months. Smith then gave the raw footage to a company in Kabul for comprehensive translation into English. He developed the interviews into a six-part series showcasing major patterns he found while analyzing the tapes. The result was a multimedia site called “Talking to the Taliban”-proof his fixers weren’t altering the information.

I met Smith this past October and he walked me through part three of the series, titled “The Tribal War.” In the video, he explains that within the Taliban insurgency there are ancient tribal divides that complicate the reasons for the fighting beyond the “war on terror.” The 29-year-old started working at the Globe in 2001 and has been reporting from Afghanistan since 2005. He typically spends seven weeks in and three weeks out. But even during his time off, Afghanistan is never far from his mind. Smith is generally considered to be the senior correspondent there by neophyte and experienced reporters alike. He has established a wealth of local contacts and no longer needs to rely on the Canadian military for information.

Unlike Smith, most journalists embed for about two to six weeks. Some return for a second, third or even fourth tour of duty, but months may pass between trips. This can cause difficulty as troops go through six-to-twelve month rotations, so whatever trust a reporter builds one visit may be useless the next.

Complicating matters further, Canada’s three major TV networks-CBC, CTV and Global-started a broadcast pool in fall 2007. Instead of each one sending a small team, the networks take turns, sharing the footage, and further limiting how frequently each TV reporter can travel to Afghanistan. In addition to being a cost-cutting measure, it solved a problem for the networks: their visuals were all starting to look the same. “The type of coverage we can do of Afghanistan is limited,” says Kenton Boston, vice-president of Global National News. Unlike print, broadcast reporting is cumbersome. “You’ve got satellites, editing equipment, TV cameras,” explains Derek Stoffel, a CBC Radio reporter who’s been to Afghanistan three times, and reported for CBC Television as well. “With TV, you have to drag all this gear with you.” Stoffel says the pool has also limited his ability to go outside the wire. The desks back home fear missing a big story with no other broadcast reporters on base, he says, and the story they’re most concerned about is a Canadian fatality.

Military public affairs officers are annoyed by journalists on “death watch.” “We offer journalists multiple opportunities, but few of them ever fit the bill because they’re not doable in an afternoon,” says Lieutenant-Colonel Jay Janzen, a public affairs officer who led the Canadian Forces communications team at KAF from May 2008 to February 2009. “So they end up sitting here waiting for something bad to happen, and those types of people often get unhappy because they’re sitting on Kandahar Airfield. There’s not a lot else going on.”

Lieutenant-Commander Kris Phillips, who was Task Force Public Affairs Officer from August 2006 to February 2007 at KAF, complains it’s often a struggle to get reporters outside the wire. However, during Operation Medusa, a huge 2006 Canadian-led mission aimed at taking the Panjwai and Zhari districts to eliminate insurgents and Taliban strongholds, Phillips occasionally had trouble dealing with news bureaus back home who didn’t want their reporters to miss other stories while off the base. “How many stories can you do about the boardwalk where the Tim Hortons is? I mean, those are great fluff stories, sure, but is this the meat and potatoes of what you’re trying to cover? We fought a lot to get them off the camp.

In certain cases, the national bureaus simply weren’t interested in some aspects of what was going on. “They wanted the bloodshed, they wanted the flash-bang story,” Phillips says. “They didn’t want the fact that a platoon was moving into an area to consolidate and then help rebuild a community.

But from a reporter’s perspective, different public affairs officers, PAOs-or PAffOs as many journalists still call them-vary in degrees of helpfulness. “When you’re trying to find out what happened with a given incident, it’s heavily reliant on the openness of the military,” says Les Perreaux, who was with The Canadian Press when he was embedded in Afghanistan three times between 2004 and 2006. “When you’re on the base, you’re largely at their mercy unless you’ve figured out how to get around the bureaucracy.” PAOs help the media get interviews with the top brass, direct them toward the best soldiers to talk with about certain things and influence what convoy missions they can go on.

Some PAOs try to provide information as quickly as possible. They’ll answer all questions and thoroughly understand what a journalist’s job is. “On the flip side,” begins Perreaux, “there were public affairs people trying to spin you to believe the events should be portrayed in a given way.”

Ironically, being open and transparent can pay off in better coverage for the military. Operation Medusa was well covered by the media because the military allowed it to be well covered. “One PAffO described the strategy as choking us with a fire hose,” says Smith. “They were feeding us as much information as they were allowed to disclose.” Print reporters and photojournalists were on the front lines with the soldiers, and Smith even cringed at fireworks for a time. Because so much information was available, reporters ended up giving the military great PR. NATO declared Medusa a significant success. A NATO official estimated about 1,000 Taliban insurgents were killed. Meanwhile, 15 Canadian soldiers had died during the entire operation. Though this number may be low in comparison to Afghan casualties, it was a sobering blow for Canada.

Of course, allowing greater access also means reporters have an opportunity to look deeper into the events in their aftermath. And sure enough, news reports began to question the success of the mission. TheToronto Star ran a notable article by Mitch Potter, then Middle East bureau chief, revealing that the military classified insurgents as Tier One and Tier Two. Tier One are “hardcore” Taliban, while Tier Two are ordinary Afghans lured into the Taliban for work. There was no way to tell how many of the 1,000 dead were from which group.

In spring 2007, Smith revealed that Afghan detainees were being tortured in prisons. “It didn’t win me any friends among the military,” he says, “but they were also relatively cool with it. I told them up front, ‘This is my assignment; this is what I’m going to do. Any time you want to comment on it, I’m happy to share information as I learn it.'” Generally, the military doesn’t directly censor stories. Instead, it’s primarily the responsibility of reporters to ensure they abide by the embed agreement.

That agreement is “oppressively long,” according to the Post‘s Deveau. While most of the 41-page document consists of waivers, medical questionnaires and administrative details-including what kind of equipment to bring-six pages are devoted to restrictions in reporting that deal mostly with operational security, or OpSec for short. Basically, OpSec is any information that can aid the Taliban or hinder the Canadian Forces. Obviously, journalists aren’t allowed to describe any future operations. But sometimes the reporters challenge PAOs on what information is really OpSec. There are 24 points covering what cannot be released. Some, such as “information about intelligence-collection activities, including targets, methods of attack and results” are clear enough, but the last one is a little fuzzy: “Any other information the Commander of JTF-Afg [Joint Task Force-Afghanistan] orders restricted for operational reasons.”

“They use vague language,” says Deveau. “OpSec could be anything. And you have to really press them sometimes if they tell you something is OpSec or not because sometimes they just want to control the message.” For instance, back in 2007, journalists were able to name forward operating bases. Now journalists can name them only when dealing with non-time-specific material.

The details released about soldiers’ deaths have also become more limited. In 2006 and the first half of 2007, journalists learned where deaths occurred more specifically. Though exact coordinates were never given, officers would give the nearest village or highlight notable points. Even if it was done informally, “I could always get an officer to point out a location on the detailed map that hangs over my desk in the media tent,” says Smith. Not anymore. Now the military only provides the district and the number of kilometres from major locations, such as Kandahar City. “By telling us only Panjwai district,” Smith says as an example, “it prevents me from calling up a local tribal elder to ask about the incident. It could be one of a hundred villages. It prevents me from doing my usual analysis. If you look at a map of Panjwai, see where all the Canadians are killed, I can demonstrate they’re being killed in the same area or closer to Kandahar City-so the Taliban is pushing us back. They call it OpSec now.” As the Taliban has grown stronger and the outcome looks bleaker for NATO troops over the past year, Smith has noticed a simultaneous decline in the level of detail in incident reporting.

But Matthew Fisher, a Canwest reporter who’s covered the Canadian Forces for over 20 years, says access isn’t the real issue, especially compared to his experiences with embed programs run by other countries, including Britain, France and the United States. “Nobody gives access like the Canadians,” he remarks. “Kid reporters don’t think they get as much access as they’re used to with whatever they covered back in Canada, so they think sometimes that they’re really hard done by.” Besides, in his opinion, when a journalist is embedded, he or she should be reporting primarily on the troops since that’s the purpose of the program, not to use the base as a safe haven to cover Afghan stories. At the same time, he admits the military is only one part of the Afghan picture. Smith follows a similar logic. He says the ideal way to cover the country would be for a news organization to have three reporters-one in Canada, one on the base and one permanently independent. Unfortunately, that would be too expensive and too dangerous. Currently, says Stephen Northfield, deputy managing editor of foreign news at the Globe, the paper has severely restricted independent travel in the Kandahar region because of rising security concerns that were present even before the fall 2008 kidnapping of CBC journalist Mellissa Fung.

“If you’re looking at the failures of our coverage of Afghanistan, influence from the military isn’t a big issue,” says Smith. “They’re not as effective at shaping messages as the companies we cover on a daily basis or politicians, who are very sophisticated in spinning things and presenting things in a specific way. The military, to its credit, is relatively bland in the way it presents things.”

* * *

Back at Wainwright, the ramp ceremony for Joseph M. Cerfus ends. We go for lunch with the soldiers. We file through a buffet line in a trailer and carry our food into a huge white tent with rows of cafeteria tables and benches. The soldiers ask us why we chose journalism and where we hope our careers will take us. The routine responses come up-to travel, to make a difference, because we believe in what we’re doing. I realize that many of them chose the military for the same reasons.