Q&A: Embedded Geographic Filmmaker on Iraq War

By Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic EXPLORER
May 16, 2003

On assignment for National Geographic EXPLORER, veteran filmmaker Gary Scurka spent nearly a month embedded with U.S. Marines in Iraq—living their war experience 24 hours a day. Scurka's unprecedented access to one of the war's most active units enabled him to produce Baghdad Bound: The Devil Dog Diaries, which premieres on Sunday, May 18 at 8 p.m. ET/PT on MSNBC. The Marine's-eye view of war runs the gamut from sandstorms to firefights, and relates the personal stories of young soldiers in combat.

Gary Scurka talks to Brian Handwerk about his experiences in Iraq.

The Marines are a very tightly knit group. Was it difficult for you to be accepted by them?

In the beginning there was a lot of apprehension on both sides. This was a brand new experiment. The Marines had never done this before. I remember first walking up to the guys I was going to be kind of close with riding in the Amtrack (a 23-ton amphibious assault vehicle) and it was kind of cold. We were looking at each other trying to figure out "What are we going to say?" We were all wondering what it was going to be like. But it didn't take too long, once I started living with them day to day, for them to understand basically who I was and what I was trying to accomplish. And it didn't take that long for me to figure out what they had to do and who they were. I think we got along very well.

As someone who's never been in the military, how do you ramp up to the 24-hour-a-day lifestyle of a war situation? You go everywhere the Marines go but you don't have the training.

In the beginning when we got to Camp Ripper (in Northern Kuwait), which was the staging area, it was very structured. You had to eat when they did, sleep when they did, and so forth. I didn't really like that because I'm used to doing things my own way. But once we hit the road and started spending time in that track, you know what? Everyone was uncomfortable. So it was kind of like a bonding experience and you didn't have to really have any training—you just had to be able to put up with discomfort. Everyone got along quite well in that track, and if you didn't get along you were in big trouble.

As a journalist you have a very different job from that of the Marines, but you became a part of their unit in a way. Did the relationships you formed ever present a professional challenge?

That's a very good question and that came up all the time. How were we going to be able to interact freely and in an unbiased way with people that you're going to be living with for a month? I was very concerned about it going in and I know that other journalists were also concerned. I made myself a professional promise going into this that, you know, I am a journalist. If I see something that's wrong or something that I think needs to be reported I'm going to report it—regardless of any friendships or bonds with anyone.

But I'll tell you what happened. As we went on in time and suffered through the things we did, went through the hardships, saw people die, saw Marines die, attended their services and so forth, you couldn't help but form a kind of friendship with these guys. And I did think back to what I had said before I left—that I'd run anything regardless. I've got to admit, I'm glad the situation never came up, but it would have been hard for me. It would have been harder than normal to try to say or show something negative about one of the people I spent so much time with. I like to think I wouldn't have been biased in any way, but I don't know. I'm glad the situation didn't develop where I had to really make the call.

Here in the United States, popular discussion of the war was going on nonstop. Were the Marines discussing and thinking about the war's "big picture," or were they entirely focused on the task at hand.

They were talking about those things. They were indeed focused. You couldn't help but be focused with the sounds of gunfire or artillery going off around you all of the time, and the constant threat of suicide attacks which was always on everyone's mind. But daily, almost hourly, a Marine would walk up to me and want to know—because I'm in this business—'What's going on?' 'How's our drive to Baghdad?' 'Where are we?' 'Do you know what's coming up next?' 'How are the other guys doing?' I found out that in a war situation it's very interesting. You're there, you're experiencing it firsthand and seeing what people back home aren't seeing. But it's almost like you're the last to know the big picture. All the Marines always wanted to know was what the big picture was.

And you were able to provide them with some of that information because of your satellite phone and other equipment?

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