There are 130,000 men and women deployed in Iraq, down from the 160,000 troops who were there two years ago. By the end of the year, there will be 68,000 troops in Afghanistan. (Last year, there were about 34,000 in Afghanistan.) However, the number that's changed most dramatically is the count of embedded reporters.

In 2003, more than 700 journalists signed up for the military’s first official embedding program. Today, there are about 50 reporters embedded at any one time, says Carl Prine, a board member of Military Reporters and Editors. The program has been controversial: "Often, American journalists seem embedded with the military not only physically, but mentally," wrote Michael Massing in his book Now They Tell Us: The American Press Corps and Iraq.

“People say that DOD intended to co-opt reporters so that they would somehow get Stockholm syndrome,” Col. David Lapan of the Defense Department’s press office says. “We’re not looking for reporters to be co-opted and to pull their punches.” Nevertheless, it is true that embedded reporters have shown extraordinary empathy for the soldiers involved in the killing of Iraqi civilians and presented relatively simplistic accounts of the incidents. This is not surprising, given that American journalists are reporting on American soldiers, in an occupied country far from home, but it has helped distort public perception of the war.

Despite the flaws of the program, it will be a shame if it collapses. Embedded reporters have given Americans a glimpse into the everyday life of soldiers and, in their own fragmented, flawed way, told a compelling story of the war. Recently, Alfred de Montesquiou of The Associated Press described what things are like for Marines in Afghanistan’s Now Zad valley, where temperatures soar above 120 degrees, and the Americans sleep in small dugouts known as Hobbit Holes. Three University of Alaska journalism students, along with their professor, have been chronicling the lives of soldiers in Iraq , describing the takeoff of a drone and conversations with detainees in Baqubah. Army officers are supportive of the embedding program, extending invitations to journalists to join military units in Iraq or Afghanistan. But newspapers are broke, and so fewer reporters are taking the military up on the offers, and over time our understanding of the wars will be affected in a profound way.

Writing about war is a messy, imperfect business, and being in a combat zone does not mean that you will get a better story or produce a more vivid account (Stephen Crane said he got his ideas for The Red Badge of Courage not from the battleground -- but “from the football field”). Nevertheless, journalists who are embedded in a military unit get a gritty perspective on the Americans who are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their work allows those Americans who stay at home (and that’s about 99 percent of the population) an intimate look at the wars. If journalists stop going with the soldiers into combat, then the American reader will have less a sense of what their world is like, and the wars themselves will seem even more distant, remote and, worst of all, unimportant.

--Tara McKelvey