When the Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran abandoned his war-zone embed with the Marines in Afghanistan last week for "personal reasons," military officials thought it sounded serious. But he just needed to go hang out with Matt Damon.
Chandrasekaran, an associate editor and star reporter at the Post for his coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan, spent most of February in close quarters with Marines in Marja, Afghanistan, where NATO forces have been mounting a major combat offensive against the Taliban. The action in Marja is a hot story, and embeds with military units in Afghanistan are hard to come by right now—the waiting list currently stands at 56 reporters.
But Chandrasekaran left the combat zone last week, citing unspecified "personal reasons." He was free to leave, of course. But when the military public affairs officers who oversee embeds pointed out that, as per Department of Defense policy, the Post would have to lose its embed slot and Chandrasekaran's place would go to the next reporter on the waiting list, he raised a stink and demanded that his fellow Post reporter Joshua Partlow be allowed to take his place, a military source in Afghanistan tells Gawker. After some back and forth, the DOD relented and allowed Chandrasekaran to leave without giving up the Post's position.
So why all the tsuris? The "personal reason" that Chandrasekaran needed out of Marja, it turns out, was so he could attend the New York premiere of The Green Zone, the new Matt Damon film based on Chandrasekaran's 2006 book Imperial Life in the Emerald City. Chandrasekaran's last byline from Marja appeared on February 23, and here he is at the premiere on February 25.
"I had a number of reasons for needing to come back," Chandrasekaran told Gawker. "Certainly attending the premiere of a movie inspired by a book that I wrote was among them. Unfortunately, there was a scheduling conflict and I had to leave Afghanistan when I did." But Chandrasekaran never told the military officials who bent the rules for him and his paper why he needed the special treatment, and at least one of them was under the impression that it was some sort of family emergency. "I didn't go into my reasons for needing to leave," he said, "but I didn't keep anything from them, and I certainly did not at any point say that there was a family emergency. They evaluated our request and they made their decision. They have their usual procedures, but I believe the public affairs staff recognizes that they'd like to have certain large news organizations covering significant military operations. That includes the Washington Post and others." (Someone should tell Chandrasekaran that his boss thinks the "Washington Post is not a national news organization of record serving a large general audience.")
Other reporters who've had to leave the combat zone in Marja—presumably for less lofty reasons than attending a movie premiere—haven't gotten the same indulgence from military officials. National Public Radio's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson unexpectedly had to leave the front lines last month, and wasn't able to immediately sub in her replacement Corey Flintoff, who is currently cooling his heels at a Marine base in Helmand province awaiting a slot and doesn't expect to see combat until next week. Partlow, on the other hand, is in the thick of it and filing dispatches.
UPDATE: This post originally stated that "Chandrasekaran asked the Marines to evacuate him from the combat zone last week," which is what we understood him to mean when he told us that his travel in and out of Marja was conducted by Marine transport. Chandrasekaran just called us to clarify that by the time he lodged a request for Partlow to take over his embed, he had already made his way to a Marine base away from the front lines by taking an open seat on a helicopter. He also disputed a quote in which we had him saying that The Green Zone was "based on" Imperial Life in the Emerald City; he says instead that the film was "inspired by" his book.