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Our new series 'On the Line'


I remember March 19, 2003, the day the Iraq war started. As one of the correspondents in the NBC team heading into Iraq from Jordan, we were perched on the border and waiting for a secure enough opening to begin the race along Highway 10 to Baghdad. Once there, a few days later, we watched in those early weeks as looting and chaos battered the Saddam-less city while the U.S. occupation began to take shape. We drove around freely, worried mostly about avoiding the crossfire generated by the bandits and looters who all seemed armed and eager to shoot; there were stories everywhere.

Now, with the war about to begin its fifth year, those early days and weeks might as well have happened in a different country, so profoundly have the internal dynamics of Iraq and the war changed. NBC News continues to get great reporting from Richard Engel and our other colleagues who have either been embedded with U.S. military units or have risked venturing away from our workspace to find and report stories. One recent example, Robert Bazell, with his gripping reports on emergency medical treatment in the war zone.

But it's also true that our ability to report is frequently restricted by security concerns that are literally issues of life and death. Within those restrictions, often the best we can do is to look at the tape or other material from other news agencies or Web sites and incorporate that material in the body of our own reports. I know. I've been back to Iraq for two reporting tours since that first long assignment at the war's beginning.

That’s why we’re hoping a new series of reports we’re kicking off tonight, called “On the Line,” will find a different way to report the war. A troop increase is underway, what the administration calls a “surge.” Our thought: To let a few soldiers who are part of the troop increase, perhaps a rookie or two being deployed for the first time, along with a couple of Iraq war veterans, serve as key voices to tell the story of the war at this juncture from the time they get their orders, and train and ship out, to the time they arrive in country and begin their mission. In some of my previous war-related reports I’ve called it a “friends and family war,” meaning that only the friends and families of those who serve really have to care about the war and share the sense of risk and sacrifice. Our feeling is that if our viewers come to care about these particular soldiers, and as their stories evolve over time, they’ll seek to understand more about the war and the nuances of a country in tumult. "On the Line" hopes to go beyond the casualty counts and repetitive images of car bombs and street battles.

From the outside looking in, Iraq seems as confused as it is unmistakably violent, its explosive alliances and enmities and probable outcomes open to such divergent interpretations. The soldiers featured in our reports will be entering the fog of that war with their own individual motivations and sense of mission -- and what they hear, learn, think, believe and disbelieve, who they meet, whom they fight and fear -- we'll learn from their voices. Voices we've come to know. Voices you'll want to keep listening to. They're the voices of those who are "On the Line" and our plan is to be there with them, at a time when the policies, tactics and strategies of the war itself are also on the line.  We have no agenda, no intent to cheerlead the war or embolden its critics. Our goal is to just watch and listen, and to let our viewers and readers do the same.

Photo caption: Mike, left, and producer John Zito, middle, talk to 3rd Infantry Division soldiers during their training at Ft. Irwin.