Article by Peter Maass

What’s In Your Gadget Bag?

Gizmodo  |  May 3, 2004
A War Correspondent’s Digital Gear

Although we started out aiming for other topics, Gizmodo being what it is, we tended toward the technical, and ended up asking accomplished war correspondent Peter Maass something very much like “What’s in your Gadget Bag?” Which is fine, but it’s the stories and pictures that come out of these harsh situations that make Peter’s choice of equipment a little more tangible, not the gadgets themselves, and we hope you’ll take the time to appreciate the heightened disharmony of an environment where gadgets can be insignificant toys, small comforts, and critical tools, all at the same time.

Gizmodo: What gear do you carry in Iraq?

Peter Maass: Too much. Being a correspondent in a war zone requires a duffel bag of equipment, not to mention the trouble-shooting skills of a Tekserve geek.

The most crucial piece of electronic hardware is a satphone. The best is made by Thuraya and is the size of a first-generation cellphone. It doesn’t work indoors and its short antenna must be pointed in the direction of wherever the Thuraya satellite happens to be. Niftily, it has a GPS locater, so if you get lost you can acquire your GPS coordinates and call for help. With the aid of a Belkin serial adapter, the Thuraya transmits data at 19K or so, which is fine for email but slow for browsing the web or filing photos. Many photographers now use a Bgan transmitter, which is the size of a laptop and transmits at 56K or higher.

You don’t need a hardened computer, though breakdowns are frequent. I use an Apple iBook and took the precaution, during the invasion of Iraq, of covering the screen and keyboard in saran wrap, to keep out the sand. An item I didn’t have, but dearly wished for, was night vision goggles. If you have to drive at night with the military in a warzone, as I and other non-embedded journalists did, you can’t use any lights (you even have to tape over the red-light indicators on your dashboard). Driving without headlights in a desert behind a tank that doesn’t have brakelights is an unpleasurable experience.

Useful doodads include a Sony shortwave radio, so that you can be aware of what’s happening elsewhere. A small flashlight is essential; most journalists use maglites. Necessary, too, is a pocketknife, preferably a Leatherman; I use the scaled-down Juice version. As I often work with a photographer, walkie-talkies come in handy, to quickly be in touch when we’re separated but nearby (Motorola T5320 works well in a radius of about a mile or so). As cellphones work in some areas, a GSM phone is necessary (I carry a Nokia 6610). In addition, a lightweight sleeping bag is required. Last but not least (and certainly heaviest) is body armor. A bulletproof vest with ballistic plates in front and back weighs about 20 pounds; a Kevlar helmet adds another three pounds to your kit.

Though it might qualify as a luxury item, I travel with an Apple iPod, as do many journalists. An iTrip attachment (to play your music through a car radio) is a blessing because we spend a lot of time on the road and enjoy the distraction of listening to Coldplay or whatever while driving from Baghdad to Basra or other points. I also carry a digital camera (for personal, not professional use); mine is a Sony Cybershot DSC-P10, which shoots video. A few years ago, I migrated from cassette recorders to their digital cousins; I now use an Olympus DM-1, which spares me the hassle of carrying an ever-expanding set of cassettes in my backpack, and also lets me backup interviews onto my iBook. Another item in my backpack: a Palm Tungsten E.

If you haven’t guessed already, all of this gear requires a large number of cables and power adapters (multiplied by the need to have car-chargers for essential equipment, because often the only electrical outlet that works is the cigarette lighter in your vehicle). Travelling light is a fading memory for most of us.