After the fires had gone out and the victims were cleared away, the Iraqi authorities found only the calf of the suicide bomber who drove up to Nabil’s restaurant on New Year’s Eve 2003 and blinded Chris Kraul in his right eye. An eye for a leg—that was the exchange, a monstrously literal variation on the retributive justice described in Exodus and Babylonian law, though eight people inside the restaurant also paid that night with their lives. Why this man had targeted Nabil’s was a mystery, and would remain so even two years later, when Kraul returned to Iraq, though he collected the rumors: The man believed Paul Bremer, then the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, was a devoted patron (not true, though he’d eaten there a couple of times); the man had heard that scantily clad Iraqi women belly-danced on the tables (even less true).
Kraul, then a correspondent in the Mexico City bureau of the Los Angeles Times, had just arrived in Iraq a couple of weeks earlier for his second four-week assignment. Journalists didn’t feel daily, hourly intimations of danger back then. They didn’t yet live in compounds entombed by blast walls and barbed wire; they didn’t yet travel in $150,000 armored BMWs. If a bomb went off somewhere, they jumped into their ordinary sedans with a driver and a translator. Reporters drove in and out of the city—to Fallujah, Najaf, even Tikrit, the city that produced Saddam Hussein. “I went to Tikrit two days after Saddam’s capture,” says Kraul. “The worst possible time to go. Yet we were stopping people in the street for your basic reaction story.”
And for lunch and dinner, everyone—journalists, diplomats, foreign-aid workers, contractors—went to Nabil’s to unwind over Turkish beer and chicken brochette. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post until October 2004, once took U.N. weapons inspectors there for a martini dinner (when he discovered the restaurant had no vermouth, his driver fetched a bottle at an Iraqi Airways duty-free shop); the people from NBC made the place their de facto canteen, because their first hotel, the Aike (long since wrecked by a bomb) was just across the road. It seemed a logical spot for the L.A. Times to ring in 2004. “It never occurred to us,” says Kraul, 55, “that there was any real risk.”
Yet Kraul had no illusions about the dangers where he was. Just before the party, a car bomb had gone off as it passed a U.S. Army convoy, killing an 8-year-old, and Kraul had gone immediately to the scene and filed a story about it. Then he and his driver headed off to Nabil’s. They were parking their car on a side street when another car, packed with TNT, came screaming toward them.
The restaurant was flattened that night. It never reopened. For many foreigners, that evening was the last they moved freely about Baghdad. (“No one,” as Chandrasekaran put it, “wanted to risk their lives for a meal.”) In the next few months, the American military lost control of Fallujah and Sadr City, and rebellion spread through the south. Violence toward both Westerners and Iraqi civilians dramatically, uncontrollably began to escalate.
Kraul blacked out for the first five minutes after the explosion. When he came to, he and his two colleagues, also injured, were taken by their translator to a nearby hospital, where they collapsed into folding chairs and waited in the hallway. And that was how Kraul spent the last hours of 2003—bleeding copiously on the concrete floor of a Baghdad hospital, his left hand broken and his head severely concussed, waiting for a doctor to treat his right eye.
There is a kind of journalist who loves a war zone, but only the hardiest of the species can love Iraq. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 69 reporters, producers, and cameramen have died since the conflict began, as have 25 people in their employ (translators, drivers, guards); an additional 41 have been kidnapped, and that number does not include those who’ve been held only briefly, nor does it include those whose disappearances have never been reported at all (generally Iraqi staff, for security purposes).
Unlike in most wars, there are no front lines in Iraq, nor are there clear areas of U.S. control, except the highly fortified Green Zone. Unlike in Vietnam, where reporters retreated to the cities and then flew to areas of strife, the trouble in Iraq has a way of finding journalists—they are dying and being taken hostage mainly in cities, as they were in Beirut in the eighties. But unlike in Beirut, it’s unclear who’s fighting whom, and no group seems to consider the media a particularly useful asset in getting its message out. Quite the contrary. “If you write with any evenhandedness about this war—and, let’s face it, if you are reporting on a suicide bombing, your description is bound to present it as a slaughter—you are at risk of being identified by radical Islamists as a collaborator,” says John Burns, Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times. “God knows we could marshal arguments to the contrary, but I think that’s the assumption. There is really no neutral ground for journalists in this war, at least as far as the insurgents are concerned. Having a notebook and a pen does not afford you an exemption. It can just as easily make you a target.”
In the aftermath of the American invasion, hundreds of Western journalists—perhaps as many as a thousand—rushed to Iraq. An estimated 70 remain. For this small group, the country has become an otherplanetary place to work and live. It’s a place where Anne Garrels, now in her fourth year in Baghdad for NPR, puts on her heavy flak jacket and walks around her compound for exercise. It’s a place where male reporters buy acid-washed jeans with Western labels in order to look more Iraqi, and female reporters seek out abayas, a crude emblem of Middle Eastern female oppression, in order to move around with greater freedom. Though freedom in this environment is a relative matter. It’s hard to feel free when a trip to the local market requires two armored cars.
The Bush administration and its shriller supporters have often complained that reporters are barely doing their jobs in Iraq, hiding in their compounds instead. This is a notion, needless to say, that offends many reporters in Baghdad, particularly if they’ve been shot at or chased by mobs. “There’s this notion that the reporters in Iraq don’t get out,” says Dexter Filkins, who’s been in the Baghdad bureau of the New York Times almost continuously since the war began. “Can I just put something out there? I go out. I go out, like, every day, and most of my colleagues do, too.”
It’s just that going out in Baghdad is a little different from going out in Paris. “The way to understand reporting in Iraq right now is this,” says Filkins. “You can wake up on any given morning and the phones don’t work. The only way to see people is to go to their houses. So you have to talk to your security adviser, so that he can tell you what neighborhood is bad that day, and then you have to rustle up a driver for your car, and a chase car, and a translator, and some guards. But then you get in that car to drive down the street and you find a car bomb has gone off an hour before, so to get somewhere still takes three hours. And that’s for one interview.”
Naturally, these constraints have consequences. Iraq is a limited-access beat, perversely like the White House, where spot news and press conferences drive the daily coverage; nuances and trends require patience, creativity, and better sources; and the real stories may never be told. If reporters can no longer wander the streets or visit people’s homes, then naturally it is harder for them to understand what the people of the country are perceiving. If reporters are likely to be kidnapped when pursuing militias or crushed by a mob in the aftermath of a suicide bomb, then naturally it is harder for them to understand the nature of Iraq’s violence. “It’s like there’s a blanket over the country,” says Mark Danner, who writes about Iraq for the New York Review of Books, “and all we see are the shapes.”
What’s strange is how vulnerable reporters still remain under these compromised circumstances. Jill Carroll, abaya-clad and otherwise unprotected, attempted to interview a hard-line Sunni politician and was abducted for 82 days. Bob Woodruff, intent on doing a good-news story for ABC, set out to chronicle the progress of the Iraqi military and was rewarded for his efforts with an IED, or improvised explosive device, shattering as he stood in the hatch of his vehicle. He’s still recovering from shrapnel wounds to his body and brain.
Reporters began fudging their identities. “I always said I was a journalist,” says Shadid. “But I didn’t always say I was from the Washington Post. ‘Washington’ is not the best reference.” Adds another reporter, “I often said I was Canadian. Or a neutral country. In extreme situations, you bend the rules.”
To see Iraq through the eyes of the journalists in Baghdad is, in a way, to understand the news we read and see. What they can’t learn, we can’t either. Their limitations, in a sense, become our own.
It’s April 2003, and Jane Arraf, Baghdad bureau chief of CNN, goes down to the lobby of the Palestine Hotel. It’s a gloomy dump with cold water and inedible food. It is also teeming with life. “It was like the bar scene in Star Wars,” says Arraf, now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Every morning, there would be a long, long line of people. And you would never know whether it would be the guy who said he had nuclear documents in his basement, or the woman who said she had weapons of mass destruction in the trunk of her car and was willing to sell some of them, or people who needed kidney transplants … ”
Just after the American invasion, Iraq was a reporter’s paradise. Writers, producers, cameramen, and photographers suddenly had full-saturation access to a country and people once dominated by a sociopath. If they were in the right place at the right time, they could swim in Saddam Hussein’s pool, leaf through his old photo albums, stare at the rows of Italian suits in his closets. Farnaz Fassihi, the Wall Street Journal’s Baghdad bureau chief until this past January, made daily trips to Samarra to report on its newly formed soccer team. Anthony Shadid, who won the 2004 Pulitzer for his Iraq coverage in the Washington Post, could have lunch in Fallujah and spend the day in the Shaker Thahi Mosque. Dissidents and scholars and artists who’d been stifled were speaking out; the tortured and the brutalized came forward with their questions and their rage. “It was the most remarkable year of reporting I’d ever experienced, 2003,” says Shadid. “It was the first time in the Arab world where I wasn’t dealing with the Information Ministry, with intimidation, with censorship. If you had the dedication, time, and endurance, you could cover anything.”
The hotels were soon oversubscribed. For a time, news bureaus found shelter in the nicest homes in Baghdad, whose owners had fled before the invasion. The L.A. Times rented a house from the owner of a factory that processed chickens. The Washington Post rented a landscaped villa with crystal cocktail shakers, two barbecue pits, and a pool shaped like a P. The staff threw some pretty memorable parties on hot summer nights, ones that featured not just celebrity guests but cold drinks. These gatherings drew not a little envy from the New York Times, whose house on the Tigris was in a much less fancy neighborhood and whose garish exterior glowed in rainbow hues. (The paper then leased the derelict adjoining property and spiffed it up with a new kitchen, furniture from Indonesia, and a pool.)
No one can pinpoint when things began to turn. But in August, the insurgency had certainly begun to gather speed, staging a grisly attack at the United Nations headquarters and, a few weeks later, an arpeggio of four suicide bombings, including one at the International Red Cross. By the spring of 2004, Iraq was a different country. Radical Shiites, feeling their power, took control of Sadr City, and the American military struggled to gain control of Fallujah, a Sunni stronghold, after insurgents shot and killed four U.S. contractors at one of the city’s main intersections, then hanged two of their bodies from the iron bridge over the Euphrates.
Kidnapping became a cottage industry. To make money, one needed simply to phone in the whereabouts of a Westerner or well-connected Iraqi to a party that wanted one, which in turn ransomed the hostage or sold him to other groups. Suddenly, reporters who moved freely about the streets and lingered in people’s homes were slumped, heads down, in their car seats. Alissa Rubin of the L.A. Times began to wear her abaya even on her way to church; the New York Times’ Robert Worth dyed his eyebrows dark brown and grew a bushy Baathist mustache; Rory Carroll of Britain’s Guardian threw all his belongings in a plastic bag. “The downfall of the Americans was the bag,” he says. “They couldn’t resist having a fancy leather bag to keep their stuff in.” He pauses thoughtfully. “Though I suppose it’s a bit rich for me to be pontificating about my crafty disguise when I was kidnapped myself.”
Reporters also began fudging their identities, an awkward development. “If I was in the streets interviewing someone, and they said, ‘Where are you from?’ I often said I was Canadian,” says Fassihi. “Or a neutral country. In extreme situations, you bend the rules.” (Almost everyone bent the rules. “I always said I was a journalist,” admits Shadid. “But I didn’t always say I was from the Washington Post. ‘Washington’ is not the best reference.”)
Reporters’ parent organizations, meanwhile, began to grapple with a banal but high-stakes question: How were reporters supposed to travel around Baghdad? In armored cars or unarmored? With drivers who do or don’t carry guns? “There’s a school of thought that we should present ourselves assertively as the civilians we are—that we should not wrap ourselves in protective hardware—because by doing so we risk adopting the profile of the occupying forces,” says Burns, the Times bureau chief. “I’ve disagreed with this since the first major suicide bombings in the late summer of 2003.” At that point, the Times began adding to its assembly of armored cars, the first of which an Iraqi staffer drove all the way from Jordan. Burns also checked to see how much it would cost to rent an armored car, rather than to buy more ($80,000 for a remodeled clunker from Bosnia; $300,000 for a late-model BMW). The rental company informed him that one twelve-mile trip to the airport would be $2,400.
Those lovely villas the news bureaus called home now looked painfully vulnerable. Bureau chiefs hired full-time security advisers, generally veterans of the British Special Air Service who had their own intelligence contacts within the city. (In an excellent story about the Baghdad press corps in the New York Review of Books, Orville Schell perfectly described these men as “earthbound air-traffic controllers.”) They recruited armed guards for their compounds, lined the property with sandbags, Mylar-coated the windows. But there were limits to how much they could do. In February 2004, a battered Opal drove slowly by the Washington Post compound, its backseat passenger snapping dozens of photos. The whole bureau relocated to the Hamra Hotel in under 24 hours. The L.A. Times, meanwhile, changed houses to avoid getting shelled—its neighbors had an uncanny way of attracting mortar rounds—and then decided to relocate permanently to the Hamra in September, after two men stopped at a local store and demanded to know why Jews were living in the neighborhood. In October, an Australian reporter was kidnapped just feet from the Hamra’s front door.
It got worse. A year later, in October 2005, suicide bombers drove a cement mixer and two cars packed with TNT onto the grounds of the adjoining Sheraton and Palestine hotels and nearly destroyed them, failing only because the cement mixer got a piece of barbed wire tangled in its axle. A video released shortly afterward showed a man giving a presentation about attacking the two buildings. Toward the end, he noted that the Palestine was occupied “by foreign journalists and security companies.”
Today, most people assume that journalists live in the Green Zone. But in fact, very few of them do and most never have. Rather, they live in a few discrete—and heavily armed—compounds, generally in hotels or their immediate environs. “I wake up in this … thing,” says Time bureau chief Michael Ware, trying to describe his house in the Hamra Hotel complex. “The Ministry of the Interior has sealed off a four-block radius around it and put in nominal checkpoints, but we can’t rely on the Ministry of Interior, so our house has its own security perimeter, in case the compound is overrun. We have gun pits on our roof and snipers positioned up there on rotating shifts, plus other gunmen at various other points around the perimeter, and we have other checkpoints around our house … ” He trails off. “But to be honest,” he says, “if the insurgents decide they want you dead, they can kill you. They know exactly where we all live.”
When a large-enough pool of blood had gathered beneath him, Chris Kraul was shown from the hospital waiting room to a bed. About a dozen people, none of them doctors, gathered around, a few making a deceptive tsk-tsk sound, meant to convey pity rather than scorn. I’m so sorry, so sorry … they kept repeating.
Kraul could tell his right eye was leaking not just blood but viscous fluid, and the right side of his face had split open. One of his colleagues came over to check on him. “And I said to her, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here and go to the Green Zone,’ ” he says. “ ‘If Paul Bremer slips in the shower, someone’s gonna take care of him, right?’ ” One of their translators somehow got them an ambulance. They piled in.
Kraul spent seven hours on the operating table that night, in an Army hospital that had once been Saddam Hussein’s private clinic. The surgeons sewed up his face with 100 stitches; they stapled the broken metacarpal bone of his left hand. Luckily, an ophthalmological surgeon was on call that night. He cleaned out Kraul’s eye and stitched it up. The following morning, he handed Kraul a quarter-inch piece of glass that had sliced right through the center of his cornea.
Within a week, Kraul was back in Los Angeles. Over six months, he had four operations on his right eye. It’s still attached, still a part of him, but he can’t see out of it. Recently, he went to a specialist in Beverly Hills and got himself fitted for a fake one. But he’s back at work full time, still hiking on weekends, and still able to drive. “It’s a cliché to say, but you can pretty much do with one eye what you used to do with two,” he says. “Though it’s a bitch when you’re trying to parallel-park.”
Tim Page, the Vietnam War photographer who captured some of the most iconic images of the era, was once famously asked to write a book that would take the glamour out of war. “Take the glamour out of war!” he said. “How the bloody hell can you do that? … Can you take the glamour out of a Cobra or getting stoned on China Beach?”
Vietnam made the careers of Seymour Hersh, David Halberstam, and Peter Arnett, and a generation of New Journalists found their voices, writing in pens with opium tips. Covering Iraq has offered a certain gritty glamour, but the freewheeling, swashbuckling days are long over—it’s tough to be a cowboy when Baghdad has a curfew. Many reporters, especially those who’ve been there from the beginning, are numb from exhaustion, their excitement replaced by enervation and a grinding sense of duty. There’s a solemn camaraderie among these reporters, born largely of necessity. “There was a real recognition that we needed each other—not just for help if you missed a press conference, but borrowing each other’s armored cars in a pinch,” says Alissa Rubin, who spent more than two years in Iraq for the L.A. Times.
The best work to come out of Iraq hasn’t all followed one model. Rubin earned a reputation in Baghdad not just for writing with breadth and insight but for doing brave things, possibly insane things, like going up to Najaf when reporters were being kidnapped for trying to do so. (When Burns heard about her excursion, he asked one of his colleagues, “Goodness, do you think we’re a bunch of pantywaists?”) Time’s Michael Ware, an Aussie plucked straight from central casting (vainglorious, friendly, loonily intrepid), has similarly impressed colleagues with his connections to assorted insurgent groups, including Al Qaeda.
Fallujah was fertile ground for great work. In 2004, Filkins was one of the few reporters to travel with the U.S. Army all the way through the city on foot, and he covered the experience with the kind of intensity and nuance reporters still remember (like his description of insurgents signaling one another with black flags from rooftops). By spending time in Fallujah, Shadid intuited the insurgency in its very beginning stages and got a seismograph reading on its faint, first rumblings. Nir Rosen created a stir in 2004 when he wrote about the mujaheddin in Fallujah for The New Yorker, setting a precedent almost no one could follow. As he wrote, I was able to avoid being taken hostage or killed because I speak Arabic and have olive skin and black hair and, when asked, I said that I was Bosnian … More important, I was traveling with a Palestinian who had helped the resistance leaders during the fighting.
Certain women, too, have made names for themselves in the past three years, which may seem odd in an aborning fundamentalist regime but makes sense when one considers that it’s easier to move around and report in Iraq wearing an abaya. “In general, I found it a huge asset to be a woman,” says Fassihi. “You gained access to homes and families and to women. As a man, it’s harder to do that kind of reporting.” She thinks for a second. “Though the clerics could be scolding when they learned I wasn’t married.”
“We have gun pits on our roof and snipers positioned up there on rotating shifts, plus other gunmen at various other points around the perimeter, and we have other checkpoints around our house …” He trails off. “But to be honest, if the insurgents decide they want you dead, they can kill you.”
In the early days, says Fassihi, she and her girlfriends would organize movie nights in Baghdad, and on one occasion, they even set out to get their nails done (and then had to leave the salon when the electricity went off). But there’s very little of this group socializing in Iraq today. Unlike in most conflicts, where reporters could gather somewhere in the evening and tie one on—the most famous example being the rooftop bar at the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon—Baghdad is strikingly slim on social outlets. Apart from the occasional poker game in the Hamra, reporters seldom see much of one another. “It’s not a very social conflict,” says Richard Engel, now in his fourth year in Baghdad for NBC. “It’s actually pretty medieval. We live in little fortresses and then we go through the badlands to arrive at other little fortresses. Am I going to organize a convoy to have a cup of coffee?”
Most reporters spend their off-hours unwinding alone. Most of their bureaus have makeshift gyms, a disproportionate number of which, as Engel points out, have punching bags. (“We have one, Time has one, the Washington Post has one … ,” he says, counting. “We’re all gonna be boxers when this is through.”) Hamza Hendawi, of the Associated Press, lifts weights in his room and watches bootleg DVDs he buys from a man outside the Palestine Hotel. “Some are of surprisingly good quality,” he says. “Others you can hear sneezing and someone blowing his nose.” In a few instances, this hothouse climate has brought people together—two Boston Globe reporters, Anne Barnard and Thanassis Cambanis, met in Iraq and married—but it has had a grim effect on those with spouses left behind. At least three star correspondents—Shadid, Filkins, and Engel—have gotten divorces since the war began or are in the process of divorcing.
“Not spending time together was obviously difficult,” says Engel, who tried, at various points during the war, to persuade his wife to move to Beirut or Istanbul. “But it’s more than that. You have to remember: The war seems almost endless. It’s difficult to tell someone, ‘Don’t worry, stick it out.’ And the experiences are really different. Your day is so outside the normal realm of reality. It’s hard for other people to relate.”
So why stay in Iraq? Why not go home?
“I thought this was something that everyone would find as fascinating as I do,” he says. “I’ve been covering the Middle East for ten years. Not only do I get to be in the front car as it’s plowing through history, but I get to see how human beings and states and armies react. It’s a privilege you don’t want to give up easily.”
He thinks about this. “But what happens is the other person feels like there isn’t any room for them, like you’ve become married to the war,” he concludes. “And it’s a fair description. I just kept trying to say it was a girlfriend. Or a lover. Or a mistress.”
The pressures and dangers of reporting in such a claustrophobic environment have also, in some cases, damaged people’s careers. In October 2003, Susan Sachs, a reporter on the New York Times metro desk, went to Baghdad to run its fledgling bureau. The Times was still in its tiny house then. It had too little room (and just a couple of bathrooms) for too many people; meanwhile, the world outside was getting more and more violent by the day. Sachs hadn’t managed a bureau of that size before. She endeared herself to no one, especially Burns, who’s won two Pulitzers for his coverage of past wars. Like other reporters in the bureau, he believed Sachs was taking insufficient measures to protect them or the bureau—a position that had already prompted one reporter, on one occasion, to bring a gun along in his car. (The Times now has a policy forbidding reporters’ carrying guns.)
In December, Roger Cohen, then the editor of the Times foreign desk, came to visit the Baghdad bureau. Minutes after he arrived, Sachs wandered outside to see Burns and screamed at him in front of several members of the Iraqi staff. A few nights later, Cohen took the staff to a restaurant, hoping to resolve security matters. Sachs pulled out a tape recorder and was asked to put it away. She was reassigned to Istanbul in March. A year later, the Times fired her, claiming she’d written a series of letters and e-mails containing a baroque list of allegations against her Times colleagues in Baghdad, a claim she denied.
There’s probably some truth to the stereotype that war correspondents are a breed apart—at home both everywhere and nowhere, defined by a brittle sense of mission and a striking lack of fear. Like cops, they become accustomed to seeing corpses and those who mourn them; like soldiers, they see the banal parts of dying, the way bodies are unsentimentally tossed aside or left to rot. (After covering several suicide bombings, Robert Worth says he was stunned to see civilians “hurling bodies into the backs of cars and trucks.”) In 2002, Anthony Feinstein, a psychiatrist from the University of Toronto, surveyed 140 war correspondents and found that roughly a quarter of them had suffered post-traumatic-stress disorder, which is roughly the same number for the military.
But the isolation of this war, combined with the constant pressure to produce stories and the near-impossibility of letting off steam, makes it especially hard on those who are there. “I’m finding a generation now for whom Iraq is really one straw too many,” says Mark Brayne, a psychotherapist and former war correspondent who’s the European director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, based in Seattle. So far, he’s worked with Newsweek, the Washington Post, and the BBC during this war. “I hear people saying, ‘I’ve coped well all these years, but Iraq is too much and I just don’t want to go back. My bank account is empty.’ ”
This January, Shadid, now based in Beirut, went back to Iraq for the Post to cover the elections. He was standing on a street corner for only fifteen minutes, noting the content of campaign posters, when he felt compelled to jump in his car and leave. It was the most scared he’d been in Iraq, even though nothing had happened at all. “When I look back at my time in Baghdad, there’s this ever-present dread,” he says. “It’s not always dramatic; it’s just there. Once you’re out, you realize how pervasive it was and the toll it took.”
Before he was ambushed in Sadr City, Rory Carroll—no relation to Jill—says he thought less about getting kidnapped in Iraq than did some of his colleagues. “I was much more concerned about getting mutilated or blown up,” he told me, speaking from Johannesburg, where he’s now a correspondent for the Guardian. “That was my big thing. How would I handle that?” Then, as he wrote in his own paper, when he was leaving the city, three cars, including a police Land Cruiser, cut off his two-car convoy on an empty street. A dozen men got out. One beat his driver; another threw his translator to the ground; a third sprayed bullets at his “follow-up vehicle,” or chase car, nearly killing the driver; and a fourth put a gun to Carroll’s head and shoved him into a Honda.
Handcuffed in the backseat and trying to signal a passing trucker with his foot, Carroll now thought quite a lot about getting kidnapped, and he had even more time to contemplate its perversity and grim potential when he was taken to a small house and locked in a concrete storage space beneath the stairs. He ran through all the reasons he’d gone to Baghdad, including the fact that he’d had a bad breakup. He wondered whether any story was worth this. He thought about his cat. A Dusty Springfield song started to run, unbidden, through his mind. “Still,” he continued in his surprisingly funny Guardian account, “no bag over the head, not chained to a radiator—could have been worse.”
What ultimately surprised Carroll about his experience was the banal, domestic nature of his captivity. There were kids, at least three of them, running loose around the house. A woman was cooking in the kitchen. “It was strange,” he tells me. “But also quite reassuring. It might have explained why I remained sanguine.” He fell asleep.
The following day, Carroll tried to establish a rapport with his captor. When he was released for supper, he used the Arabic word for “delicious” to praise the food. He asked for a book to read. When it seemed as though he had softened the man somewhat, he asked if it was okay to do calisthenics on his carpet. The man, a bit puzzled, assented. “It was sort of a surreal scene, doing this whole Jane Fonda impersonation,” he says. “But I wanted to show him I hadn’t lost it, that I was in control of myself. I also knew that for them, it’d be a weird thing. I mean, having a Western hostage on your hands is weird anyway, but I knew he’d find it sort of hilarious.” Which his captor did, as did his children. They pulled out the camera phone and took pictures of him doing push-ups and squats.
Late that evening, Carroll heard the wife approach as he was trying to sleep. “I never saw her, the wife,” says Carroll. “But it was obvious she was really curious to see what I looked like.” By then, Carroll had endeared himself enough to his captor to earn an upgrade to a cot. He lay very still. “I didn’t turn around,” he says, “because I knew it’d freak her out. I just pretended to sleep.”
Not long after that, Carroll’s captor told him he was going to be released, and some men came along and put him in the trunk of a car. He was dumped in front of a large compound. Ahmad Chalabi, then the deputy prime minister of Iraq, greeted him with a grin, Carroll wrote.
Carroll flew back to the U.K. after that. He wasn’t even given the chance to stop first at his hotel to pick up his belongings. And from that moment forward, the Guardian decided it would no longer have a full-time person in Baghdad but a rotating cast of four. It was a controversial choice. But Carroll defends it. “The risk-and-reward rate,” he says, “was diminishing.”
So what, precisely, are news bureaus gaining from being in Iraq? In some ways, the challenges of covering the Iraq war extend far beyond logistics. They do for any war, because covering wars means covering the military in action, and when the military is in action, it has paradoxical aims: On the one hand, it wants the world to appreciate the magnitude and danger of its endeavor, and therefore offers journalists transportation, food, and shelter (and, during the Civil War, the use of its telegraph machines); on the other hand, it wants very badly to control information, for reasons of national security, morale, and politics. When the United States claims to have killed 25 militants in a secret raid, how are reporters supposed to confirm it? As Rory Carroll notes, “It’s not like the militants are available for comment.”
“If you write with any evenhandedness about this war—and, let’s face it, if you are reporting on a suicide bombing, your description is bound to present it as a slaughter—you are at risk of being identified by radical Islamists as a collaborator,” says Burns.
Making sense of the non-American point of view during wartime is generally no easier. “There are so many versions of truth floating around out there,” says Robert Worth, who first started covering Iraq for the Times in June 2003. “Some of them are colored by recent agendas or atrocities, but others go back fourteen centuries.” The Washington Post, for instance, reported that 1,300 civilians died in the direct aftermath of the bombing of a historic Shiite mosque in Samarra this February, but backtracked some days later, when it was clear it had been given bad information. Eighteen months ago, says Rubin, now in Vienna, the L.A. Times discovered that certain stringers in Samarra, including one of its own, were inflating numbers of both civilian and U.S. casualties for effect. “So we let that stringer go and switched to another one,” she says. “But it was always impossible to be 100 percent sure that the information you were getting was accurate.”
But news organizations have come to a particularly sorry pass when they can’t even show up at the scene of breaking news in a war zone. And in Iraq today, they cannot. Tempers are too inflamed; the fury of the mob is too raw. Print publications can get around this problem by phoning hospitals and morgues and even visiting them. But the inability to cover spot news has been a huge problem for television. Daily unrest, violence, death—these are the very images of war. CNN’s Jane Arraf went so crazy from the limitations of Baghdad life that she left to be embedded with the military so that she could feel more productive. “There is absolutely no substitute for being there,” says Arraf. “I remember covering one suicide bombing—it was a small hotel that had just blown up, and we were broadcasting live all night long as they pulled bodies out of the rubble—and I could never have imagined the things that I saw there unfolding. I could never have imagined how articulate ordinary Iraqis are. I could never have imagined the multilayered rage in their voices when something like that happened. And that’s a lot of what we have given up. We’ve given up the ability to, I think, put things in context, in some sense, because we can’t be there.”
Indeed, trying to understand the nature of Iraq’s violence in a deeper, more analytical way has become almost impossible, and this difficulty has unforeseen complications. “Because there are constraints on reporting about violence, it’s very hard to make reliable judgments about the politics, I repeat, politics of Iraq right now,” says Mark Danner, who was last in Baghdad this past November. “People think the violence in Iraq is sealed off from its politics, but it isn’t. The violent, militarized groups are an inherent part of Iraqi politics right now.”
Because Westerners are such tempting targets, their news organizations have come to rely almost entirely on Iraqi stringers for vast amounts of reporting. Outsourcing news-gathering is a very upsetting, morally complicated business. The bulk of the journalist casualties in Iraq—50 out of 69—have been Iraqis. “I had a translator who had a 3-year-old,” says the Journal’s Fassihi, now in Beirut. “And every time I wanted him to go somewhere, I’d say, This is a man with a 3-year-old child. Do I send him or not?”
Western reporters still interview ordinary Iraqi citizens, but they generally do so in the safety of their hotels; any interview beyond the compound tends to last no longer than 30 minutes because word may leak out that a Westerner, ripe for kidnapping, is at large. And we’ve paid a price for this remove. Most of us have no sense of what the streets of Iraq’s major cities look like, and even less of a sense of the street life. We don’t have a sense of the ordinary structure and fabric of Iraqi society—how Iraqis live and what they do for work, how many of them work, how many hours of electricity people in Baghdad are getting per day. (The answer to this last question, according to the correspondents there, is still roughly four.)
Of course, the press corps’ logistical problems aren’t the only reason we don’t know the answers to the questions. Part of the reason is because neither our government nor the Iraqi government can answer all of them, and the answers they do know are not good. Some editors and producers—mostly in television—aren’t especially interested in how people live, either, because their readers or viewers don’t care: What they want to know is if we’re winning and when the troops are coming home. “I think there’s often a lack of appetite among the decision-makers at news organizations to have coverage with real depth,” says Dan Senor, former senior adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority. “So reporters who would otherwise be inclined to spend more time and take more risks are often incentivized not to do so because they can’t get on the air or get valuable real estate in the newspapers.”
To some extent, news itself becomes a casualty in any war. Reporters are asked to choose between what is conscientious and what is safe, what is ethically impeccable and what is human. “This past election, we wanted to send someone to Fallujah,” says Fassihi, “and none of our staff would go. No one wanted to be branded for working with the Western press. And this was really newsworthy. We wanted to know what Sunnis are thinking.” The day Rory Carroll was abducted, she adds, happened to be the first day Saddam Hussein appeared in court. Yet when Fassihi heard, she stopped watching television and began making phone calls instead, hoping to discover something about who took Carroll and to agitate for his release. “We just … forgot about the trial, forgot there was this huge news story, and tried to make sure he was safe,” she says. “And that’s your instinct. To abandon the story. I missed the Asia deadline and then the European deadline, and this was one of the biggest stories of the year.”
Yet Fassihi still says that of course it was worth the Journal’s time to have her there—even if, as she once famously wrote in an e-mail to family and friends, she couldn’t go grocery shopping, couldn’t eat in restaurants, couldn’t strike up a conversation with a stranger, couldn’t look for stories, couldn’t drive in anything but a fully armored car, couldn’t go to scenes of breaking news stories, couldn’t be stuck in traffic, couldn’t speak English outside, couldn’t take a road trip, couldn’t say she was an American, couldn’t linger at checkpoints, couldn’t be curious about what people were saying, doing, feeling, and couldn’t and couldn’t. “Just being there, with my Iraqi staff, learning about what happened to their lives, was the best education,” she says. “All of them could write a book.”
Kraul returned to Baghdad this past January. Partly, he says, it was because he wanted to prove to himself that he wasn’t “terminally unlucky.” But he also wanted to see the L.A. Times’ Iraqi staff again. And there was one story in particular he wanted to tell: the story of a soldier who’d been wounded and come back to Iraq, just as Kraul had.
He discovered a different world. All the Iraqi staffers of the L.A. Times bureau told him they felt exhausted, nervous, watched; the 22-year-old son of one of his favorite translators, himself a translator for the U.S. Army, had died just ten days before Kraul arrived. His first day there, as they were heading to the Green Zone, Kraul’s driver turned to him and offered him his kaffiyeh, or traditional red checked scarf, if they were ever pulled aside. If somebody stops us, he told Kraul, you are my father. You don’t speak and you don’t hear.
Kraul never did do a story about a wounded soldier who’d returned to Iraq. The military was like an oversubscribed taxi service when Kraul returned. The next available opening it had for an embed was more than two weeks after he put in the request, and the military couldn’t yet give him a date for his return. Like all visiting correspondents for the L.A. Times, he was spending only three and a half weeks in Baghdad. So this story that was positive and patriotic, this story that was personal and political, this story that Donald Rumsfeld would no doubt have liked to see—Kraul never had the chance to do it. He didn’t have the time or the means.
“I’m ashamed to say it,” he says, “but all the features I reported were from the Green Zone.”