The New York Times
If you look at the whole arc of this thing, it used to be easy in the beginning, but it was never easy. I remember, literally the first day, driving into Safwan, which is the first town on the border when you cross over. It’s where they signed the surrender in 1991. And I went in there thinking that this is probably going to be something like what I saw in Afghanistan, which was cheering crowds and people throwing their turbans off, and everybody happy to see the American forces. And that wasn’t the case at all. To me, it looked like we’d pried the doors off a mental institution, and there were a bunch of people standing around with their jaws hanging open. Some people were absolutely horrified, people were crying, some people were cheering, some people were — you could tell how afraid they were. Some people, you could sense that there was emotion that they didn’t want to express, so they didn’t. There was a lot of uncertainty.
But it was pretty scary, too. I remember that moment when I arrived in Safwan: the great concern of many of the people there — they were all Shiites — was that there were secret police all over the place, and as soon as the Americans left, the secret police were going to come in and arrest everybody and kill them. So everyone was totally horrified and really afraid to talk to us, and it was really, really dangerous because there were Iraqi Army people all over the place, and there were guys taking their uniforms off, there were tanks up the road and stuff going off, and it was really, really crazy, and it wasn’t anything like Afghanistan. I mean, Afghanistan was like a tea party compared to Iraq, just in terms of size and just insanity. Iraq was just orders of magnitude greater. Whatever expectations that I brought in across the border that day, I just chucked immediately because it was totally different. It was clear immediately that it was going to be a lot harder to work. It really was.
The New York Times Magazine
The Marines [on the way to Baghdad] took a bridge, and then took the other side of the bridge, and seized the road that went from Baghdad to the bridge, and they set up a perimeter. And unfortunately, because this road was actually an escape route for civilians who were trying to leave Baghdad, there were cars that came up the road to leave Baghdad by the bridge that the Marines had just taken. And, because the Marines had not been able to drive vehicles over the bridge, because the bridge was damaged, civilians who were driving up the road to flee Baghdad over the bridge did not see any American military vehicles and thought, “Fine, it’s safe,” because the Marines were dug in, into camouflage positions, setting up their new perimeter on this road. So what happened was, civilian vehicles drove up this road, and the Marines shot them up.
I was two hundred or three hundred meters back. The road bends just a little bit, and there are some small houses and stores on the side of the road. So I could not see what was happening down the road. I was with the commander. I knew that there were vehicles coming up and they were taken care of. We assumed they were all military vehicles. Or ordinary vehicles carrying Republican Guard or whatever, because, you know, we didn’t really know the situation. But the Marines, particularly the snipers who were on the front line, who were looking through scopes and could see faces in vehicles, knew what was going on. And the photographers were there. So, the photographers heard the sniper commanders saying, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.” The snipers would fire to disable the vehicles, hit the engine block, hit the tire so the vehicle can’t go forward. Even though the orders were, let the snipers handle it, when the Marines, the ordinary grunts, heard one or two shots from a sniper, they’d all open up. So, you had all these civilians, women and children, getting killed on that road.
[In the morning] I just kind of walked down there and looked at the vehicles and saw the civilian bodies. And on the side of the road there were a couple of civilians who were burying the bodies, and one of them spoke a little bit of English. He had been in one of the vehicles and told me what had happened. And so I was able to see with my own eyes the result of what had happened. I was able to see dead civilians, cars along this road that were shot full of holes, the bodies were still there, and there were witnesses there. The title of the story in The New York Times Magazine was “Good Kills,” because the battalion commander, [Lieutenant Colonel] Bryan McCoy, when I was with him during the battle, I had asked him, “How are things going?” And he had a cigar at that moment, I think, and he said, “Oh, you know, it’s a day of good kills.” And that, “good kills,” is kind of a military term that officers and soldiers will use, meaning their job is to kill people, the right people. But he didn’t know, at that time he didn’t know that there were civilians being killed.
He did realize afterwards. And a lot of people in that battalion knew, not just the ones who shot those vehicles. And I think, actually, when they were shooting, they didn’t know whether there were civilians in them or not, they were just scared. There was one marine who I quoted in the story, who was on the road checking out the bodies. And one of the photographers was with me at that moment, and the photographer was saying, not in a whisper, “This should not have happened. This was wrong.” And, this particular marine heard that and swore, said something. So I went up to him and said, “Well, what do you think about what happened?” — because he was amid all the bodies, as I was — and he kind of said, “Look, you know, you can’t second-guess it. We’ve got to keep ourselves safe. We didn’t know who was in the vehicles. This is war, and this is what happens in war.” And so I put that in, paraphrasing his words, into the story. Two days later, Baghdad falls. This battalion, by the way, was the battalion that took down the statue of Saddam.
I remember the day the Americans came into Baghdad [April 9], and I was standing by the side of the street watching the convoy go by. And some of the Humvees had little American flags on the antennas, just a couple of them. An Iraqi ophthalmologist — there were two from the eye center nearby — saw me going to the crowd and they spoke some English. And they said to me, “Look, you’ve got to tell them to take these flags off the Humvees. They’re going to make people so mad.” And I said, “Well, what makes you mad about it?” And he said, “They’re Americans and that’s the American flag. That’s what occupiers do. That’s an occupation and that’s what people don’t want here.” And I think a lot of us picked up on the first day a lot of very ambivalent feelings, and those feelings were basically completely overwhelmed by the images and, most important, the superficial event that took place that day — the statue being taken down, the Americans taking control of the city.
The toppling of statue — yes, there were people celebrating, but there were as many people standing in shock. It was not just one big party, as I think the cameras tried to make it out to be. In fact, Morning Edition called me after the first feed, and they were seeing the TV coverage, and said, “Do you want to redo it for the next feed, because it seems like the pictures are people celebrating.” And I said, “Well, there are so few people trying to pull down the statue that they can’t do it themselves; the Marines have had to intervene, rightly or wrongly, with a crane to pull it down.” Many people were just sort of standing, hoping for the best, but they weren’t joyous; there was a very mixed feeling about seeing American soldiers in their midst.
And there was a quote. A man was standing next to me, a university professor, by pure chance, and he said to me, “You understand, you will now have to be in complete control, and we will resent you every step of the way.” And he was so right. The only problem was that of course the U.S. was never in complete control and the resentment was probably even greater because of it.
You were coming across American soldiers who looked like they’d just beamed down from a spacecraft, and had no idea which way was which and what they were doing and who they should be looking out for, and at the same time were mingling with Iraqis on foot, and stopping in juice shops for drinks.
It was a free-for-all in every sense of the word. Along with the unrestrained looting and the chaos that that implied, there were also enormous possibilities to do all kinds of reporting. And if you had a bureau there, like we did, and it was a known bureau and a known company like CNN was, it was a beacon for everybody. It was a beacon for Iraqis who believed they had stories. Iraqis would show up, there would be Iraqis lined up outside the door. There would be the Iraqis who needed medicine for their dying mothers, there would be the Iraqis who told you they had nuclear documents in their basement and would you like to come and look [laughter]. You know, there was almost that pang when you turned somebody away, [you were] thinking, “Damn, maybe this guy really does have nuclear weapons in his basement, but I don’t have time.” So you never really knew. And then there would be the line for the American soldiers who hadn’t talked to their family in six months. Everywhere you went, because we had satellite phones, there would be people desperate, desperate, desperate to get in touch with their families.
My first day there [April 13, 2003], I had a driver, a Shia driver, drive me around, and he took me to Sadr City, which at the time was still called Saddam City. But the event that had a lasting effect on me was a week later — going to a Sunni mosque in the al Adhamiya district. I was actually going there just to meet an old college friend who was in Baghdad and I thought I would catch up with her. She was at the mosque. Iraq’s most important Sunni cleric had just gotten back from five years of exile, and about ten thousand people had come to hear him speak, and he was emphasizing Sunni-Shia unity [and] opposition to the Americans from the first day.
And these marines, a patrol of marines walked in on the whole event — on the Friday service with ten thousand people there — and this was like the most pro-Saddam neighborhood in Baghdad — wealthy Sunni Baathists. They walked right into the crowd on the street, and there was a very tense standoff. They were pointing their machine guns at the crowd. The crowd was very angry.
They were finding documents — everyone was looting the government buildings and finding the files — [Saddam Hussein’s government] had secret files on them, and they were finding out that their neighbors had been informing on them for years. Some of the problems that we’re still suffering from were already becoming evident at this stage: all of the rage and mismanagement, frustration and anger.
A perfect anecdote: I read it in a local newspaper and chased it down and it was a true story. In Basra there was a farmer and he had a small herd of cows — let’s say four or five cows. In the late nineties, this farmer had gone to the local office of the Ministry of Agriculture and had asked for some medicine because one of his cows had some sort of illness. And, you know, typical, disorganized, inefficient government — they said no, come back, go to a different office, they gave him a bit of a runaround, and all of his cows died, and his livelihood was destroyed. And these kinds of things happen. Right after the war, this farmer, we’re talking five years later, went back and found that local government official, and said, “You owe me four cows, plus interest, or I’m going to kill you.” The guy didn’t have the money, or said he didn’t have the money, and he was killed. There was a sense of euphoria and opportunity, but there was also the opportunity to get even.
The Washington Post
I was one of the first reporters into the Baghdad Museum. I saw rooms that had been stripped bare. I saw people with crowbars running in to pry open cases. But just walking through that museum and seeing it destroyed by looters was heart-wrenching. For the first time, I started to think — “We’ve come here without a plan. It would have taken one tank in front of this building to have protected it, yet we didn’t do a single thing to stop it. Did we really come into this with no postwar plan?”
The day that Mosul fell [April 11], we were in the palace when it was being looted and it was extraordinary. We walked into the palace and there were no U.S. forces, really nobody in control, and the word had gone out that the Iraqi army had gone and that the palace was there and it was open. And entire families came. They didn’t just come and tour the place. They came and they tore the door hinges off, they came and they took away the marble, and the place was really being dismantled in front of us. We did live shots from there and we did live interviews. And it was an absolutely remarkable thing because it was so unrestrained. That morning we’d gone in thinking, “This is it, this is the end of the Iraqi regime, this is the dawn of a new age.” By sundown that day, we had a security guy who was getting really nervous because people were starting to get a little aggressive.
There were many unsecured weapons caches in the schools, as I recall, because I think that Iraqi forces at the time thought they would be a good place to hide things because they didn’t look very suspect. But the American forces were just overwhelmed, and at that stage nobody — at least not the military — was taking the probability of a really well-equipped and well-organized insurgency properly or seriously, and so there was no feeling that these weapons were being stolen by a group that would become a serious enemy.
In Mosul, this guy took a knife out from under his shirt and he stabbed this portrait of Saddam, and he stabbed and stabbed and stabbed and slashed at his eyes and I watched this and thought, “Oh my God.” I had to remind myself that Saddam is gone. [The man with the knife is] not going to be punished.
The chaos went on — people forget — for two months at a high volume, high intensity. Even a month and a half after the fall of the government, people were going around in buses and picking a building, go up there and load up and drive back to Sadr City. And they would dismantle buildings, first of all the valuable and movable things, then the furniture and then the windows and then the window frames and the electrical and the light fixtures and eventually strip the thing bare. This was going on in view of American soldiers, sometimes literally across the street from where soldiers would be guarding some of the few places that they were told to guard. And it was true — and famously or infamously true — that the oil ministry was one of the few buildings that was guarded from the very beginning.
People were shocked that the U.S. did nothing, and they will forever remember that virtually the only building — it wasn’t the only building but one of the few buildings — that was protected was the oil ministry; that just summed up to so many Iraqis why the U.S. was there, and confirmed their worst fears. And it also played to the utter naïveté of the Americans, because it wasn’t just Iraqis letting off steam, as Rumsfeld said. It was Baathists going around destroying documents — making Iraq ungovernable: destroying drivers’ license records, all of the things that make a city able to be governed. And it was the beginning of the insurgency.