I’ve been in Iraq for a while. I’ve been there longer than any of the military guys, and they rotate through, and they’re always the same: at first, you know, they come in with a message, and they treat you badly — I’ve gone through so many divisions. It drives me crazy. Every time, they come in and they treat me like a stranger. Let’s say, I’ve spent a year with the Third Infantry Division, and I know all the generals, I know all the PAOs, the public affairs officers, and I know all the captains on the frontline units. I know them, they know me, we trust each other to a degree. When soldiers are killed, a lot of times I know the units that they’re in. I don’t report that because they ask you not to; they want the families to be informed officially, not to have someone watch the Nightly News with Brian Williams and find their son is dead. I agree with that and respect that. After a while you build up trust, and you can have a real relationship and they’ll tell you information and you can tell them information and you can build a relationship of trust. Then, they rotate out, and a new division comes in, and they treat you like the enemy, like a stupid enemy, like you don’t know anything and everything is great. The guy’s been on the ground for two weeks and he’s telling me about Baghdad, and I’m like, “Look, you just got here. I had a great relationship with the divisions that just left. Didn’t they tell you?” And then okay, six months later, the guy finally trusts me and then I get six months of real, working relationship with him, and then he’s gone, and I have to start the relationship again. So that happens a lot with the military. You work up a relationship and they go [laughs].
I have young journalists who come to me and say, “I want to go to Iraq.” And my response to them is, “I will help you to build the sort of experience that would qualify you to go to Iraq, but you can’t go to Iraq. I’m sorry.” And most of them, in fact, all of them, have accepted it. I don’t think anybody should have to go to Iraq unless they have experience in a previous conflict, because I don’t think it’s fair to them, I don’t think it’s fair to their colleagues, and I don’t think it’s particularly good for the story. So we look at their experience, we look at their maturity. In a place like Iraq, they live and work with their colleagues in a compound where they can’t go out for most of the day and all of the night, and that requires a very special sort of person; you can’t have prima donnas in that environment, you can’t have loudmouths in that environment. I’ve worked in that sort of environment with loudmouths, and it’s unbearable.
I think a lot of journalists want every war to be like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a place where you can stay in a nice hotel, get up in the morning, drive in your car, see a battle, cover it, see all these dramatic things, and then drive back just in time to send your pictures and have a nice dinner at the American Colony [Hotel], and smoke and drink wine, and tell war stories, and what happened that day, and booze it up into the night, and do everything all over again the next day. That’s nice; I’ve covered stuff there, too, but the world isn’t conformed to how journalists should cover — the world is as it is and we as journalists go and do it. Sometimes things are easy and sometimes things are incredibly hard.
The Christian Science Monitor
I had gone and watched a movie with a buddy in Mansur one night, fall or early winter of 2004, and we wanted to go over the bridge. The bridge that you go over to go toward the airport, and there was an American vehicle checkpoint set up basically blocking the way you wanted to go on the bridge. It would have meant a twenty-minute detour for us. There were three or four cars that would pull up and they would turn around; it was late at night.
So we stopped and rolled down the window and a private walks over and I said, “I’m an American reporter, can you let me through, ’cause this is going to take another twenty minutes and it’s dark and a little dangerous and we’re just going over there.” The guy says, “Shut the fuck up.” I say, “Look man, I don’t want to make trouble for you,” and while I’m talking to him he’s got his flashlight and he’s moving it in frenetic circles over both of my eyes. I said, “Look, really man, I’m just trying to get home. Is there any way we can just get through?” And he says, “Now you’ve done it! I’m pulling you over and I’m making you wait here while we search your whole car.”
So we comply. We got out of the car, stand away from the car as we were told to, open the trunk, etcetera. And this is my friend’s driver, an Iraqi driver who I had just met that evening, so I felt pretty bad that I had gotten him into that situation. And the pimply private comes over and he says to me, “Yeah, how do you like that? You see what you get when you fuck with me?” Like two feet from my face. And not to my perfect credit, I basically called him a word that will famously get you thrown out of any baseball game that has ever been played. You can figure that out for yourself. Not a pleasant word. And that was it. He goes and talks to his commanding officer, who comes over and within two minutes has me zip-tied, handcuffed, roughly searched, and interrogated for fifteen minutes. We go through this and I’m calm, as I usually am, and eventually they’re like, I guess we can’t arrest an American for using language that we don’t like. They untie me, and we drove off and go home.
About a week later, we get an e-mail addressed to The Christian Science Monitor Baghdad bureau chief, and I was chief at the time, and it’s a letter written by the general in Baghdad at the time. The letter goes on to say we’ve had a lot of complaints about the conduct of our troops in the field and we try to hold ourselves to a high standard and correct problems when they are brought to our attention by the press, but we think you have to be equally responsible and aware of the terrible behavior of your people. For instance, this guy Dan Murphy was stopped and was politely asked to step out of his car and he refused and launched into a profanity-laced, anti-American tirade, and he was so agitated and physically wild that we had to restrain him for his safety and our own. And etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. That was completely fantasy. It was lies. And I have no doubt that the general who wrote this letter believed it; he had attached the incident report written by the soldiers who were involved in this little incident.
Basically, I responded and said I happen to be that guy, and I will tell you exactly what happened, and of course [the report] has no truth because these things have no truth. And he apologized and said, “These things get garbled in transmission, sorry.” Now, does this incident matter in the big scheme of things? No. Did the guys on that patrol lie because they thought that maybe arresting Americans for using one naughty word isn’t the thing they should be doing? Maybe. Was what he was told by the soldiers in the field, who of course might have an incentive to lie, believed wholeheartedly by this general? Absolutely. Does it lead me to believe — given the source from the podium in the Green Zone and elsewhere over three years now — that these sorts of reports are far from the whole truth? Absolutely. Have there been military investigations that have proven the same? Absolutely. I think you get the point of the story.
The Guardian, Getty Images
So it was a very weird experience [to report alongside the insurgents] but, again, I think I’m so privileged to have that weird experience because those people — call them what you want, call them insurgents, call them terrorists, call them nut cases, call them jihadis, anything. But you have to understand. If you want to know what’s happening, it’s not enough to brand them terrorists and then go and kill every one of them. It’s not enough. So I think that going to the other side, and writing about the other side is a very, very important thing.
And I told you, every time I see an American armored vehicle driving through a street, I think “Oh my God,” and I see this gun pointing at the people and I think, “Oh my God, he will kill me now, he will shoot me now.” And you are so scared; most of the time I’m scared. And every time I see an armored vehicle, even in 2003, even in April 2003, an armored vehicle, a machine gun is a big huge massive thing, and it’s a scary thing. And I’m scared, of course. And every time I see a big American gun, I’m scared.
But when I was inside the American camp, and when I was seeing the same street, I was seeing it through a black-and-white infrared screen, every moving being was black and every still building was white, and then you see these black things getting very close to your armored vehicle and you think, “My God, why are they getting so close, why isn’t he killing them? Why isn’t he shooting them, defending … .” Automatically you are switched, and you become on the other side. So I do understand why the American soldiers look at the insurgents as the enemy, and I do understand why the insurgents look at the U.S. soldiers as the enemy. But for us journalists, we have to do this amazing, very difficult mental exercise to try to keep ourselves in the middle.
Los Angeles Times
I used to go and hang out here [in Baghdad]. I used do kind of fun things once. We used to go to a hair salon and just hang out, or a barbershop. We used to go to restaurants. I still try to go to my favorite little DVD shop, but recently a friend of mine went and it was closed. It’s like our world is getting smaller and smaller. The opportunities for interacting with ordinary Iraqi people have gotten fewer and fewer.
Now I’m determined to be able to do this, so we invite people. I recently invited an Iraqi family that I wanted to interview for a story over to the compound for lunch. And we brought the whole family over, sat down to lunch, and had like a two-hour conversation. They weren’t afraid. But I offered to go to their house and they said, “No, we don’t want you to come to our house.” And I said, “Oh wow, are you guys afraid that your neighbors will see me and come and get you later?” And they were like, “No, our neighbors know we interact with foreigners, they know who we are, but we’re afraid that you’re gonna get killed at one of the rolling checkpoints.”
The Wall Street Journal
When I left Iraq for the first time — you know, the tensions in Iraq are so extreme. We were constantly, twenty-four hours a day, on a state of high alert, survival mode. That situation, constantly under tension, you don’t really sleep well. You don’t know what’s going to happen the next moment. In addition to feeling that for yourself, you’re also worried about your colleagues. I was very worried about the Iraqi staff. Being responsible for security of the Iraqi staff. And all the bad things, the terrible things you cover. All the horror, all the misery of the Iraqis.
Every time I left Iraq, I would just stay in a hotel in Amman for two days doing nothing. I couldn’t immediately jump on a plane home. For me, anxiety would come in the most unusual places. Like suddenly in a commercial flight. Or for a really long time, I couldn’t sit by the window in New York. Or anywhere. When I’d walk into a restaurant I’d constantly choose the furthest seat from the window. Because I always associated windows with smashing. I’d seen it happen several times where a car bomb had gone off and smashed the windows. So you avoid sitting by the window.
We talk to each other. Journalists talk to each other about these kind of things. That’s one thing … .
Colonel William Darley
What I try to impress upon [soldiers] is that the inside-the-Beltway media is not the media. It’s the inside-the-Beltway media. And they need to understand also that reporters are very much like them. They’re idealists, they believe. They’re not working for money; they’re working for what they regard as a mission, and their mission is to tell the truth, and to get the truth out to the American people so people can make rational decisions about their government and about their society. And that they’re talented, for the most part, very talented guys and girls out there.
The New York Times
When you’re a target, it’s different — it’s weird, you know? It’s really strange. Any number of times I’ve been in a car driving down the road, and suddenly a car will come after me, and you don’t want to hang around and figure out why they’re trying to run you off the road or cut you off. And I’ve been chased, cut off, guys with guns, the whole thing. It so suddenly kind of turns on you. You will not unwind while you’re there in Iraq. You just can’t. You’re just kind of cranked up for however long you’re there. You’re just kind of wound up. The last time I was there I did seventeen weeks, so I stayed out for a long time, but — so it’s usually a couple of months and you’re pretty fried. But it’s mostly the isolation. It’s just very, very isolated. There’s nothing much else to do except work. You’re in this house, cooped up a lot of time. You’re working all the time. You really have to work a lot because everything moves so slowly that if you do sixteen hours, it’s like you moved this gigantic wheel one little click. So the next day you work another sixteen hours and the wheel moves another click. It’s all so slow now and truncated that it just takes more and more labor to get the smallest thing done.
The really horrible security situation in Iraq has made it not just terribly dangerous to report there but terribly, terribly expensive. And the result of that has been that the danger has chased a lot of reporters away. In ’03 and ’04 there were hundreds of reporters there, you know? And you never really saw them until some muckety-muck would come into town and go to the Green Zone for a press conference, and everybody would crowd in there, and there were four or five hundred reporters there. Now maybe there’s like fifty. There’s nothing — there’s nobody there. The Europeans are all gone. There’s a few Brits. There’s just basically the big American papers and the TV networks, but the TV networks can hardly get out because they’re carrying all this incredibly expensive equipment. Part of that is the danger and part of that is the unbelievable expense. When I just think of the money that The New York Times has paid, has shelled out and continues to shell out to allow us to report there, it’s just mind-boggling, you know, millions of dollars. We have two houses. We have blast walls. We have, I don’t know, thirty or forty armed guards round the clock. We have three armored cars, which together probably cost a million dollars. We have two generators large enough to power two houses that can run around the clock, which usually do run around the clock and which drink an enormous amount of gasoline every day. We have two satellite systems — a regular one and then a back-up whenever that one fails so that we can be in constant communication with the outside world; we have — we run up these unbelievable satellite phone bills and cellular phone bills.
Knight Ridder (McClatchy)
Most of western Iraq — you just can’t function out there as a western reporter. The country has gotten smaller and smaller. I miss Iraq, I do. I live in Baghdad, but I miss the country.
The Wall Street Journal
I can’t imagine going to Iraq for the first time now and writing it. Truly you do not know the country. You would be writing blindly, with no tangible sense of the place or the people. So I think that as we’ve sort of gotten tired and cycled out, it’s going to be interesting to see how that’s going to play out.
I hope I contributed to the world’s understanding of what’s happening in Iraq. I would like to avoid going back to Iraq. I’m not personally interested in the story anymore. Burned out. With too few breaks. Most of the world is waiting for this train wreck to run its course. Anyone can see it’s going from bad to worse to truly terrible.
So you really do see a huge amount by being on the ground, and you don’t always realize how much you’re seeing at the time until you then go and sit with another unit and you go, “Wait a minute — they’re doing … .” So that’s why I keep going back, because the more you know, the more you know. When I think about how little I knew to start with, it seems a shame to give up now when I actually know something and know better questions to ask and have seen three and a half years of this. On the other hand, you have to ask yourself, “Are you getting a little nutty?”
It takes hundreds and hundreds of stories to get a point across, to get a reality across, to a country the size of the United States. And if reporters start dwindling in numbers here, it’s going to be harder and harder to get across whatever is happening here, whether it’s good or bad.
My big worry is that the audience sometimes doesn’t know what they are missing because we as journalists didn’t all know what we were missing, because we were unable to function as we would anywhere else in the world. You are unable to just go and chat with people in coffee shops. You’re unable to just drive up to a town an hour north of Baghdad, a mixed Shiite and Sunni town, and chat with people about sectarian division. You are unable to do all the things that you felt you should have been doing. And my worry always was that we didn’t know how much we were missing.
The Boston Globe
The most personal thing I have to say about this probably is that when I first came into Iraq, it was really a feeling that a Band Aid had been ripped off the skin of Iraq — that everything was raw, everything was new. It might be a little painful or disorienting, but people were starting to talk, and people were spilling out these stories. People had many hopes and many fears, and it was the most dynamic experience I’ve ever experienced as a reporter, or personally. There’s a lot of sadness when I look back on that, when I look back on what might have been. And not to give the wrong impression — readers should know that Iraqis still are, in fact, going to work every day and going to the market. But the overarching fear and uncertainty I’m sure they didn’t know would last has lasted three years and counting.
But Iraq had suddenly broken open and all these things — both therapeutic and really ugly — were bursting out of people, and literally these bodies were bursting out of the ground. And people were digging up, on their hands and knees, digging up the ribs and the femurs of their relatives that had been buried by Saddam. They were finding them in these graves. At the time you had this idea that it was going to be like the end of the Soviet Union, and people were going to start reexamining their own personal choices in having condoned or supported or tolerated that regime, and that that would be a healthy process for the country.
But instead, the ugliness of what came out from things that were buried, physically and metaphorically, was just too much. There was so much anger that had to come out. And when you combine that with the failures of the American occupation to provide a safe environment for those things to be worked out, you got the situation that we have today.
There is a sort of cumulative [effect] to being there. It just hasn’t reached the point yet that I just want to stop finding out what is going on. The more time you spend there, the more you learn about the place, and the more you learn about the place, the harder it is to let go of the story because you become more entrenched in it, you become more entwined in it. It’s kind of a matter of seeing where the movie ends up.
I think you are looking at a situation where the foreign press corps, maybe a group of about twenty or thirty people who go to Iraq regularly, probably know more about Iraq than anyone else. More than the people at the embassy who are stuck inside the Green Zone and only get a particularly slanted point of view. More than the military behind their barbed wire.
Occasionally my desk will ask me, “Can we get an expert to explain this to us?” Or “Is there a report on how many deaths there have been and that kind of thing?” You haven’t got experts who know about Iraq. You have experts who are very well informed about Iraq. But the details of what is going on on the ground, the day-to-day bits of things, really, the journalists are the only ones who know that.
There was a particular incident that happened on January 18, 2005, up in Tal Afar in the north of Iraq. I got out there on Saturday, and they wanted me to go out [on an embed] on this mission they had going out on Sunday. The next day, we went on a routine patrol. I got with one unit that seemed to be pretty good: the Apache company. They were pretty press-friendly, these guys, and we went on a walking patrol in downtown Tal Afar, just in the middle of the afternoon, handing out flyers supporting the upcoming election and all that. And sure enough, in the middle of the afternoon we got into a firefight. They got ambushed a little bit — a few shots were fired, and before they knew it they were surrounded, and they were firing out, they were firing in — dramatic, hourlong gun-battle in downtown Tal Afar. And because none of their guys were injured, and they basically came back, they were all exhilarated, and I had all these dramatic pictures, and they liked them. Then Monday I just hung around the base. The mortar guys, the guys who fire the long-range mortars, they were just firing a few mortars — I took some pictures of that, nothing special.
And then finally on Tuesday, the same guys — the Apache guys who were in the firefight — were going out on a late afternoon patrol. So I said, “All right, I’ll go on that.” But they got delayed. So finally at six we went out, and it was the same kind of thing, a little smaller, like a small group of twenty men or so, patrolling. And it was also dark by this point. So they’re out on the streets, and it’s after the curfew, which is about six o’clock. And as we were patrolling on a darkened boulevard, in the distance, a car, maybe a hundred yards down at least, turned onto the boulevard and started coming toward us. And I already had a bad feeling, you know? Because these are camouflaged [soldiers]; they don’t patrol regularly, and they don’t call much attention to themselves, because if they have lights and sirens and things like that they’d be seen or easily attacked. So here’s a bunch of testy men with guns running around and a car coming towards them, and they don’t let cars come toward them.
I had a feeling the situation was going to end up badly. So I moved over to the side, because I feared at least some warning shots would be fired. The car kept coming. It was dark. Sure enough, somebody fired some warning shots, the car kept coming. And then they fired into the car. And it limped into the intersection, clearly no longer under its own power, just on momentum, and gently came to rest on a curb. I was kind of paralyzed, and then slowly walked to the car and, sure enough, I hear children’s voices inside the car, and I knew it was a family. The doors opened; the back doors opened, and kids just tumble out of the car, one after one after one — six in all. One was shot to the abdomen, though we didn’t realize he was shot at the time, though he was bleeding profusely and as soon as he dropped, there was blood in the street. The soldiers realized it was a civilian car. They ran and grabbed all the kids and ran them to the sidewalk. In the front seat, what ended up being the parents were killed, riddled with bullets, instantly dead. The children in the back were, incredibly enough, okay, except for the one kid who was winged in the abdomen.
I photographed the car coming in, and even the tail end of it getting shot up and it resting on the curb, the children coming out, the soldiers carrying them over to the side, treating them, looking them over, trying to figure out who was shot, who was not. And the father — the mother’s body was collapsed, you could hardly see her, but the father was still sitting up on the seat, riddled with bullets, his skull had almost collapsed because it had been shot so many times.
What happened was — and we found out from the boy who was shot, he ended up being flown to Boston for treatment — they were out visiting with family or something and they knew that their curfew was in the evening, so they were trying to get home. It was a little bit after the curfew, but time is never a precise thing to Iraqis — it’s not like this German, iron-clad, six-o-one curfew. It’s more like, all right, you’re not supposed to be driving around at night. Generally speaking, you could be out on the roads after six o’clock and nothing would happen to you. They were just trying to hustle and get home, and they’re driving along, and all of a sudden they hear shots. They don’t see — it’s dark — they don’t see camouflaged soldiers in the dark in front of them. They just hear shots. Now, when you’re in a car driving around Iraq and you hear shots, your first instinct is to speed up, because either someone’s shooting at you for some reason or somebody’s about to get into a battle nearby. Either way, you don’t want to be around there; you want to get out of there. And then, the headlight range — by the time they actually get into the region of your headlights, forget it, that’s way too close, they’re already engaging you by that point, shooting you up by that point. So that’s why they didn’t stop.
So I photographed this thing, and again [the military] didn’t try to obstruct me or stop me from photographing — and they could have — and it’s kind of remarkable that they didn’t; it’s kind of a human reaction and so on. But they didn’t, and that has happened before: sketchy things have happened on embeds. Almost every soldier in Iraq has been involved in some sort of incident like that or another, I would say. Their attitude about it was grim, but it wasn’t the end of their world. It was, “Well, kind of wished they’d stopped. We fired warning shots. Damn, I don’t know why the hell they didn’t stop. What’re you doing later, you want to play Nintendo? Okay.” Just a day’s work for them. That stuff happens in Iraq a lot. That’s why it’s such a damn mess, because almost everybody’s had something like that happen to them at the hands of U.S. soldiers. They hate them.
But I realize, as much as that happens in Iraq, it almost never gets photographed, and so I did realize I was onto an important set of pictures. I was also technically worried if I had anything at all because it was completely pitch dark, almost to the limits of what can be photographed, and I had the camera set in a way that lets in the maximum amount of light but often blurs photos, so I was worried that it would be a bunch of mush. So I played along with their casual attitude, because I didn’t want them to realize what I suspected: that this would be an important set of pictures that would go out a lot. I wasn’t saying, “What’s your name? What’s his name? What happened here?” I was just trying to photograph, and I was just trying to stay in the background — click-click quietly, didn’t say anything, didn’t offer up any opinion or anything. And then it’s, “We’re going now.” “All right, ready to go?” “Okay.”
They radioed ahead to the base about what had happened, and I met up with the major there on the base, an officer who ran it, and who probably knew a little better than these guys that what had happened out there could get out, that a journalist was along. So he calls me to his office as soon as I get back, and he says, “Pretty unfortunate what happened out there, Chris. We’re going to investigate, see what happened. We’d appreciate it if you held off on sending those photos for a couple of days, because we’re going to investigate, try to see if we can get to the bottom of what happened out there.” I want to get these photos out. Whether we send them on the news wire or not, that can be negotiated, but I need to get these back to New York before something happens. I mean, they have the capability to jam all communications from base, including my personal sat phone, but they don’t want me to send these photos out. Their base, one hundred percent their property, they’re the Army, they have no reason whatsoever not to confiscate my sat phone or jam communications to prevent me from sending the pictures. So I said, “Well, I have to talk to my boss, but yeah, I think we want to work with you there, Major. So I think we can probably do something like that, let me check but I think we’ll be okay.” And then I stepped out of the major’s office, ran back to my trailer, and flipped open my sat phone, got all the pictures and looked at them, and whoa, I couldn’t believe how much information was there. The pictures did come out. And I said, “Okay, send, send! Tone them up, tone them up, quickly, quickly, send, send, send!”
And I put on the captions: “Don’t send these out until you hear from me, until you hear from my boss” — Pancho Bernasconi is my boss. So I sent twenty pictures, and I got my Thuraya phone. I talked to Bernasconi and I said you better talk to this guy about what to do, and he said, “I’ll talk to him.” So I walked back over to the major’s office, but the major had gone to bed. And then there was a captain who I’d also talked to earlier, still up, and I said, “I have my boss on the phone, can you guys talk about …” and the captain, young sport, he said, “Yeah, okay, sure.” So they talked, and I heard them talking, and I heard his side. He said, “Well, we’d like to hold onto these photos. We’re asking you not to send them out for a few days so we can investigate … Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. Yeah, well, we wanted a little bit of time for us to get the investigation, uh-huh.” And I think what my boss was saying was, “Well, we’re a wire service, by the time we put them on our wire — but they won’t actually be in papers till a day or two, [or] maybe not — people use them or not, it just depends.” I heard that back and forth, and the captain said, “All right, well, I think we’ve come to an agreement” or something, and gave the phone back to me. So I went to bed.
Six a.m. next morning — [makes knocking sounds] — “The major wants to see you right away!” Oh boy, here we go. The major’s up bright and early. The major had already received an e-mail from Baghdad, the army office in Baghdad, because the photos were distributed right away by my office and immediately went out all over the world right away. Meanwhile, Baghdad Central Command had not been informed. If there’s something controversial, they’re supposed to report that to Baghdad and say, “Hey, by the way, there’s going to be some bad press coming out of here because we had a friendly-fire incident.” Then the Baghdad press office is always able to kind of prepare for it. They had no warning whatsoever. They just looked on the Web sites in the morning and they see these series of horrible pictures of U.S. soldiers shooting up an Iraqi family.
So the major comes up to me. “What happened, Chris? I thought we had an agreement. I thought you said you were going to hold onto those photos.” I said, “Well, major, I came back and you were in bed. I talked to the captain.” And the captain was right there and [the major] said, “What! Captain? Did he come back here last night?” and [the captain] said, “Well, yes, sir, but I talked to his boss and he …” and [the major] said, “Chris, excuse me for a second.” And the poor captain’s watching his career evaporate. The captain was saying, “Well, I thought — my impression was that the boss in New York said they were going to hold them.”
And you know, it was a confusing thing.