Anthony Shadid is the most honored foreign correspondent of his generation: two Pulitzer Prizes, a George Polk Award, an Overseas Press Club award, book awards—the list is long. He grew up wanting to be a foreign correspondent. His grandparents had emigrated from Lebanon to Oklahoma, and he knew from a young age that he wanted to return to the Middle East, to try to comprehend it. He graduated from the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin and, with the help of a professor, landed a job on the night shift at the Milwaukee bureau of The Associated Press. He quit after a year and went to Cairo to study Arabic. He returned to the AP in 1992, and three years later was sent to Cairo at age twenty-six. “That was the great thing about the wires,” he says. “I can’t say it was all that good for the journalism. At twenty-six you think you know more than you really do. But it was great to be young and in the middle of a great story and a great city.” After the AP, Shadid worked for The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. He is currently the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. He was wounded by sniper fire while on assignment in Ramallah in 2002 and was kidnapped in Libya this spring. Terry McDermott interviewed him in Boston earlier this year, mainly about Iraq. Shadid first went to Iraq for the AP in 1998, reporting a series on the rise of political Islam. He went again for another month in 2002, this time for the Globe. Then he returned in March 2003, just before the American invasion, for the Post. When he got there, he quickly realized the story was more complicated than he had thought.
A Broken Society
People were buying guns. Iraqis always knew the potential within the society to go bad. That was another misconception of reporters in Iraq before the invasion: you’re in a dictatorship, therefore no one will talk. It was always more ambiguous than that. There were always many more shades of gray. People, in fact, did talk. They may have talked in coded language. They may not have talked as honestly as possible, but even before Saddam fell there was always more dissent than outsiders thought. But it did go bad. And it went bad fast.
If you had spent any time in the Middle East, you would have known that there’s going to be big problems. I’ll never forget standing in Firdos Square the day that statue [of Saddam] fell. I just walked down the line of tanks and interviewed people, and it broke down like this: a third saw this as an occupation and they were going to resist it; a third saw it as a liberation and they welcomed it; and a third were unsure and couldn’t figure it out. And that breakdown stayed pretty much the same throughout. Until it went to hell in ’04. That kind of gets to your point—the power of reporting. If you talked to enough people
you were going to get a sense of what was going on.
It wasn’t linear, like, okay, invasion, society traumatized, traumatized by Saddam, or whatever, and then things went bad. It was an accumulation of events that were easily reportable—from ’91 on, there was a decade of sanctions that destroyed that society. What they dealt with in 2004, 2005, and 2006 was a direct repercussion of the sanctions of the ’90s, it was the society coming to terms with the damage that was inflicted upon it. That was all reportable. And it was all reported. There probably should have been more, it was probably not done well enough. The connection probably should have been made stronger. But it was there before our eyes. What you saw was a broken society. It’s still broken, deeply traumatized. Very sad.
I think I was in Doha, one of those places, and I was talking to my editor, Phil Bennett, who is a brilliant editor. We were saying, okay, we’ll cover the invasion. This should be wrapped up in a month or two. Then let’s start thinking about where else we’re going to go in the region. Seven years later, 2010, I was still sitting in Baghdad. Through that first year, there was that notion of trying to get a better sense of repercussions of the invasion on the region. But in the end, the region changed Iraq; Iraq didn’t change the region.
Shades of Gray