On the first day, the first couple days, I was reporting on, I forget what they called it, fear and awe? Shock and awe? Shock and awe. So I was covering the bombing, but even in those first two days I was trying to get out on the streets and talk to people, and I was putting all that color at the bottom of the story. And I’ll never forget, we were editing the story the second or third day, and Phil said, “You know what’s interesting, Anthony? This stuff at the bottom, the popular sentiments, is the most compelling part of the story. The top of the story was just trying to find enough adjectives to describe the violence, the bombing and so on, but here you’re seeing nuance and ambiguity and again these kinds of shades of gray in what people are saying. I think you ought to focus on that and make it part of the story.” And it did prove to be the most compelling part of the story. The sentiments in the end were the arena in which the whole experience was contested. And it unfolded very quickly.

I had had it in the back of my mind to do some of that. Before the invasion started, I had talked to some friends there and made contacts so that I could go see them once the war started. I got lucky because I had a minder who did not stand in my way. I was able to see this woman who had sent her son off to fight; I was able to visit a former diplomat; I was able to see a psychiatrist whose son was doing his residency at Johns Hopkins. Those three, and then a professor who I had met before the war, those four characters, became the spine of the book that I wrote later on, Night Draws Near. Even in those first meetings, I knew if I could follow them, if I could understand what they were saying, and how they changed as the events unfolded, it was going to be something very compelling, and would somehow tell us what this war represents. In some ways the legwork was done ahead of time.

How to Understand

In moments of crisis, in moments of trauma, people want someone to bear witness. It was amazing how forthcoming everyone was, and how much they wanted to talk. This was no less an event for them than September 11 was for Americans. I think that cauldron of sentiments, often contradictory, often conflicting, kind of came forth. We knew how important popular sentiment was, so the challenge was, how do we bear down, how do we find that place? It sounds elementary but I hadn’t heard it before. Phil Bennett was all about, “You need to intersect environment with dialogue. Intersect the environment with interviews.” That became a really powerful tool. How can I tie those two things together? This event unfolds while I’m talking to them and they will intersect with everything going on around them.

There was a young boy who was killed in a bombing and I was able to stay with him the entire day. Somehow I had to tie the day in the life, in the death, of this boy, to the broader events going on in Baghdad. It worked okay. You’re on deadline; stories never match what you want them to be. In some ways, that’s the task of a reporter: I don’t understand this story. How do I go about making sense of it, understanding the forces at work and how those forces are interacting? We’re not only trying to help our readers understand it, we’re trying to help ourselves understand it at the same time.

The Most Chilling Story I Ever Covered

I did a long piece in 2009, but it was a story that began in 2003. I must have gone to this village fifteen or twenty times. There was an American military operation in May 2003, kind of a precursor to the counterinsurgency. They went into this village, made a mess of the place, arrested a lot of people. I went there to cover the aftermath of this raid. We were sitting there talking in one of these tents. All of the elders were there, sitting together. They started talking about this informer. This guy named Sabah. You could tell people were nervous because there were two tribes inside the tent. I kept asking questions and could tell they didn’t want to answer. So I asked what’s going to happen to this informer. Finally, a guy leaned over to me and said, “He’s a dead man, but not yet.”

Terry McDermott spent thirty years at eight newspapers, most recently at the Los Angeles Times, where he reported from more than twenty countries. He is the author of the upcoming The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.