The first or second morning after the invasion, I was so tired and I had spent so many years at the AP, learning the rules of keeping your distance from the story, and I said to myself, I’m just going to write it the way I feel it. From then on, I kind of just did that. I think you have to care about these stories to do them justice. And I did care about it. I care about the Middle East. You have to be careful and still there are certain rules you have to follow. But I think there’s enough gray there that you can kind of get away with being a little more interpretive. It’s not easy. What’s so rewarding about the reporting in Egypt, the reporting in Iraq is, if you just tell peoples’ stories, then they become the vehicles for these sentiments, these emotions. It becomes much more real in a certain way. Also much more honest.

The thing I see so often, especially with foreign correspondents, the longer they do this, the more the story becomes about them. I think it’s almost unavoidable for some of these guys who stay there for as long as they do. They’ve seen so much, they’ve experienced so much, they’ve talked to so many people, that in some ways to them it feels repetitive. Their own experience is so much more interesting and compelling. Which is a disaster; the antithesis of what we should be doing as foreign correspondents. It should be about the people we cover. That lesson gets lost over time. It is cynicism.

A Story Worth Dying For

What so powerfully strikes me when I go back to Iraq now, the very fabric of the place has been torn, how Iraqis consider themselves, how they see themselves, how they identify themselves, how they relate to the government, what the government represents—all those things are broken. Identity and politics have become so visceral, so tied together, it’s hard to see any broader notion of state or nation.

That’s kind of a feature that is writ small across the region, these conflicts over how we identify ourselves as Arabs. Those two notions, is it a broader identity or a smaller identity? I think it’s in part a legacy of the Ottoman empire, and a consequence of colonialism—the ideologies that have tried to live up to the ambitions of what the region wants to be. The dysfunction of all that, and of course the conflict with Israel, have fundamentally impacted these notions of identity. I think that’s where we’re at right now. That’s what’s so compelling about this Arab Spring—people at some level, consciously or unconsciously, are trying to heal the wounds of a century of, not just dysfunction, but of having governments fail to meet their ambitions.

Often, editors will say no story is worth risking your life for. I don’t believe that. I think there are stories worth taking risks for. The way these wars have been happening in the region for so long, it produces a certain dehumanization. Such a remarkable amount of violence has been deployed in these places, so I think it is incumbent upon us as journalists to kind of recapture some of that humanity, those stories of individuals, of lives, whether they’re broken or not. That felt a part of the job in Iraq, to understand these people on their own terms, in their own context, how their lives played out in ways they never expected, and maybe shouldn’t have expected.

I don’t know if I was always successful or not, and I think that’s the frustration with journalism, the stories never match your ambition, what you want to write and say. But I was lucky, especially in 2003 and 2004, I had the full engagement of the paper, I had a story that was reportable and coverable, and I got lucky in meeting the right people and becoming a part of their lives. I do look back on it as a good time. Not a good time, but….

 

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.