Black Hawk Up

David Ignatius's Helicopter Journalism

What a delight it must be to be a columnist for a major American newspaper. When traveling to distant, war-torn lands, you can enlist America’s top generals to show you around. That’s what David Ignatius of The Washington Post did on Sunday. He was shown around Baghdad by no less a figure than Centcom commander David Petraeus. Or, rather, he was shown it from the air. The two flew over the city in a Black Hawk helicopter. The general pointed out all the signs of recovery below. “See, the houses are occupied again,” he said as they passed over a neighborhood that several years ago had been largely abandoned. He pointed to the schools, police stations, parks, markets, and a traffic jam, which, he said was “good to see.”

It was only after Petraeus and Ignatius landed in the Green Zone that they learned that, while they’d been aloft, two massive bombs had gone off in the heart of the city, killing more than 100 and wounding more than 500. “I guess that tells you something about the difference between life, close up, and what you see from several hundred feet,” Ignatius wrote in his column Monday (“A Resilient Baghdad on a Day of Horror”). Rather than try to examine that life up close, however, Ignatius repaired to the Al-Rashid Hotel in the Green Zone for lunch with two Iraqi friends. (Ignatius does not tell us who they are nor what their background is, but they’re clearly members of the elite.) Despite the bombings, Ignatius observes, his friends are “surprisingly upbeat about the future.” “In every sector, Iraq is coming back to its normal mode,” one says. “There is no way it will slip back,” the other insists.

As night falls, Ignatius joins Petraeus for another helicopter ride, to Camp Victory, near the airport. Though he had just warned us a few paragraphs earlier about the limits of the view from above, he draws more conclusions. “Baghdad can be a cruel place,” the general tells him, but “you have to keep a grip on your hopes.” And, Ignatius writes, “as the Black Hawk skimmed over the city, Baghdad seemed to be teeming again, despite the morning’s events.” “People are back out in the parks,” Petraeus observes, surveying the landscape. “All the lights are on, cars are driving around.”

The view from the ground is left to the Post’s Arabic-speaker Middle East expert, Anthony Shadid, whose report the same day captured the shattering and traumatizing effect the bombings had on local residents:

Sunday’s attack, cutting through snarled traffic during the morning rush hour, was the worst in Baghdad since 2007. With an attack Aug. 19 that killed about 100 people, insurgents have now wrecked an array of pillars of the state’s authority: the Foreign, Finance, Justice, and Municipalities and Public Works ministries, along with the Baghdad provincial headquarters, which are all gathered in a fortified swath of downtown….

The smell of diesel still mixed with the stench of burning flesh when Maliki visited the scene of the destruction Sunday. Cars idling in traffic had been turned into tombs, their passengers incinerated inside….

“Bodies were hurled into the air,” said Mohammed Fadhil, a 19-year-old bystander. “I saw women and children cut in half.” He looked down at a curb smeared with blood. “What’s the sin that those people committed? They are so innocent.” …

At the hospital’s overflow morgue, a frigid trailer, people looking for relatives inhaled deeply before stepping into the darkened facility to look at bodies and fragments of flesh laying on stretchers. Nearby, Saif Sattar, 30, sobbed while sitting on a slab of metal, rocking back and forth. His 37-year-old brother, Faris, was among those killed, he said.

Their father was killed in a recent bombing in Baghdad as well, he added.

“All Iraqis will die,” he said quietly.

The full extent of the devastation is graphically and gruesomely conveyed in the remarkable photo gallery accompanying Shadid’s article. It provides a stark contrast to Ignatius’s above-it-all account.

During the early phase of the Vietnam War, many American columnists went on similar ride-alongs with generals; subsequent events made their rosy accounts seem disconnected from reality. In Ignatius’s case, we don’t have to wait for history.

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Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.