Reporting Iraq (Edited by Mike Hoyt, John Palattella et al.)

Stories Behind the Story

Reviewed by Anthony Swofford
Sunday, December 9, 2007


An Oral History of the War by the Journalists Who Covered It

Edited by Mike Hoyt, John Palattella et al.

Melville House. 187 pp. $21.95

Reporting Iraq grew out of a magazine project to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Columbia Journalism Review. Reporters Vivienne Walt, Judith Matloff and Christopher Allbritton were hired to interview about 50 journalists who had reported extensively on the Iraq war.

The resulting oral history -- composed entirely of the journalists' thoughts and recollections, presented verbatim and without commentary -- is a searing document, one of the most revealing chronicles of the war yet published. It is as though correspondents are talking late into the night, trying to explain what it was like, what sights and smells haunt them, what they're proud of and what they regret, what they saw coming and what they didn't. Here's Guardian/Getty Images photographer Ghaith Abdul-Ahad recalling an explosion in which he was wounded by shrapnel:

"Up until this moment I was separated from the scenes of car bombs by my lens: It was something else, it was not reality because I see it through this viewfinder, and all you care about is the light, where it's coming in, the composition, the light. So you are separated. But the smell, the smell is always there."

This is the kind of book that the hawks who pushed the Iraq war on America could never have imagined. After reading these story-behind-the-story accounts, the easy war fantasy built on fictionalized intelligence and willful blindness seems more than ever like an impeachable offense. But this is neither an anti-war nor a pro-war book. In these pages, men and women who have spent more time in Iraq than most U.S. soldiers deliver intimate, street-level views of all sides of the conflict: of an Iraqi mother grabbing a reporter by the vest and demanding, "Why have you killed my son?"; of opposition fighters debating whether to kill a photographer because he's not a Muslim; of U.S. troops coming to blows over the shooting of a dog.

These vignettes are presented chronologically, creating a lucid narrative from the start of hostilities, through the reign of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to the hope and promise of national elections and finally to the bloody spring and summer of 2006, when most of the interviews took place.

Close readers of the national print press are already aware of the danger and difficulty of reporting from Iraq. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 124 journalists and 49 media support workers -- drivers, interpreters, fixers, guards -- have been killed in Iraq since March 2003. But the psychological toll of war reporting is often forgotten or denied, even by journalists themselves. In Reporting Iraq, Anne Garrels of NPR confesses, "I still have nightmares, truth be told; posttraumatic, whatever you want to call it. . . . Anger -- all of us -- I know I've had anger issues; they're hard to describe."

By nearly all accounts, during the first six or seven months of the occupation, journalists were able to move easily around Iraq. "You could go out all day in a place like Ramadi -- where I think now your life expectancy would be about 20 minutes," says Dexter Filkins of the New York Times. He first noted the changed environment in the fall of 2003, when he went with two photographers to the scene of a suicide bombing in a Shiite neighborhood. "About 500 people turned on us instantly and surged. I remember there was an old man saying 'Kill them, kill them, kill them!' " The reporters were beaten by the crowd, their car was pelted with bricks, a photographer had his head split open, and at day's end Filkins counted 17 bricks in the battered car. This was the new Iraq.

The danger wasn't just physical. There was a concerted effort by some members of the Bush administration and the military to undermine the authority of the press, most notably by accusing reporters of covering only bad news.

"In October 2003, I think that was when the first salvo in this good news, bad news debate started going on. And I started questioning myself," says Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post correspondent Anthony Shadid, who admits that the pressure for good news affected one story he filed. "And I regret that story. . . . It came out of that thing of, again, not sticking to what you're hearing, not sticking to what you're seeing," he says.

The pressure wasn't just from the military; sometimes it came from editors. Patrick Graham, a freelance writer, says, "A friend of mine who was working for a British paper kept getting a lot of pressure to write 'good-news' stories. I can remember him saying, "I've written a good-news story in Hillah; I hope they print it before Hillah blows up."

Many of these reporters are remarkably critical of their own work. While Iraq is "certainly very, very dangerous," says Walt, an interviewer for the book who has also covered the war as a freelancer, "I think in some ways its uniqueness is a little bit exaggerated. . . . I was just in Kurdistan; Kurdistan is not totally safe, but it is an important part of Iraq and you can more or less operate there pretty well." A translator for Time and CNN, Yousif Mohammed Basil, responds to the good news, bad news debate this way: "As an Iraqi, living inside Iraq, I cannot hear good news, and even if there is good news, you cannot hear it with the noises of explosions and the noises of the terrorists and the noises of American military operations."

It is said that if you ask 100 soldiers to tell you about the same firefight, you will hear 100 different stories. The same can be said of journalists. Many Western reporters now work from walled compounds in or near the Green Zone, coordinating Iraqi stringers by phone and e-mail. When they leave their compounds, those who report for major news organizations often, though not always, move with armored vehicles and guards; freelancers, on the other hand, have little choice but to dress up as Iraqis and drive through neighborhoods in beat-up, thin-skinned cars. The war the two groups see will inevitably be different. And there is no attempt in Reporting Iraq to gloss over the differences, or to make journalists look good. That may be why they come off so well. *

Anthony Swofford, a former marine, is the author of the Gulf War memoir "Jarhead" and the novel "Exit."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company