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Under Fire

Reviewed by Kimberly Johnson
Sunday, June 22, 2008; BW02

I LOST MY LOVE IN BAGHDAD

A Modern War Story

By Michael Hastings | Scribner. 276 pp. $24

BREATHING THE FIRE

Fighting to Report -- and Survive -- the War in Iraq

By Kimberly Dozier | Meredith. 288 pp. $24.95

WAR JOURNAL

My Five Years in Iraq

By Richard Engel

Simon & Schuster. 392 pp. $28

To those who experience it firsthand, the war in Iraq is a fickle master. It can bestow glory, wisdom, adventure, even romance, but more often it wields the power to take. That much is obvious from the latest crop of journalistic memoirs. If there's an "I-went-to-Iraq-now-here's-my-book" threshold, these works vault past it, carried cleanly over on loss of life, limbs and illusions.

Michael Hastings found love just as he had one foot out the door, headed to Baghdad for his first assignment as a war correspondent. He acknowledges in I Lost My Love in Baghdad that the prospect of war cranked up the heat in his fledgling relationship with Andi Parhamovich, an aid worker. "I was keenly aware of our time together, the self-consciousness of our romance, as if we were living on film, playing the roles of a correspondent back from the front, his beautiful love at home waiting for him." He was a young, green war reporter for Newsweek. She was blond, blue-eyed and idealistic, determined to join him in Iraq. "And how I wish I could know what you see," she wrote to him from New York.

We see what neither of them could, that tragedy was coming. That knowledge pulls us through what would otherwise be inane fights over his infrequent changes of bed linen and her flair for storming out of the room after an argument.

Hastings forces such details, adamant that we know Andi as he did, first in New York and later in Iraq, where she got a job with the National Democratic Institute. For readers, it's a bit like being a stranger at a wedding reception, obligated to sit through the über-personal video of the bride and groom, their declarations of love and their own personal mix-tape. Hastings's descriptions of events on the ground in Iraq are flat and impartial, delivered in just-the-facts style. But that only heightens his complete candor about his soul-shattering loss from Andi's death in a Baghdad gun battle.

In Breathing the Fire, CBS News reporter Kimberly Dozier chronicles her recovery following a car bomb that claimed the lives of two colleagues, their military escort and a translator. The blast all but shredded both of her legs. She bravely acknowledges that as she recuperated, she faced biting criticism: Some co-workers thought her decision to take the day's military "embed" assignment was part of an aggressive grab for rank among her CBS peers. "Even as I was lying in the hospital bed fighting to survive, some in London shouted and recriminated, asking if the new spirit of intercorrespondent rivalry had gotten [cameraman] Paul [Douglas] and [soundman] James [Brolan] killed. Even my friends were asking the same thing."

With self-deprecating wit, Dozier recounts her determination to recover, never straying into self-pity. Her wounds gave her an insider's perspective on one of the top military stories on the homefront: inattention to veterans' medical and psychological care. As a television celebrity, however, she faced the opposite problem: a crush of attention from other reporters. "I was a single representative showing [the public] in a horribly fresh way something they'd long been numb to."

In a previous memoir, A Fist in the Hornet's Nest (2004), Richard Engel recounted how the war gave birth to his high-flying television news career. When the United States invaded in 2003, he was a freelancer for ABC; a scant five years later, he is NBC's chief foreign correspondent. In his new book, War Journal, Engel describes how his initial, adrenaline-fueled feeling of invincibility gradually yielded to the realization that luck always runs out. Yet he still could not tear himself away from Iraq. "I felt comfortable there," he writes, "perhaps in a way that some battered wives can't leave the men abusing them. I now believed Baghdad would eventually hurt or kill me, but I wanted to stay."

Engel's longevity in the field has made him television's go-to guy for perspective on Iraq; even President Bush thought so, summoning him to the White House for a debriefing. But he does not explore his internal conflicts with the same grit. He stops short of revealing too much, which is understandable for a man who took to sleeping on the floor in his Baghdad hotel, wedged behind mattresses in case an explosion sent shrapnel his way. He has a need to protect himself. ·

Kimberly Johnson is a freelance journalist who has reported from Iraq for USA Today. Her book about the war will be published next year.

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