Baghdad in early March was experiencing a first blast of spring. The air was soft and warm. The pool at our huge, concrete, Soviet-style hotel teemed with journalists. In the lobby, soothing Muzak versions of “Copacabana” and “I Just Called to Say I Love You” were on heavy rotation. The city was stubbornly serene.
War felt like an abstraction. But we all knew it was coming. The question before us was: Do we stick around to cover it? To stay meant hunkering down through what our colleagues at the Pentagon promised would be a hellishly intense battle, possibly featuring the use of chemical weapons. It also meant placing ourselves in the custody of Saddam Hussein’s government officials, who had promised to round us up and “protect” us.
This is not something most normal people would even consider. But there we were.
The issue dominated nearly every conversation. You talked about it with your colleagues. You talked about it with your competitors. You talked about it with your bosses back home. And when you weren’t having the conversation with other people, you were having it with yourself.
Why would an otherwise reasonable person even contemplate staying in Baghdad in the face of such obvious and overwhelming danger?
First, simple curiosity. Many of us had invested massive amounts of time in the story and didn’t want to miss the payoff. (With only three months in Iraq under my belt, I was a rank amateur.) We had all lived and worked in the clammy embrace of Iraq’s Stalinist government-being spied on by hotel cleaning staff and followed by government “minders” (they preferred the term “guides”), who monitored our every interview. To experience Baghdad at the moment the leaden veil was lifted was a tantalizing proposition.
Second, idealism. We felt a genuine obligation to stay and bear witness to a military campaign about which so many people around the world had such grave reservations.
The process of deciding whether to stay or go created serious rifts in our little community of Western journalists.
Up until this point, the media scene had been quite collegial. There were parties, cliques, intrigues and romances. It’s only natural for a certain measure of bonding to occur when you have a small group of Westerners on the opposite side of the planet, living and working in a totalitarian country.
When the idea that war was truly imminent began to dawn on us, the decision about whether to stay divided the journalists into two camps.
Those who adopted the stay-come-hell-or-high-water stance felt that those who were hemming and hawing (and I was definitely in this camp) were poisoning the atmosphere with paranoia. We, on the other hand, felt that their defiance and defensiveness about their decision smacked of denial. This produced some nasty confrontations.
At one point, a German TV reporter-a woman with whom we were quite friendly-came to our office and told us sharply that we should just leave.
For those of us on the fence about staying, the fear was fueled by the erratic-and sometimes downright creepy-behavior of the Iraqi Information Ministry officials, whose job it is to supervise the reporters.
The trouble started in an initial meeting between the American TV networks and one of the senior ministry officials. The journalists expressed concern about working out of the ministry building, which we had been told by Pentagon sources was a military target.
The official told us that we would not be allowed to move our equipment out of the building. “You will stay here with us,” he said. “We will protect you … and you will protect the building.” In essence, he said, journalists will be human shields.
Shortly thereafter, as the Iraqis began to sense that they had thoroughly spooked us, they launched a rather ham-handed charm offensive.
The most absurd moment came when a junior-level Information Ministry official came to our office and offered to let us stay in his home. “I will protect you with my blood,” he assured me.
I’m not sure what exactly made his disingenuousness so glaringly obvious. Was it the fact that, before that moment, this official had coldly ignored me? The fact that he refused to meet my eye during his presentation? Or the fact that the entire spiel seemed rehearsed? (It probably was; another official later gave nearly the exact same speech to a reporter from The Washington Post .)
Sipping soda on the couch in our office, the man from the ministry told us, meaning-I think-to calm our nerves, that if anyone from the government tried to harm us, he would personally protect us. Then he looked toward the ceiling (all indoor conversations in Iraq involve lots of knowing nods to the bugs we presume to be planted overhead) and said, “If they find out I’ve made this promise, I’ll probably lose my job.”
As the time for a final decision loomed, I became totally consumed by the issue. Journalism became a part-time job. I spent much of my time in consultations with my colleagues. In rare moments alone, I couldn’t help but imagine the various horrible fates that awaited me if I stayed.
The bottom line to which all dialogues, internal and external, inexorably returned was: Do you want to entrust your life to the Iraqi regime? What are your odds of survival when you put your fate in the hands of a government with a well-established record of cruelty at a time of near-certain annihilation? As one of my colleagues asked, “What does a drowning man do?”
But then there was that internal voice-sometimes a whisper, sometimes a bellowing carnival barker-telling you that maybe everything will be O.K. Maybe it won’t happen to you. Maybe you’ll survive and be a hero.
Ultimately, our boss made the decision for us. He said he simply couldn’t stomach the idea of leaving us in the custody of the Iraqi government. The long drive out (expedited slightly by the fact that our nervous Jordanian driver traveled at speeds in excess of 120 m.p.h.) was one of the most miserable experiences I’ve endured in a long time.
As journalists, our entire raison d’être is to report. To walk away from Iraq with the certain knowledge that we were going to miss a historic transformation seemed like an unnatural act.
As I write this, I am in Amman, Jordan-in the posh purgatory that is the Intercontinental Hotel. I spend my days watching the story on TV, along with hundreds of other journalists. Now the only conversation is: When and how do we get back in?
The anxiety of missing the story is compounded by the fear for those who stayed behind-some of whom are very close friends. While I fully support my boss’ decision to pull us out of Baghdad (if I were in his shoes, I’d have done the same thing), I desperately hope that he was wrong.
-Dan Harris. Mr. Harris is a correspondent for ABC News.
All’s Quiet at the Recruiting Station
As bombs fell on Iraq on Thursday, March 20, it was a sleepy day at the U.S. Armed Forces Recruiting Station in Times Square. It was clear the invasion of Iraq hadn’t sparked the rush to enlist that occurred after Sept. 11.
But after a while, a tall man in a navy three-button suit, white shirt and Kenneth Cole shoes knocked at the door. Hector Valentin, on a lunch break from his job working security at the Reuters Building, wanted to inquire about his pending application.
“I thought about signing up back in 1997, but my parents talked me out of it,” the 24-year-old Bushwick resident said. “They didn’t think it was such a good idea.”
Why the return six years later? Did the rush to oust Saddam spark a patriotic chord?
“This has nothing to do with the war; I’m in this for financial reasons” Mr. Valentin said. “I’ve got some debt, and with the economy the way it is, the Air Force sounds like a steady job. It’s not about combat for me or being gung ho.
“I’m no Rambo,” he continued. “I want no part in this war. I’m not about to lose a limb for Bush.”