60 Months in the Red Zone

observatory 2 60 Months in the Red Zone“It’s the oft-stated phrase that truth is the first casualty of war,” said Michael Ware, CNN’s Baghdad correspondent, on the telephone from Iraq. “In this war, as in every other conflict, everybody lies to you. Your government is lying to you. The Iraqi government is lying. The insurgents are lying. The militias are lying. The U.S. military is lying. Even the civilians lie. Or in the best case, there’s confusion and exaggeration. The truth is the most elusive thing in war, particularly in an insurgency.”

Sixty-two months into the war, this is the language of the American journalist in Iraq. It’s not the only language; there are others: Cyclical, monotonous, brutal, strategic, hopeful. But slowly, as Iraq slips from the front pages and Web pages, today’s news starts to sound like yesterday’s; violence explodes; a spectacular military success, or failure. Casualty lists grow until they become incomprehensible, and then unreadable, unquantifiable. Against that metronomic numbness, 90 American journalists (according to a November 2007 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism) continue to work a dangerous war that becomes a harder and harder story to sell to Americans. As the American press corps gets older, wearier—and simultaneously younger and more untested as the veterans leave—there are truths that some of the reporters of Baghdad have learned about the war in Iraq.

Chief among them is that even if you grab hold of a part of the truth, it has a way of becoming false. Second: If you manage to find a true story, don’t depend on anyone back home wanting to hear it.

Bob Reid, the Baghdad bureau chief for the Associated Press, filed this June 1: “U.S. military deaths plunged in May to the lowest monthly level in more than four years and civilian casualties were down sharply, too, as Iraqi forces assumed the lead in offensives in three cities and a truce with Shiite extremists took hold.

“But many Iraqis as well as U.S. officials and private security analysts are uncertain whether the current lull signals a long-term trend or is simply a breathing spell like so many others before.”

Mr. Reid has been covering conflicts for over 30 years, in Iran, Palestine, Lebanon, the Sudan, the southern Philippines, India, Pakistan, Bosnia. But this, he says, is different.

“Someone the other day told me that they thought Iraq had gone through a sea change,” he said by phone from Baghdad a little before midnight, June 9. “All of us who have been longer know that there is a cyclical quality to the violence here.”

Mr. Reid was sitting in the small house his wire service keeps in the Red Zone of the city, finishing work and planning to go to bed after a workday that started around 8 a.m.

He calls his life “Groundhog Day.” He goes to bed in the same building he worked in—with a book or, if he’s lucky, an English-language movie on Arabic satellite television—falls asleep, wakes up and starts all over again. Like the war, it has its predictable, grinding rhythm, and yet, like the war, every day is completely different.

“Iraq has receded,” said John Burns, from a ferry off the Isle of Man, England, where he’s covering a motorcycle tournament. Mr. Burns was perhaps the Iraq war’s best-known correspondent, who from 2003 to July 2007 was the chief of The New York Times’ Baghdad bureau. “War is surprisingly easy to cover,” Mr. Burns said. “I always said this. The story dictates itself. There’s never one morning when you get up and wonder what you’re going to do today.”

But it’s not a war anymore; it’s an occupation. And for many reporters, one thing that is missing is a narrative, a frame of reference to describe the events they report but can’t quite explain.

The Best and Brightest was written 5 or 10 years after the events it described,” said George Packer, who has covered the war for The New Yorker. “Books will come out 5 or 10 years from now telling us things we don’t know now. Right now we’ve probably pushed it about as far as it can go from the limited point of view of a Western journalist in the middle of the events he’s describing.”

“For a long time, there was a single thrust of narrative,” said Damien Cave, who went from The New York Times’ Newark bureau to Iraq in July 2006 and returned in December 2007. “Now I think it’s harder to figure out what the narrative is. You’re trying to figure out: What features speak to the news? And because Iraq has become more fragmented, the narratives are more fragmented. A story in Basra is different from a story in Mosul and that’s definitely different from a story a few years ago.”

“I think there are a lot of people who really want information and that’s why we’re there,” said New York Times Baghdad bureau chief James Glanz. “But when somebody asks if it’s getting better? It’s a fine place to start a conversation. But the thing about Iraq, it’s about double exposures and overlays and things like that. It’s a complicated place. It’s a place where if you really want to boil it all down, then the complexities of the systems have defeated all these solutions. And you really can’t think about it any other way. There’s no simple story line.”

Richard Engel of NBC News acknowledged the recent drop in violence, and said it gave reporters more room to report.

“How much you can move is impacted by the level of danger. … I recently went down to Najaf, which is south of Baghdad. I was walking around the city doing interviews, without any kind of security protection or back up at all. That felt great. I hadn’t done that in years. A Chinese restaurant, takeout, just opened up down the street from our bureau. There were no businesses opening in ’06 and ’07. People are getting out more. You see more people on the streets going to markets. When I go to do interviews, I can stay longer.”

The conventional wisdom has always been that a reporter can’t stay in one place for more than 20 minutes—the amount of time security experts think it takes for eyewitnesses to report their whereabouts to potential kidnappers, and for the kidnappers to lay their trap. Journalists are routinely increasing their stays to 45 minutes or more.

The BBC’s Jim Muir visited the National Archive, which is currently being patched back together after the war, for an hour and a half. But his security people were not happy about it.

“In general terms, it has made life a bit easier,” he said. “Six months ago, I was able to go to one of the worst Sunni neighborhoods, a place called Ameriya, which had been a really, really rough neighborhood. But you could go there because one of the developments, which has fed into the security improvement, is that a lot of the young Sunni guys have turned away from Al Qaeda and have signed up to fight them alongside the Americans. In that sense it’s expanded the range of stories you can do, and the places you can go with relative security. … Violence is down, but it’s down to like more than 500 Iraqis being killed violently every month rather than 2,000. Those levels are still not very nice.”

“There’s no question it’s not the same front-page story it was last year,” said Tina Susman, the Baghdad bureau chief for The Los Angeles Times. “It just needs to be approached differently. It’s human-interest-oriented. … That’s the way wars work. They go in ebbs and flows. In March and in the first half of April, we were on the front page frequently. It’s inevitable. I
t doesn’t mean the story is over, but, O.K., if the daily news isn’t grabbing attention, then what is? What’s another way to tell the story?”