Short Cuts

Jeremy Harding

Getting embedded in Iraq is less controversial than you’d think, to judge from the views of journalists who’ve worked there since the invasion. Our own man Patrick Cockburn believes it’s a ‘great mistake to go with American units and report on any Iraqi city’ because local people can’t talk frankly in front of the military. But Cockburn is clearly outnumbered by reporters who see embedding as useful.

At least one journalist argues that there’s enough chaos in a sortie with the military for the press to read between the lines or to watch the whole text come apart. Often there isn’t a coherent text at all. Several tussles over stories, involving zealous officers threatening a volley of blue pencils, have ended up with damaging news going out on higher authorisation.

In 2005 Chris Hondros, a photographer working for Getty Images, accompanied a US combat unit in the north. One night on patrol after curfew in Tal Afar, a family car made its way towards them. No one tried to stop Hondros taking photos once the soldiers had opened fire, killing both parents in the front and wounding one of the six children in the back. The major at the base asked Hondros to delay sending the pictures for ‘a couple of days’, pending some kind of investigation. Hondros’s instinct was to send them and leave it to others to argue the toss. Later that night, with the images safely dispatched, he arranged a phone link between the major on the base and his boss at Getty, who ended up speaking to a junior officer: the major, it seems, had gone to bed. By the time the major woke the photos were circulating round the world and Baghdad Central Command was keen to talk things over with him.

Hondros reckoned the shooting explained a lot about ‘why it’s such a damn mess, because almost everybody’s had something like that happen to them at the hands of US soldiers. They hate them.’ You won’t see hatred in the photographs he sent from Tal Afar (www.gettyimages.com), but they help to explain how hatred takes hold and why, in the circumstances, it’s simply an adjusted form of reason. Hondros remembered that the soldiers’ attitude was ‘grim’ but held in check. ‘It was, “Well, kind of wished they’d stopped. We fired warning shots. Damn, I don’t know why the hell they didn’t stop. What’re you doing later, you want to play Nintendo?”’

Soldiers have to put a lid on this kind of thing, but some of the Americans who serve in Iraq come equipped with a full pedal-bin mechanism. The lid is mostly down, but can sometimes be flipped open for an invigorating sense of the contents by asking a few simple questions. In 2003 Dexter Filkins, a New York Times correspondent, quizzed a couple of young men who’d returned from a firefight. ‘We were just mowing people down … just whacking people.’ (Doubtless insurgents talk like this too.) Again Filkins applied a discreet foot to the pedal and one of the men came out with a ‘remarkable thing’: ‘He was describing some woman who had kind of stepped in front of – the insurgent had stepped behind her, so he said, yeah, he shot this woman, and he said, “The chick got in the way,” and so he killed her. He wasn’t especially troubled by it.’

Or not at the time. But a lot of expensive lid-repair will be in order for US veterans once the Coalition has pulled out. There will be Deer Hunters and Platoons to expedite the remorse and thicken the grief. Iraqis, aside from a handful of protégés (the Dith Prans of a new, oil-rich killing fields), will be a mass of scurrying or sullen extras.

Filkins and Hondros tell their stories in Reporting Iraq, a gripping little book, put together by Mike Hoyt, John Palattella and their colleagues at the Columbia Journalism Review from hours of interviews with reporters and editors (Melville House, $21.95). Hoyt and Palattella have shaped their material to produce a roughly chronological account of the war in the words of forty or fifty different people who’ve groped for information at a frustrating distance, or worked in unnerving proximity to the action. Together they lead us from the closing stages of the invasion in 2003 through the turning point – spring 2004 – at which a desperate folly became an exercise in losing the war while looking to secure the resources (see Jim Holt in the London Review, 18 October). Oil is not a visible part of the story for reporters faced with the daily round of bombings and shootings, though Anne Garrels of National Public Radio says about the post-invasion looting: ‘people … will forever remember that virtually the only building … that was protected was the Oil Ministry.’

Garrels also explored the mysteries of the Green Zone when she ‘broke the rules and went in with a contractor’. She wandered through ‘this bizarre environment where you’ve got the CIA compound and the Bechtel compound and this security company and then the plush AID compound, and the new sports facility for the military … and the security companies have their own bars.’ (The ‘drug of choice’, she discovered, ‘happens to be steroids’.)

Since the surge of resistance in Falluja in 2004 and the wholesale retribution, much of Iraq is no easier to access or decode than the Green Zone. The situation was summed up – overplayed according to some of her colleagues – by Farnaz Fassihi, an American reporter for the Wall Street Journal, whose desperate round-robin email to family and friends in 2004 slipped into the public domain as a web circular: ‘Can’t eat in restaurants … can’t look for stories, can’t travel in anything but a full armoured car … can’t be stuck in traffic, can’t speak English outside … can’t say I’m an American, can’t linger at checkpoints, can’t be curious about what people are saying, doing, feeling. And can’t and can’t.’

It’s understandable that Iraqis – fixers, translators and stringers – have become even more crucial to the information-gathering process than they were at the outset. Luke Baker of Reuters explains that in 2006 the company had 115 people working in the country and that ‘probably a hundred of them are locals.’ Of those, ‘seventy are journalists … our eyes and ears on the ground.’ A Boston Globe man unpacks a typical ‘double-byline story’: ‘I would do one or two long interviews in a safe place … and then our translator would go out to get colour from a neighbourhood I couldn’t get into … These stories were at least half and half, but the half that the local staff was providing was the half without which the story couldn’t exist.’

Very few dispatches from Iraq have the ‘good news’ factor that satisfies Coalition notables. A showcase school rehabilitation turns out to be a coat of paint; a much-vaunted local water supply system goes up in Sadr City but only one house gets water in the sink. Finding ‘good news’ is a nearly impossible task and it riles the journalists interviewed for this book to be told they haven’t tried. Dan Murphy of the Christian Science Monitor: ‘What fucking good news?’ Yousif Mohamed Basil, a translator for CNN: ‘There’s no good news about Iraq. There’s no good news at all.’ Spin, apparently, is yet another item on the list of Coalition failures.