Our Longreads Member Pick:
Baghdad Follies, by Janet Reitman
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This week, we're excited to feature Janet Reitman
, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone
and the author of Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion
. "Baghdad Follies" is Reitman's 2004 story on what it was like to be a war correspondent in Iraq. As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the war, Reitman reflects on her early fears about traveling to Baghdad:
"People talk a lot about what it's like to cover a war; no one talks about what you have tell yourself in order to actually get on the plane so you can go and cover the war. 'Baghdad Follies' is a story about what reporters go through in covering war, and it began, in a sense, with my growing sense of panic over having signed up to cover the war. It was about an hour before I was scheduled to leave for the airport. I'd finished packing, and began to think—which right there is a killer. My thoughts went like this: I was insane. I'd covered other conflicts, but like, little ones. Africa. Haiti. This was Iraq. I'd been dying to go to Iraq. Now, I really didn't want to go to Iraq—let alone go to Iraq to write a story about how dangerous the war had become for U.S. reporters. Which was what this story was about.
"So I called a friend who'd covered the Iraq invasion. 'First of all,' he said, 'you don't have to go.'
"'I mean, no one will blame you if you back out,' he said. 'It's perfectly fine if you stay home. It's just a story.'
"This of course made me feel that now I really had to go because there were also a lot of other reporters, most of who would kill for this assignment, and what was I thinking? … 'I think I might die,' I told him.
"'You might,' he said.
"We debated the likelihood of getting killed or kidnapped for a bit. We decided it was 50-50 I got kidnapped, but probably only for a short while. Ultimately, we decided the best course of action was to get on the plane, fly to London, my first layover, decide if I felt good enough to keep going to Jordan, my next layover, and then, depending on how much I was freaking out, either keep on going to Baghdad, or turn back. 'Look at it as a process,' he said.
"Two days and an untold number of tiny airplane vodka bottles later, I arrived in Baghdad and stayed a month, during which time two other colleagues, both of who had confided their own fears about doing this job, were kidnapped, and released. I told their stories in full. Then, I went home, regrouped, and returned to Iraq. Twice."
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Baghdad FolliesJanet Reitman | Rolling Stone | 2004 | 22 minutes (5,354 words)
Photo: Thomas Hartwell, via Wikimedia Commons
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No one wants to go to Iraq. It's not a fun war. Afghanistan was fun. It had colorful resistance fighters on horseback. It had Al Qaeda bases. There were moonscape mountains and green river valleys. You could get in your car and head off to the Hindu Kush. "You felt as if you were in the back of beyond," says Alissa Rubin of the Los Angeles Times. "I'd probably move to Afghanistan in a heartbeat." Iraq, by contrast, is a place reporters can't wait to leave. Baghdad has choking dust storms, two-hour traffic jams and rubble. Even buildings not devastated by last year's "shock and awe" look as if they were. Most nights, military helicopters fly deafening, unlit missions over the city, like huge whirring bats. The "resistance" – which seem to comprise a good portion of Iraqi society – drive pickups, wrap their faces in kaffiyehs and see Americans as occupiers whom they have a duty to kill. There are lots of dry, scrubby bushes. There are allegedly some luscious date-palm groves south and west of Baghdad, but given the danger on the roads – kidnappings; ambushes; and the poor man's land mine, the "improvised explosive device," or IED – people aren't exactly spending a lot of time there.
"Iraq is like a prison," says Melinda Liu, acting bureau chief of Newsweek. One of the most seasoned war correspondents in Baghdad (she's got a bullet-wound scar on one leg)‚ Liu serves as a sort of den mother to the other reporters, reminding them to take their flak jackets when they go on the road. "When things are manageable, you think, ‘Hey, maybe it isn't so dangerous after all.' Then when things are rock-bottom terrifying, you think, ‘I'll fucking die on the way to the airport.' You can wake up and not know if, by the end of the day, you'll be eating dinner by the pool or dealing with a kidnapping. It's stressful, even if you're hunkered down in a hotel room."
When I arrive in Baghdad in April, most American journalists are holed up in their rooms, reporting the war by remote: scanning the wires, working their cell phones, watching broadcasts of Al Jazeera. In many cases, they've been reduced to relying on sources available to anyone with an Internet connection. Editorial writers might like to compare Iraq to Vietnam, but reporters on the ground say there's no comparison. In Vietnam, journalists rode Hondas to the front. In Iraq, they rarely venture into the streets. When they do, they hide behind the smoked windows of their armored vehicles, called "hard cars." At least nine Western journalists have been killed since the occupation began, not because they are reporters but simply because they are Westerners. Fear has become an accepted part of life in Baghdad, as inevitable as military roadblocks. While Arabic and European media such as The Guardian and Le Monde manage to cover the war on the ground, American reporters seldom interview actual Iraqis. Instead, they talk to U.S. officials who are every bit as isolated as they are, or rely on local stringers and fixers, several of whom have been killed while working for Americans. "We live in a bubble," grumbles one AP reporter. "If we know one percent of what's going on in Iraq, we're lucky."