Veteran Iraq War Reporters Reflect 10 Years On

Martha Raddatz in Ramadi, Iraq, in 2007.

For the journalists covering the Iraq war, the experience was in many ways unlike any other war. If you were part of the invasion — which began this week 10 years ago — it often meant being “embedded” with the American military for weeks, with your gas mask never more than an arm’s length away.

Television and radio journalists broadcast the sprint of troops and armor through the desert to Saddam Hussein’s capital — live — to the living rooms of so many around the world, as the war began throughout the fall of Baghdad several weeks later. Print reporters brought their readers the tales of heroes and enemy forces that seemed to disappear into the sand. The pictures captured by photojournalists from those early days of the war were extraordinary; the smiling faces of Iraqis welcoming their liberators, and the last gasps of the Baathist regime.

It was a quick end, but really just the beginning. For the hardened reporters who stuck with the story 10 years of war brought a new understanding of the order of battle, of the lives of a people under occupation, under siege perhaps, as long internalized anger turned neighbor against neighbor drawn on religious lines. No one guessed it would go on so long. In fact, the public was told it wouldn’t and stayed largely unaware of the extreme dangers. According to numbers from the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 150 journalists and 54 media support workers were killed between March 2003 and December 2011 in Iraq.

On this anniversary of the Iraq war’s start, we spoke with two veteran journalists with years of war coverage under their belts. Their answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Martha Raddatz is the senior global affairs correspondent for ABC News. When the war began, she went from being a Pentagon correspondent to covering the war on the frontlines. Raddatz made more than 20 trips to Iraq, reported on American forces, interviewed top military commanders and was embedded with troops at some of the worst points in the fighting. She also brought focus to the spouses and loved ones who feared that each day could bring devastating news. For those soldiers that made it home, she brought light to the physical and mental scars that don’t end with the war. She wrote about these themes in a book entitled “The Long Road Home”.

For a veteran war reporter like NPR’s Middle East correspondent Deborah Amos, conflict coverage was the routine. But in Baghdad after the invasion it became clear to her that this war presented a different and new kind of dangerous. Preferring “civilian embedding” over military coverage, she focused on the Iraqis who were struggling with the war as deeper sectarian divides bubbled up. In the later years, Amos immersed herself in the lives of Iraqi refugees in Syria. Her time there resulted in a book, “The Eclipse of the Sunnis”, where she chronicles the sectarian strife that engulfed the magnitude of displaced Iraqis.

What were some of the challenges that you and other journalists faced in the first few years that U.S. troops were on the ground in Iraq?

Martha Raddatz: It really changed. When it began, you could go around to the main areas pretty easily. I remember flying into the country in late summer or early fall of 2003. There was really quite a bit of freedom of movement, and you didn’t have to worry too much.

By mid-2004 you couldn’t go anywhere outside of Baghdad without the military and it got increasingly more dangerous, particularly for television reporting.

It was the lack of front lines that made this war was so different. If you look back in history, in Vietnam you’d have these intense battles for days, but then you could go back and feel fairly secure in some places, but in every place our service members were [in Iraq], they were at risk. They were safe nowhere.

How did this affect the soldiers?

I think you’ve got so many guys coming home, who spent years with adrenaline going all the time. I remember some early conversations about the fact that you could just drive around and get blown up.

I remember one soldier saying to me when we were just walking around on patrol one night in some particularly bad area and he said, “it just makes me crazy to know that no matter how hard I’ve trained, no matter how much I know, no matter how much mental discipline I have, they have this advantage where I could just walk across something and get blown up.” They had to adapt to that, and they did what they could to try and fight the IEDs, but it’s pretty darn hard to keep ahead of that.

So many soldiers have come home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Was this a result of this nature of war as you described?

Well, I’m not a psychologist so I can’t say that, but I’ll tell you what has to be a contributing factor: the number of deployments. These two wars together [with Afghanistan], and you have to talk about the two wars together because some people started deploying in 2001, are some of the longest wars that we’ve had. There are some amazing people I’ve met who seem to be just fine, but you can’t expect everyone to deploy three or four times, lose so many friends, and see so many things that no one should have to see and not be affected by it.

There are people who are really struggling, and I think, “oh I met so-and-so seven years ago and he’s great and he’s a double amputee.” Well, they still are. Or I see these young spouses whose husbands went off to war and came back six weeks later brain injured. And now, truly 10 years later, they’re still taking care of them. There’s a mother who takes care of a Marine. That will be their life. Their whole life will be taking care of their loved ones.

U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division 3-7 infantry Corp. Charles Johnson (left) from Myrtle Beach, S.C., shows his squad an Iraqi flag captured during an raid on a Iraqi border post on March 21, 2003. Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images.

Did we as a nation learn anything from the war?

Yeah, I think we have. One of the things I’m proud of is that the American public figured out that things weren’t going very well. The press would get a very hard time from some saying, “you’re only telling us the bad news and pointing out the awful things.” During that time you did hear from the administration that things were going better than they were. President Bush in one of his final interviews said he had to say those things to keep morale up, but I think the troops knew full well what was going on over there. The American people figured out that wasn’t the case.

In all the times that you’ve reported from Iraq, was there something that you underestimated or weren’t prepared for?

I guess I underestimated the length of time I would be going there. It would take up such an enormous part of my life, my passion, and what was important to me. I guess I wasn’t prepared to forge the bonds that I did, I guess I didn’t think about it. I started covering the Pentagon in peacetime. It wasn’t as if I was going in with the idea of going off to war, it was a gradual thing, and in so many ways, what was happening to our military and our country of getting sucked into that war, I was too. I am proud of that work, and I am grateful for the people that I’ve met. I have seen more tragedy than I wish I’d witnessed, but from that I’ve met some amazing people.

The other profound memories are of the moon in Iraq. It was one of those things where if it was the end of the day and you’d seen something terrifying or uplifting, the moon in Baghdad is a pretty amazing thing. There’s the old cliche that it’s the same moon back home, but when you’re looking at it there and there are helicopters flying by in the desert, it is just stunning and beautiful.

How did you first start to cover the war?

Deborah Amos: I first came to Baghdad in early May of 2003, when it was a remarkable place to be. You could go anywhere and do anything in the country. We went from Kurdistan to Basra, and I think nobody understood or saw how bad it was gonna get in those early days. It’s hard to say, but I think it’s really hard to get over it, and I ask people who go what it’s like, and if you have been there in the terrible days it’s really hard to get over it. It was bad. There were bodies everywhere all the time and so that tends to be my major memory of Iraq and how bad that violence was until 2005.

Were you embedded with the military at any point?

I never was. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with it, it just wasn’t for me. I usually get embedded with civilians. I’m more comfortable with that kind of coverage. There was a real split in who came. There were lots of people who were Pentagon reporters, I was a regional reporter, I had covered the Arab world and so that’s where my expertise was, if I had any. I chose to stay on the civilian side of things.

An Iraqi woman and her children flee the fighting in southern Iraq’s main city of Basra on March 28, 2003. Photo by Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images.

What did you do after Iraq?

I went to Syria and started covering the Iraqi refugees. I came back to the Middle East after the Rafik Hariri assassination was there in 2006 during the Israeli invasion of Beirut. Then, all of a sudden it became clear that there were 2 million Iraqis in Damascus. So I was covering the shadow of the Iraq war by covering the refugees in Damascus, because there were 2,000 arriving every day.

In looking at the lives of displaced refugees or considering reconstruction efforts within Iraq, is there progress that’s going unmentioned as other Middle East conflicts have taken more attention in recent years? Did we forget about Iraq because the war has essentially ended?

I don’t think it’s because the war has ended, honestly. I think the reason that we don’t talk about it much is because I think the American Public doesn’t want to hear about it, and that usually means our editors don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to compare it to Vietnam, but I think it’s going to take us awhile as a country to assess that war and its cost and whether or not it was worth it or not. My sense is that it’s very hard to get Iraq coverage in the newspaper. Of course, within the Middle East there are other things that take its place. I saw this happen in Lebanon after 1982. There are some moments where we just turn our eyes away for a while. It’s either too painful or we haven’t assessed it properly. In this case we have a 10-year anniversary so we’re forced to look back.

What were some of the things that stayed with you from your reporting?

You always remember your translators, because if was how you understand the society. When we first got there I didn’t ask who was a Sunni and who was a Shiite. I came to find out later that all of our translators were Shiites and all of our drivers were Sunnis. As time went on, you had to be very aware of the sectarian divide because you’d be taking a Shiite translator into a Sunni neighborhood, and they would say terrible things of Shiites there.

Then you have these people who had been so friendly and open and demanding, this militant hospitality that you’re always subjected to in the Middle East, but it became too dangerous for them to ever bring us home. To be associated with us was way too dangerous for them.

So what I saw was this progression, into the most violent place I had ever seen. We lived in compounds with manned machine guns on the roof, and we built safe houses and rooms with metal doors. I’ve covered wars my entire career, but it was never anything like that.

You had to think about what if “they” — and you didn’t know precisely who “they” were — climbed over the walls of your compound? How long could you hold out before someone could come and save you? That was just part of everyday coverage. It wasn’t written about or talked about, but it was there.

Was that something you expected?

I had seen Lebanon fall apart, Afghanistan was dangerous, Bosnia was dangerous, but this was an element that I hadn’t seen before. It was surprising only because I had that early memory of how open the country had been in the beginning. I had covered Iraq in 1991, and I always said I wouldn’t go back to Iraq until Saddam was gone. I knew how brutal the regime was. It was a joy as a journalist to go back in 2003 and be able to go to places that I never thought I would go to: Basra, Tikrit, Mosul. These were all places that were out of the question when Saddam was in power. It was an amazing experience, and so that difference of going down into that terrible violent black hole I think was all the more shocking because of the comparison.

On Tuesday, PBS NewsHour senior correspondent Judy Woodruff spoke to reporters and authors Michael Gordon and Rajiv Chandrasekaran about their recollections of the war:

Raddatz and Amos provided their photos. View more of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter:

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