Back to Iraq, In A Way

Tonight, “Only the Dead,” a documentary by my old Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware premiers on HBO. I am both anticipating and dreading this documentary.

Ware was already well established as the guy with the sources in the insurgency by the time I started my second Iraq journey in early 2004. I met him in a hotel room in Baghdad and he struck me as someone deeply in love with the adrenaline of reporting on the insurgency, combat reporting, at continually cheating death. I was … not entranced, but deeply admiring. He’s a big guy, over six feet, with a build that reflects his days as a rugby player. His nose looks like he ran into a wall, picked himself up and did it again just to teach the wall a lesson. He was funny, profane, frightening and always ready with a good story. (It’s a shame I only have pictures of him at parties. I won’t post them, though. He’s been through enough.)

But he was also, by that time, deeply wounded. I didn’t realize how much, but he had gone from his native Australia to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. In three years of conflict, he had picked up an addiction to war that I would come to know as well. My friend Phil Zabriskie writes in TIME how damaged Ware would eventually become:

Ware’s camera catches a dazed, baleful expression across the Marine’s face. “I could see good men here losing their grip, losing themselves,” Ware narrates. He knows whereof he speaks, because the same thing, of course, was happening to him.

This became even more harder to ignore after Ware moved from TIME to CNN in mid-2006. Always high energy, he became increasingly manic and erratic. Friends and colleagues worried for his health and safety, concerned that the persona of Mick Ware, the madman Aussie war correspondent who’d take risks others wouldn’t, was starting to obscure the excellent, often prescient work done by Michael Ware, the journalist.

After he left Baghdad, he was a mess, Phil writes. “He could barely function away from war. He couldn’t sleep. He self-medicated. He saw roadside bombs when he drove and the faces of the dead when he closed his eyes.” He was suffering from serious PTSD. For a while, I had mild symptoms and likewise did reckless things. But Ware saw worlds worse than anything I encountered. “For a long time, Ware wanted to die,” Phil writes.

But thankfully, he found help. And now he’s telling the story of the war as only can, using the (initially) haphazardly filmed conflict. We haven’t spoken in years, but I hope that changes. If he can come back, there’s hope for everyone.

So I’m eager to see the film tonight (old addictions never really go away), but I’m also dreading the memories it will serve up. We had car bombsfriends kidnapped, and yes, killed. I almost took a bullet in Najaf. Iraq was unimaginably dangerous for reporters from 2004-2008 (and more so for Iraqis), a fact that our stateside audience just never seemed to grasp, no matter how many journalists were killed.

Anyway, Ware is right: Only the dead see the end of war. It never leaves you. And I don’t know if you can ever make peace with it. Maybe there are only cease-fires.

Crossposted to truly, nomadly, deeply

The End of an Era, and the Beginning of a New One

Greetings all. It’s been a while. I wanted to take a small post and update you all on what’s happening here.

As many of you know, for the past few months, I’ve been at Stanford as a Knight Fellow, researching foreign news and online content. This fellowship ends in June. I have decided to depart the Middle East then and head for Pakistan, where I will be working on a new blog project, InsurgencyWatch. You can read more about the idea behind the new site here. You can also catch its latest posts via the RSS feed to the right.

Back to Iraq will continue to exist, but mainly as an archive and republishing site for the new content on InsurgencyWatch. I hope you’ll all join me over at the new site, and we can make interesting things happen again in the field of foreign correspondence.

Official Numbers on Iraqi Casualties from U.S. Government?

Is this a first? The latest from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (big pdf) gives a casualty number of almost 100,000 Iraqi civilians to date, which may be the first time a U.S. government body has released this information.


You can read the entire report, “Hard Lessons: The Iraq Reconstruction Experience” (and order a printed copy) here.

Congratulations, Mr. POTUS…

capitol-building-inauguration-bleachers.jpgSo, Inauguration Day. It’s here and I still can’t quite believe it. Eight years of arguably the worst presidency in the history of the country are over and a new one begins with President Barack Obama. Like many Americans I am hopeful, anxious, enthusiastic and ready to move on. But I can’t help feeling a bit nostalgic for President George W. Bush.

I mean, he provided me and my colleagues in the war covering business with lots of work. I mean, *a lot of work*. I made a career covering Bush’s catastrophes across the Middle East, and that wasn’t the only region he royally screwed up. THese include Afghanistan/Pakistan, Russia, the Caucuses and — lest we forget — New Orleans right close to home. Any one of these would be a blight on a presidency and a boon for journalistic careers, but damn.

Anyway, welcome to the Big Game, President Obama. Time to get to work.

Pirates, ahoy!

pirates.jpgOK. I’m going to take an I-told-you-so victory lap on this one. The U.S. will lead a 20-nation coalition to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa. Many of you will remember I’ve been interested in pirates off of Africa since 2005. I even embedded with the Germans in 2007 on the FGS Bremen as they took part in CTF-150, designed to protect the sea lanes leading up to the Red Sea. Other embeds I pursued included the USS Stennis off the coast of Pakistan and the task force in the Persian Gulf charged with protecting Iraq’s two off-shore oil terminals.

It’s nice to see that something I’ve been trying to draw attention to is finally getting the press attention it deserves, given the threat piracy poses to trade and the tie-ins between global terrorism and non-state criminal organizations.

* Piracy 2.0: Deadly and Dangerous
* Silent war against terror waged in dangerous waters
* Patrolling the world’s dire straits (PDF)

Uh, oh…

Many news outlets are reporting that several Katyusha rockets from southern Lebanon have landed in western Galilee in Israel, injuring two. Israel has apparently flown sorties over the Lebanese border and responded with mortar fire.

Stratfor has some quickie insight that I find plausible:

“… a Stratfor source in Hezbollah also noted recently that the Iranians, preferring to keep Hezbollah out of the fight, were concerned that other Sunni militants in Lebanon could decide to launch rockets against Israel and draw the group into war. The key thing to watch for now is whether this rocket attack is the first salvo, or if this is an isolated attack. If the rocket attacks continue, it is far more likely to be Hezbollah than some Sunni militants acting independently.” (Emphasis mine — CA)

Regardless of who fired those rockets, the risks of a new war on Israel’s northern front has just gone up dramatically — and I suspect that Israel won’t make the same mistakes in 2006.

UPDATE 0649 PST: Well, maybe not, as it turns out. Both Lebanon and Israel seem to be downplaying the event, with Palestinians in Lebanon getting the blame and being accused of trying to widen the conflict. Israel has opened the northern bomb shelters amid signs of de-escalation. Still, this bears watching.

New administration, fewer reporters

Another day, another bout of bad news for the journalism industry. The New York Times has a story today about how newspapers are cutting back on Washington coverage at a time when a new administration is coming in, two wars are still going on and the economy is teetering on the brink of collapse.

“From an informed public standpoint, it’s alarming,” said Representative Kevin Brady, a Republican from the Houston area, who has seen The Houston Chronicle’s team in Washington drop to three people, from nine, in two years. “They’re letting go those with the most institutional knowledge, which helps reporters hold elected officials accountable.”

The papers are focusing on local news rather than on events “far away” in … Washington, D.C.

Look, I can almost understand the desire to cut back on foreign news. I don’t agree with it, but I can understand the thinking. But Washington? On a recent trip to Louisiana, family members were discussing Congressional legislation that might affect them and their mortgages. That was direct paycheck stuff and they definitely wanted to know about it. So for newspapers to cut back on Washington coverage at such a time… Well, it just shows the desperate straits the industry is in.

I’m here at Stanford giving some thought to how the industry can be triaged and transitioned to the new media future, but for the moment, we need to save what we can. Do your part. I know you’re mad at “the media” but letting newspapers go under won’t help. It will be much, much worse.

So here’s a radical thought: if you want to hold the government accountable, buy a newspaper — an actual, printed copy. Subscribe to a paper, read it. Take some time and actually peruse the paper. Think of these small steps as a democracy bond purchase in a time of crisis. As Joseph Pulitzer once said, “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together.”