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Anne Garrels

For many, Anne Garrels’s voice became the most trustworthy stream of information broadcast from Iraq. A frank discussion with the author and NPR Iraq correspondent, one of only 16 non-embedded journalists to remain in Baghdad for Operation Shock and Awe.

Anne Garrels, a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio since 1988, has recently written a book, Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War as Seen by NPR’s Correspondent Anne Garrels. She began her career at ABC News, covering the Soviet Union, Central America, and the State Department, and later moved to NBC News. Since joining NPR she has filed from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, China, Israel, Kosovo, Pakistan, and the West Bank, as well as Iraq. Her numerous awards include a 2003 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation and InterAction’s award for Excellence in International Reporting. She also is a board member of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Garrels graduated from Harvard University in 1972. When she is not on assignment she lives in Connecticut with her husband and various pets, including at least three chocolate Labradors (and, with her bold moves to seduce her interviewer’s canine Rosie, did not seem hesitant about adding to the brood).

Garrels’s book is her account of being one of 16 non-embedded American journalists (and the only broadcaster among them) who remained in Baghdad during Operation Shock and Awe. Included as well are her trips, commencing in October 2002, to Iraq during the run-up to the war. As has been the case in her other war-zone experiences, Garrels greatly benefited from being able to connect with a local national, in this case a former Army officer, Amer (one of the dedicatees of the book), enabling us to follow her to places unknown or impenetrable to other reporters. To quote Jon Lee Anderson (no slouch in the war-correspondent game), ‘Blessed with razor-sharp intelligence and bravery in equal measure, Anne Garrels is also knowledgeable, fair minded, and unerringly honest. She deserves the attention of as many of her fellow citizens as possible.’

 

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Robert Birnbaum: The title of your book is a bit undignified.

Anne Garrels: Absolutely.

RB: Though if you were going to be light about that, Iraq and a Hard Place was pretty good. Had you considered using that?

AG: I had. But we all had used that too much in our scripts or were tempted to use it too much in our scripts. Initially there were very discreet titles, [such as] Baghdad Diaries but then that title had been taken. Then From the Palestine Hotel, then it became clear as the months went by that people would think it was a book about the Middle East and they’d forget that the Palestine Hotel was in fact in Baghdad. And I was lurching through this book writing it really fast. I had a month…

RB: This is not taken from notes that you had?

AG: It was based on my notebooks but they weren’t in full sentences and in any real coherent form. I had to compose it based on my notebooks, so the publisher was going, ‘We have to come up with a title.’ So while Naked In Baghdad is in some ways undignified, it’s also very truthful because I was unprotected from October on. And there is a double meaning, literal and figurative. I was just winging it and as the clock ticked down making the decision to stay. The bombing wasn’t the issue. It was whether or not the Iraqis would decide to take us hostage. Or use us in a final desperate gamble.

RB: I have read a fair number of battle-zone accounts and the narrators always deny they are war junkies. Who are the war junkies?

AG: [sniffs] There are war junkies; I mean, I know them. I don’t think I am a war junkie. I spent my most of my career not covering wars. I got into this because I was passionate about the Soviet Union. That was my passion. True it was a cold war, a psychological war. That was just a part of the interest. It was the transition that was going on. It was heroes that emerged in totalitarian states—dissidents like Andrei Sakharov—Russian culture and Russian history. Where was this country going? The ineffable question that Russians have been asking themselves for centuries. [laughs] That’s what got me into this in the first place. And that has been the defining factor of why I became a correspondent and why I was selected to be a correspondent. After ‘91, the wars kept finding me. The former Soviet Union and then of course the Balkans, the ethnic wars, the Gulf War in ‘91. And certainly once I got to NPR. It’s a small place. We don’t have many reporters. I was a foreign correspondent and that just became part of the beat. I felt I got many of the assignments I wanted but if I had to cover a war, so be it. Inadvertently, I became good at it or at least experienced at it.


From our hotel window every night we would watch the Republican Palace be hit again and again. It was very colorful and very noisy. But it was far from indicative of what was going on. It was the whispers, as John Burns put it, ‘You had to listen to the whispers.’


RB: Isn’t it odd—I was thinking about the original radio correspondents during World War II and recently—I can’t think of war zones that have been effectively covered. Funny; radio is an old medium and you became the voice of this war.

AG: It was simple. Initially there were hundreds of journalists and well over a hundred American journalists who were there as the clock ticked down to the president’s deadline. Suddenly editors back in New York and Washington began to get scared for their reporters. It wasn’t that anything had changed. The reality was the same as it had been several months ago when they had been planning to keep people there for the war. But the reality, ‘Oh my God, it is going to happen and the bombs are going to fall and the Iraqis might take them hostage.’ So when suddenly we looked around at each other as the bombing started and started counting heads, there were only 16 of us left. And the networks had left in the middle of the night. CNN left at the last minute. Their editor was thrown out or whatever. [CNN reporters Nic Robertson and Rym Brahimi were expelled by the Iraqi government.—ed.] So, I end up becoming the voice of Baghdad. There were no television pictures and television voices there. It was really by default. Perhaps you wouldn’t be talking to me now, I wouldn’t have written a book, had TV been there. I would have been drowned out by the cacophony of television. I have no doubt. I had been able to work much more honestly than television up to the war and maybe even during it. I am much lower key. Television doesn’t work well in police states. Cameras are very noticeable. People are afraid of them. You raise a camera and people scatter. So because this was a very organized police state in the run-up and even during the war—the streets were blanketed with security agents—I was a lot freer as a reporter.

RB: What news would TV have broadcast out of Baghdad? I have this sense that it would have been standard impenetrable tape loops. [New Yorker writer] Jon Lee Anderson, [New York Times correspondent] John Burns, and you provided real information that TV would not have provided, even if it had been there.

AG: There were the pictures and they were actually almost deceptive, the big blasts. From our hotel window every night we would watch the Republican Palace be hit again and again. It was very colorful and very noisy. But it was far from indicative of what was going on. It was the whispers, as John Burns put it, ‘You had to listen to the whispers.’ Television doesn’t do whispers very well.




Anne Garrels, shot by R. Birnbaum
Anne Garrels, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


RB: What does television do well?

AG: Oh, they can do some things well. There are some wonderful television reporters who can do—I didn’t see television coverage because we didn’t have access to satellite television. I’m sure some of the embedded reporters [did good work]. But the embedded [journalism] was also a mixed bag. I think that there were some [that were] truly wonderful. I was very skeptical of the whole experience from the beginning. In part, because of what had happened in Afghanistan where we were really locked out by the military and I assumed that we would be used. I think I was wrong. I think the embedded experience was far more valuable than we gave it credit for. The problem was the reporters who had the most to say were in the worst position to say it. They were hurling along caught in fire fights. The military wasn’t going to stop for Morning Edition or World News Roundup. Those who had the least to say had the most time to say it because they were sitting there waiting. And television had committed to filling air, endless hours of air. NPR, too, to some degree.

RB: Well, television does it with video loops…

AG: I was actually surprised when people dismissed embedded reporters and I was hailed as being an unembedded reporter in Baghdad—also a little shocked. Now, and especially as books come out by people who were embedded where they can begin to report and really say what the experience had been like and what they learned from it, it will be valued more and more. When you do go back and look at some of the embedded reports—some of them were absolutely superb and very revealing. What people remember the most—because they were shown endlessly on television, the reporters who as I say were in the best position to report who had the least to say, sitting there going [in mock announcer voice], ‘Hi and here we are going through the desert. And no, I don’t know anything. And gee aren’t the boys wonderful?’ because they had to fill the air with something. They were put in the awful position of filling air endlessly. And thank God NPR didn’t put me in the position of filling air. There was one morning where I begged to get off the air, I just said, ’Listen, I don’t have anything new to say.’ And my foreign editor simply said, ‘Annie, if you are not on the air, the listeners will think you are dead. Second of all, give us a sense of what the day feels like.’ I would not hang on the satellite phone for hours, doing update after update. I wanted to go out and report, and they respected that. And the other thing was money. It cost a fortune to be on the satellite phone. Another issue was getting through—it was very difficult. For loads of reasons, there would be security sweeps of the hotel and so I didn’t want to have it [the satellite phone] up endlessly and yet another problem was that the channels were overloaded. It was very hard; many nights I would fall asleep from fatigue, just dialing trying to get through unsuccessfully.

RB: I am stuck on this notion of the anomaly of being in the very modern world of advanced technologies and media and relying on person, one voice to observe this complicated thing when we are so used to—

AG: A cacophony. It was very intimate for me. Frankly, it was like the old days, back again. An intimate group of reporters and I knew most of them. I trusted them. We had been together for a long time. Most of them had not played games with the authorities. Ironically, many of the people who had been sort of pulling their punches for months in order to stay for the big game, the big war, they left.


Iraqis predicted very well what was going to happen. They predicted the confusion in the society, that it would split and they described the fault lines and the looting that they anticipated. And that they were terrified of crime and that there would be a security vacuum—they described everything.


RB: Who came out of the Iraq war with credibility?

AG: It was pretty amazing when we looked around at each other and it was NPR, the New York Review of Books

RB: [laughs]

AG: The New Yorker. [both laugh] Cox Newspapers had two reporters. Not what you would have thought would have been first and foremost. Newsweek didn’t stay. [Correction: Newsweek did stay, and remains in Iraq. Their reporter Melinda Liu covered Operation Shock and Awe until the end of April.—ed.] Time did. The Washington Post [sent] a wonderful reporter Anthony Shadid. Enormously talented, he was the right person in the right place. John Burns for the New York Times. And then some photographers. I am sure I’m forgetting somebody. We all really, in a nice way, took care of each other. We’d count heads at the briefings to make sure everyone was there. But everybody worked alone. I was lucky because I had this remarkable Iraqi [Amer, to whom, along with husband Vint Lawrence, AG dedicates her book] who worked with me.

RB: You weren’t digging out any great secrets.

AG: You are right, this wasn’t rocket science.

RB: So much for the intelligence agencies.

AG: They were listening to exiles who we now know were spinning them backwards and forwards. The experience of having been there from October, up to and then staying through the war and afterwards ended up being far more valuable than I ever dreamt. I wasn’t some great investigative reporter discovering—

RB: You just talked to people.

AG: I just talked to people. And listened. And much of what they said was very contradictory, confusing at times but in its confusion, it was very revealing. Iraqis predicted very well what was going to happen. They predicted the confusion in the society, that it would split and they described the fault lines and the looting that they anticipated. And that they were terrified of crime and that there would be a security vacuum—they described everything.


It’s the tyranny of the shadowy minority who are willing to—they hit oil pipelines. They hit electrical pylons; that’s criminals and saboteurs. They are very clever at going at the heart of the U.S. promise of making life better for Iraqis, or that life would be better after Saddam. Well, it’s not better for most people. Yet.


RB: Care to hazard a guess on how quickly the Bush administration will use up its credibility based on the ‘discrepancies’ becoming apparent about how this war was sold to the Americans?

AG: You are beginning to hear voices from the administration now who are reflecting the reality on the ground now. Paul Bremer [the chief U.S. administrator in Iraq], when he was on Capitol Hill the other day, said Rumsfeld was giving a far rosier picture of the situation.

RB: How long does he last after saying that?

AG: Well, they need Bremer. Anyhow, Iraqis are increasingly seeing us as occupiers not liberators, and I think Bremer is a very—he’s a bit of a mystery to me. He doesn’t show his hand publicly. But he is a very good behind-the-scenes player. And some of his aides who have worked with him for a long time and joined him in Iraq—I know these people very well and I know how good they are—and they said Bremer is really good. In fact, when I began to hear Bremer quietly beginning to talk about money—how much this was going to cost. How little there was for the magnitude of the job and how much more the administration was going to have to come up with. He didn’t mention the $87 billion figure to us. But he made it clear that he knew. To start with he was being a good soldier, at least publicly. But he heard Iraqis laughing at him. He would sit there in his fireside chat saying, ‘Come on, don’t be so negative. Everything is much better than you think it is.’ Iraqis would say to me, ‘What is the difference between Paul Bremer and ‘Baghdad Bob,’ the [former Iraqi] information minister? Who is more out of touch with reality?’ I think that has begun to change. There is a serious problem that civilian administration there is—in large part because Washington did not anticipate the problems—it’s very thin. The military is being stretched thin on the one hand. It sounds like a lot to Americans—130,000 troops—but in fact it is not a lot.




Anne Garrels, shot by R. Birnbaum
Anne Garrels, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


RB: And they are not setup to be police—

AG: And they are not a very good police force. They are a very blunt force. One soldier said to me—I asked him if he was ready to be a policeman—he answered, ‘I’m just a trigger puller.’ In some ways, I have been surprised at how talented these guys are. They have been asked to do things that go way beyond their job descriptions. But there have also been horrible mistakes. I don’t know how it’s going to play out now, but the good news is that at least the reality does seem to have dawned on many people and at least is being discussed openly.

RB: That would be good news if there were indications that the Bushites weren’t grand deniers and zealots. For instance, Afghanistan is a not a good advertisement for American commitment and capability. I spoke with [British-born freelance journalist] Saira Shah, who knows that country, and it appears that the country has slipped back to an almost Talibani state…

AG: What worries me about Iraq—I would love to go back to Afghanistan—I spent a long time there but I got shifted over in the last year—is the danger that what was a potential threat would turn into a concrete threat. If the security situation is not resolved, if Iraqis don’t begin to have confidence that they can really operate with some modicum of safety and they can work with these people. Many of them would like to work with the United States to build a country. They are scared because people are being targeted. It’s a minority who are doing this, shadowy groups, but they are terrifying. I was in one village recently. A mysterious list emerged of 25 collaborators with the U.S. And one of them was a translator for the military. He was assassinated, shot in the back of the head as he was walking home from work. You just have to kill one person. It’s the tyranny of the shadowy minority who are willing to—they hit oil pipelines. They hit electrical pylons; that’s criminals and saboteurs. They are very clever at going at the heart of the U.S. promise of making life better for Iraqis, or that life would be better after Saddam. Well, it’s not better for most people. Yet.

RB: What’s the prognosis?

AG: I don’t do prognosis.

RB: [laughs]


NPR doesn’t have a huge number of correspondents, I’m not about to say, ‘Gee, I don’t do doors and windows, sorry.’


AG: I don’t do predictions. That’s not my job, thank you. My job is basically to document what people think about their own lives and why and to talk to the leaders in Iraq. I’ll just say that I spoke to one Pentagon official recently, a friend of mine that I have known for many years, and I asked him what was his prognosis? He said, ‘I want to be optimistic but it’s 50-50 right now.’

RB: How long will this be your story?

AG: I’m going to stick with this one. It’s too important and by having the experience of being there before during and now after, that provides important perspective—rather than lurching on. I told my husband I won’t do North Korea. [laughs]

RB: [laughs] I remember reading Christopher Hitchens’s piece on North Korea in Vanity Fair. Your decision sounds like an excellent one.

AG: I think I know police states but even that one would…for those of us overseas as correspondents, all our lives changed dramatically after 9/11. I had gotten to the point in my life I was beginning to do longer series—documentaries, a trip from St Petersburg to Moscow looking at Russians and how they were dealing with their own crisis and change. But being able to take time—it was wonderful. And then 9/11 happened. All of us have been thrown into the vortex. Whether it’s Afghanistan, Pakistan, the West Bank and now Iraq. Everybody has got full-time bureaus in Iraq, or will have. NPR doesn’t have a huge number of correspondents, I’m not about to say, ‘Gee, I don’t do doors and windows, sorry.’ Undoubtedly there will be new crises that will come up and drain manpower even more. But I will stick with Iraq and these things that I have been dealing with since 9/11. I’d really like to go back to Afghanistan and Pakistan and keep on following things rather that picking up the new. And also, frankly, it’s been a long year. I’ll keep going back and stick with this one.

RB: You mentioned that you tried to record some sounds in Chechnya and your editor said that it didn’t sound like anything.

AG: [chuckles]

RB: Doesn’t NPR have modern equipment?

AG: Oh no, they do. It was just that bombs sometimes just don’t sound very dramatic. The strafing of a plane when you see it and you are on the road and it’s within feet of you—those are the moments that television can be more effective. Sometimes sounds do not reflect any thing like what they are. Even the bombing in Baghdad—I would record it and play it back, and I have good equipment—and I went ‘Big deal.’ It’s the totality of it.

RB: I remember CBS’s Sunday Morning was outstanding for its attentions to sound.

AG: Sound is wonderful. But it’s not the obvious sound. Not the bombs, that’s obvious sound. It’s the wailing of a siren. Sometimes even more dramatic was the pop-pop-pop-pop-pop of antiaircraft guns. Or the wail of a voice at the end of a hospital corridor…and it just echoed through. Sometime those people sounds are more evocative than thud-thud-thud-thud.


I can name any number of people you have never heard of who were extraordinary, who were unsung heroes in the midst of horror.


RB: Do you record those things that you were just talking about?

AG: [emphatically] Oh yes. [laughs] Oh yes. During the war in part because of time pressure, updates, I was going around places I wasn’t supposed to be. So I didn’t always record things. I didn’t always take out a mike and a tape recorder.

RB: You mentioned in the book that one reason you do what you do is because it is ‘infinitely interesting.’ You have never been bored?

AG: No. There have been moments when I have maybe thought it was true and I was going, ‘Oh my God, another ethnic conflict.’ ‘[More] implacable hatred.’ But the context was so different in each situation, and the history is different. The personalities end up being different. So on the face of it, yeah, you end up going, ‘Oh my God, not more hatred.’ But it starts moving, and so each situation is different.

RB: You go in to these situations with no ax to grind?

AG: Just to watch how people resolve their lives. Their beliefs, their history, and the players on the scene and how they deal with it. The other part of this is you do meet extraordinary people along the way. Andrei Sakharov in Russia. I can name any number of people you have never heard of who were extraordinary, who were unsung heroes in the midst of horror. And then there are the wonderful people who worked with me—and they truly are. I don’t just hire them and drop them. Many of them are my adopted family at this point. You live with them seven days a week, 24 hours a day, and you are asking them to give up their lives for you. Whether it’s the translator in Kosovo or Amer in Baghdad or Irina in Moscow. It’s not a question of language. In Russia, I spoke the language. Somebody who is local who has that extra sense and feels it in their fingertips and you find these people and they share their lives with you and they are not ideological and they must be open and go anywhere in the society. And those people like Amer; he wants his country to be a better place. He wants his children to grow up in a better Iraq than he grew up in. I’m not sure he believes it will be a better place at the moment. He is in despair but he flip-flops, day by day. These are great people.

RB: In the book there was a point where you wondered how your broadcast would be received. What difference would it make to you? How would it affect what you presented?

AG: It wouldn’t have. There were moments when I was thinking, ‘God I know—‘ Even before the war had started the question of, what is embedded journalism going to turn into? Rah rah? And I didn’t know how listeners were reacting to the war in general. I wasn’t seeing newspapers and wasn’t watching television broadcasts. I was in a complete cocoon. Just broadcasting out. And I couldn’t help but think ‘My God, I wonder if people think I am Tokyo Rose? Here I am in the heart of the enemy.’ I remember all too well what had happened to CNN and the criticism that was launched at it in ‘91. Although this time we had more freedom than CNN had so we had learned very much by experience to be very careful…just telling what I knew and could see. I couldn’t help but wonder but I was too busy most of the time to even think about it. And it was only when I got home that I had any idea…


You are a long way away from all the talk shows and whatever and the spin-meisters. It’s a very different environment. It’s quite a wonderful environment. The toll is that you are away from home for a long time. But it’s definitely addictive. People have a lot trouble coming back inside—because you have a kind of freedom.


RB: Have you gone back over your broadcasts?

AG: Not deliberately. Going around speaking and [at] interviews, they play clips. After the fact, I listen to it and go, ‘God.’ [laughs] I’m not terribly impressed. But, of course, radio is of the moment.

RB: Again the oddity of radio, the old medium. And then what could be more old media than a book.

AG: [chuckles]

RB: Where are you going from here besides continuing on in Iraq?

AG: I’m going to go back and do my job.

RB: Right. But any more books, or was this book an aberration?

AG: Yeah, maybe later down the road. It certainly won’t be that kind of book. I don’t think I’d ever write a personal book again. I’d rather find a wonderful subject for a biography. Not me! Not autobiography! This came out of a very fluky situation. Sixteen Americans…the only broadcast voice, as you point out. It took on much more—I became much more famous, if you will—than I had anticipated. I’ve covered worse wars and worse carnage. But this time I was the only American broadcaster and so when I came out I was taste of the week. It was weird. And not a position that I am particularly comfortable with.

RB: That, of course, runs against the contemporary grain. Most media people are not adverse to celebrity.

AG: Hey listen. Some people are not adverse to celebrity and some people run…

RB: Some?

AG: No, I know lots of people—foreign correspondents don’t choose, they are not pundits. This is not a glamorous job. In some way, why I wrote the book was to answer listeners’ questions. Stuff that had been inappropriate to discuss or simply impossible to discuss at the time. A lot of it is logistics, logistics, logistics and plain grungy work. You are dirty and you are tired and it is interesting. And for this, for those who do it, who choose to do it, it’s a lot better than being in a White House press room, locked in a room being dictated to by a spokesperson. And the story basically being directed at you rather than you choosing the way you want to cover it.

RB: Thus actually creating the possibility of getting some news?

AG: [chuckles] Yes. And you can go out there for days and not see another reporter and not see a spokesperson. [both laugh] It’s possible. You are a long way away from all the talk shows and whatever and the spin-meisters. It’s a very different environment. It’s quite a wonderful environment. The toll is that you are away from home for a long time. But it’s definitely addictive. People have a lot trouble coming back inside—because you have a kind of freedom…

RB: Wouldn’t that prompt questions about addiction to war? It may not be war, but it’s close…

AG: Well, there is an intensity of it, which is—we are really not talking necessarily about wars, just being a foreign correspondent. You get to cover the panoply of ideas and issue from culture to religion to issues of high state policy. You get to do everything. It’s wonderful. The world truly is your oyster. And it’s a bizarre life, though—I’ll go away for a month, three months, whatever, and my ordinary life is totally left behind. When I am on the road all I do is work. In some ways it makes life simpler. I don’t have to juggle a life, I don’t have to worry about getting the kids to the soccer game or, ‘Oh my God do I have to pack lunch today?’ I don’t have to worry about making dinner for my husband. I am on the road living work. That’s it. That’s all I do. I don’t have to clean the house. I come home and [chuckles] and it’s a complete switch. Probably the hardest thing is adjusting those speeds. Because you are just flat out when you are working and that’s all you are doing. And then it’s coming back and being a more normal person. [chuckles] That’s sort of interesting, juggling life again.

RB: In the annals of radio I believe there are signature broadcasts, I’m thinking of H.V. Kaltenborn in World War II. Is there something like that for you, like ‘And now it’s begun…’

AG: Well, the irony was that when it began it was very anticlimactic and of course while it was beginning and we were still trying to figure out where the bombs had landed—we were hearing more antiaircraft going out than we were hearing bombs coming down. That was causing the noise. Then I got a phone call in a lull—I was waiting to go back on the air with Robert Siegel—from a colleague of mine in the hotel—and at that point I happened to be in the Al-Rashid, not by my choice—saying, ‘We have just been called by the Australian Ministry of Defense and we were told, ‘Get out now!’’ So maybe the signature is saying to Bob, [with urgency] ‘Bob, gotta go.’ [both laugh heartily]

RB: I know you are pressed for time…that seems like an appropriate place to end. Thanks very much…

AG: Thank you.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum