Dangerous Beats

On the perils of being a journalist in a war zone -- from Vietnam to Iraq.

| Fri Jan. 27, 2006 1:00 AM PST

This article was created by The Century Foundation.

The kidnapping of Jill Carroll, a young freelancer filing regularly for the Christian Science Monitor, and the images of her in captivity, demonstrated again the especially sinister conditions for reporting in Iraq. The coverage of the Iraq war has been profoundly affected by the acute danger of working there. This is particularly ironic because advances in technology have made in-depth coverage of this conflict so much more accessible than it was in past wars of this size. Satellite phones, broadband Internet, and video technology should make it possible to give a comprehensive portrait of what is happening. The U.S. authorities impose all the usual, defensive restraints on free-wheeling journalism, but their attitude towards the press is pretty much as it has always been, wary but no worse.

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And yet, one of the most important aspects of this war, in policy terms, is that we really don’t know how it will turn out. Chaos among the factions? A triumph by religious extremists? A gradual political accommodation? At this point in the Vietnam era, three or four years into the conflict, the widespread assumption among policymakers, was that the North Vietnamese would eventually win, after the United States withdrew and a "Decent Interval." When Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, the last vestiges of confidence among the South Vietnamese disappeared. The powers that be had made their choice.

As a correspondent in the Indochina wars from 1970–73 (and the father of a reporter who spent substantial time in Iraq between 2003–2005) I have thought a good deal about how journalism has changed in the past three decades and how that might have impacted policy in this conflict.

Indochina was, of course, very dangerous also. There were dozens of journalists killed or wounded and even a few held as captives for a time. George Syvertsen of CBS, Alex Shimkin of Newsweek, Larry Burrows of Life, and Erroll Flynn’s son Sean, were among the dead. Kate Webb of UPI in Phnom Penh was held captive in the border area of Cambodia. A Reuters correspondent and I were shot at point blank by a group of South Vietnamese soldiers in the Mekong Delta, who were, mercifully, too drunk to hit us.

Having said that, there is a major difference between the conditions in Iraq and those of the Vietnam era. Everyone in Iraq is a potential target and a reporter spotted, as Carroll was, in a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad, is immediately at risk. The villas and hotels where reporters live are regularly mortared and intimidated by thugs searching for foreigners. The result, as Farnaz Fassahi of the Wall Street Journal wrote in an e-mail that became one of the defining dispatches of the war for its candor and detail, is that reporters often feel like they are under house arrest. Everyone now knows that, but reporters write about the restrictions on coverage relatively rarely because it has a quality of complaint rather than context.

In Vietnam, as long as correspondents stayed outside zones controlled by the North Vietnamese or Vietcong (at least at night), they were as safe as you can be in a country at war. In Saigon, there were good restaurants, good apartments, and good companions. As the Iraq conflict has dragged on, coverage has been increasingly dominated by security issues and the immense cost of maintaining protection for reporters. Moreover, after a few weeks of the invasion period, except for operations like the Marine assault on Fallujah, the war in Iraq has changed from unit actions to policing, which is harder to monitor. Much of the country, ostensibly under government control, is effectively off-limits because of the perils of traveling and the shifting battles among Iraqi factions. In Vietnam, there were Buddhist monks who immolated themselves and sappers inside base perimeters. In Iraq, there are daily indiscriminate suicide bombers, on a scale so extensive that few incidents get more than perfunctory notice anymore.

Anyone who complains about the quality, range or depth of reporting from Iraq has to recognize that there are constant, at times intolerable, risks to life and limb for everyone involved. This is a challenge to journalism of the highest order. From the now old hands of the Vietnam era to the men and women in Iraq, hats off.

But as we ponder our policy in Iraq, we need to acknowledge that we don’t really know what is happening there. We know what little we can see and learn from the sources available. I remember the amazement at the turn-out for the first Iraqi elections a year ago. Now important Sunnis have joined the political process. The party of one-time American favorite Ahmad Chalabi failed to win a single seat in the parliamentary voting. Daily mayhem, corruption, factionalism, and the kind of random cruelty that leads to the kidnapping of someone like Jill Carroll are rampant in Iraq. What does it all mean? I wish we knew more, much more, than we do. The consequence of journalism in Iraq that is so restricted is the shortage of information we need to decide what to do there.

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