Hustling young freelance journalist Engel, now an NBC regular, explains how he managed to stay put in Baghdad and cover the March 2003 invasion for American TV after the major networks’ correspondents had either fled or been expelled.
The author’s diligence in acquiring fluent Arabic (with authentic Egyptian or Palestinian colloquialisms when circumstances dictated) initially paid off in his knowing who to bribe and how often while lining up everything from visas to prospective “safe houses” as war loomed in Iraq. For the reader, it pays off in an account that, while adding little to our understanding of how the military process ebbed and flowed, adds plenty about the all-powerful word on the “Arab street.” Replete with spins and prejudices, as well as legitimate and useful insights gleaned from years in a closed society, the street operates as the prime means by which Iraqi citizens interpret events that the world at large may see in quite different terms. This system, Engel’s experiences underscore, is unlikely to change as the result of either American conquest or postwar programs. Engel by no means matches the intrepid reporter stereotype: he’s constantly figuring odds on where bombs will fall so he knows where not to be; he feels palpably vulnerable with “American” stamped on his visa; and he agonizes for days over where among several accomplished local liars he can place limited, yet essential, trust. Eschewing bravado, he simply states what it takes in these circumstances to show up and do the job. Yet he was intrepid enough to endure plenty of contact with the motley and hair-raising assortment of would-be fedayeen pouring into Iraq from virtually every Muslim state. Well-organized Shiite religious leaders now consolidating power (including militias tolerated by US forces), he predicts, will ultimately decide the shape of Iraqi “democracy” and thus the final outcome of a war into which we had no reason to rush.
Insightful glimpse into the sausage factory of TV war coverage and the less palatable complexities it ignores.