War Stories

Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War As Seen By NPR’s Correspondent Anne Garrels

During the first Gulf War, as a young journalist for the now defunct Tulsa Tribune, I interviewed reservists on the eve of their deployment. Up until that point, my “experience” of war had come from family memories or big-budget Hollywood productions. Vietnam was a conflict that I caught glimpses of through films such as Platoon or Full Metal Jacket. But even as I interviewed reservists struggling with their army issued gas masks, my view of the first Gulf War was narrow and oblique: jittery black-and-white footage of “smart bombs” racing through the sky or from artillery viewfinders that made thunderous explosions look like silent bursts of sand.

When the Bush administration raced toward war with Iraq last year, many U.S. news organizations pulled out of Baghdad and it seemed like we would once again be left with a video-game perspective on the conflict. NPR correspondent Anne Garrels was one of the few American journalists who remained despite threats that they might be held hostage or used as human shields. Her daily accounts of the war—for which she recently won a prestigious George Polk award—provided glimpses into Iraqi life that could not be gleaned from an armored personnel carrier or the safety of the Jordanian border. In her book Naked in Baghdad, Garrels describes the story behind the story as she reveals the difficult and collaborative work of reporting in a police state under siege.

For more than 25 years, Garrels has worked in Russia and several of the former Soviet republics, as well as China, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Central America. When she’s not on the job, she lives with her husband in Norwich, Connecticut, where she reads Montaigne and takes Emergency Medical Technician training between assignments. But no amount of classes can provide a journalist with the insight necessary to write on political and military situations hundreds of miles away and often hundreds of years in the making.

Like many foreign correspondents, she depends on a local liaison, or fixer, to help her maneuver through the bureaucratic logistics as well as the language. In Iraq, she hires 38-year-old Amer who provides her with everything from fresh fruit and cases of cheap wine to sources who will honestly speak about the Hussein regime and American invasion. When it becomes too dangerous for Garrels to leave the hotel, Amer even records sounds and conducts interviews out in the streets.

Garrels explains:

In every foreign assignment I have ever had, there has always been someone who makes the difference. Every journalist’s secret is her driver or “fixer,” a local person whose translation skills go well beyond words: Lionya and Irina in Moscow, Mimosa in Kosovo, Wadood and Andar in Afghanistan. These people shared every aspect of their lives so that I could better understand their countries. Working around the clock, in tumultuous and dangerous circumstances, they found the people I needed to see, they got me into the places I needed to get to, and they have become my extended family.

In Iraq, the combination of Garrels’ experience and Amer’s knowledge produces reporting that makes the war’s effects tangible. Garrels casts a critical eye toward the brutality of Hussein regime as well as U.S. motives for intervention, describing the conflicted attitudes of the Iraqi people with precision and compassion. She remembers the Baath party community leader who proclaims his loyalty to Saddam Hussein before asking her to take his child to the United States. She gives voice to the musician who pens “love songs” for Hussein and talks proudly of his son in Chicago.

Naked in Baghdad allows the author an opportunity to correct the images of Iraq promoted by the “shorthand coverage” of network television with its film of toppling statues and American flag-waving. She writes, “The street scenes are nothing like as joyous as the cameras make them out to be. There are plenty of people standing around, numb or shocked at the events.”

In the aftermath of last April’s siege on Baghdad, she observes: “The American troops are still doing little to stop the looting, and Iraqis are furious that one of the first and only buildings the United States has protected is the Oil Ministry. This will not easily be forgotten and reinforces what many Iraqis fear: that the United States is here for oil and only oil.”

Nearly a year later, her initial concerns are more valid than ever.

Garrels’ Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War as Seen by NPR’s Correspondent was one of several books rushed to print in the aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein. Instead of an academic or historical analysis, she offers dated entries beginning in October 2002 and ending shortly after U.S. troops enter Baghdad. Most of them detail the difficulty of reporting: shopping bags full of money to pay for a visa, duct tape and power strips to keep a satellite phone and laptop running, baths in tea-colored water, hair matted by a combination of sand and muck that Garrels calls “Afghan hairspray,” and constant schemes to avoid having her equipment confiscated. Her entries are interspersed with e-mails her husband sent to friends and family documenting “Annie’s” experiences. Unfortunately, they tend to repeat the same anecdotes related by Garrels herself.

These commentaries produce a portrait of a woman willing to do whatever it takes to get the story out: “Tonight I did what I had to,” she writes, “I broadcast naked in the dark… My thinking went this way: if I turn off the light in my room it’s harder to see the antenna on the windowsill and from the corridor there will be no light shining under my door. If someone knocks, I can pretend they have woken me up, beg for a few minutes to get dressed, and then perhaps have enough time to dismantle the phone and hide it.” But her bravado seems silly. It’s a catchy title, but why does she actually take off her clothes instead of feigning nudity? To prove her eagerness to expose herself both to danger and humiliation?

If Garrels were more disposed to interrogate instead of simply expose her own situation as a foreign correspondent, Naked in Baghdad would have been more interesting book. I wondered how fixers such as Amer could be so vital to Garrels and other foreign correspondents and yet so invisible in terms of the stories produced. How much of what foreign reporters “report” reflects their fixers’ analysis and agendas? Should news organizations give more credit to these people or would that only prevent them from doing their jobs?

The answers are complicated.

In a police state such as Iraq, fixers serve a dual purpose. First, they provide journalists with access to restricted sites, lead reporters to neighborhoods and contacts that take years to develop, generate story ideas, and interpret events. But they often monitor reporting and steer journalists away from dangerous areas and issues as well. Most walk a fine line between their official government positions and their desires to report the truth.

“Amer then gives me a quick lesson on how we are going to work,” Garrels writes. “As long as there are no minders around, he will do what he can within reason to help me.”

As an Iraqi with government ties and an American journalist, Amer and Garrels work together in an atmosphere of underlying suspicion. At one point, Garrels asks Amer if he is working as an informant. He asks her if she is CIA. The interrogations come after they have spent weeks working together at great risk to both of their lives.

What they were able to accomplish seems more poignant because it was not at the service of blind ideology (Amer expresses frustration at both the police state of Hussein and the errors of the invading army), but a simple desire to illuminate a situation. In an age of embedded wartime reporting, the brave and intimate coverage offered by the combined work of journalists such as Garrels and Amer may provide the American public with our only opportunity to recognize something more than that which appears in our cross-hairs. In that sense, their partnership is a model for what can be accomplished between people from vastly different cultures and conflicting desires—a model from which both U.S. citizens and our government might do well to learn.

After a brief stint as a journalist in the early 1990s, Susan Briante moved to Mexico City where she worked as a translator and editor. She now lives in Austin where she is a poet and essayist.

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Published at 12:00 am CST