Final Words from Baghdad
The New York Times' man in Baghdad, John Burns, is finally going home. After five years of covering Iraq, what he calls "the most compelling story of our time," Burns is headed to England to become London bureau chief. NPR's Day to Day did an exit interview with Burns and got some surprising stuff.
Burns' early reporting on the brutality of Saddam Hussein helped cement U.S. public opinion against the dictator. But looking back, Burns says:
I would have spent more of my energies trying to write about what lay beneath, if you will, the carapace of terror here. The deeply fissured sectarian society that was just below the surface and into which the United States was stepping. ... It was certainly not ... fertile ground in which to implant Western, democratic ideals.
But even if the mission was doomed from the start, Burns is reluctant to conclude that it is now completely lost. How does he explain the contradiction?
The head tells us that this situation is close to, if not, irretrievable. The heart tells us that once America makes that judgment, and inevitably, if it does, decides to come home, the trauma of the Iraqi people is going to become very much worse. ... The alternative to some kind of limited success here is so ghastly that it is very hard to give up on the idea that there might be -- even now, there might be -- a turning of the tide, improbable as it seems.
And Burns has a personal stake in the outcome. His wife is staying in Baghdad. She runs the Times' bureau there and feels like she has to stay. So Burns is stuck in the uncomfortable position that is all too familiar to military families: He will now have to get any bad news from Iraq secondhand, always, as he puts it, keeping "my fingers crossed."
Read one of his last stories from Iraq, about Saddam's grave, here.
- Robert Smith
3:44 PM ET | 08- 7-2007 | permalink