'Times' Reporter Burns Leaves Iraq

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Five years after The New York Times sent John Burns to report from Baghdad, the Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter is leaving his post. Burns talks about his departure and experience there.


Perhaps the most respected war reporter of our time is leaving Baghdad today. John Burns of the New York Times has reported from Iraq since well before the conflict began. He's now going to London to head the Times bureau there. We've had many conversations with John here on DAY TO DAY. And we spoke again yesterday.

John Burns, welcome back to DAY TO DAY. What are you going to miss in Baghdad?

Mr. JOHN BURNS (New York Times): The most compelling story of our time, the most compelling story of my, dare I say it, 35 or more years in this business. I think this war has been for my generation what the Vietnam War was for an earlier generation.

CHADWICK: You have been in Iraq covering this story since 2002, before the invasion, that is. What have you learned in that time, do you think?

Mr. BURNS: Some preliminary ideas come to my mind. And they have to do with the role of the press. And in particular the role of people like myself who covered the terror of Saddam Hussein before his overthrow. I think we did an honest job and a necessary job in reporting the brutality of Saddam Hussein. We were very constrained in what we could do.

But I think if we had our time over again, considering what has happened, we - or to speak for myself - I would have spent more of my energies trying to write about what lay beneath, if you will, a carapace of terror here, the deeply fissured sectarian society that was just below the surface and into which the United States was stepping. Five years on from when I arrived here in Iraq, I have a much better sense of that history.

And it leads me now to the conclusion that this probably was a mission impossible from the start because of the fissured society and because of the deeply wounded psyche of that society. They had been bludgeoned, mercilessly bludgeoned, for - we say 24 years of Saddam Hussein, but under the Baath Party for 30 years. And this was not a normal place the United States stepped into it in 2003 and it was certainly not for that reason, as well as many others, fertile ground in which to implant Western democratic ideals.

CHADWICK: If you view the mission in Iraq as doomed from the beginning because of the society that Iraq has become; what do you see now for a possibility for Iraq and for the American presence there?

Mr. BURNS: I've been pondering this a lot as I prepare to leave here. And I think I can say that I have in common with many of my Western colleagues here a reluctance to conclude that this is completely lost. And that is partly something, if you will, a cry from the heart. 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.

It's in the face of that that we find it so hard to believe that there is no salvation here. We have been hopeful. The alternative to some kind of limited success here is so ghastly that it's 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.

CHADWICK: In your view, is the military surge over the last eight or nine months, has this accomplished anything? Do you think Iraq is any better off now than it was in, say, November or December of last year?

Mr. BURNS: Oh, yes. I think there's no doubt about that. The American troops, in general, but particularly the surge troops, the 30,000 surge troops, in the last five or six months have definitely had an effect in the areas in which they are deployed. The problem is that 30,000 troops, however painfully it was for the U.S. military to find those 30,000 extra troops, is simply not enough. It's still a shell game here. You move them into one neighborhood, they achieve some degree of stability. They hope that the Iraqis will this time move in behind them, Iraqi military. And after the Americans clear the areas and hold the areas, it's not at all clear that that is happening this time anymore than it did last time with any great success.

Looking back on it, it seems to me that among the many things that were wrong with this enterprise - I'm not saying novel here - was that to make any kind of success likely you would have to had a much larger American military footprint, something in the hundreds of thousands of troops, probably twice, three times, four times as many troops as have ever been deployed here. And of course that was never practical.

CHADWICK: You are leaving Baghdad. You're going to London.

Mr. BURNS: That's correct, yes.

CHADWICK: I think people would be astounded to learn your wife has been with you in Baghdad. She manages the bureau, runs the - kind of the enterprise of the New York Times there in Baghdad with about a hundred people, all in all, at the bureau. She's staying.

Mr. BURNS: She is indeed. She traveled the world with me for the best part of 30 years doing this kind of thing, and it's a very challenging job here. It's the biggest bureau overseas we've ever had, the most complex, the most expensive. And the management of it, the day-to-day administration of it, is a difficult and demanding thing. And she's very much invested in that job, as I have been in mine. And whilst there is an alternative for me, the London bureau chief's job, there's no other challenge for her quite like the one that she has here anywhere else.

And she loves it here. She's very attached to our Iraqi staff. And she and I have discussed, of course, what for us is an inversion, which is to say she remains in a very dangerous place, and I go to a very safe, or at least relatively safe place. And of course that makes me feel uneasy, and to which her answer is, of course, well, for many years it was other way around.

And to be frank, I'm very delighted about this. I'm very glad she's staying on because I think she contributes something important to the stability of our operation here. On the other hand I'm now going to be in a position of so many families in the United States who have members of their family, men and women deployed in Iraq, in the armed forces, and in the State Department, and other agencies of the U.S. government; I'm going to be - have to keep my fingers crossed.

CHADWICK: John Burns of the New York Times, speaking with us from Baghdad, perhaps for the last time.

John, thank you again.

Mr. BURNS: Thank you, Alex.

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