These two words summarize how New York Times foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid described the War in Iraq Thursday afternoon at the Pyle Center. For the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, coverage in Baghdad and beyond is not just about the rising death tolls and destroyed communities – it is the stories behind these unintended consequences that capture what is happening far from American eyes.
“The best journalism is about footnotes,” Shadid said. “It’s about writing small to say something big.”
Shadid recounted a story he covered in a small village a few years back in which a young man was killed by his father and brother because he was an American informant. Sabah was the son and grandson of religious leaders. His intelligence apparently led to “Peninsula Strike,” United States military raids in the area that resulted in the death of three people including a fifteen-year-old boy. Mourners blamed Sabah for the deaths and wanted him dead. Children chanted “Your face is the face of the devil.” Tribal leaders ordered Sabah’s father and brother to kill him. Five bullets later Sabah was dead at the hands of his own family.
So there it was, a military raid by Americans led to the loss of three Iraqi lives and helped turn a community against one of its own. But deaths were only some of the unintended consequences. It is events such as Sabah’s killing that dehumanizes the Iraqis in American eyes, Shadid said. Without hearing the whole story people are quick to point to Middle Eastern fanaticism as the source of these tragedies. Such illusions of mass extremism make it easier for the United States to make war, according to Shadid, but fanaticism and the cruelty of Sabah’s death are only a small part of the story.
Sabah’s death “did not just show brutality,” Shadid said. “It was less of brutality and more of repercussions of a country turned upside down. The U.S. served as a catalyst for consequences we never saw.”
One unforeseen consequence was the power struggle that ensued after Saddam Hussein was overthrown. Tribal leaders became the authorities and chaos erupted; there were bullets to the head, bodies doused in gasoline, and police resigned or were killed, Shadid said. The end of Saddam’s regime was not met with open arms as it was sometimes portrayed – many Iraqis always assumed it was only about American interest anyways.
So why does Shadid keep going back to Iraq after witnessing eight years of destruction and disorder?
He wants to see the United States take responsibility for its actions.
“We’ve made a mess so far,” Shadid said. “We need to make a moral reckoning of what we’ve done. I don’t think we’ve taken responsibility for our actions yet.”
For many people, that raises a question. They want to know: when will the war be over?
Although President Obama has indicated that all troops would be removed from Iraq next year, Shadid said that American officials there are betting that the United States would still have at least 10,000 troops in the country far beyond 2011. The genocidal war may be over, but it does not look like the American soldiers in Iraq will be leaving any time soon.