Memories

 

Life on the Front Lines

 

 By Christopher Dickey

 

[Editors note:  This essay is an excerpt from an article commissioned by Tina Brown for the last print issue of Newsweek dated December 31, 2012.  To read the entire essay, click on the link at the end of this piece.]

 

   Do you want to know what it’s like to stare in horror and fascination at a human head so thoroughly perforated by bullets that it’s folded in on itself like a melon rotted in the field?  Or to watch, helpless, as refugee babies die of dehydration, their mouths opening and closing like fish gasping for air?...

   After spending years with The Washington Post covering guerrilla wars in Central America and terror attacks in the Middle East, I joined Newsweek in 1986.  My basic assignment was to look at how American foreign policy played out on the ground, which often meant going to a place that the United States was about to attack, and watching what happened.

   Take Care: In 1986, the United States sent its big guns to the Persian Gulf, using a variety of pretenses to deploy a fleet bolstering Saddam Hussein in his epic fight against Iran.  To get a closer look at the fight on the water, a TV colleague from Britain and I chartered a work boat that could take us into the war zone.  It’s hard to imagine a dumber, more dangerous move…We saw a lot of warships and burning oil platforms.  And we were lucky enough to live to tell the tale.

   The following year, an American guided missile cruiser shot an Iranian airliner out of the sky in the confusion of a skirmish on the water with Iranian gunboats. All 290 people on the plane died…I remember afterward hearing an Iranian general (say) that the Americans “did not care enough to be careful enough not to shoot it down.”

    At the end of that decade, the war I had lived with all my life--the Cold War—came to an end…A new era of peace seemed at hand.  But of course that was not to be.

 

   A few months later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, sure that the Americans would forgive him.  Instead, they organized a war that drove him back into Iraq.  After Saddam’s retreat in the ground, American and allied warplanes continued to swarm the skies…One night in 1993 I arrived in the Iraqi capital...expecting to stay at the Rashid….But the hotel was full of Jihadists…That night, the United States launched yet another cruise-missile attack against industrial targets linked to weapons production.  One of the high-explosive warheads apparently went astray and plowed straight into the Rashid where, thanks to sheer luck and jihadi overbooking, I was not staying.

  Litany: Over the years, I covered Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel and Israel airstrikes in Gaza and invasions of Lebanon again and again and again.  I breathed the dust and smoke and death in the air after al Qaeda bombed the American Embassy in Nairobi.  And I saw and wrote about the growing threat of Osama bin Laden and those who believed as he believed that the United States must pay for inflicting so much pain on the world…

   The Balkan wars unfolded in the middle distance of the American consciousness until—finally—the United States led a war for Kosovo that was meant to put an end to the carnage, and did.  I spent the closing days of the fight in Belgrade during a bombing campaign so precise that the locals, sure that the targets were government buildings, already abandoned or blown apart, barely look up from their expressos when the sirens sounded…

   I was in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, when al Qaeda attacked.  And as the editors there asked, “Why do they hate us?,” I could not help but think the real question was, “Why do they think we hate them?”  There had been so many little wars that Americans had forgotten but the people on the ground had not.

   Gassed: After what had seemed like a quick and easy American war to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan, Washington started revving up for the invasion of Iraq…”When are we going to stop doing this stuff?” my colleague Melinda Liu asked me one

morning at a  training center as we emerged  from a room full of tear gas. [The U.S. Army was preparing journalists who were going to cover the battle to use gas masks]…In an article called “The Perils of Victory,” published weeks before the start of combat operations, I wrote that “after the U.S. invasion, far from becoming a City on a Hill that provides a shining example, [Iraq] will be more like a Roach Motel: you can check in, but you can’t check out.”  I wish I had not been so right…

  The Iraq conflict grew progressively more dangerous…I relied on my graying beard, local clothing, and smart drivers to keep me alive, and kept traveling cautiously around the country through most of 2004.  Correspondents, unlike soldiers, can chose their risks.  And then, when my son, a career Army officer, was assigned to Iraq, I quit going.  My luck, and my wife’s patience, I felt, were draining away…

   Springtime: Then came the Arab Spring, and a new era of chaos in the Middle East.  When I was in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the fall of the Mubarak regime, there were moments when it looked like protests might turn to riots, and riots to violent revolution.  And that story isn’t over yet.  Not nearly.  In Syria, meanwhile, a civil war is raging.  Along with tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers, many journalists have died there—some of them good friends from wars past…

   Our digital and global edition of Newsweek will continue to cast a skeptical eye on each side’s motives.  We will do what we have always done, reporting from the conflicts on the ground, where unpleasant truths abound, and the smell of death hangs in the air.

 

Christopher Dickey joined Newsweek in 1986 and currently serves as Mideast editor and Paris bureau chief.  To read his entire essay, click on the following link:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/12/23/christopher-dickey-reflects-on-perils-of-war.html