When he came to the University in 1995, 1999 graduate Warren Zinn shared the same aspiration as many other students – he wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor. But something along the way changed his mind, and Zinn never went to medical school. Instead, he became a photojournalist, spending the last three years working for the Army Times. He has worked in Afghanistan twice before and spent a month in Kuwait before the Iraq conflict began this year. Because the Army Times is owned by Gannett Company Inc., the moments captured in his photographs have been seen all over the country. Zinn, 25, is now in Iraq, embedded with the soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry Regiment of the Third Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Ga. Although they communicate with their son daily, Richard and Susan Zinn can only watch the war from behind their television sets in Miami, Fla.”We are very proud of the job he’s doing and the job the troops are doing, but we’re worried,” his father said, adding that this is not the first time his son has been far from home. “It’s a long way from the Big House to Iraq.” On Day 10 of the war, Zinn, a former Michigan Daily photo editor, talked with Daily Staff Reporters Emily Kraack and Maria Sprow via telephone from Iraq about life as a war photographer, the dangers American soldiers are facing and missing home. Below are excerpts from that interview.
The Michigan Daily: What thoughts went through your mind when you found out you were doing this?
Warren Zinn: I had been waiting to leave (Washington) before everything started. I was the first one from our company out the door. I left in the first week of February and was living in Kuwait for a month, waiting for the whole thing to start. … I guess we’re on Day 10 now, and it’s a little different than Afghanistan. I’ve done Afghanistan now twice, but this is a totally different ball game out here.
TMD: What makes it different?
WZ: The basic difference is the duration of the combat. Afghanistan was these missions where you have fighting for two or three days at a time and then you fly back to the base and you hang out, relax, take a shower, eat some hot food and sleep in a sleeping bag. … The last 24 hours, they have pulled our unit off the front lines and let everyone rest and resupply. Since the beginning of the war, we have been going nonstop pretty much 24 hours a day with sustained combat. Someone told us, I don’t know if it’s true or not, that no unit since Vietnam has had this much sustained combat. It’s a much more grueling schedule.
TMD: Are you with the troops at all times?
WZ: There is really nowhere else to go. You ride with them, eat with them, sleep with them and get shot at with them. You experience what they experience. That’s the idea behind the embedding process.
TMD: How often do you see your family?
WZ: I’m based out of (Washington) now, but I counted and I was gone 250 days last year. This year, I’ll be gone half of January, pretty much all of February, all of March and it looks like however long in April, however long this goes on for. … It wears on my family. It wears on you, just being out here. It’s hard to maintain a social life. You go home and you go out to the bar with your friends for the night and then it’s like, well OK, I’ll see you in two months. Then you are gone.
TMD: What is it like working with the media in Iraq?
WZ: Access has been wonderful. There is nothing off- limits to us here. A lot of times, we are allowed to see the battle plans for the next two, or three, or four days. We are told we can’t release this information until it happens, but I knew the battle plan for the war – at least for our unit – before the war started. … I guess the military knows that I am going to be riding with them, so if I give away any information that could jeopardize their safety, I am also jeopardizing my safety.
TMD: What photographs have you taken that have really gotten to you?
WZ: That photo of the soldier carrying the Iraqi boy. But there is another photo of a lady lying on a stretcher. She is turned facing the camera, and screaming in pain, and there is a soldier who is there holding her hand to keep her calm. That moment was, to me, almost more tender than the moment with the soldier running with the boy.
TMD: How do you separate yourself emotionally from the things you are photographing?
WZ: The camera, when you put it in front of you, becomes a wall between you and what is going on. … You like to say that, but it does affect you. You are seeing human drama at its best and at its worst. … But you have to deal with it and keep on moving. There is a whole other day ahead with a whole other set of photographs that need to be taken.
TMD: What do you see as the role of the media in depicting the war in Iraq?
WZ: The media coverage of the war is just outrageous, but in a good way. There is just so much coverage. People are inundated with so many images all the time that they can’t even process them. It’s wonderful that people have the ability to see what is going on. Whether you are for or against war, it doesn’t matter – it’s good that the American people will now know what it means when you decide that you are going to send 200,000 18- to 30-year-old boys to go fight on the front line.
TMD: Do you worry about your safety?
WZ: You worry about your safety a lot. You try to put yourself in the safest position possible, but some things are out of your control and there is nothing you can do about it.
TMD: What do you miss most about home?
WZ: A nice, comfy bed. I don’t know. Some good food and a bed. Last night was actually the first night in 12 days that I not only just took my shoes off, because I haven’t taken them off in 12 days, but actually got into a sleeping bag and laid down to go to sleep. It was pretty nice.
TMD: Are you glad you are doing this now? Do you think you could do this 10 years down the road?
WZ: I don’t think I can. It’s great now, but it’s a tough lifestyle. I can’t imagine people having a family and wanting to do this. Leaving a wife and kids back home, it’s got to be really rough, on multiple levels – just being away from them for periods of time and the safety issue. You are putting yourself in harm’s way and you might not be coming home.
TMD: Can you describe what war is like – is the classic saying “war is hell” accurate?
WZ: I think people have a sense that, from watching war movies, it is just nonstop and you are crawling through the dirt and people are shooting from everywhere. But you spend a lot of time waiting, a lot of time preparing, some time fighting and then back to a lot of time waiting.
TMD: What is the general attitude among your unit?
WZ: Before we got the order to go, they were chopping at the bit, ready to go. Then we spent the first seven days in just nonstop combat. … The commander they were with, the guy didn’t sleep for six straight days. And I mean, people say they don’t sleep for six days, but he really did not sleep for six days. He was commanding this battle nonstop.
TMD: How have Iraqi civilians responded to the unit?
WZ: That moment with the boy, what happened was, we had spent the last 24 hours in combat. … We started getting ambushed again very heavily and we were returning fire and they were firing back. Air strikes were called in on the area. The Air strikes came in, the explosions went off and the firing stopped. … There was a guy walking from the area where the Air strikes were, to where we were. … There were soldiers going over to where he was walking to stop him and make sure he didn’t have any weapons. There are situations out here when people are looking like they are coming to surrender, only to get close (and start fighting). … He was telling the interpreter that his family was injured in the shootings. But the soldiers didn’t want to send a medical team into the village where the fire had just come from, in case it was a trap. So they said, ‘If you bring your child out here, we’ll treat him here.’ So he disappeared back into where the village was. He comes walking back up the road with the boy in his arms, and right then one of the soldiers just darted down to him. He just very trustfully handed his son to this soldier and turned around to get more people.
TMD: Was the boy OK? What happened to him?
WZ: He had taken a large piece of shrapnel to his legs. There was a five-inch by two-inch hole below his knees. You could see his bones. … An ambulance showed up. … It was just a white van with some blood on the floors, some people, a rusty oxygen bottle. That was it, there were no medical supplies. The only evidence that it was an ambulance was that it was painted on the outside. I realized that the worst thing that could have happened to that boy was for that ambulance to show up. If the ambulance had never shown up … he would have been treated by the best doctors available, at the best facilities available. And now, who knows?