University alum David Enders has spent more than a year reporting in Iraq through freelance articles and his weblog ‘From Ann Arbor to Beirut to Baghdad.’ He started the Baghdad Bulletin, the first English language publication in post-war Iraq, in the summer of 2003. In September, he was back in Ann Arbor for a day, and Daily columnist Steve Cotner caught up with him to ask about his experiences.

The Michigan Daily: In your writings for the Daily, you expressed a desire to make change in the world. Do you still view your role as a journalist as making change? And have you become more cynical since your time in Iraq, or are you more enthusiastic about what you can do?

David Enders: I don”t think I”ve particularly become more cynical. I still view my place as a journalist as, you can make change, you can report things that no one else is reporting, and you can report things of value that no one else is reporting, and that will give people a different view on what”s happening and it will allow them to have more information. That”s where change comes from, I think, is people having the full information, knowing everything they should know.

Cynical, in a way. I”ve become more cynical, but it hasn”t mitigated that feeling. Inevitably you”re going to become more cynical when you can actually start tracing the names in the Pentagon that were people who were saying ‘well let”s make this guy telecommunications minister because we share a cell phone contract with him now’. and anytime you get that personal with something like that, you”re going to become more cynical. it”s just disgusting to see human nature at its worst.

TMD: But that just gives you more energy to seek out those things?

DE: In a way, yeah. Yeah, because you start to see that it”s human, and that it”s no longer this big machine, this big Orwellian thing, but it breaks down into specific people and you can see that they”re no different than you or I, it”s just that they”re using their motivations differently. It humanizes the whole thing.

TMD: How resistant were U.S. forces to journalists, and how did they respond to your presence?

DE: The soldiers were very friendly. The actual groundtroops were extremely friendly. For better or for worse, the embed phenomenon gave them a lot respect for reporters, because there were guys humping along with them, same shit, three months without a shower, under fire. And the soldiers initially built up a great respect for reporters.
On the other end, at the command level there was a lot of hostility. I got kicked out of military bases for asking soldiers who they were going to vote for. But then on the other hand, when I would be driving somewhere outside Baghdad and see soldiers on the side of the road, on a mission, on patrol, you could walk up to them and say, ‘Hey what”s up’ and they would be so fucking shocked that you were walking down the road in the middle-of-nowhere-Iraq speaking American English, that the instant credibility created instant dialogue. And it was also interesting, too, most of them were my age. I was younger, so I was able to talk to them the way most correspondents can”t. And occasionally I would go out on quote on quote embeds and be with the soldiers officially, and even then I could still… they went in this market where I”d been many times a civilian, and then I went in with them, wearing a flack jacket with the soldiers. You know, because, on the one hand, I can pass for Iraqi. I can speak enough Iraqi Arabic to get in and out of a taxi, ask questions. But then the minute I”m a soldier, I”m very evidently American. But then I can say things in Arabic and ask them to talk to this guy. They”d been tearing down posters of one particular leader in a market, and I said, ‘Well why don”t we ask this guy why he supports this leader?’ And you could actually create weird dialogue with the troops and Iraqis that they wouldn”t get otherwise, had they been even out with a reporter who hadn”t spent any time as a civilian in Baghdad.
So with the actual troops it was extremely friendly, and you know, a lot of them don”t want to be there, don”t understand why they”re there, they”ve been given virtually no training on how to deal with it. And then the command level”s exactly the opposite. The less the journalists know, the less you”re going to see pictures of naked people being tortured in prison on television.

TMD: Right. Well, you were embedded some. Did you meet any of the big name embedded journalists early on?

DE: You always run across people. I run across people from the New York Times a lot, CNN once in a while. Throughout the time I”ve been there, I”ve run across quote on quote mainstream corporate journalists.

TMD: Did you notice any difference in the way they covered the war, and maybe any restrictions on your coverage while embedded?

DE: It depended. While embedded, it was at the discretion of the public affairs officer for the military at the particular place I embedded, whether he wanted to follow me everywhere I went, bathroom included, to make sure that I wasn”t getting anything that was out of his earshot. And others were like, ‘Go hang with these guys if you like, I”ll pick you up later, spend all day on base, go to lunch, talk to people, whatever.’ And so, sometimes public affairs officers would hamper you, other times they would not. And that just varied person to person. There was very little cohesion among all of them.

TMD: Was it like some people were following official policy and some were skirting it?

DE: No, they”re given a great amount of leeway and do things as they see fit. And they still can”t really stop you from printing what people say. At one point, this colonel went off on this absolutely Dr. Strangelove rant. You know, white man”s burden, neocolonialist, we have to bring these people paved roads, and whatever. And the public affairs office was like, after we left, was like ‘you”re not going to print any of that?’ I”m like, ‘Well maybe. You can”t stop me. You might not let me back in, request me again to come visit that particular camp.’ He probably wouldn”t let me back in, because I printed a lot of it. It was a fucking bizarre thing for a man in charge of 3,000 people to be saying, and it”s quite disturbing. But that”s about the amount of control they have. They can restrict access, following you printing something they don”t appreciate. And often times they do. I got kicked out of the house Saddam Hussein was captured in…

TMD: In Vietnam, which is of course very different, there would be troops who would speak out about war atrocities, and they”d be told ‘Don”t ever say another word, or you”re not going to come back home.’ But it wasn”t that kind of situation at all?

DE: No. There”s a lot of self-censorship that goes on. We would take CNN to different places, and sometimes they wouldn”t follow us all the way through. We”d be like, ‘Hey, there”s some refugees from Fallujah, they”re in Baghdad this week.’ And they would turn back, because the part of town that we were going to would be unacceptable to their security advisor. And so, a considerable amount of self-censorship, generally based on a perception of danger that wasn”t always there. And the military promulgated that on a general level by shooting a dozen journalists in the last year. So, you can”t trust the American military not to fucking kill you if you”re not in shouting distance to where you can go, ‘Hey I”m a fucking American.’ And if they hear that, they”re usually very friendly, they”ll still point their guns at you sometimes. But, you know: ‘don”t do that,’ and they”ll stop. Can I bum a smoke?

TMD: Yeah

DE: I”m quitting, really.

TMD: Me too. It seems like in mainstream coverage we are never allowed to experience Iraq one person at a time–it”s always the eye of the military, or some other vantage point, but never on a personal level–whereas you”ve described, in your blog and your articles, the troops and the Iraqi people as they are in front of you, what they do and say, the things they eat, the prayer mats that they pray on. What do you hope to accomplish by that kind of writing? Is it an appeal to people”s common humanity?

DE: To some extent, I would say so. You just identified it yourself. This is what we lack in mainstream, or call it what you will, coverage, is the man on the street level notion that there is a daily life that takes place in Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, wherever. And that there are logical reasons why people fight, or people don”t fight, or take any course of action. And those get so truncated in a four minute television spot for the nightly news, if that. And so, it takes more time to read something like that, it takes more time to say, ‘Ok I”m going to look at this article that is about this one person, this one place, and this is how they live their life.’ And it”s a commitment that”s necessary from the reader. But I and a few other journalist who do it, we”re trying to close that gap. We”re trying to give a notion of what life is like for these people, before what we did affected their lives and afterward, and how it affects them personally. I”ve had articles cut from major magazines, because editors will not buy this notion that things are worse now than they were before. And you need to do ground level, human level, first person reporting to get that sense. But it”s actually there, and the only way people are going to realize certain feelings exist or certain things are the way there are is by interviewing one person at a time and hearing the story they have to tell. It”s a long process, but it”s very necessary.

TMD: On the other side of things, you have many people who aren”t getting that perspective. In the sixth issue of the Baghdad Bulletin, which came out about this time last year, J. Hannay from Dallas, Texas, wrote in to say ‘The truth is Iraqis are their own worst enemies, not ours. The US can always retreat to Fort Rumsfeld in Free Kurdistan, let Iraq be Iraq with the promise that if the country follows the usual Muslim path we will kick their ass again … and again … and again until they get it right.’ Your paper was printed and distributed in Iraq and published online for the whole world to see. What do this person”s words mean to you, and what do you think they mean to the rest of the world reading them?

DE: The reason I printed that, and I take entire responsibility–I was the editor of the magazine–is because I got shitloads of letters like that. I felt like, in printing that, I was representing a fairly widespread view held by a fairly widespread number of Americans, a very pejorative, very racist, very frightening, frightening view. But I think that”s a big part of what allowed us to get involved in the first place and to invade another country, with very little idea of what happens there. In distributing that to both Iraqis and Americans, and people worldwide, I wanted to highlight that, like in any country–you see people burning down synagogues in France, and you see this in the KKK in America–that there are large movements that are extremely racist and frightening, and that you have to be aware that these exist and that they do occasionally hold influence and precipitate certain things. If there weren”t people in the US who thought like this, I don”t think an invasion of Iraq would have been possible. People were very willing to write it off as a backward ass Muslim country, you know, ‘Fuck the ragheads.’ You hear this from troops, you hear this from Americans carrying guns and patrolling the country. I”ve asked people who”ve been in both places, what”s the difference between Iraq and Afghanistan? ‘Nothing, it”s a bunch of dirty Muslims who want to kill me.’ Once you”re saying that, you”ve got to transmit to people that this is a view, and that this is something that you need to attack constructively and to deal with. And this is where that first person, ground level reporting comes back in, to show that they”re (Iraqis) regular people, like anyone else, who do things for a reason. It”s not irrational.
(To his friend Becca) You said earlier that the entire thing with Saddam Hussein hinges on this ability to say that he”s fucking nuts, that he”s not a rational actor.

Becca: And that he”s not human.

DE: Right.

B: There”s every attempt to define human within the context of a rational Western capitalist consumer, and to assume that a certain lifestyle that doesn”t even exist for most Americans constitutes humanity, and because that lifestyle isn”t available to them, we can automatically assume they”re insane.
I remember reading an article shortly after we invaded Afghanistan. I think it was the International Herald Tribune, so it either came from the Post or the Times. And it began with this description–for one thing, this was the same issue where they printed two articles side by side that gave different casualty numbers for the same event. Awesome, guys. But there was an article that began by describing this silly little Afghani man, ‘hopping off his camel to watch the bombs go off in the distance over the mountains, as if they were fireworks,’ or something, or some sort of comparison to a spectatorial event. It was the most terrifying couple of sentences I had ever read. It”s not a Disney movie. People are dying.

DE: Writers for the New York Times–their chief foreign correspondent has quoted T.E. Lawrence at length to explain why Iraqis think a certain way.

B: Who?

DE: John Burns.

B: T.E. Lawrence?

DE: Lawrence of Arabia. He quoted the seven pillars of wisdom at length, at one point, to explain why Iraqis think a certain way. And this is supposedly the paper of record. That”s a serious problem.

B: Harper”s printed part of a ‘cultural assimilation guide,’ I think is what it must have been, for the marines, awhile ago, that may as well have been lifted from some 19th century Orientalist text. It”s incredible how little progress we”ve actually made in terms of global thinking since 1860.

DE: Edward Said spins in his grave. I feel terrible for that man. He spent how many decades, trying to reverse this, trying to point this out, and yet it still continues in earnest.

B: Because nobody will recognize that it”s a problem. One of our greatest accomplishments, I think, in terms of maintenance of this system, is the cultivation of an absolute denial of history, or historical connectedness at least. This obsession with progress forward is an amazingly powerful cultural force. It doesn”t allow us to see that many of these patterns came straight out of time periods which we view as absurd and terribly violent.

DE: And you have to highlight that there is resistance to this worldwide, as far as ex-pats. At the magazine I worked with mostly British kids, and they were resisting and reacting to this notion as well. I”ll forward you an email from one of my colleagues that basically said, ‘To not go to Baghdad would have been a crime.’ We got questioned a lot for going, and for why we were willing to do what we did. And the fact of the matter is, being unwilling to do what we did would have been a great crime and disservice. Being in the position that we were allowed to do it and able to do it, to not have done it would have been terrible.

TMD: I don”t know if it was one of your friends that originally started the paper with you, but one of your friends was taken hostage.

DE: James, right.

TMD: And he was a freelance journalist like yourself? What was the response from other journalists and other connections that he had, to get him help?

DE: Everybody gave him a hand. People really slammed … we kind of had a good idea of who had taken him hostage. And that”s a contingency that you plan for. Like, I have a list of phone numbers, anytime I go out, one of my colleagues, my Iraqi friends, knows who to call, should something like that happen to me. There”s some groups you can”t deal with, that will not negotiate, that will not listen. The Sadr guys are usually pretty good, you can get a hold of them, you can get a hold of their leaders. They have a structure that you can work with.

TMD: And when that hostage-taking took place, were there certain demands?

DE: Well they wanted the Americans out of Najaf, which they knew was ridiculous. That wouldn”t happen. They wanted TV time, they wanted exposure, and they got that and then let James go, once there were enough people saying ‘This guy”s a journalist, he”s not a spy.’ They”re in a very tense situation. A lot of the Sadr militia is illiterate, young, and there are people actively trying to destroy them, so they have to be very careful about their own security. It”s an understandable situation. It”s a situation in which all of us work and accept. And so, it was a matter of proving to them and convincing them and calling the people we knew, and saying, ‘Hey, James is a journalist, he”s spent a fuckload of time here, he cares. Here”s some stuff he”s written, please look at it and please release him,’ and they did.

TMD: If you assume that they knew he was a journalist when they took him, it could have been a strategic…

DE: He could have been anyone when they took him. Foreigners in Basra are lumped in a choice few hotels. When I went down to Basra as a journalist, I stayed with a family, to generally avoid the rest of the international community who are definitely targets in that part of Iraq, and who are in a great amount of danger. James stayed in a fortified hotel, where there probably were contractors staying, and he was unfortunately taken, as a foreigner. Not as a journalist, as a foreigner. And he was released when it was established he was a journalist.

TMD: Did he go home right after that?

DE: Yeah. He”s considered going back, but he went home shortly thereafter. He”d been beaten up pretty badly. And, when they turn you over to the British or the Americans, generally their first thing is to get you out of the country as quickly as possible. And being kidnapped, from people I know who”ve had it happen to them, is an extremely traumatic experience. You don”t really want to stick around after that for very long. He may go back. It depends. He”s very concerned about the way his family will take it if he goes back.

TMD: It must be different for each person; what”s the breaking point at which you say, ‘That”s it, I need to get out of here?’

DE: That”s pretty much it. I left the week before that happened, and I had been there four months. And I had spent most of my time while I was there with the Sadr militia, who kicked off their second intifada a day or two before I left. And I really wanted to be covering that. There were people I knew who died fighting, very quickly after I left, very shortly after I left. And it was weird, for me, it was the first time I really felt ownership over a story, that I felt I could really say, ‘I can do this better than the people who are down there doing this.’ And I still couldn”t mentally or physically, at that point, handle the rigors of going into battle, going in to cover fighting, and knew I had to leave. So I think everybody has their own break point, but I think it”s largely psychological. I spent a lot of the time with the Sadr fighters as they prepared for this intifada, sitting there with people who are openly discussing, ‘We are going to kill Americans. We are going to go kill those troops. We don”t like them here, we don”t want to kill them, but we have to kill them. This is what it”s come to.’ So at that point, I was pretty juiced and left. I knew I didn”t have it in me to cover the fighting, regardless of if it was people I knew or not, and people I liked and people I hung out with.

TMD: So it wasn”t so much that you were exhausted by a continuous string of horrible things; it was that it was heightening at that point and you had to get out?

DE: No, it was definitely that. Had I gotten there a couple weeks beforehand, I would have stayed to cover the fighting. But there gets to be a point where you just can”t quite take anymore, and you know what”s going to happen. I covered the run-up. Some of my other friends covered the fighting. And you know, we”ll talk when I”m back there. We”ll talk about what happened. I have a window on part of it, and they have a window on the other part. But mentally you have to be ready to extricate yourself. And that”s the difference between being a correspondent and being an Iraqi, is you can extricate yourself when you need to. When I left, I took a couple of my friends with me to Jordan for a vacation–Iraqis–and they needed to get out worse than anything. We helped a couple people get out who just can”t handle the situation anymore. It”s become too dark, they”ve become too involved. Even in the major news media, there are lots of Iraqis who separate themselves as much as they can from the conflict, but once it becomes very real and very personal, they also need a break. And they”ve had to go back. I”m allowed to come out here. So hopefully I can offer them some support from outside the country.

TMD: In one of your weblogs, you described the job someone had before coming to Iraq as the thing they did “in the real world.” That statement might sound strange to a person on this side of things–on this side of the media–who would assume that the events in Iraq right now are the most real thing in the world. It seems like the fighting itself is the real thing going on. So what did it mean to you to think of the US and the UK as the ‘real world’ while you were there?

DE: Um… There”s just nothing in American, or British, or developed, or first world, or Northern, or whatever you want to call it, Western society, that approximates what you”re seeing in Iraq right now. Even the most awful things that are happening in Detroit, and the economic segregation in the US, and the racism and oppression of a great number of people, cannot really compare to the outright brutality of what”s being done in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, and other parts of the world. Like it or not, we generally enjoy a higher standard of living than anyone else, even–not in every case–but most cases, down to even citizens we don”t recognize, still enjoy a slightly higher living standard than a lot of people. And a lot of what I was writing was being read by people in this part of the world. This does, in a way, become the real world, in the sense that a lot of decisions that are made in this part of the world, the ‘real world,’ are the ones that affect what happens in the rest of the world. You know, I guess that became my construct, rather than East and West, which is a construct I don”t particularly like, but you need some construct to try to explain the difference or disparity. So, in a way that was probably me trying to put it in terms that I thought other people could understand and resonate with.

TMD: Also, on this side of the war, we”ve seen some strange manipulation of the press. There was a San Francisco man who distributed a fake video of his own beheading on the KaZaa internet network, and this was picked up by Al Jazeera and the AP Press and reported as an actual beheading in Iraq. There is so much news that bombards us everyday, it might be hard to keep track of all these stories behind stories. So some people might be asking, just what is real about this war, and what isn”t?

DE: Read the Nation. Read Mother Jones. Read magazines, not necessarily newspapers, on any side of the fence. Read pieces that are going to be better researched. Read the Wall Street Journal as opposed to the New York Times. At least they”re checking facts much closer. Even if I don”t always agree with their political stance, at least they”re willing to go out and do real reporting. James… Reuters and Agence-France Press reported that James had been shot on both legs. Reported it unequivocally, unsourced, but reported that he had been shot in both legs. And a few minutes later we saw him on Al Jazeera in the video that his kidnappers had made, and we were like ‘Well he looks like he”s standing on his own pretty well. It sure doesn”t look like he got shot. He looks like he got beat, but you know, he”s standing.’ And so that”s one example that”s been exposed, is people misreporting this beheading.

But there”s also a disgusting amount of unreporting. We knew about the Abu Ghraib torture eight months before it hit major American media sources. We’d collected widely corroborated testimony from all parts of the country, we’d seen evidence of torture, we’d seen evidence of electrocution, we’d seen evidence of beatings, we heard the stories of people forced to stand naked, rape each other, all this bullshit. And it didn’t make headlines until there was actual porn to go with it. We call it ‘No one believes Iraqis.’ No one would listen to it, you know. People would give their names, their professions, their information, and say ‘This is what happened to me, tell this story.’ And no one would listen. So, along with misreporting goes an even greater amount of unreporting. And it does, I think, eventually become up to the consumer to filter what they consume. And we need to do education on what are viable news sources. AP, New York Times, even the Washington Post, people who are dealing with a daily 12 or 24 hour news cycle are not going to give stories that happened there or here, or anywhere, the reporting that they deserve. So that gives you a greater problem with the American and worldwide media, and these newsfeeds and satellite channels. Read magazines. Read newspapers that take the time.

TMD: I think that”s all I have for you. Now that you”re back in the US, have you made plans to go back to Baghdad or to start any new projects like the Baghdad Bulletin?

DE: Yeah, we”re talking to people. We even talked about resuscitating the magazine, but based on the situation, and based on the level of mistrust for foreigners in Iraq, which is for a lot of reasons. There are a lot of undercover CIA agents running around, so foreign reporters are generally distrusted, not without good reason. So I will definitely go back. I haven”t figured out exactly in what capacity yet. But at the very least, there are people I”m going to go visit and say hello to. I have a lot of good friends there.

TMD: Well, keep in touch with the Daily.

DE: Yeah, definitely.

TMD: Ok, that”s all. Thanks, man.

DE: No worries. Thank you.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.