It begins thusly:
An Iraqi officer of significant rank approached my translator as I quietly took notes near the banks of the Euphrates River, at a combat observation post named COP Dunlop. He knew I was an embedded American. He had a sense, perhaps, that I was a sympathetic soul, and he wanted to pass along an urgent message.
We shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. I learned he was an educated and successful man, an accomplished soldier, and quite knowledgeable about the affairs of the world. He had served under Saddam. He openly spoke about the likelihood of corruption in the new Iraqi Ministry of Defense. We spoke about black-market arms trading, ancient smuggling routes, and the problem of porous borders.
We even discussed personal matters, and the question of his taking a second wife. (I told him the one about a thousand pair of panty-hose hanging from King Solomon's shower-curtain.) We had a reasonably long and genuine conversation about matters of importance to all men. And at a certain moment, he grew a little uneasy and blurted out what he had wanted to say from the beginning:
Why do you people not tell our story? Why do you not say what is going on? Why do you come to our country and see what is happening, you see the schools and the hospitals and you see the markets and you eat with Sunni and Shia soldiers – everybody eats together, everybody works together –you see that Saddam is gone forever and we are free to speak and complain.
You see we are working and eating together and fighting together – Sunni and Shia – you see what we are building here, you see the votes we make as one people. Then you say to the world about a great war and horrible things and how we are all killing each other? We are not animals! We are Iraqis. Look around you! Look!
Non-English speaking Iraqis are distressed and disheartened by American media bias. Many feel personally offended by what they read in translation and hear of in the foreign press. I am not talking about press information and public affairs officers. I am not talking about coalition soldiers (though every one I spoke with on the subject was equally frustrated.) I am talking about Arabic-speaking Iraqis. They see a difference between what we're seeing and what we're saying. What does that tell you about the extent of our problem?
I was truly "downrange" in Iraq, embedded in Baghdad, Sadr City, Fallujah, and a series of remote combat outposts and forward operations bases in the Sunni Triangle. I spent much of my time in areas that were in immediate transition or wholly controlled by Iraqi forces. I wanted to get dirty, and I wanted to see the worst of it.
I was entirely too close to a vehicle-borne IED – intended, possibly, to destroy my party – which tragically killed a U.S. Marine and a young Iraqi boy. I trampled through a mass of depleted uranium, breathed the squalor of a Saddam-era slum, slept uneasily through the bursts of an urban gunfight, and dined on the partially-cooked head of a sheep. But these are not my most disturbing recollections.
Civil unrest is distasteful and at times gruesome, but in much of the Middle East it is an abiding condition. The scenes that flicker in my mind seem graver than the filth, disorder, and sorrow that have been a part of Iraq's dramatic transition. And now that I have returned to Washington, as memories play alongside my daily media intake, they combine to create an increasingly gloomy montage.
It was hilarious at the time. So funny, in fact, I nearly wept. I will never forget the sight of my colleague, a well-known, market-leading radio reporter feverishly clutching his satellite phone as a Chinook transport helicopter flew by, half a mile or so away. He was standing right beside me as he dialed through the time zones to go "live from Iraq":
We're right in the middle of the action! I'm sorry ... I can't hear you! There's a Blackhawk landing right behind me! I can't quite describe what's going on! This is unbelievable!
At the time, you see, we were just outside an Embassy chow hall, quietly discussing the weather. We had just eaten a magnificent lunch. In this combat reporter's trembling right hand was the target of his desperate screams, the satellite phone – his listeners' link to the horror and chaos of war, the sweat and tears, the booming, blood-shod tragedy of it all. And in his left hand – I swear it – a chocolate milkshake...