It’s June 2003, and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has just been overthrown. “Everybody likes us,” Spec. Stephen Harris, a 20-year-old from Lafayette, Louisiana, tells a Washington Post correspondent while on patrol in Baghdad. Don’t worry, he says, this is a safe area: “95% of residents are with us.”
Anthony Shadid, another Washington Post reporter, follows 50 yards behind. He asks a man standing in front of his house how he views the soldiers’ presence. “Despicable,” the man answers. “We’re against the occupation, we refuse the occupation — not 100 percent, but 1,000 percent. They’re walking over my heart. I feel like they’re crushing my heart.”
Shadid and the young American soldier are only a few steps apart, but they might as well be in different countries: Harris walks in “Sector 37 North”; Shadid walks in a neighborhood called Yarmouk.
Most journalists covered Iraq embedded with Americans. Shadid embedded with Iraqis.
The U.S. has disbanded the Iraqi army and the Ba’ath, Saddam’s party, leaving the Sunnis, who were once in power, without a salary. Without a penny, but with a gun. That’s where the slow revenge that today is called the Islamic State begins. Shadid, 50 yards behind the Americans, senses it.
The hardest, bitterest thing about being a journalist is that you see events as they unfold. You see history as it might still be changed, wars as they might still be stopped.
Seen in close-up, everything looks more complex, more ambiguous, and sometimes the more you know, the less you understand. But if you talk, and talk and talk with as many people as you can, Shadid believed, if you stay in the world’s veins, in the end you always get an idea of what’s happening.
When Russian writer Vasily Grossman asked to be sent to the Battle of Stalingrad during the Second World War, other journalists objected that he had no war experience. “I don’t care if he is not an arms expert,” their editor replied. “I need an expert of human soul.”
Shadid was an expert of the human soul.
It wasn’t only a matter of being physically in Iraq; it was a matter of being there emotionally too. Being there with your multiple identities, every self a different standpoint — like Shadid, born in Oklahoma to Lebanese parents: Arab in the United States, American in the Middle East.
Many war correspondents are driven by adrenalin, by a desire for adventure; we are all equipped with the latest infrared lamp, we compete for the most powerful camera lens, and the war theater, sometimes, turns into just a theater, with dispatches built on characters, rather than people. The displaced person and the fighter, the woman and the jihadist, the victim and the executioner — Shadid treated every one as a person.
It’s his invaluable lesson: On the front line, the only thing you really need is grace.
All of the stories that won him the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting twice, for reports that bookended the Iraq war, are shot through with grace.
In his first dispatches from 2003, the Baghdad he walks around on the eve of the American attack is a Baghdad where already countless conquerors have come in as “liberators.” It’s an exhausted Baghdad, worn out by the long war with Iran, a war where soldiers jumped on mines intentionally to be sent back home: better maimed than dead.
The hardest, bitterest thing about being a journalist is that you see events as they unfold. You see history as it might still be changed, wars as they might still be stopped. Seen in close-up, everything looks more complex, more ambiguous, and sometimes the more you know, the less you understand. But if you talk, and talk and talk with as many people as you can, Shadid believed, if you stay in the world’s veins, in the end you always get an idea of what’s happening.
In his Post dispatches and his book “Night Draws Near,” Shadid’s Baghdad is the Baghdad of men like Kadhim Fadhil, who is 43, and can barely move, his nerves and muscles shattered by years on the front line: He sits in a dank workshop among blackened rags, car wrecks, oil cans, “his life burned away like a cigarette.” With 16 years of army pay, he could buy 40 chickens.
Or women like Karima Salman, who is 35 and got married at 12. She sits in her empty home, with her eight kids; she goes to the market and she can’t afford anything. Not a single egg. And like many others, she is turning to God, covered head to toe.
Because in the end, it is a Baghdad with no savior, no hero. A Baghdad where Iraqis blame both sides. Like Hussein Abdel-Khadim, 35, who sits in what looks like “a hurricane’s aftermath, still smoldering, a severed head across the street”: it is his gutted home, razed by mistake by a U.S. bomb. Still, he holds Saddam responsible as well, for stocking weapons in civilian neighborhoods in a bid to attract air strikes: and with air strikes, international outrage.
It is a hopeless, ruthless Baghdad, fought over by the U.S. and Saddam while its tribes rule as firmly, and fiercely, as ever. The Baghdad of Sabah Jabbouri, 27, believed to be an informer: he will be killed by his father.
In the first article of what will be his second Pulitzer prize, in 2010, won for his coverage of the American withdrawal, he writes:
“War is over, but the issue is: and now? There’s no victory, this is only a day after.”
In the piece, he seems to predict the coming instability and bloodletting across the region.
“2009 feels much like that April day in 2003,” he writes. “Then, as now, one war’s end was the preamble for another, far greater struggle. Much was ambiguous and indistinct. Consequences were unintended.”
He goes on to cover the unintended consequences: In Libya (where he and several other journalists were held for nearly a week by Moammar Gadhafi’s forces). And in Syria.
On a trip to the Syrian city of Homs in November 2011, he sees shootings, kidnappings, beheadings, criminal gangs, minorities on the run — “Homs has emerged as a chilling window on what civil war in Syria could look like.”
Three months later, on February 16, 2012, Shadid is back in Syria. On his way out, he is traveling with horses, which he knows he is allergic to, but he has his inhaler. He struggles for breath, and then collapses. He dies on a mountain road, far from help.
His family lost a husband, a father, a son. And we lost an expert of the human soul.