They just listened, as New York Times reporter Dexter Filkins read from “The Forever War,” his book based on the three years he’d spent reporting from Iraq, from his arrival with invasion forces in March 2003 until he left in August 2006 to begin his year as a Nieman Fellow. At this moment, he was reading from a chapter he’d named “Fuck Us.”
An unexpected silence fell among those wandering through the Harvard Book Store’s rows of bookshelves. Conversations ceased as people froze in place, stopping where they’d been when the words first hit them. Some sat, knees folded up with their foreheads touching, as they listened to a voice coming from a speaker in a corner of the room. None could see the man whose voice they were hearing; even those who’d arrived early to meet this author were squeezed so tightly into the space set aside for his presentation that it wasn’t possible to peer through those standing four-deep in the tiny entryways. On a monitor below each speaker, scenes from Iraq were shown, but few looked up.
There were two worlds at the government center, the rooftop and the interior. Unless you were going out to fight, fully loaded, the outside was off-limits. The moment you stepped out of the building you had to run. You had to run everywhere, even to your Humvee. No standing. It was the snipers. The toilets were broken, naturally, since there was no water, but you couldn’t go outside for that, either. There were no port-a-lets because the snipers would have gotten them. You had to do your business indoors, into a small green sack called a Wag Bag, named for the flammable chemicals it carried in its lining. When you were done you’d tie up the Wag Bag and toss it into a regular trash bag, and one of the grunts would take it out at night and set it on fire.
It had been like this for a good hour or so; each time Filkins began to read a passage, a quiet descended and movement all but ceased. Yet, here was this disembodied voice sharing with strangers “the things that haunted” him about a war now five-and-a-half years old, a war that many Americans try on most days to ignore, and one that few news organizations (Filkins’ newspaper excepted) even bother sending reporters to cover anymore.
At first, this reaction seemed odd. After all, a lot of these people had walked in on this warm October night simply to browse, unaware of Filkins’ presence. Even so, his words seemed to be casting a spell over everyone, forcing them to pay attention. What was this power his words held? Had Filkins arrived here with his newspaper stories from Iraq in hand and read from them, would the reaction be the same? If not, why not? What should this response tell us of the value people find in the journalist’s reflective voice and experiential narrative so often present in the more memorable nonfiction books? More important to contemplate is the question of what might happen to this vital voice as newspapers’ willingness—and financial ability—to be the supportive lifeblood that makes books like this one possible erodes. After all, only after immersing themselves in daily coverage of a war or a specific beat are reporters then able to sift through their notebooks (Filkins went through 561 of his for “The Forever War”), think more broadly than daily demands usually allow, and emerge to tell a story that enables us, as readers, to think anew about a familiar topic.
I’ve thought a lot about all of this as I’ve recently read books written by three journalists about Iraq, each one told in a confident and probing voice born of a long watchful eye and with well-told stories pulling me forward. There is Filkins’ book, presented without the force of argument but replete with hard, emotionally jolting evidence to describe what the war felt like for soldiers and civilians and for him, as he beared witness to the courage and suffering of so many.
Then there is “Waiting for an Ordinary Day: The Unravelling of Life in Iraq,” written by Farnaz Fassihi, correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in Iraq, who was there from late 2002, before the invasion, through 2005. Her close-up portraits of Iraqis caught in the turmoil of an escalating insurgent struggle convey compelling human drama and reveal intimate moments rarely reported in the American press.
Listen, in a few moments, as Fassihi describes what happened at one point during her weeklong interview with Jinan Ghattam, a strict Muslim whose husband was detained by the Americans. Ghattam refused to speak with Fassihi without her brother’s permission. Once granted, Ghattam sat in her home covered in black nylon from head to toe, which left Fassihi feeling an impassable distance, even as trust grew between them with the passage of time together. In a highly personal tone similar to what she weaves through her book, Fassihi writes:
Once I surprise her when I put my pen and notebook down to take her gloved hands in mine. I softly ask her to let me see her face if Haqqi [Fassihi’s interpreter] leaves the room. How will we talk then? she protests.
We don’t have to talk, I just need to see your face and make eye contact in order to connect emotionally to the story, I reassure her.
She calls me a strange American girl unaccustomed to talking to masked faces. Haqqi leaves the house and her [Ghattam’s] daughter locks the gate. We sit there in total silence for fifteen minutes as I stare. Her dark brown eyes are small and ringed with dark circles. Her round face is dotted with freckles and her uncombed brown hair is cut just beneath her chin. She nervously runs her fingers through her hair, stroking her cheeks, which are drained of color. She is acutely aware of another woman studying her face.
Skokran (Thank you), I say. She nods, shrugs, and quietly pulls the thick black scarf over her head. Haqqi is allowed back in the room and we continue talking.
To this mix of books about Iraq, I add “Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq,” by Linda Robinson, whose reporting on military and national security issues has been a staple of U.S. News & World Report for many years. With her understanding of war strengthened by covering conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Latin America, Robinson follows U.S. soldiers in Iraq into some of the more violent neighborhoods as they rely on Petraeus’s surge strategy—laid out in the revised Army counterinsurgency manual he’d authored—to restore relative calm.
In 10 extended trips to Iraq and after interviews with Iraqi leaders, Iraqis and U.S. troops, including 10 with General Petraeus, she gathered the threads of what became her book. In it, she uses to good effect the craft of narrative storytelling to show (rather than tell) what is so little understood back home about how tactical changes made by the military led to the violence subsiding. Time she spent close by Petraeus, which she described in an NPR interview as like trying to keep up with a “whirling dervish … [as he] pulled Iraq and Baghdad back from the brink,” provides the precision of storytelling detail rarely found in newspaper or wire service stories, or even in many magazine features.
The following passage offers a good example of her explanatory journalism. Her words tug the reader into the story while, at the same time, illuminating the military’s strategy through combining her vigilant reporting with her well-hewn knowledge from years of war correspondence.
Petraeus latched onto the case of Tower 57, a high-voltage power pylon in a rural area just south of Baghdad, which had been damaged in a recent attack. He asked the staff to find out why no one had fixed it. The answer came back a day later: the workers were afraid to go to the tower, which was on a dirt road in a known insurgent area. After further inquiries, the Iraqi security forces said they were willing to provide security, but even then no action was taken. The staff reported that the threat appeared to come from the Shia JAM militia. Petreaus told Sadi Othman, his longtime friend, cultural advisor, interpreter and principal intermediary to the Iraqis, to phone a Sadr leader with whom they were in touch and ask him to send the miscreants a message. “Tell him that if they do not stay away from that tower, we will send the ISOF (Iraqi special operations forces) after them,” Petraeus said. Still the workers balked at fixing the tower. Petraeus finally wrote a letter to the prime minister, suggesting that the electricity ministry was not doing its job. Letters, Petraeus had learned, had the forceful impact of a formal demarche in Iraqi culture. That night, Sadi received a call from the electricity minister, who was worried he would be fired, promising to fix the tower. In September, months after it was first brought to Petraeus’s attention, it finally came back online.
A Story Well Told
A few years back, at a Nieman gathering in which a panel of journalists was convened to discuss nonfiction narrative writing, Michael Kelly, then the new editor in chief of The Atlantic who died while reporting the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, explained his vision underlying his desire to write what he called “dispatches” from the first Gulf War. Here’s how he described it:
I had a very simple model in mind. I wanted to write the classic correspondent’s dispatch: to simply go to wherever I could go, see what I could see, hear what I could hear, and write only that. I would not attempt any analysis of the war, not attempt any reporting beyond that which grew directly out of the events before me, and to file it in dispatch form for whomever would buy it.
When Kelly took his idea to various editors and agents, he found that “it was pretty roundly rejected … as various people said to me, frankly, the whole idea was wrong. That this was a war that was going to be filled with cameras …. Everything that could be described would be seen in many cases in real time, so the idea of filing a dispatch that a reader might read a week or even a month later was pointless, and sort of an anachronistic idea.”
We are fortunate that Vintage books saw merit in Kelly’s approach, and “Martyrs’ Day: Chronicle of a Small War,” was published on the day after Christmas in December 2001. In gripping detail, Kelly’s words paint a gruesome portrait of the “Highway of Death,” just as they illuminate events, people and places from Kurdistan to Turkey. After Kelly’s death in Iraq in 2003, a reader commenting on his book’s enduring value wrote, “[It] remains a compelling read 12 years after the fact [due to the] numerous threads that tie these events to what transpired in Iraq in 2003.”
Stories Never Told
In October, the journalism department at Boston University’s College of Communication convened a conference and called it “The Nonfiction Book as the Last Best Home for Journalism.” On a morning panel, six journalists [see editor's note below] talked about how their reporting for newspapers had constructed the essential building blocks—of skills and knowledge and access to sources—that enabled them to write highly acclaimed nonfiction books on topics similar to what they covered on their day jobs.
Charlie Savage, who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting while at The Boston Globe, said he doesn’t “see how these books exist without journalists doing their work in periodicals [because] you don’t see the story until you are reporting on it for a while.” He could not, Savage said, have written his book, “Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy,” without reporting on what was then a little known, some would say hidden, practice of presidential signing statements for the newspaper. “It’s about gathering tidbits,” he observed. “Understanding what would be a book comes later on.” His book, he bluntly acknowledged, would not exist but for The Boston Globe’s willingness to invest significant resources in the watchdog reporting he did. “Without this,” he said, reflecting on the increasingly severe financial constraints evident in many newsrooms today, “who knows what books won’t be written.”
Echoing Savage’s concern, Linda Robinson spoke of the need for reporters interested in writing books to look for “other homes than newspapers” and hope that book publishers will fund this type of labor-intensive reporting. In retracing her book-writing path (with “Masters of Chaos,” published in 2004 and “Tell Me How It Ends,” in 2008), Robinson highlighted how changes in newsroom economics and attitude are leading to what she called “scary times ahead.” For “Masters of Chaos,” Robinson relied a lot on reporting she’d done for U.S. News & World Report and secured from the magazine a leave of absence to write her book. A few years later, as she prepared to write her second book, book leaves were a relic of the past, and reporting trips to Iraq to spend time with General Petraeus were paid for by an advance from her publisher, PublicAffairs, while she found a position as author-in-residence at Johns Hopkins’ Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. In speaking with other reporters, Robinson learned that at least one newspaper is now demanding a “cut of the book’s profits” from one of its reporters/authors.
Ron Suskind left his job as senior national affairs writer for The Wall Street Journal to pursue book-writing full time. He spoke of the urgency of building a “strategic model” so that books heretofore reliant on reporting expertise accrued in the day job of a journalist will find another way of being written, as newsrooms are no longer places to nurture such talent. “The audience is hungry for such stories,” Suskind said. “But who will be paid to tell them and by whom?”
Suskind’s remarks echoed prescient words Michael Kelly spoke eight years earlier at the Nieman gathering when he said, “It’s a myth that readers have turned away from this [kind of descriptive storytelling] and that in the age of the picture and now the age of the Internet that readers don’t want it.”
As the book browsers who listened so attentively to Filkins’ words that night at Harvard Book Store attest, the public’s appetite for this kind of journalism remains strong even as the seeds of such efforts are finding hardened ground in newsrooms, a place where once the soil contained the essential nutrients for such growth.
Melissa Ludtke, a 1992 Nieman Fellow, is the editor of Nieman Reports and author of “On Our Own: Unmarried Motherhood in America,” an outgrowth of her years of reporting on social policy issues for Time magazine.
Fox Butterfield, former New York Times correspondent and author of “China: Alive in the Bitter Sea;” Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times and author of “The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker;” Dick Lehr, former reporter for The Boston Globe and author of “Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal;” Linda Robinson, contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report and author of “Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq;” Charlie Savage, New York Times reporter and author of “Takeover: The Return of the Imperial Presidency and the Subversion of American Democracy,” and Ron Suskind, former senior national affairs writer for The Wall Street Journal and author of “The One Percent Doctrine.”