Journalist Anne Garrels talks to high school students about Iraq.
By Gale Courey Toensing
Anne Garrels did not set out to become a renowned war correspondent for National Public Radio.
“After 1991 and the break up of the former Soviet Union, wars came to me,” Garrels told an enthralled senior class at Housatonic Valley Regional High School on Tuesday.
For the past four years, the award-winning journalist has brought the world unique stories about ordinary Iraqi people living under the extraordinarily brutal conditions of war, occupation, resistance, and terrorism.
Her experiences are described in her 2003 book, Naked in Baghdad, published by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. Garrels was awarded a 2003 Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women's Media Foudnation.
Garrels and her husband Vint Lawrence were guest speakers at a senior humanities class called The Philosophy of War at the high school. Lawrence was first to speak, and talked about his experiences as a CIA agent during the Vietnam War when he lived in Laos for four years with the mountain-dwelling Hmong, a people he came to love and respect.
Social studies teacher Lisa Carter has taught the Philosophy of War class for the past two years. It is a popular elective with a full capacity of 25 students enrolled. The students read a wide range of literature across the ages, including Sun Tsu’s ``The Art of War,” the Greek philosophers, John Kegan’s ``The History of War,” the works of Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, contemporary Princeton philosopher Mike Waltzer and others, Carter said.
"The essential question for the students is why does humanity fight and what's the difference between primitive war and `civilized' war? The thing I want them to look at is...how enculturated we are with all of these concepts," Carter said.
Although she does not approach the material from any particular political position, Carter said it's important to continually look at why humanity engages in war.
"Maybe it's the dreamer part of me that says that maybe some day there will be part of us that doesn't have to do it that way," Carter said.
While Garrels did not provide an answer to the enduring question of why people wage wars, she painted a picture of her life as a journalist and the lives of the Iraqi people both before and since the American invasion in March 2003
After years of experience reporting on conflicts and wars, both hot and cold, from the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, Tiananmen Square, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine, the Iraq war was a natural evolution for Garrels.
She arrived in Baghdad in the fall of 2002 when "it was clear that the Bush administration was angling to go into Iraq, and it was pretty clear that no matter what, they probably would invade.”
Iraqis living under Saddam Hussein’s cruel dictatorship were terrified, and it was difficult to get them to speak openly about their feelings, Garrels said.
“So much so that I would be in a cab and the cab driver would say don’t look to the right –it was one of Saddam’s palaces and he was terrified of even looking at it for fear that one of the secret police that were distributed throughout the population would misinterpret it,” Garrels said.
The Iraqi people predicted everything that has happened since the invasion – the initial looting, the sectarian violence, the insurgency, Garrels said.
Garrels was one of only 16 journalists who remained in Baghdad during the invasion, a decision for which she earned an international reputation in 2003.
"The decision to stay was not an easy decision, but it also wasn’t a crazy decision,” Garrels said. She had built up a relationship of trust with her driver and felt she would be able to remain safely through the conflict, a belief that has proven true.
Although the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad was very powerful, it didn’t cause extensive damage to the city’s infrastructure, because it was very targeted, Garrels said.
“One night I watched a cruise missile go past my hotel window and turn left and it went into the third floor of the telecommunications building. It knew exactly where it was going,” Garrels said.
Things got complicated when the troops arrived on the ground, and the city was in chaos.
“Imagine being here and suddenly in Washington there’s no president, no Congress, no police, no army. A lot of people were happy Saddam had fallen, but they were scared about the future and not entirely thrilled about the Americans being there,” Garrels said.
Following the looting -- while U.S. soldiers stood by because they had no orders to deal with the lawlessness -- former Baathist party members deliberately set fire to governments builings, destroying documents and records in an effort both to protect themselves and to make the country ungovernable, Garrels said.
Iraqis quickly learned to resent the American occupation.
"Nobody likes a foreigner occupying them. Think of how you would feel about Iraqis walking around in helmets and body armor and wrap around sunglasses doing the things they do. It’s not pretty. The military on the ground is a very blunt force and they were so ill prepared for being an occupying force,” Garrels said.
For the first few months, foreigners could move throughout the city, but once the insurgency was launched, foreigners were targeted for kidnappings and violence.
Journalists now live in armed compounds and have armed guards. Garrels still goes out to conduct interviews, wearing an abaya -- a long black robe that covers her from head toe and offers her more protection than her male colleagues – but she gets into the car inside the compound, is driven to the interview and back, without making stops anywhere, she said.
Baghdad is now a city of alleys made of blast walls – huge cement walls that are meant to protect buildings from car bombings, Garrels said.
The blast walls are similar to the 28-foot high cement walls installed by the Israeli government throughout Occupied Palestine, which surround and imprison Palestinian towns and village. The International Court of Justice last year declared the Israeli wall illegal, according to international law.
“Baghdad was pretty attractive. Now it’s a dump since the Americans came in and it’s a fortress,” Garrels said.
NPR now has an armored car that is repainted a different color every three weeks and given a change of license plates as a security measure, ``but if they want you they can get you. That’s the bottom line,” Garrels said.
Becasue she can no longer wander the markets and streets of Baghdad, talking to people and picking up leads for stories, Garrels now relies on her translators and drivers for story sources, or, altrnately, she "embeds" with the U.S. military.
She told a horrendous story about honor killing, in which a woman who is raped or has extramarital sex is killed by her family because of the shame brought to the family.
"Honor killing is not an Islamic concept, it’s a tribal concept. It’s been justified by Islamic leaders, but it’s not endorsed by the Qur’an, make no mistake about it,” Garrels emphasized.
A young woman had been kidnapped by insurgents who wanted her father to quit working as a policeman, which they considered collaboration with the enemy. The father quit and the girl was released a few days later.
"She got in the door and nobody talked to her. Her father and brother couldn’t do it (the honor killing), so her uncle shot her. He didn’t even ask her if she had been raped, not that that would have been a reason. She was a victim,” Garrels said.
A lot of Iraqi lawyers and women are trying to do away with traditional honor killing, Garrels said.
"Even under the law he would have gotten only a six month suspended sentence for killing her. It’s not right,” Garrels said.
The students asked many questions, notably, why do insurgents do what they do.
The insurgency is ``a mixed bag of different people with different agendas who share one goal, which is to get the U.S. out of their country,” Garrels said. The majority of insurgents are Sunnis, the minority group that was in power under Saddam.
When the U.S. came in the Sunnis got shunted aside and the Shiites, who are the majority and had opposed Saddam, came to power.
"The U.S. did not handle things well. They did not understand tribal structure and got a lot of people angry and did a lot of things that were particularly culturally offensive and the Sunnis were suddenly the victims,” Garrels said.
Although the insurgency is augmented by foreign Al Qaeda fighters, who are well organized and well funded, the majority are Iraqis, Garrels said.
Garrels usually spends two months in Iraq and returns to her Norfolk home to ``decompress” for a month or two. She will return to Iraq in February.
“It’s frustrating to me that the American debate on this is just coming around and it’s only because people are getting sick about all the people dying and not about the merits of it at all. I hope to God we ask better questions next time going into this. I mean, Saddam was a horrible man and there may have been some merit in getting rid of him, but as Colin Powell said in 1991, you need a big force and you need international support. . . and also thinking about what happens after you get there. It’s devastating, devastating,” Garrels said.
This entry was posted on Jan 11, 2006 at 03:22:24 pm and is filed under Education, General News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed, or leave a response (below) , or trackback from your own site .
Simply put, for her knowledge about and her perspective on the war in Iraq, I trust Anne Garrels more than anyone. More than the White House; more than the Bushwackers; more than all the voices supporting or opposing America's actions in the Middle East; more than all journalists and commentators except, perhaps, for the very. very few who can match her astonishing record of first-hand experience eyewitnessing international events on several continents. Exemplary as a truth teller, Anne is the pride of her profession. Her willingness to risk her life in the world's most dangerous places to keep us informed is both awesome and profoundly appreciated by me and surely by many other admirers. If this reads like an early Valentine card to an always sane and courageous reporter before she again leaves the quiet of Norfolk for the madness of Baghdad, so be it. Take care, brave heart.
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