Christopher Dickey Reflects on the Perils of War

Don McCullin Vietnam
Storied war photographer Don McCullin, whose camera once blocked a bullet, captured the horror of the Vietnam War. Here in 1968, a shell-shocked soldier. Don McCullin / CONTACT Press Images

Do you want to know what it’s like to stare in horror, and fascination, at a human head so thoroughly perforated by bullets that it’s folded in on itself like a melon rotted in the field? Or to watch, helpless, as refugee babies die of dehydration, their mouths opening and closing like fish gasping in the air? Maybe you’re interested in the taste of sweat and dirt when you’re under fire and trying to get low on the ground, and lower, impossibly low, with your face crushed against the earth.

Probably you did not want to know any of these things. Not really. And neither did I. And I don’t much like to remember them now. But in more than a quarter century as a Newsweek correspondent, writing about a few wars that people remember and many that they’ve forgotten, I have learned, inevitably, a lot about the way death comes, and sometimes some of the reasons why.

A wise war correspondent tries to stay out of the action. Bullets and bombs don’t tell stories—people do. But at times you have to go looking for the action to get a clear picture of what’s really going on and, often enough, it catches up with you anyway.

After spending years with The Washington Post covering guerrilla wars in Central America and terror attacks in the Middle East, I joined Newsweek in 1986. My basic assignment was to look at how American foreign policy played out on the ground, which often meant going to a place that the United States was about to attack, and watching that happen.

In 1987, the United States sent its big guns to the Persian Gulf, using a variety of pretenses to deploy a fleet bolstering Saddam Hussein in his epic fight against Iran. To get a closer look at the fight on the water, a TV colleague from Britain and I chartered a work boat that could take us into the war zone. It’s hard to imagine a dumber, more dangerous move. We set our course through seas full of naval mines dropped almost at random by the Iranians. Day and night, we watched for the protruding prongs of the floating bombs. But all we saw were dead sheep thrown overboard by livestock haulers. Bloated and round, their little legs sticking up in the air, they looked very much like mines, but didn’t blow. We saw a lot of warships and burning oil platforms. And we were lucky enough to live to tell the tale.

The following year, an American guided missile cruiser shot an Iranian airliner out of the sky in the confusion of a skirmish on the water with Iranian gunboats. All 290 people on the plane died. At a makeshift morgue, Iranian guards handed me paper tissues to block some of the smell. Many of the bodies pulled from the sea were mutilated by the blast, but one very little girl, I remember, still wore a tidy blue dress, white socks, shiny black shoes, and tiny gold bangles on her wrist. On a slab nearby, a young mother continued to clutch her baby as she had done at the moment they died. I remember afterward hearing an Iranian Air Force general asked a leading question by a British reporter who wanted him to say the Americans meant to shoot down the plane. But the Iranian officer’s answer was more subtle than that. The Americans “did not care enough to be careful enough not to shoot it down,” he said.

Francois Sully Newsweek reporter and photographer Francois Sully lived in and covered Vietnam for most of his life. He died after a helicopter crash near the Cambodian border in 1971. Here, his photo of the arrival of American soldiers in Qui Nhon in 1965. Francois Sully / Newsweek

At the end of that decade, the war I had lived with all my life—the Cold War—came to an end. I flew into Berlin in November 1989 as one of many Newsweek correspondents covering the fall of The Wall. I roamed, sleepless and exhilarated, through the city in those first uncertain hours after all the East German guards abandoned their fearsome barrier. Beneath an impossibly bright moon, men and women and children picked and chiseled away at the concrete as if digging for diamonds. The world had changed, for sure. A new era of peace seemed at hand. But of course that was not to be.

A few months later, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, sure that the Americans would forgive him. Instead they organized a war that drove him back into Iraq. After Saddam’s retreat on the ground, American and allied warplanes continued to swarm the skies, and when he tried to thwart United Nations weapons inspectors dismantling his nuclear and chemical arsenals, the Americans would launch new cruise missile strikes against his facilities.

Afghanistan From Tim Hetherington’s Afghanistan series, Sleeping Soldiers. Tim Hetherington / Magnum

One night in 1993 I arrived in the Iraqi capital after a long drive across the desert expecting to stay at the Rashid, where the mosaic doormat out front was a portrait of President George H.W. Bush for guests to tread on. But the hotel was full of jihadists from around the world attending a hate-America convention, so I had to find a room elsewhere. That night, the United States launched yet another cruise-missile attack against industrial targets linked to weapons production. One of the high-explosive warheads apparently went astray and plowed straight into the Rashid where, thanks to sheer luck and jihadi overbooking, I was not staying.

Over the years, I covered Palestinian suicide bombings in Israel and Israeli airstrikes in Gaza and invasions of Lebanon again and again and again. I breathed the dust and smoke and death in the air after al Qaeda bombed the American Embassy in Nairobi. And I saw and wrote about the growing threat of Osama bin Laden and those who believed as he believed that the United States must pay for inflicting so much pain on the world; or, perhaps worse, for being so oblivious to it. But in the 1990s, terror seemed an academic subject to most people in the prosperous U.S.A.

The Balkan wars unfolded in the middle distance of the American consciousness until—finally—the United States led a war for Kosovo that was meant to put an end to the carnage, and did. I spent the closing days of the fight in Belgrade during a bombing campaign so precise that the locals, sure that the targets were government buildings already abandoned or blown apart, barely looked up from their espressos when the sirens sounded. (I, for one, slept in the iron bathtub of my hotel room.)

By the time NATO tanks finally rolled across the frontier, I was in Kosovo’s capital, Priština. Along with a TV news crew, I drove out to meet the arriving columns of troops as they inched forward under the lowering gaze of Apache attack helicopters. In the days that followed, I also talked to Kosovar families who had hidden for weeks in their cellars and emerged at last to greet the NATO forces as saviors. It is always good to see American soldiers as heroes, which is what the troops doing their duty want and deserve to be.

As it happened, I was in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, when al Qaeda attacked. And as editors there asked, “Why do they hate us?,” I could not help but think the real question was, “Why do they think we hate them?” There had been so many little wars that Americans had forgotten, but that the people on the ground had not.

Newsweek War Cover

After what had seemed a quick and easy American war to oust the Taliban in Afghanistan, Washington started revving up for the invasion of Iraq. But Newsweek’s veteran correspondents refused to join the parade. As early as December 2001, we questioned the wisdom of this new war of choice, although none of us doubted the evils of Saddam’s regime. In the months leading up to the invasion, we took precautionary courses on how to don masks and suits supposed to protect us from poison gas, and learned to stab ourselves with atropine injectors if all else failed. “When are we going to stop doing this stuff?” my colleague Melinda Liu asked me one morning at a training center as we emerged from a room full of tear gas. The real question was “why” we were doing this. Why did this war have to be fought at all?

In an article called “The Perils of Victory,” published weeks before the start of combat operations, I wrote that “after a U.S. invasion, far from becoming a City on a Hill that provides a shining example, [Iraq] will be more like a Roach Motel: you can check in, but you can’t check out.” I wish I had not been so right.

The Iraq conflict grew progressively more dangerous to cover in the months after Saddam fell. But I relied on my graying beard, local clothing, and smart drivers to keep me alive, and kept traveling cautiously around the country through most of 2004. Correspondents, unlike soldiers, can choose their risks. And then, when my son, a career Army officer, was assigned to Iraq, I quit going. My luck, and my wife’s patience, I felt, were draining away.

For most of the rest of the decade, my reporting focused on intelligence operations and police work: smarter ways to fight terrorism than invasions and occupations. And then came the Arab Spring, and a new era of chaos in the Middle East. When I was in Tahrir Square in Cairo during the fall of the Mubarak regime, there were moments when it looked like protests might turn to riots, and riots to violent revolution. And that story isn’t over yet. Not nearly. In Syria, meanwhile, a civil war is raging. Along with tens of thousands of civilians and soldiers, many journalists have died there—some of them good friends from wars past.

In this age of digital journalism we can report more to the reader more visually, more viscerally, more quickly. But some things don’t change. In our digital and global edition, Newsweek will continue to cast a skeptical eye on each side’s motives. We will do what we have always done, reporting from the conflicts on the ground, where unpleasant truths abound, and the smell of death hangs in the air.

Christopher Dickey, Mideast editor and Paris bureau chief, joined Newsweek in 1986.

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