A Correspondent Recalls the Iraq Invasion

U.S. Marines during a battle for a bridge outside Baghdad in 2003. Gary Knight/VII

The desert in Kuwait seemed such a wasteland. Goose farms near the Iraqi border yielded huge quantities of s--t, which gathered along the sides of the roads and in the yard of the house where we were squatting. When the sandstorms blew, so did the s--t, smearing the world with its stench. That patch of desert already felt abandoned to the war. There was no question that it would slide in of its own weight; it was just a question of when. The border—the constant pounding of tanks, the hovering helicopters, and the military police patrolling—was a trembling faultline.

As we traveled, larger groups of American soldiers appeared out of nowhere. The desert swarmed with the lumbering shapes of those convoys. When they were close, you could hear their rumbling and see the life inside of them, like some uncoupled train from a lost world, carrying its survivors into the future.

The sandy fields were filled with American tanks, and their turrets beaded on us as we passed, swiveling in unison and following us until we were out of sight again. We slept in our cars, in the lees of dunes, or on the open ground. At night, the far horizons glowed with bombing, and it became impossible to distinguish what manner of destruction was hurtling earthward—human-made or otherwise. Soon it just seemed to merge. The fighter planes flew over it all, racing in and out on bombing runs. Some nights I wanted to leave—just turn around and go home. One night I called a colleague and told him so. Come on back, he told me. But I couldn’t, really; I didn’t trust my own navigation skills. So I kept going. As we raced on to Baghdad, the world smelled tangy with diesel. Long hours passed when all I followed was the dust trail Luc’s truck left for me as track. Helicopters sometimes thundered by above us, the bodies inside impassive. I had no idea where I was. But the small lines of the GPS led us north. It was a vast landscape we were in, and we were the only things that seemed to be moving. The sound of the wind was furious, and I rolled my window up quickly.

Suddenly, I saw a man standing by the side of the road. He was wearing green fatigues. He was tall, bearded, and wore a green hat with a bill, Nicaraguan-style. He had a very big gun, and was holding it at waist level. As soon as Luc’s car reached him, the man began to fire. By the time I came within his range, it was too late to turn around. I had hardly realized he was armed until I was on him. I realized that they were shooting at me too. I sped up. It had rained earlier, so the ground was wet and dark, including parts of the road, and alongside the road were ditches of mud streaked with shallow and putrid pools of waste. I heard the rounds as they hit my truck. They punctured the metal, penetrating the car and exiting on the other side. There was more than one man firing now. I ducked this way and that. I sped up; I slowed down. I heard glass shatter. The bullets were getting louder, more pronounced, and more frequent. Suddenly, the back of my vehicle caught on fire—I could smell it burning. They must have hit the gas tank.

johnson-FE04-iraq-second Getting a clear view of the Iraq War wasn’t always easy. Gary Knight/VII

Luc was long gone by then. There was nothing ahead of me on that road except a long line of gray asphalt that led into a foreboding distance. Behind me were the attackers. And farther behind them still was the American Army, slouching along, or perhaps not moving at all. That stretch of road became, in those moments, my own purgatory—some seventh layer of hell, a huis clos. The possibility of death became real.

The next thing I knew, I completely lost control of my car. I tried to regain control of the wheel, but it was too late. The last things I heard were the clunking, crashing sound of twisting metal, and then the slosh of liquid. When I came to, I was sitting upright. But the rest of the world was wrong. My feet were on a window, and the window was on the ground. In front of me was the windshield, now lengthwise. The smell of gasoline permeated the compartment. The car was on its side. I didn’t know how long I had been out, but it couldn’t have been for more than a few seconds because almost as soon as I woke, I heard the sound of pinging again. The attackers were still shooting. The bottom of the car, the hard metal section, was facing them, and whatever was hitting the vehicle was ricocheting off—pinging around me, but not penetrating into the cab. Perhaps they were far away. Perhaps they were bad shots. It didn’t really matter why; the point was they were still aiming for me.

Realizing this, my body leaped into force. My feet lifted off the floor and began to kick at the window. I was wearing military-issue boots that I had picked up at a store in Kuwait City. I kicked, and the window didn’t budge. I kept kicking. I kicked until I saw a crack, then another. A web began to form. I kicked as hard as I could; I kicked the s--t out of that window. A small hole began to form, a tiny thing at the center of the web, and I kicked it until it became about as big as my head. I could hear the attackers shouting nearby. The firing continued. I heard feet. I heard the click of chambers, the dumping of bags, running, panting, breathing.

johnson-FE04-iraq-third Americans making their way toward Baghdad. Gary Knight/VII

Finally I managed to create a hole in the window large enough to escape through. I poked my head out and looked around. Nothing. First my head, then my shoulders—I pushed my way out of the cab and fell onto the ground. For a moment I lay there, unsure of what to do. I was afraid the car might explode. I considered popping my head up above the hood, waving a white shirt, and surrendering to the men who must still be nearby, but they would likely shoot me. Then I heard them shouting gleefully, probably thinking I lay dead inside the car. There was some more shooting, but it was sporadic and it didn’t seem directed toward me.

So I began to crawl away, along the median. I lay on my belly and made myself as flat as possible. I smeared my face as far down into the dirt as I could, filling my mouth with it. I closed my eyes, ostrich-like, and tried to keep my movements as infinitesimal as possible as I crawled forward. I was protected by the truck for the first few yards, but was soon exposed. A few more shots rang out randomly. I lay still for a moment, wondering if they had seen me, trying not to breathe too much. A dung beetle appeared next to my face, moving doggedly. I had never seen a more endearing creature, with its perfectly rounded shell; its crooked, spiny legs; and its measured gait. It was going in the same direction. I began to crawl again, too. I moved and didn’t look back. I must have crawled on my belly for at least another hundred yards, like a lizard, pushing my legs up to my hips and back down, swiveling my torso as I did. Please, I kept muttering to myself, please, please, please. And f--k: f--k, f--k, f--k.

johnson-FE04-iraq-fourth U.S. Marines engaged in battle during the invasion. Gary Knight/VII

And then I heard a low rumble in the distance. It was faint at first, and then it grew louder, and unmistakably stronger. It was the U.S. Army coming my way. The first vehicles that arrived were tanks. The only people visible in them were a couple of small, goggle-wearing heads, like warts on a turtle. They rolled on by. I thought one would stop, but none seemed to. So I began to wave. As more tanks passed, trucks began to appear, then some Humvees and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, but those too passed. I got up some courage and stood up. I began to wave more vigorously, and started to run alongside the convoy as it passed. The noise was deafening, but I began to shout anyway. Pretty soon I was running as fast as I could, shouting at the top of my lungs. Still no one stopped. Eventually a few soldiers began waving back at me, like beauty queens on a float. I must have looked so dirty, so ragged and unshorn that they mistook me for a war refugee. “Stop,” I kept yelling, “I’m an American.”

Eventually someone did stop. A Humvee pulled out of the line and rolled off to the side of the road. The man in the passenger seat beckoned me over through the window. I approached with my hands up in the air.

“I’m an American,” I said. “I got attacked. Please help me.”

johnson-FE04-iraq-fifth A U.S. Marine commander directs fire on the front lines during the invasion. Gary Knight/VII

The soldier had his hand on his pistol. “What are you doing out here?” he asked.

“I’m a reporter,” I said. “Reporter. I’m American.”

“Who do you work for?”

Newsweek. Newsweek magazine.”

His face broke into a broad smile. “Really? Cool. Get in.”

Scott C. Johnson was a Newsweek foreign correspondent and bureau chief for 12 years in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, and elsewhere. Excerpted from The Wolf and the Watchman by Scott C. Johnson. Copyright 2013 by Scott C. Johnson. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co., Inc. Booklist recently called it “an enthralling look at a complicated father-son relationship and a painful investigation of the messiness of truth in journalism, intelligence ops, and life.” Read about the book at thewolfandthewatchman.com. Follow Scott Johnson on Twitter: @scott_c_johnson.