Boots On The Ground

Newly minted NPR reporter John Hendren, formerly a star Pentagon correspondent at the Los Angeles Times, wrote a “Letter from Mosul” back to friends and colleagues about what it was like to cover Donald Rumsfeld‘s Christmas trip across America’s war zones.

“Taking the Washington press corps to war is a bit like unleashing a herd of buffalo on the New York Stock Exchange. We do not blend. We are not hard-bitten foreign correspondents inured to the indignities of conflict reportage. Watching a gaggle of well-groomed, middle-aged Washingtonians in crisply ironed, newly expensed LL Bean cargo gear, topped off by the odd copper-buttoned navy blazer, conjures images of the flightless dodo ambling cluelessly toward oblivion,” writes Hendren, shown left earlier in Iraq.

His complete email is after the jump.


It’s late Christmas eve on a C-17 cargo jet bound for home after a five-day tour of Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Jordan, and not too soon for my three-day underwear. It isn’t that I haven’t brought reinforcements. It’s just that I never have time to don them.

Taking the Washington press corps to war is a bit like unleashing a herd of buffalo on the New York Stock Exchange. We do not blend. We are not hard-bitten foreign correspondents inured to the indignities of conflict reportage. Watching a gaggle of well-groomed, middle-aged Washingtonians in crisply ironed, newly expensed LL Bean cargo gear, topped off by the odd copper-buttoned navy blazer, conjures images of the flightless dodo ambling cluelessly toward oblivion.

The real war correspondents – the ones who remain on the ground after we leave our luxuriant, Internet-wired trailers in one of Saddam’s palace complexes for a cargo plane modified with theater seating and tray-bearing flight attendants – don dustworn jeans, stubble and multiple, filthy layers that adapt to the whims of Iraq’s mercurial climate. We admire them. We just don’t want to get too close. En route, we bone up on the books they’ve penned – “Shooting at the Moon” and, in my case, “War Reporting for Cowards” (best line: “In war, truth is the first casualty. Hygiene is a close second”).

For us, this is rare hardship duty. Most nights I bask my head in a sink installed by Halliburton contractors three or four hours before our 5 and 6 a.m. show times, after cursing the mysteries of radio technologies I haven’t begun to fathom. Filing a story at the end of each day on a satellite transmitter is like brain surgery – sometimes the operation succeeds, sometimes it fails, but it’s always messy and better avoided.

As a lifelong “pencil,” it’s my first trip as a reporter for National Public Radio. Rival networks (my own former employers at The Associated Press, in particular) have spent the past week phoning the Pentagon press secretary and my bosses, loudly lamenting that I’m on the trip instead of their correspondents, that I have no idea what I’m doing and that I’ll inevitably botch the pool reports they expect to use (nevermind that it’s not a pooled event and they’re not entitled to the reports NPR passes on anyway as a courtesy). It irks me – The insult. The indignity! – until I realize they’ve got a point: I have no idea what I’m doing.

My recorder is held together with duct tape after it spontaneously opened during recording, costing me coveted interviews with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Iraq. As I point the mike at a young Bronze Star recipient who saved a drowning Iraqi baby on election day, Fox Pentagon correspondent Bret Baier leans over and mutters, “Do you even know how to use that thing?” “Um, yeah,” I say with venom, then sheepishly turn the microphone around.

The absurdity of radio reporting means I spend much of my time with the mike (I’m so new to the medium I’m still not sure if it’s spelled “mic”) to plane engines and gravel crunching beneath soldiers’ feet while other reporters are covering the news. Anytime a helicopter passes overhead, scribe Jim Garamone points and yells, “Wild sound!” – he means natural sound – “Don’t miss it.” Occasionally Baier grabs the microphone to bark “This is a plane landing!” and “good sound, man. Reeeeeally good,” destroying the tracks I’d hope would underlay my breathlessly serious reporting on the perils of war (and the implicit invocations of the selfless bravery of the intrepid reporters who chronicle it).

The technology has me so frazzled at times that I forget to notice little things, like whether the camo-clad officer I’m interviewing is in the army or the navy, prompting this memorable quote from a general in Pakistan: “Don’t call me general. I’m an admiral. You know, ships?”

Donald Rumsfeld’s idea of a leisurely tour is three stops before lunch and nary a night in a four-star hotel. We spend one night on the plane en route, another at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, two at a converted palace in Baghdad and Christmas eve on the strapped, director-chair seats bolted to the size of the cavernous cargo plane. Before we gently maneuver our bruised backsides into beds for the first time, we’d logged three plane flights, half a dozen helicopter rides and as many caravan trips from helo pads. Strapped to the center of the cargo bay floor is a steel trailer, dubbed the Silver Bullet, to which we are occasionally summoned for Newsmaking Chats.

The itinerary is now a blur of dusty outposts and impenetrable accents – Islamabad and Muzzafarabad, Pakistan. Baghdad and Fallujah. Baghdad again. Amman, Jordan and back to Baghdad. Finally to Mosul, where Rumsfeld dons a server’s cap and dishes out surf and turf to the troops before giving an address televised live on Fox.

The troops looove Fox. It runs all day in the mess halls and recreation tents. Massive hulks of death-dealing soldiers from units with names like “the assassins” swoon before Bret. We occasionally remind him of his mortality. Like the time he tells the AP’s Bob Burns that three Italians were killed the day before. Burns uses the fact to set up a hard-hitting question for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who helpfully informs the veteran Pentagon correspondent that the Italians were merely wounded. “I would suggest that there is a big difference between the dead and the living,” Karzai quips. Burns glares daggers at Bret.

It’s now midnight – Christmas – and the flight attendants are wearing camouflage Santa hats (This does not inspire confidence in our flight crew). The pilots say they’re steering cautiously to avoid sending 90 tons of steel hurtling into Santa’s sleigh. Having glimpsed two war zones through van, plane and helicopter windscreens in the safest and most heavily protected traveling party ever to touch down on Mesopotamian soil, I’m thinking ten hours ahead. I’ll be on a commercial flight bound for Chicago, where two little boys will be impatiently waiting till noon to open a mountain of presents.

Merry Christmas, indeed.