Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Shadid says Iraq should be recounted one tragedy at a time

News and Press Release
Originally published
Washington Post foreign correspondent Anthony Shadid spoke Friday at the Watson Institute about his time as a war correspondent in Iraq. The overwhelming violence of a place like Iraq can become dangerously meaningless, he said. To remedy this in his writing, Shadid began using the war as a backdrop for the individual stories of Iraqis living and dying through the conflict.

In the captivating, detailed manner of a journalist, Shadid told one such story of a young man called Sabah. Sabah was asked to help US officers find insurgents in a crowd of detainees from his village, but people recognized him. Soon after, members of the village demanded his life. Eventually, Sabah's father and brother killed him in their own backyard. Shadid later interviewed Sabah's devastated father. "Even Abraham didn't have to kill his own son," he told Shadid.

Stories like this drove home the reality of the war when readers became numb to repeated accounts of bombs pummeling the city, Shadid said. He wanted to convey more than brutality; he wanted to depict the reality of a country turned upside-down.

In his lecture, "Iraq's Tragedy: The Inevitability of Unintended Consequences," Shadid discussed what he, as a journalist, saw under the layers of turmoil in Iraq, which amounted to the backlash of the forces unleashed by the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Because he followed many of his stories across the span of several years, Shadid obtained a great depth of coverage and understanding of the war's consequences. He recounted his findings on Friday with clarity and honesty, but without prediction or hopeful suggestions.

Shadid said he found that a baby's eyes were the only ones in the region without fear. People were giving up hope, and they were giving up ideology, returning to more traditional uniting forces such as religion and tribe. Many were leaving the country, often the young and bright Iraqis who are badly needed to help the country rebuild. He spoke with mothers who had lost children and children who had been hit with shrapnel.

Shadid cautioned against the "dangerous narrative" that he has been hearing both inside Iraq and abroad. People are beginning to rationalize the consequences of the war by saying "the Iraqis weren't ready."

The Iraqi government has little legitimacy in this country rife with independent militias, where the United States is still seen "as the final arbiter" for important decisions. Any type of social service in the country has almost completely collapsed, and it is dangerous even to collect a check, as this would require standing in a crowd. "You don't want to be in a group right now in Iraq," Shadid said.

When asked whether or not the American military should withdraw, Shadid related the answer of an Iraqi friend. "It's like a volcano that has erupted," his friend had replied, "And what do you do with that?"

Shadid's stories of individual Iraqis are collected in his new book, Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War (Henry Holt and Co., 2005).

The talk by Shadid, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, was part of the Watson Institute's Directors Lectures Series on Contemporary International Affairs.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Liana Paris '07