A Reporter at War: Meditations on Death and Truth
Alan Feuer, Over There: From the Bronx to Baghdad Two Months in the Life of a Reluctant Reporter (Counterpoint, 2005)
War makes news, even if it destroys nearly everything else. The magnitude of martial events, wherein a single fatality can symbolize the shifting fortunes of a civilization, is so extravagant, so epochal, that media coverage is a necessary by-product. (This is of course with the exception of wars in sub-Saharan Africa, which, as recent events in Congo and Northern Uganda attest, don’t reach the threshold of news in the United States.)
As the column inches lavished on the Iraq war by newspapers and magazines stretch into miles, facts and events that lie outside the official chronicle of state-sanctioned violence beg for greater attention. A mere newspaper article, bound by word counts, can’t hope to capture deeper dimensions of the kill-or-be-killed drama of war, the absurdity of the fringe characters, the pathos of the participant/observer’s private moments. Accordingly, war makes books, too. Among them are many memoirs.
Even in an age of reality TV, with its democratization of celebrity, you still need an excuse to write a book about yourself. A journalist’s departure for a war zone lets anonymous hacks know that they have become historical actors, living lives imbued with romance and adventure, and that a precocious autobiography is justified. Enough of these books actually get written that the bildungsroman of the war reporter constitutes a literary subgenre unto itself.
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell’s firsthand account of the Spanish Civil War, is surely the ne plus ultra of the form. Dispatches, Michael Herr’s memoir of the Vietnam War, records in a work of standout nonfiction the signal events of a generation. Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer penned works of autobiographical fiction that still stand as the paradigmatic narratives of World Wars I and II. A review of the literature inspired by the overseas adventures of the Bush administration reveals a bumper crop of memoirs, but few that rise to the level of literature. An exception is Rolling Stone contributing editor Evan Wright’s instant classic, Generation Kill.
Come lately to a crowded field is Over There: From the Bronx to Baghdad, Two Months in the Life of a Reluctant Reporter, the account of New York Times reporter Alan Feuer’s time in Iraq in the spring of 2003. Feuer, Cleveland-born, was a “bespectacled young runt of a reporter who had never filed a story overseas” when Times editors yanked him off his regular beat in the Bronx and shipped him off to Iraq. The last article Feuer wrote before he left was the 400-word obituary of a travel agent—incongruous in light of the expansive theme of war, and also ironic considering his perilous overseas assignment.
But Feuer’s narrative has little of the rat-a-tat-tat color that one comes to expect from an eyewitness account of a land war in Asia. Over There is not the story of the blue-state reporter finding common cause in the trenches with red-state Marines. Tanks don’t rumble and belch fire; bullets don’t zip and ping. Rather, the author evokes “the dead air of quiet blight” and the “acrid bite of smoke” of battlefield Iraq. Deprived of a military embed, Feuer has woven his tale out of subtler stuff than assault rifles and high explosives. The strength of his book lies in his ability to tell a story where not much happens but a lot is going on. (The premise is familiar to the war story; think Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got his Gun.)
The war memoirist must do two things: survive and speak an awful truth, and Feuer does both. His tale begins on 42nd Street in Manhattan with a buzzing pager and the subsequent, exhilarating news that he is “on the fucking list;” he is going to war. It isn’t long before the New York Times bestows upon him “the treasures of the paper, its vaulted gold—airline tickets, laptops, power charges, power strips, power converters, power itself.” Feuer is off to London and from there to Amman, Jordan, to secure a visa, and a way into the shit. He is no reluctant reporter, as his book’s peculiar subtitle states; whatever his reservations about the casus belli, Feuer has ants in his pants to join the war already in progress, for reasons that he will fully understand only later.
The staging area for the plunge into Iraq is Jordan’s Intercontinental Hotel, where Feuer finds himself among private security contractors and bellhops, fixers and “cocktail waiters in tasseled fezzes serving vodka tonics to reporters reclined on pasha chairs and fringed settees.” Of the antiwar protesters who are camped out in Jordan waiting to serve as human shields on the other side of the border, Feuer wonders “what colossal fool might actually believe the U.S. Air Force would not obliterate a building in Iraq because a Phish fan from Vermont had chained his body to the door.”
While waiting to cross into Iraq, Feuer sketches to devastating effect a border village twisted to the point of absurdity by the ugly combination of Westerners with an oversupply of greenbacks and Arab profiteers. As for the “great electric oozing eye of the media,” Feuer pierces the inflated image of the war reporter with rapier wit, and takes richly deserved jabs at television news personalities—newsmen with Ken-doll jaws, coiffed helmets of hair, and unblinking eyes who might deliver live a report on “what it felt like to be standing here, right here, on the Iraqi border.”
For Feuer, who abandoned a dream of becoming a novelist when he took a job with the Times, every print reporter is “locked in secret combat with the novel in his soul.” Over There should put some of that artist’s frustration to rest: stylistically, it is more a picaresque novel than a memoir, told in the third person (the protagonist is known as T.R., for “This Reporter,” a dig perhaps at the strictly enforced editorial stodginess of the New York Times). At its best, the prose, energetic and seemingly effortless, evokes the tough-guy moods and nifty similes of Raymond Chandler. Other times, such as when an entire paragraph is devoted to describing someone walking down a hall, it seems that the writing is an end, in and of itself. On the whole though, it can be considered a humble triumph of tone that Feuer tells his war stories and plumbs his psyche without coming across as a self-mythologizing narcissist. When T.R. casts his observational beams on himself, the results are just as cutting as when he caricatures war dogs and opportunists.
Feuer’s odyssey reaches its apotheosis, as one might imagine, in Baghdad, amid the ruins of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, the sickening smell of corpses, and the bloated excesses of the news media. At the Borata Cemetery, working on a body count, Feuer interviews a mourner burying his dead; he asks his questions and gets his answers, striving to be respectful, even though his very presence is an affront to the private grief of a man standing in a grave with a shovel and a plastic bag that contains the remains of five members of his family. Having “filled his notebook up with miseries,” Feuer leaves, only to see trucks “pulled up to the gates, big trucks with television dishes, satellite antennae, idling engines—mobile battle stations of the news.”
As Feuer observes, “the vultures had arrived”; but he is under no illusions as to the nature of his own role as carrion feeder. In fact, for Feuer, both his work as a journalist and the “ongoing fairy tale of his own personal growth” involved the primal need to touch death and be in turn touched by it. The New York Times sent him to Iraq to cover the war, but Feuer’s personal mission was to satisfy the “hunger, to experience the worst of what the war could offer.”
It has become commonplace, almost obligatory, for the war memoirist to admit to a taste for the macabre, what Feuer refers to as the “voyeur’s high” of bearing witness to the pageant of death; but Over There plunges into an even greater realm of tabooed truths. As a memoirist, Feuer allows himself narrative liberties, including omniscience and, as needed, fabricated quotes, which must have been immensely gratifying to a New York Times staffer in the post-Jayson Blair era. But by walking the reader through the reporting process in a way that demonstrates the muddy nature of journalistic truth, Feuer is giving voice to a reality that could cost him his job.
In the cemetery, stumbling to piece together a body count, Feuer writes, “How many times had he scribbled down a quote to find he could not read a word? There was a name in the pad, Haidar Something, A-R-something, Aruban or Arubay, it was impossible to tell. He bore down on the notebook and tried to sort it out. Aruban or Arubay—what difference did it make? All right, Mr. Arubay, speak some words to the readers of the Times.”
The reporting is sloppy, the attitude is insouciant; but the point is made: so-called facts can be plastic, especially under the stressful and disorienting circumstances of a hot conflict. Feuer, an American, whose previous beat was the Bronx, conducting interviews in a cemetery in Baghdad shortly after the coalition invasion, is eliciting information across cultures, by way of an interpreter, on deadline—and he has trouble reading his own handwriting. By frankly showing the layers of interpretation between an actual event or utterance and its eventual appearance in the pages of a newspaper, Feuer shatters the “fantasy that one could cover a story without affecting it.”
Feuer’s big Iraq War scoop is that the truth behind the news, the whole truth, is nearly unknowable. In the wake of the recent fiasco over the discredited Newsweek story about Koran abuse at Guantanamo, the debacle of Dan Rather’s reporting on President George Bush’s National Guard service and the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, media bashers have opened a yawning credibility gap for the fourth estate—a gap that a few select passages from Feuer’s book won’t help close. What Over There does instead is shed much-needed, if harsh, light on the process of making the news—an inexact science, to be sure, if it can even be called a science. While precision and accuracy are of paramount importance in reporting, what appears in the newspapers as the first draft of history, as the saying goes, can be at best a rough sketch, skewed by the peculiarities of the viewer. If Feuer brings a Heisenbergian sense of uncertainty to the realities of newsgathering, he will ultimately be doing the profession a favor by adding a dash of salt to expectations of absolute fidelity to a truth that may well not exist.
It is no coincidence that Over There is written like a novel: the fictional form allows the author to track both the outer story of the plot and the inner life of the protagonist, in this case a journalist, in a way that personalizes the process of making the news. As a reporter, Feuer’s T.R. is the “prisoner of individuality” and therefore represents a “danger to the truth,” but as a man he is emotionally awake and intuitively alert to the deeper realities around him. In Over There, Feuer presents the second draft of the history he began as a newspaper reporter on the ground; his book leaves in the jagged edges of realism that the mainstream version of the news streamlined out, and the result is a piercing portrait of war, in all its fuzzy glory, as seen through the prism of a certain Buckeye on staff at the New York Times.