Journalists and photographers discuss the lingering effects of war reporting, and coming home

The panelists at Columbia (Lauren Kirchner)
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This month marks nine years since the American invasion of Baghdad. While the United States military mission in Iraq officially ended in December, the impact of war will continue to reverberate for many years to come, both for those who fought it and with those who witnessed it.

The latter group was the focus at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism on Wednesday night, where the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma hosted a panel of Iraq war journalists—many of whom came of age, both professionally and personally, during their time there.

Ashley Gilbertson (pictured below), a photographer with the VII agency and author of the stunning book Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, spoke first, while presenting a slide show of some of his work.

“War is fought in the shadows,” Gilbertson said. “You can’t personalize war, otherwise it becomes very difficult to pull the trigger. And that’s become my career today…trying to humanize and personalize these things so that we can all find a way to understand this story as human beings.”

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Gilbertson had actually been in Iraq prior to the invasion, having traveled from his native Australia to document the refugee crisis there. After the fighting began, he started working for New York Times’ Baghdad bureau. The photograph that launched his career, he said, was of a soldier gleefully sliding down a marble banister of Saddam Hussein’s mansion, first published in TIME.

As the insurgency worsened, Gilbertson said, he found that access became harder to come by, and his subjects became more difficult to document. But his goal remained the same, he said: to put names and faces to the victims on both sides of the fighting. Two of Gilbertson’s more recent projects have documented the after-effects of violent acts committed by veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the still-intact childhood bedrooms of soldiers killed overseas.

As an Iraqi national managing the Baghdad newsroom of the New York Times, Ali Adeeb’s experience of the war was very different than that of his Western colleagues. Around 2004, he remembered, sectarian war was breaking out, civilian casualties of U.S. soldiers and contractors were climbing, and mistrust was high. Friends and neighbors accused him of having been “brainwashed” by the Times. During his daily commute, he took care to hide his press badge in his sock as he drove, and then took equal care to prominently display it as he approached the Green Zone on his way to the Times newsroom. Failure to do either could have gotten him killed.

Adeeb spoke about how sad it was for him when he started to see Iraqis turning on one another, and how the community he’d grown up in became polarized. The release of the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse photographs, Adeeb said, was a rare moment of national unity, and of national humiliation.

Sarah Stillman (pictured below) spent a year investigating the under-regulated economy of “third-country nationals”: workers brought to Iraq from places like Southeast Asia, sometimes against their will, to work long hours for low pay on U.S. military bases. Logistics subcontractors—who are hired by major contractors, who are in turn paid by American taxpayers—house their employees in shipping containers, and pay them as little as $300 a month to work 12 hours shifts, 7 days a week.

Just this week, Stillman’s story for The New Yorker was awarded a Hillman Prize and named a finalist for a National Magazine Award. She clearly found an audience and made an impact with this particular topic. But she spoke about the difficulty of reporting on Iraq in general, especially now, nine years out from the invasion. Civilian casualties, post-traumatic stress, family hardships; she said it was hard to convince people they hadn’t heard it all before.

“The challenge we’re all facing is, how do we keep narrating these wars, how do we keep the focus there, when there’s such fatigue around it, and yet the trauma is sustained?” Stillman asked.

She later added that she had encountered war-fatigue not just with readers, but with editors as well. Before The New Yorker agreed to publish her piece, Stillman had pitched it to Rolling Stone. Along with her rejection, she got a bit of advice: Next time, pitch us the Hollywood version of the story, and tell us which character Julia Roberts would play.

When Magnum photographer and author Peter van Agtmael spoke, he delved deep into his complicated experience in war coverage. He was just 24 when he first went to Iraq, the same age as many of the soldiers with whom he was embedded.

“I’m desperately trying to create this body of work that will stand as a testimony to war’s evils,” van Agtmael said. “And yet at the same time, there’s that contradictory nature, that I’m extremely attracted to war. As Michael Herr said in Dispatches, ‘You can’t take the romance out of war, it’s like taking the romance out of The Rolling Stones.’”

It’s easy to be seduced by war, he said, because it heightens and enhances every emotion. It’s a counterintuitive experience for a journalist, because a journalist’s role in documenting war and its consequences is often, at root, to question it.

Amy Goodman, author and host of “Democracy Now!” is not part of “Generation Iraq,” per se, but both Middle East wars and their associated injustices have been the focus of her daily news program for almost a decade. She expressed her admiration for the other journalists on the panel and stressed the importance of making sure all voices in the conflict get a chance to be heard. In slogans that would have probably been applause lines in a less staid setting, she condemned the American mainstream media for discouraging pre-war debate.

“We need a media that covers power, not covers for power,” said Goodman. “We need a media that is a fourth estate, not for the state.”

Goodman then spoke about how Iraqi journalists disproportionately felt the consequences of war. She condemned the U.S. military for bombing the Baghdad bureau of Al Jazeera. (The military’s claim that it was a mistake has been disputed.) She later raised the issue of the problematic nature of embedded journalism, though she was quick to say that she thought the journalists on this panel had overcome the limiting factors of the embedding process. The fact that the Pentagon calls it “a spectacular success” is proof of its failure, she said.

“You have great reporters and photographers embedded in the front lines with troops, bringing you one part of the story,” said Goodman. “It is also critical … to be embedded in Iraqi hospitals, and Afghan communities, and the peace movement around the world, to show the full implications of war.”

This event, moderated by Dart Center executive director Bruce Shapiro, was bound to have its uncomfortable moments, given its subject matter. The panelists’ occasional references to the ineptitude of the higher-ups in the U.S. military were met with nervous laughter. The audience sometimes made quiet wincing sounds during Gilbertson’s and van Agtmael’s slide shows, which occasionally included bloody images of battle, as well as the youthful faces of soldiers who have since been killed.

Audience questions ranged from rambling to tense, and a debate between Goodman and van Agtmael on the subject of the WikiLeaks-released video “Collateral Murder” [http://collateralmurder.com/]was just about to heat up when Shapiro put a lid on it, saying that time was short. But the conversation was incredibly thoughtful throughout; it ran a full two hours but felt as though it could have gone much longer.

Towards the end of the discussion, Shapiro asked the panel about the professional and personal challenges that came with the media’s shrinking appetite for Iraq stories. Adeeb said that many of his Iraqi colleagues were having a very hard time finding work since the Western news agencies were withdrawing from Baghdad; meanwhile the Iraqi news outlets became much more polarized and politicized, and religious identity often prevents people from getting work. As for dealing with memories and images of the war after coming home, several of the Western journalists on the panel spoke about therapists and drinking, laughing darkly.

Shapiro also noted that this is the first war the United States has experienced with “the language of psychological injury” on the table. He wondered whether widespread awareness of PTSD had affected journalists’ reporting choices, or their ability to explain some of the situations that soldiers were dealing with. Van Agtmael responded that awareness, while important, did not immediately lead to acceptance; stigmas and hurdles to treatment remain.

“It seems to be a form of admitting weakness—it’s really just a common humanity,” said van Agtmael. “But in organizations and institutions that kind of pride themselves on their ability to do anything and take anything, that’s a potent psychological barrier.”

It was unclear at the moment whether he was referring to the military or to the institution of journalism; both felt equally true.