In Gettysburg, not long ago, I sat down for a home-cooked meal with my parents, who had just returned from a winter spent lawn bowling in Florida. My father, a thirty-four-year veteran of the US Navy, rarely talks about his years of service during the Cold War. The few times I’ve asked, I was met with silence or a sarcastic comment about having to kill me if secrets were revealed. But over Mom’s manicotti, he brought up Iraq and the mess we’ve made. He sounded off about Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Bremer. Then he pointed his finger at the media, saying they haven’t done their job in uncovering the falsehoods being fed to the American public.
This hit me hard. I’m a photojournalist for the Los Angeles Times, and I was one of the few Americans in Baghdad before, during, and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I thought back to the work my colleagues and I did in those last tumultuous days of Saddam’s regime. Were there photographs we missed, images that could possibly have signaled the disasters ahead? I remembered touring with Saddam’s Ministry of Information, photographing Iraqi missile factories, suspected mobile weapons labs, and the infamous chemical drone. Who would have guessed that the dictator’s propaganda department might be telling the truth when they said there were no weapons of mass destruction? That wasn’t for us to say—or to know. We shot the pictures and sent them.
I felt a much deeper foreboding of the tragedies that lay ahead when, in the days before the war, I met with Iraqi families. Under tight restrictions, a reporter and I were allowed to interview the Kadhims, a middle-class family in central Baghdad. How were they preparing for “shock and awe”? Most Iraqis bought sleeping pills, counting on having to ease their children through, at most, one difficult night. They didn’t believe it would last any longer; they certainly never expected to see an American soldier. After our interpreter, Raheem, helped conduct the interview, I asked if I could spend an hour with them alone to take some pictures of their home life. Without Raheem, we couldn’t speak to one another, but I watched as the wife fixed pizza and her husband washed the family car in the driveway. The three young ones entertained me while the mother made sure I had something good to eat. When Raheem returned to pick me up, I hugged the woman and started to cry, knowing that the bombing could begin within days. She tried to comfort me, inviting me stay with them, not thinking of the danger that hiding an American might bring her family.
Could my father and other frustrated news readers get the intelligence they wanted through the stories of the victims? Probably not. But those were the scenes we were shooting. I don’t know what happened to the Kadhims and their children, but just last week I got word that the teenage son of Raheem, our longtime interpreter, had been shot and killed by Americans retaliating to a roadside bombing.
I photographed a similar nightmare that took place the day the American troops arrived in Baghdad. Three unarmed members of a family were killed when they failed to stop as they approached an American roadblock at dusk. When I found their bullet-riddled car a day later, blankets covered the slumped bodies inside. Relatives had gathered across the street and, after receiving permission, towed the car and brought the dead home for burial. I watched as the women and children saw their loved ones pulled from the vehicle and wrapped in blankets on the front lawn. I couldn’t count how many times this same scene has recurred since then.
In the summer of 2004, I was in Baghdad when the battle of Najaf escalated. Insurgents had taken the city center and were shooting at Americans from behind tombstones in the world’s largest cemetery. I was one of three photographers embedded with the Americans there, initially with the US Army and later with the Marines. On my first patrol with soldiers in the cemetery, a man crouching a few feet ahead of me was wounded in the leg by enemy fire. I photographed him being carried out by his buddies. A few days later I was at the base camp when a tank was hit; several American soldiers died. As they unloaded the bodies covered by black plastic sheets, angry soldiers prevented me from taking pictures. I later received an apology from the captain in charge, but I was unofficially blackballed from going on future Army missions.
Before Najaf, I had never stopped to consider the differing styles between these two fighting forces: the Army moving mostly in armored vehicles and the Marines going in on foot after nightfall. I knew that the final push for control of Najaf would be led by the Marines, so if I wanted to photograph it I had to be with them. I don’t think the Marines really wanted to have a woman along, and they probably would have stopped me had not a male colleague been assigned to the same unit. On one of our first nighttime missions with the Alpha Raiders we left the compound in open-bed trucks, our heads exposed like eggs in an egg tray. The twenty-vehicle convoy slowly made its way to a nearby school, where we unloaded to search for insurgents in the dim green glow of our night-vision goggles.
After the school had been cleared and the trucks reloaded, the convoy rolled only a few feet before the ambush began. The attackers fired from buildings on both sides of the road. Red tracers arced over our heads; there was the sound of metal hitting the sides of our vehicle. As I ducked for cover, I saw the men around me stand up and fire into the night. Remarkably, no one in the convoy was killed. I took no readable pictures of the ambush but did witness true bravery, and I’d earned my place on the next nighttime ride.
The objective of every mission is to make contact with the enemy, and the danger increased as the Marines moved closer to the city’s crown jewel, the holy Imam Ali Shrine. Each outing was preceded by a pep talk in which the captain would rally his troops. “Someone won’t be coming home tonight,” he said each time. Those words still haunt me. Out there, it was you or the other guy. On the final night, a squad was assigned to march in under cover of darkness. We took up position in half-finished buildings just blocks from the central plaza. When the enemy discovered our whereabouts, sniper fire from multiple directions started to eat away at the thin walls. At least three marines died during the night, but none near my position.
By late morning the troops were getting low on food and water. Finally American bombers were called in to finish off the insurgents, and, by sundown, the American-trained Iraqi military was able to take control of the city. Some insurgents were dead, others had melted into the general population.
Not long after that, I left Iraq. I feel guilty that I haven’t returned during the past three years, but I no longer feel safe on the streets. And that fear means I can no longer do my job. I have continued to cover conflicts—including the war in Lebanon last summer and the ongoing genocide in Sudan. But Iraq is one place I’m afraid to go. So I guess my father may be right when he says I haven’t done my job. If I were a soldier I wouldn’t have a choice.