HOME WELCOME ARTICLES ARCHIVES BIOGRAPHY FEEDBACK BLOG LINKS Back from Baghdad: War Correspondent and Author Karl Zinsmeister

The American Legion Magazine | 11.1.04
By Alan W. Dowd

Karl Zinsmeister is more than the Editor-in-Chief of The American Enterprise, a national magazine of politics, business, and culture that gets its name from its parent think tank, the DC-based American Enterprise Institute. He is also something of a throwback to earlier days of journalism, when the news was the focus rather than the newsman, when reporters worried more about the story than their image, when war correspondents knew that telling the whole story meant reporting good news as well as bad.

The Syracuse native has reported plenty of both in a pair of pivotal books on the Iraq War and postwar Iraq—Boots on the Ground: A Month with the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq and Dawn over Baghdad: How the U.S. Military is Using Bullets and Ballots to Remake Iraq. Together, the books chronicle the rapid overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime and arduous reconstruction effort now underway. They have earned widespread acclaim from such diverse sources as the Military Book Club, The Financial Times and The National Review. PBS has even invited Zinsmeister to convert the books into a documentary film.

The books serve as something of a bridge between Iraq and the American people—and a stiff dose of fact for Zinsmeister’s cynical Beltway peers. That’s because these first drafts of history are firsthand accounts. As an embedded reporter with the 82nd Airborne in 2003, Zinsmeister lived the lightning invasion that swept Saddam’s murder machine aside in three weeks. He then did what few reporters had the stomach or integrity to do: re-embedded during America's simultaneous counterinsurgency and nation-building operations in 2004. When Contributing Columnist Alan Dowd interviewed him, Zinsmeister was preparing for yet another tour inside Iraq.

American Legion Magazine: How has the embedding experiment changed the American military and the press?

Karl Zinsmeister:  I really don’t think it changed the military much. The military was already way ahead of the rest of the country in terms of its willingness to let us stare over its collective shoulder. I observe and report on all kinds of people and organizations—cities, government agencies, corporations—and none of the places I’ve studied has been as open as the military. The military has nothing to hide. They are confident about themselves, and it shows. I saw few adjustments made by the military to accommodate this invasion of reporters. They allowed us to see them as they were.

As to the press, I saw a lot of people who wasted their entire embedding experience. I moved from unit to unit and got in with the infantry. I didn’t expect to be babysat; I wasn’t looking for an escort. Others were. Some say the media was hypnotized by the access and led around by the nose. Nonsense. The military didn’t even know where I was and didn’t have any control over what I was seeing or doing—or what I was going to write. And those ground rules applied to every embed.

TALM: You write about the hardships you and the units you were embedded in had to endure because of the WMD threat. In light of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on shoddy prewar WMD intelligence, what are your thoughts on Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons program?

KZ: In my view, it really isn’t that relevant whether or not Saddam had active WMD programs immediately before the invasion took place. We had to assume he had them or could quickly reconstitute them. This is a man who used WMDs on 42 different occasions, and he had the motivation and personality to use them again. As long as he was in power, WMDs could pop up again on very short notice in his inventory or in the hands of someone he might choose to give them to. The scientists were still there, the labs were still there, the knowledge was still there, the factories that made the WMD shells were still there, and the markets were still there. In the post-9/11 environment, it no longer makes sense to risk that. It only makes sense to err on the side of safety. Saddam Hussein was a human WMD and removing him was the only prudent course of action.

TALM: In Boots on the Ground, you detail the connection US troops make between September 11, Iraq and the wider war on terror. How did Baathist Iraq fit into the web of terror? And why was it important to face this threat?

KZ: Most of the soldiers I was with would say that the real monster behind 9/11 was actually not Osama bin Laden. The deeper problem, the real root of the problem, is the incredibly incompetent and cruel governments that prevail throughout the Middle East and produce only one thing in bumper-crop quantities: homicidally frustrated young men. There are 22 Arab nations and 0 democracies. Iraq will be the first. Until we fix this democracy deficit, we’re not going to be able win the war on terror. We can’t do it with police on our borders or metal detectors at airports. To choke off that supply of angry young men, we have to overturn these dreadful governments in the Middle East.

Iraq was the right place to start because a) there was no tyrant crueler in that region than Saddam Hussein; b) Iraq had a greater ability to hurt its neighbors and America than others in the region; c) it had a history of attacking its neighbors and US interests; and d) Iraq has a better upside. Iraq is not like Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. Those places are medieval, pre-modern cultures. Iraq has a history, pre-Saddam, of learning and an openness to modernity. I have met Iraqi engineers and physicians and literature professors who are anxious to grab the reins of a different society and make it a pioneering country for the region.

TALM: How has Iraq changed between your tours?

KZ: The Iraqi economy is going to grow by 60 percent by the end of 2004. Something on the order of a million cars have been imported. Cell phone ownership is over a million. The amount of electricity is higher than before the war.

So people ask, “Why do we hear about blackouts?” Because the Iraqi economy is blooming and demanding more energy. Iraqis are buying washing machines and TVs and satellite receivers. And all of these devices are absorbing electricity. Demand is going up faster than supply. Plus, in the Saddam era, 57 percent of electricity went to Baghdad. Now, electricity is being distributed on a per capita basis—so Baghdad gets 28 percent. That means privileged neighborhoods in Baghdad are getting less juice than they’re used to and they are upset, but most of the country is getting more electrical power than ever before.

All of this progress comes courtesy of the US military, which is doing two things: fighting a tough guerilla war while simultaneously reconstructing a country. It’s important to understand that historically this has never been done. And it’s important to understand that the only people really helping the Iraqis are our troops and coalition partners. The UN is virtually AWOL because they say it’s a dangerous place. But Liberia is a dangerous place. Rwanda is a dangerous place. Yet the UN is in those places. Politics is keeping the UN out of Iraq.

TALM: You visited the now-infamous Abu Ghraib Prison while writing Dawn Over Baghdad. How have the troops on the ground reacted to the prisoner-mistreatment scandal? Could you discuss the fallout inside Iraq and within US journalism?

KZ: Abu Ghraib was a disaster. I was heartbroken when I heard about it because I knew this was going to become the brush that tarred all of our soldiers. Our troops are the first ones who want these morons punished and put in jail. However, it was so grossly overblown, from a media standpoint, that it could become a textbook case of how to take a true but unrepresentative incident and turn it into a false paradigm.

A quarter-million Americans have rotated through Iraq since the invasion. Take any city that size and there are going to be a substantial number of knuckle heads. The percentage of people like those who committed the crimes at Abu Ghraib is remarkably small. And the lack of perspective is frustrating. After all, there have been scores of Iraqi detainees killed, but not by Americans—by terrorists. A couple times a week, terrorists lob mortars into Abu Ghraib and kill their fellow Iraqis. An attack in April 2004, killed 22 detainees and injured 91 others. But it gets no reporting. Instead, we hear that detainees were humiliated and scared and had dogs barking at them. All of that’s out of bounds—but it wasn’t killing or maiming. Yet the people who represent humanitarian concerns are only appalled by what the Americans did. They don’t say anything about the insurgency. They don’t even acknowledge that it is happening. That’s not an excuse for what our guards did. They will go to jail for it. But there’s a deeper, much grosser atrocity taking place, and if you want to be an atrocity hunter then why not pinpoint the real atrocity?

Abu Ghraib was a bigger story inside the Beltway than inside Baghdad. Iraqis have seen atrocities, and they understand the difference between what those US guards did and real atrocities. 

TALM: You describe Operation Iraqi Freedom as “the gentlest war in history” and detail the great care US forces took to protect innocents. In light of what has happened in places like Fallujah, was the war too gentle? Were the rules of engagement too careful, too constraining?

KZ: Iraq’s a big country, with a lot of different kinds of people. About three-quarters of the country is thrilled to have Saddam gone. In those areas it would have been inappropriate to be more aggressive—in fact, one of the reasons public opinion has stuck with us through the travails is because 75 percent of Iraqis recognize that Americans are not arbitrary or indiscriminate in using force. In the other quarter of the country, I think the guerilla war would have happened regardless. There are some parts of Iraq that will not be peaceful until a few thousand people are killed or locked up.

Troops often chafe under rules of engagement. But I’ve heard relatively few complaints. Quite often, it wasn’t rules of engagement that constrained them, but the inherent decency of our troops that caused them to fight the way they did. I was staggered by their restraint. They wouldn’t return fire because there were women around or a mosque nearby. And in many cases the rules of engagement would have allowed them to fire. They fight as Americans, as citizen-soldiers who have good hearts.

TALM: You conclude that rebuilding Iraq and defending civilization is “an almighty strain on the soldiers bearing the burden.” Is it too much of a burden?

KZ: We’re asking a lot of these young men, but it’s not for me to decide if this is too great a burden. It’s for them to decide, and they have decided. Reenlistment rates are exceeding the targets, and that’s the best refutation of the claim that the troops are unhappy or upset. Morale amongst our troops in Iraq surprises me every time I go over there. Sure, they miss their families and are tired of the heat and of seeing the ugly side of human nature. But they have never given the impression that they feel taken advantage of, that this is a waste of their time, that this is an unworthy cause.

Most of them tell me that they feel this is the most important thing they will ever do. They know this is a historical turning point for our nation. The main worry I hear from the troops is that our country will back off before the job is done. They know that as long as we don’t lose our nerve here at home, we are going to have a successful result in Iraq.