Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq

Overview

In her gripping account of the Iraq war, Jackie Spinner goes beyond the headlines to reveal the challenges of reporting news in a place where danger and fear accompany journalists everywhere. This is a vivid and personal story of her time in Iraq ? where for thirteen months she covered the war from its center in Baghdad, Fallujah, Kurdistan, and Abu Ghraib ? and of being transformed from a naive woman and rookie correspondent into a seasoned foreign reporter.

Jackie's account is...

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Tell Them I Didn't Cry: A Young Journalist's Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq

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Overview

In her gripping account of the Iraq war, Jackie Spinner goes beyond the headlines to reveal the challenges of reporting news in a place where danger and fear accompany journalists everywhere. This is a vivid and personal story of her time in Iraq — where for thirteen months she covered the war from its center in Baghdad, Fallujah, Kurdistan, and Abu Ghraib — and of being transformed from a naive woman and rookie correspondent into a seasoned foreign reporter.

Jackie's account is punctuated by brief vignettes written by her identical twin sister, Jenny, who watched as Jackie was drawn further and further into a world increasingly fraught with danger. Every morning she looked for Jackie's byline in the Post, knowing only then that her sister had survived another day.

Through it all — the violence and fear as well as the moments of humor, camaraderie, and warmth — Jackie Spinner brings home, with brilliant intensity and candor, what it is like to report on a war under exceptional circumstances.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Jackie Spinner's poignant memoir of nine months as a foreign correspondent...gives a vivid picture of the sacrifices journalists make in war zones."
Chicago Tribune

"[Spinner's] harrowing but funny new memoir [is] the most honest war story you'll ever read. This woman is bravery personified."
Glamour

"Jackie Spinner's book is...an odyssey of closely observed and beautifully sequenced stages of an emotional and professional life as a reporter for The Washington Post in Iraq."
— Ellen Mickiewicz, director, DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, Duke University

"Jackie Spinner tells this war story better than any other account."
— Tod Robberson, The Dallas Morning News

Ilene R. Prusher
Why put ourselves in harm's way, only to have readers complain (as many of Spinner's did) that press coverage of Iraq is negative and unpatriotic? "I didn't become a journalist to serve my country," Spinner explains. "I became a journalist to serve the story." That means documenting the anguish of a country for which Americans now bear enormous responsibility. It means telling the truth and hoping that our Iraqi colleagues, many of them as fearful of insurgents today as they were of Saddam Hussein, will do the same. It means showing readers that the lives of Iraqis are just as important as ours. Spinner reminds us of all of these essentials, and then some. "If you're there, risking your life," she writes, "you want someone, anyone, to understand why you are there." Her fine book widens the circle of people who will.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Jackie Spinner, a Washington Post staff writer, left the steady analytics of financial reporting for the terror-laden beat of Iraq in May 2004. In this memoir, she writes in simple yet descriptive language about the daily challenges and rewards of life in a war zone. Over the course of nine months, she carves her niche at the Baghdad bureau as den mother and human-interest reporter. She objectively reports on the struggles and aspirations of everyday Iraqis, the triumphs and failures of the military and the violence that traps her indoors most of the time-but the heart of this book is in her personal investment in the bureau's Iraqi staff. Spinner cooks weekly dinners for them, plays soccer in the hallways with them and teaches them English. Each chapter ends with reflections written by Jenny, her twin back home, an English professor, who belies her fears with chipper encouragement and dreads toy deliveries to her son because Jackie always orders them online after near-death experiences. Affable and earnest, Spinner made herself at home in war, creating a "family" despite cultural and language barriers, and hers is a unique perspective on living and reporting in Iraq. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A tentative, slight memoir of a sojourn in hell. Jackie Spinner had a decade's experience as a Washington Post reporter when she snagged an assignment in Iraq, but by her account she was still green; one editor, she remembers, told her in so many words that she "wasn't good enough to tackle a story that would require narrative writing." Readers might be forgiven for thinking as much of the opening chapters, which focus without much depth on the usual helmet-and-rations stuff and offer self-important nostrums ("I went to Iraq because I am a journalist: we drive into hurricanes, not away from them"; "The key to good beat reporting-and I considered the Abu Ghraib story my beat-is to cull sources"). There is little crying, true, but also much complaining about such things as the absence of vegetarian refried beans and the unpleasantness of hearing mortars at all hours-an occupational hazard, one assumes, for anyone who ventures into a war zone. Alternately breezy and world-weary, the narrative gathers strength and speed when Spinner begins to take notice of the world beyond her laptop screen. Apparently generous by nature, she befriends a psychically damaged young Iraqi woman, one of Uday Hussein's manifold rape victims, who later commits suicide at an American military base (or does she?). Spinner is quick to feed hungry GIs and to bake cookies for her colleagues, who have had to endure the ministrations of a former Saddam-regime chef who is lucky the dictator never ate her cooking. And she takes daring measures to cover the story, not quite fearlessly but bravely all the same. These make for the story's strongest turns, complemented by her sister Jenny's reflections on Jackie's story as shereceived it in phone calls and emails-and, memorably, in one emotionally fraught visit. Not as seasoned as Anne Garrels's similarly structured Naked in Baghdad (2003), but with some good moments.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743288552
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 8/7/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 560,025
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Jackie Spinner is a staff writer for The Washington Post and has appeared on many major television and radio news shows. She won the Distinguished International Reporting award from the Washington-Baltimore Newspaper Guild for her reporting in Iraq.

Jenny Spinner is an assistant professor of English at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, where she teaches writing and journalism.

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Read an Excerpt

A Note from the Author

This book is a personal account of the more than nine months I spent in Iraq as a reporter for The Washington Post. After a brief visit to Iraq in January 2004, while embedded with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, I returned in May — arriving eight days after U.S. soldiers on a routine patrol found the decapitated body of American businessman Nick Berg on a highway overpass west of the Iraqi capital. His gruesome videotaped execution at the hands of insurgents — coupled with the deaths of four U.S. contractors whose mutilated bodies were strung from a bridge in the city of Fallujah the month before — marked what we only now realize was a free fall into a dark cavern of blood and violence. It will be a difficult climb out.

During the time I was in Iraq, the deteriorating security situation changed the way we covered the news, challenging every convention for how to report on and in a conflict in which we, the press, had no immunity, no white flag to save us from the car bombs, the mortars, the gunfire, and the kidnappers. The bad guys were aiming for us, too. By the fall of 2004, stuck in our fortified bunkers in Baghdad, we were largely cut off from the rest of the country, unable to travel to many parts of Iraq without the U.S. military because of the threat of attacks on foreign reporters. And yet our mandate never changed: Iraq was a story that had to be told.

I reported on car bombs and power plant reconstruction, wrote stories about soldiers in battle, soldiers waiting for battle, soldiers dying in battle. I interviewed hundreds of Iraqis, sometimes without ever leaving my hotel. I met them instead through the scribbled notes of our Iraqi translators. When they came back from an assignment too dangerous for me as a Westerner to cover, we sat together in front of my computer while I grilled them about what they saw. What color were his eyes? Did he really say that? How did he say that? What do you mean he looked anxious? Tell me how he looked. Was he sweating? What were his hands doing while he talked?

I asked each member of our Iraqi staff individually how they wanted to be identified in this book because they remain at risk as long as they work for an American company. Although the full names of our translators are published in The Washington Post in story credits and bylines, connecting their names to additional information about their families might put them at greater risk. For the book, most asked to be referred to by their first names only or by a common Arabic title for mothers and fathers: if a son is Ali, his father is Abu Ali, his mother Um Ali. Our conversations, as detailed in the book, are precisely as I remember them. All of the people are real, not characters. They exist in flesh and blood and blood and flesh, the living story of Iraq. To them, I owe everything.

I never really swam in Baghdad, although the pool at the Ishtar Sheraton Hotel taunted me on impossibly hot days when it seemed Mother Nature had turned a hundred hair dryers on an already brittle split-end. I went to the Sheraton pool once, long after dark. My Post colleague, Robin Shulman, and I had just sat down at the edge of the pool when six or seven members of the hotel staff, wearing sweat-stained white shirts and dark trousers, came out to watch us from the shadows of the pool deck. They dragged on cigarettes, the fiery glow lighting up the night like fireflies suspended in flight. Robin and I tried to ignore them, but eventually, we got up and left, unwilling to give them the satisfaction of a cheap peep show of our bony knees and bare shoulders. We walked by their disappointed faces and disappeared back into the grungy hotel, back into our uniform of long sleeves and long skirts.

From then on, the only swimming I ever did was in my imaginary pool. I called up the image to keep from under the pressure and fright of being in a war zone. A journalist who claims that being in Iraq is not scary is probably lying. I went to my pool during mortar attacks, as I hovered in a stairwell while the hotel shook from repeated blasts. I went during a gun battle in Fallujah. I went whenever I got into a car and pushed out into traffic, weaving between potential car bombers, outrunning the insurgents who chased down foreigners to kidnap for ransom, or worse. I went every time the lights went out, when my military convoy stopped suddenly in the middle of the night, when the rocket landed inside the Internet café at the Marine camp minutes after I walked out. I went when I saw soldiers wounded or dead, when I saw Iraqi people wounded or dead, when I wore their blood home on my shoes.

Iraq is not frightening all of the time. I did not feel in imminent danger every minute of the day or even every day. It felt like a manageable risk. I told myself when that changed I would go home, fully aware that the longer I stayed, the more Iraq felt like my home, the more difficult that would be. I fell in love with Iraq, this horrible, awful, violent, beautiful, hopeful place, where many Iraqis, in spite of the horrors of the insurgency, felt better off without Saddam in power, felt better off with American troops on their soil. I fell in love with the story of Iraq and with the purpose I felt delivering it. I found meaning in the people I met, whose lives unfolded at my fingertips. My life didn't feel on hold when I was in Iraq. It was my life.

I made cookies in the hotel late at night to stay awake while waiting for foreign contractors to be beheaded: literally killing time waiting for someone else to die. I was convinced that if I sent the fledgling Iraqi police guarding the hotel baked goods on a regular basis, then when the insurgents came, they'd line us up and I'd hear them say, "Let the little one go. She made us cookies."

Between stories, I played soccer barefoot on the filthy, musty carpeted hallways of the Sheraton. I cooked dinner on Friday nights and invited Western and Iraqi journalists to eat whatever themed concoction I could deliver with the limited ingredients available in Iraqi supermarkets. We dined on Italian, Cuban, Mexican, and even Thai. After dinner, I washed the dishes in a bathroom sink. I chased these moments, my oasis of joy, stringing together a life among the long hours of reporting and writing, day after day, week after week, month after month. In some ways, I never felt more alive than while simultaneously trying to defeat death and find the truth.

That is the dichotomy of daily life in Baghdad, where survival is about staying sane and staying normal just as much as it is about staying alive. We ordered pizza from the rip-off "Pizza Hot" — always carry-out because it was too dangerous by late summer of 2004 for foreign reporters to venture out to restaurants, too dangerous for our Iraqi staff to be seen with us. I spent countless hours in the markets searching for the perfect substitute for ricotta cheese to perfect my lasagna recipe. I memorized the inside of my favorite grocery shops so when it became too risky to go myself, I could map out the store to show our driver exactly where he'd find the vegetarian refried beans. (Just before Aisle No. 2, the display on the right with the dusty cans. Evidently, vegetarian refried beans aren't a big seller in Baghdad.)

Meanwhile, back home in Washington, my twin sister, Jenny, was settling into a new job and a new house fifteen minutes away from my empty apartment. In our thirty-four years, Jenny and I had never been apart for more than a few months at a time. My sister always was my identity, the other half of the Spinner Twins. We grew closer in college, realizing for the first time what absence meant as we set off to opposite ends of Illinois to pursue similar degrees in writing. We called each other when we got lonely and looked at the moon from our dorm room windows, our own hokey moment stolen from a Disney movie.

Being a twin, I never felt loneliness. To this day, I have no idea what that feels like. I have always had a soul mate, someone whose thoughts echo within me before they ever are birthed into words. I know instinctively how she feels, and she knows me better than anyone.

When we were about eight years old, late at night, alone in our togetherness, we imagined our worst-case scenario. A man with a gun was going to shoot us both. We wondered who should die first and what would be worse: being the last one standing, grieving, or leaving the last one standing, grieving. We simply could not imagine life without each other. We debated this scenario into young adulthood without finding an answer. We debated it until speaking the unthinkable became too morbid. We replaced it with more realistic fears of cancer and car accidents — but never war.

Before I left for Iraq, Jenny told me that if anything happened to me, she would never feel joy again. I tucked her voice, those words, deep within me, and off I went, on a journey of a lifetime, on a journey into life.

I went alone.

Copyright © 2006 by Jackie Spinner

Chapter One

The hot cement burned the rubber soles of my sandals as I ran through the barricaded maze of blast walls, sandbags, and barbed wire sealing off the compound of the U.S. occupation authority in Baghdad. Behind me, an angry mob of young and graying men chanted in uniform protest and pumped long, black rifles toward the sky. Some of them held signs with American flags crossed out in thick black lines. I could not have looked more American at that moment, wearing black REI sandals, khaki pants, and a white linen button-down shirt. Although my brown, sun-streaked hair was pulled back in a tight bun, I was not wearing a traditional Muslim headscarf that would have better disguised me. I knew it would only be a matter of time before someone spotted me in the unforgiving blaze of the bright May sunshine.

I sprinted toward the guarded entrance of the Green Zone, where American and Iraqi civil authorities had encamped in Saddam Hussein's ornate former presidential palaces since the March 2003 invasion, fourteen months earlier. The four-square-mile zone in the heart of the Iraqi capital was a city within a city. It had brown cement apartment buildings and lush single-family homes, where palace servants and key employees of Saddam's regime lived. Most of those people fled at the start of the war as U.S. forces dropped bombs on the government buildings and palaces and later when the U.S. Army's 3rd Infantry Division marched into the government compound. The Green Zone earned its name as a security designation. Green was safe. Red was not. The Red Zone was all of Iraq outside the protected Green Zone. There is a great myth that journalists in Baghdad stay in the Green Zone, sharing it with U.S. officials and contractors who live in white single-wide trailers and work in the palace and other government buildings. In fact, almost all of the foreign journalists in Iraq live in hotels and heavily guarded residences in the Red Zone, using private or Iraqi security forces for protection and making the harrowing ride to the Green Zone for press conferences and meetings with government officials who rarely leave it.

The Green Zone — or "the Bubble," as officials who work inside refer to it — is one of the safest places in Iraq, in large part because it is so sealed off from the rest of the capital and country. The only way for journalists or Iraqi civilians to get into the Green Zone is to pass through a single military checkpoint open to the general public, who must produce at least two pieces of identification and a written invitation or a darn good reason to come in, which, of course, is subject to the review of the soldiers guarding the gate. Once inside, you have to pass through three more security checkpoints, two of which require a complete pat down that most Americans would find utterly objectionable if performed by a U.S. airport screener.

As a member of the press, I could get into the Green Zone more easily than an Iraqi citizen as long as I had a proper credential issued by the U.S.-led coalition government. That was the reason I had come to the Green Zone the day of the protest. I was merely trying to get my press badge. But the U.S. soldiers guarding the checkpoint had padlocked the gate, wrapping a thick steel cord around the chain-link fence. These soldiers were the front line of the war in Iraq. If a suicide bomber tried to enter the Green Zone, for example, theirs would be the first lives lost. Guarding a checkpoint is one of the most dangerous jobs in the military.

I fumbled in my computer bag for my passport.

"I'm an American citizen," I yelled, flashing my distinguishable blue passport. "Please let me in."

"The checkpoint is closed," one of the soldiers shouted. I wasn't close enough to see his face, which was mostly hidden anyway behind large dark glasses and a camouflage-covered helmet. A green strap encircled his chin.

"But I'm a Washington Post reporter, and things are really heating up out here."

"You better leave then," another soldier called to me. "It's dangerous for you."

Well, that was kind of obvious, I thought to myself, as I turned around and stood for a moment, no clue what to do. I had only been in Iraq for about twenty-four hours.

People spend a lifetime obsessing over time, what they did with it, whether there was enough of it, wasted, earned. I used to spend hours plotting what steps to take, the next career move. But when my father died suddenly from cancer something told me to run, and I have been running ever since, running all the way to Baghdad, away from the image of a man too-young taking his last gasps of life before my shocked eyes. I needed a purpose. Most of my family and friends could not understand why anyone would volunteer to go to a place where every day would be a test of survival. I went to Iraq because I am a journalist: we drive into hurricanes, not away from them. We chase the very elements of life that most people try to avoid.

When I left for Iraq, I had no idea what danger really was; I knew only that I had a deep sense of responsibility for the story, and I was bored. I had been sitting in Washington writing about accounting policy and Iraq reconstruction contracts the year before I went to Iraq. I was dying a slow professional death. After a decade at the Post, the only writing that mattered to me anymore was my travel stories, which took me away to Finland, Spain, the Galápagos Islands. Like the places I uncovered on those journeys, I wanted to see Iraq for myself, see the country and the people behind the contract stories I wrote from the comfort of the newsroom in Washington. I wanted to prove there was more to the stories — and to me.

I had been trying for a year to convince my editors to let me go to Iraq. I was frustrated sitting on the sidelines of the Iraq reconstruction story. It was a hugely important story, with more than $20 billion of taxpayer money funding the largest nation-rebuilding effort since the Marshall Plan of 1947, which aided repair of infrastructure damaged in World War II.

From the get-go, the Iraq reconstruction project was ripe with allegations of abuse, in large part because most of the rebuilding contracts were awarded without competition, as allowed by law in emergency situations. The agencies awarding the contracts cited the speed with which they needed to get the money flowing into Iraq as the prime reason not to take them out into the marketplace for bidding. Much of the attention centered on Houston-based KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton that Vice President Dick Cheney led as chief executive from 1995 to 2000. The connection itself was enough to raise suspicions about Halliburton's multibillion Iraq contracts, even though set profit margins make it difficult for companies to reap huge benefits from the spoils of war. My editors had instructed me to dig in and find out what I could about contract abuse. I struggled for more than a year to do so, following a loose paper trail in Washington when most of the decisions were being made on the ground in Baghdad. I was constantly frustrated by the geographical limitations that prevented me from seeing the potential abuse for myself. Occasionally, we'd get lucky: some whistleblower from Iraq would come back with stories of overpriced gasoline and gym towels. These accounts were difficult to verify independently, and mostly we had to rely on audit reports and independent investigations by members of Congress, which, while often useful as starting points, were almost always politically motivated.

One allegation against KBR involved its potential overcharging on meals served at military dining facilities in Kuwait and Iraq. A routine Defense Department audit in January 2004 found that the company had not properly estimated the numbers of meals served to soldiers and contractors. Lawmakers critical of the company and suspicious of the more than $3 billion in contracts awarded to it for Iraq-related work seized on the finding as a prime example of KBR's alleged war profiteering. KBR responded that it was difficult to determine how many people would be at dinner in the middle of a war zone. But it pledged to do better. I wrote multiple stories about the allegations without ever having eaten in a military dining facility in Iraq. It was a context that would have been helpful. When I did get to Iraq, I found that the military units with which I was embedded often would not know from hour to hour where they would be or if they'd be back at a base in time for dinner. During the battle of Fallujah in November 2004, the dining facility unexpectedly shut down for several days. This did not excuse KBR, but it helped better explain how the company could have miscounted the meals.

From Washington, my stories were neither dazzling nor spectacular, making it difficult for me to convince my editors that I had to go to Iraq, that I had to follow the story from there. I was desperately waiting for a break. In journalism, you're only as good as your stories, and it helps if you can deliver the stories your editors want. The subtle mandate I sensed from my editors: Find the dirt on Halliburton. I wasn't doing that. In my attempts not to get caught up in the politics of the story, I was coming across as soft, and I knew it. Plenty of people in newsrooms worry endlessly about getting on the front page. Perhaps to the detriment of my career, I never really sweated it. I wrote good stories, fair stories, and I charged hard when I needed to. But I didn't — and I don't — try to make dirty stories look dirtier just for the sake of getting on the front page. I love scoops as much as any journalist, but I love being right more; the struggle in journalism, of course, is being first and being right, which is not always the way it turns out. I have always felt more responsible to my sources and to our readers than I have to my editors. Journalists who go for the one big hit and get it wrong have short-changed every future exchange with the people who follow their work expertly. But there is a price, too. Sometimes journalists get lost in their own newsroom. When the war broke out in Iraq, I had already felt lost for some time.

In May 2004, Jill Dutt, the assistant managing editor for the Financial section, wanted someone to go to a KBR job fair to write a story about the kind of people who would risk everything for a chance to work in Iraq. I assumed I would be put on the story because I had been writing about contracting and KBR for more than a year. But my assignment editor told me that Dutt was reluctant to send me because I was not enough of a feature writer. I was furious, depressed and frustrated. I knew I was a good reporter, but I struggled with my writing on the Financial desk. I had a hard time finding a voice like the one that came so easily to me when I wrote for the Travel section. Writing is a personal endeavor for me, every sentence a painstaking creation. It was a huge blow, personally and professionally, to be told that I wasn't good enough to tackle a story that would require narrative writing. If my editors had really lost that much faith in me, I didn't know how I was going to scrape myself from the bottom, because this definitely felt like the bottom. Nonetheless I convinced my assignment editor, Chuck Babcock, to get me to Texas, no matter what he had to do. Fortunately, it worked.

A few days later, at the KBR job fair in Houston, I met Allen Petty, a thirty-one-year-old father of six girls who was leaving the next day for Iraq. I spent an hour with him at the job fair, carefully watched over by a small crew from KBR's public relations department. With the blessing of the PR folks, because even chance encounters of these sorts were carefully monitored, I then drove north of Austin to meet Allen's wife, Sylvia, and their daughters. Sylvia invited me into their modest ranch home on Main Street in Burnet, Texas, which the couple rented from her parents. We spent hours talking about why she and Allen decided he should go to Iraq. The family had no insurance, no credit, bills they couldn't pay. They were scraping by on Allen's $30,000 annual salary — he drove a big rig for a private company in a neighboring quarry town. They felt stuck.

Sylvia is a gracious woman, deeply rooted in her Christian faith. She invited me to go to church with her family at the Grace Christian Center in Killeen, a large, charismatic congregation, where a live band belts out contemporary gospel tunes while the worshipers clap and sway.

I grew up in the more buttoned-down Lutheran church but had gone to my share of Christian youth camps as a child. I understood Sylvia's need to reach into this part of her life as she was sending her husband off to war, even if it was voluntarily, even if it was for the money. At one point during the service, the pastor asked the congregation to pray for all of the soldiers who were serving in Iraq. No one offered up prayers for the truck drivers. This was the story I had to tell. Allen Petty was a hardworking, honest American, desperate to make a better life for his family. The soldiers in Iraq needed him. Truck drivers like Allen carry food, medical supplies, and vehicle parts through Iraq. Sure, they make a ton more money than the soldiers — some of them get more than $100,000 in pay for the most dangerous assignments — but these contractors also were risking their lives to do it. And yet they were completely marginalized by the public and, admittedly, by us in the media.

My story about Allen Petty ran on the front page of the Post, opening with the scene of Allen and Sylvia on their front porch, enjoying a quiet "date" while the kids were in bed. "Baby, you've got to go," Sylvia remembered telling her husband after their hours of discussion about whether he should risk everything so the family had a chance, a tiny little chance at a tiny bigger bite of the American dream. When I found out I was going to Iraq, Sylvia was one of the first people I called. She wrote me the entire time I was in Iraq.

Before I left Texas to return to Washington, I got word from Chuck Babcock that the wire services were reporting that CBS's Sixty Minutes II news program planned to break a huge story on television. The story was about a big abuse scandal at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a torture chamber for common criminals as well as political enemies of Saddam, which was emptied right before the invasion. After rolling into Iraq, the U.S. military took over the prison and used it to house security detainees. The CBS segment showed the first images of American soldiers humiliating Iraqi prisoners. I had already started reporting on an element of the scandal, which is why my editor had called. A mutual acquaintance had put me in connection with Sabrina Harmon, one of seven members of the Army military police unit initially charged with abuse. Babcock wanted to know how long it would take for me to get the story completed. Sabrina and I had been instant-messaging for weeks but our conversations had all been on background, kept private between us. Sabrina was not sure she wanted to go public while she was in the middle of legal proceedings. I frantically emailed her in Iraq and encouraged her to talk to her lawyer, Frank Spinner (no relation to me). They decided to go public with her story. At that point, pictures of Sabrina giving a thumbs-up in front of an Iraqi corpse were already being circulated. Back in Washington, I raced to write her account of how her unit was ordered to break down detainees. As a military police soldier, her job was to "keep them awake, make it hell so they would talk," Sabrina told me.

The story sailed into the paper a few days later, landing the Post a major exclusive in what quickly had become an international scandal that further inflamed the Arab world after the U.S. invasion. The American military announced that it would start legal proceedings against the soldiers almost immediately. I knew this was my chance to get to Iraq. In 1996 I spent eight months helping cover another Army scandal — this one involving male drill sergeants accused of rape and inappropriate sexual relations with female recruits. I used this experience as my pitch to Phil Bennett, then the Foreign assistant managing editor and now the managing editor of the paper. The Post's Baghdad bureau chief, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, had been trying to figure out a way to get me to Iraq, too. We had grown up at the Post together, part of a Brat Pack of young twentysomethings who got their start as summer interns. Rajiv had ridden his star from a suburban Virginia Metro beat, to a spectacular run covering the Microsoft antitrust trial for the Financial desk, and then on to the Foreign staff. He appreciated that I needed a chance to prove myself, and he knew the commitment I felt to understanding the Iraq story. We had been exchanging emails and telephone calls about it for months. We pressed Bennett to let me come cover the courts-martial. He agreed, and with about seven days' notice before the first legal proceeding was scheduled to begin, I had my ticket to Baghdad.

And that is how I found myself outside the military checkpoint, twenty-four hours after arriving in Baghdad, standing in the Red Zone, so close to the Bubble, yet unable to penetrate its sanctuary of safety.

I crept around the sandbags that divided the two zones of Iraq and headed back to the protest. I couldn't really cover it because I had no translator with me. I could only watch and wait to see if they would start shooting or try to charge the Green Zone. Just that morning one of our translators had shown me a blurry photo of our young Iraqi officer manager, Omar, whom I had not yet met. In the photo, taken in the summer of 2003, Omar watches in horror as a crowd of demonstrators turned on him and my colleague from Washington, Theola Labbé. They roughed up Omar and tried to take Theola's notebook. She held tight, refusing to give it up. The photo was a source of pride for our Iraqi translators. They were in the struggle with us.

I had forgotten the mobile telephone the bureau had issued to me the day before, which I discovered with a gulp after ransacking the computer bag for it. Instead, my hand brushed over something soft. It was the cheese sandwich I had packed before setting out earlier that morning. I walked toward a rusted metal guard shack the color of a roasted red pepper with the words "Parking Guard" painted in English in large, white block letters below an Arabic inscription. I had to step gingerly around a tangle of barbed wire and over the trash piles that had blown up against it. I stole a wary look at the crowd of protestors and then picked a cool spot in the shade on the other side of the shack so I could peek around to watch. As I chewed the sweet, nutmeg-infused Iraqi bread, called samoon, I heard a soft voice call out, "Taxi, madam?" Startled, I whipped around and saw a clean-shaven, brown-skinned man in neat trousers and a blue short-sleeve checked shirt approaching me. He had rolled up in a ramshackle car, crudely painted in orange and white. During Saddam Hussein's rule, drivers often painted their cars in the signature taxicab colors to get around restrictions and taxes on private vehicle use, making it difficult to tell the difference between the real and fake taxis.

"No, no, thanks," I replied, immediately suspicious and reluctant to jump in a car with a man who might be an insurgent or potential kidnapper. "You need ride," the driver insisted gently in broken English. "No, I'm just having lunch," I told him before realizing that this not only sounded absolutely ridiculous but that this taxi might be my only chance to get back to the Sheraton Hotel, where the Post bureau was located. I had no idea when the soldiers might let me in or if things would suddenly become violent.

"Well, okay, I need to go to the Sheraton. Do you know where that is?"

"Of course, madam," he said, opening the door of the car to reveal filthy, torn seats covered in dust and what appeared to be grease stains from lunches gobbled in a hurry. He jumped in the other side of the car and, to my relief, sped off in what appeared to be the direction of the hotel. I knew only a few Arabic words, and he knew very little English, but we exchanged short sentences while he raced his clunker past government buildings bombed by U.S. fighter jets a year earlier. Their crumbled shells were singed with soot; their interiors completely gutted by looters, who even carried off nails if they could find them intact.

The taxi driver asked me if I were married. "Oh yes," I lied, thinking that might be more honorable than being single. He asked if I had children, and I lied again, adopting my two-year-old nephew as my own. "Good, good," he responded after each lie. Better, I thought, in this country where family mattered more than anything, to be a mother who left her child behind than not to be a mother at all.

The hot, stale air blew through the open window as we passed street vendors selling cheap plastic bowls and kitchen utensils imported from China. It was late afternoon, and most of the shops in the Karrada commercial district where the Sheraton was located were closed because of the afternoon heat. The streets were practically deserted, and the vendors sat idly, with few customers.

We pulled up to the checkpoint outside the towering, brown brick Sheraton, which was guarded by private contractors, and I handed the driver a $5 bill before hopping out. I waved as I ducked through another trail of barbed wire.

The Washington Post driver who had dropped me off at the Green Zone entrance an hour earlier was surprised to see me walk into our bureau office. We had an elaborate system for ferrying reporters around — chase cars and armed guards and detailed travel plans. A reporter didn't simply show up after an afternoon out. I explained what had happened, only to be chastised by our security director, Muhanned, a former Iraqi army officer who had betrayed Saddam by fighting with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne during the 2003 invasion. He was a trusted man, whose knowledge of Iraq and loyalty to The Washington Post kept us safe.

"You could have been kidnapped!" Muhanned admonished. We went back and forth, as I explained to him that I had two choices: taxi or the mob, neither of which seemed better than the other to him. I showed him the digital picture I had taken of the guard shack before I got into the taxi. I figured I could always throw the camera out the window — a clue, perhaps, in case I needed to leave a trace. Muhanned looked at me like I had been watching too many U.S. detective television series, fiction. This was real, his look said.

When I arrived the day before, I had literally fallen into Muhanned's arms. He had been sent to help retrieve me after my commercial flight into Iraq, a harrowing, spiral descent to avoid antiaircraft fire. As I stepped off the crowded bus that transported me from the dirty Baghdad International Airport to a parking lot near yet another military checkpoint, the weight of my purple and black backpack carried me forward in a stumble. Looking back, it was a fitting entry for the junior-most member of the Post's Baghdad bureau. I had only been to the Middle East once, earlier that year, during a brief ten-day trip with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to Iraq and then to Afghanistan.

I was just aware enough when I left for Iraq the first time to be scared, to write letters to my family, sealed, stamped, and given to friends to mail — just in case. During my time in Iraq, soldiers would often puzzle over why I had offered to step into a war zone. They were perplexed why I did not carry a gun. "You don't carry a weapon?" they would ask quizzically, clutching their own rifles a bit closer to their bulletproof vests. I would always bring out my pen, tucked somewhere on my body, and hold it up. "This is my weapon."

I am the first journalist in my family. My father was a pipe fitter who died in 2001 of pancreatic cancer. He never went to college and struggled most of my childhood to provide for us. My mother is a retired elementary school teacher who left the classroom for almost two decades to raise her three children in a split-level house in Decatur, Illinois, a mostly blue-collar city of factories that spews stinky white steam and smoke into the skies above the soybean and cornfields of the surrounding prairie.

My parents met on a school bus when they were sixteen-year-old students at Stephen Decatur High School. I got my start in the newspaper business at the same school after a chance encounter between two Little League moms. My brother, Tim, played baseball with the son of the newspaper adviser at the high school where my twin sister, Jenny, and I were going to be freshmen in that fall of 1984. The adviser, Barbara Fuson, convinced my mother that my sister and I should join the newspaper staff, and so my fate was sealed one steamy summer night on the grassy sidelines of a ball field behind Stevenson Elementary School.

My sister remembers far more of our childhood than I do. Perhaps, as the family essayist, she somehow knew she was destined to be our storyteller, and so she unwittingly memorized scenes and moments and details that I had no use for. But amid the gray of my own memory, that night at the ball field emerges in full color. I can hear the cheers of the parents, the sound of plastic cleats sprinting through the fine dust, the smell of fresh-cut grass. I can see the purple sky of the setting sun. We were the home team. I was thirteen.

Twenty years later I delivered the commencement address to my alma mater, Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where I had earned a journalism degree in 1992. I had come back after my assignment in Iraq to accept an alumni achievement award. During the commencement address, I tried to explain how a kid from Illinois with humble Midwestern roots had ended up in Iraq on one of the most significant stories of my generation. I ended my speech with this advice: There is only one way to get where you want to go, and it really is quite simple. Start walking. On that balmy summer night, while my brother took his turn at bat, I did just that.

½ ½ ½
My sister and I were together when the war began in March 2003. On a hotel room television screen in Manhattan, we watched news footage of the black Iraqi night lit by American fire. Standing shoulder to shoulder at the end of the bed, we couldn't take our eyes from the screen. It was hard to shake the significance of what we were watching from our vantage point near the empty sockets of the Twin Towers. Something dark hung in the room that day that I only recognized when, nine months later, Jackie first uttered, "I'm going to Iraq." It was the black color of fear.

I was furious at my sister not just for agreeing to go to Iraq, but for wanting to. When people enlist in the military, they understand the risk that one day they may engage in battle. But my sister? She was a journalist, a business reporter no less, where she daily battled numbers, not bullets, not bombs. What was she thinking? What career move could possibly be worth death? I argued with her for days, furious arguments in which I said terrible things. I reminded her that Dad had been in his grave just three years; our family, still scrambling from its loss. Cancer, I said, is something you can't avoid. But war? And in a country so far from here, from what I knew, that I could barely place it on a map? "You are the most selfish person I know!" I screamed. "Why are you doing this to me? Don't go. Please, don't do this." But she didn't answer back — because I never said these things to her directly. I said them to the wall. I said them to the sky. I said them to her face, looking back at me in the mirror. There's a certain responsibility in being a twin that I've come to accept over the years: your love must be unconditional and selfless. When everyone else fails your twin, you must be there. So I swallowed my dread and sang into the mouthpiece of the telephone, "I'm so happy for you! What an honor!"

It would take months before I would understand why she wanted to go, why she needed to go, and why, eventually, I wanted her to be there, too.

Copyright © 2006 by Jackie Spinner

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 6 of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2006

    She sure as HELL didn't cry.

    Jackie Spinner's story is indeed personal, written from a woman's point of view. But let's face it: Women (usually) have a perspective different from men's, particularly when it comes to war. There may be other, more powerful books by journalists who have covered the Iraq mess, but this narrative brought it home to me in a way that is meaningful -- and terrifying!....As for her journalistic skills, I think they are tops. (I'm a retired journalist myself.) The fact that President Bush's supporters saw her as 'aiding the enemy' is doubly troubling as her goal was to present both sides. What she saw often did not correspond with what the brass was saying ...Her sister's sidebar narrative may not have been necessary in telling the story, but as an identical twin, Jennie's observations serve as a unique view into her mirror image. I am sending this book on to friends. P.S. I think the title is off-putting, but I know from experience that it is the EDITOR who writes the headline, often to the detriment of the author.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 16, 2006

    eh...

    I hate to say this, especially because she seems like a nice person, but the book is not at all compelling. Her voice is evidently unpracticed and inexperienced, and lacking in the charm that would make this more pleasurable to read. But she seems nice. I didn't like it but maybe you would.

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    Posted May 18, 2011

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    Posted May 22, 2011

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    Posted October 26, 2008

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    Posted December 16, 2009

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