Longreads Member Pick: Baghdad Follies, by Janet Reitman

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This week, we’re excited to feature Janet Reitman, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and the author of Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion. “Baghdad Follies” is Reitman’s 2004 story on what it was like to be a war correspondent in Iraq. As we approach the 10-year anniversary of the war, Reitman reflects on her early fears about traveling to Baghdad:

People talk a lot about what it’s like to cover a war; no one talks about what you have tell yourself in order to actually get on the plane so you can go and cover the war. ‘Baghdad Follies’ is a story about what reporters go through in covering war, and it began, in a sense, with my growing sense of panic over having signed up to cover the war. It was about an hour before I was scheduled to leave for the airport. I’d finished packing, and began to think—which right there is a killer. My thoughts went like this: I was insane. I’d covered other conflicts, but like, little ones. Africa. Haiti. This was Iraq. I’d been dying to go to Iraq. Now, I really didn’t want to go to Iraq—let alone go to Iraq to write a story about how dangerous the war had become for U.S. reporters. Which was what this story was about. 

So I called a friend who’d covered the Iraq invasion. ‘First of all,’ he said, ‘you don’t have to go.’

Huh?

‘I mean, no one will blame you if you back out,’ he said. ‘It’s perfectly fine if you stay home. It’s just a story.’

This of course made me feel that now I really had to go because there were also a lot of other reporters, most of who would kill for this assignment, and what was I thinking? …  ’I think I might die,’ I told him.

‘You might,’ he said. 

We debated the likelihood of getting killed or kidnapped for a bit. We decided it was 50-50 I got kidnapped, but probably only for a short while. Ultimately, we decided the best course of action was to get on the plane, fly to London, my first layover, decide if I felt good enough to keep going to Jordan, my next layover, and then, depending on how much I was freaking out, either keep on going to Baghdad, or turn back. ‘Look at it as a process,’ he said.

Two days and an untold number of tiny airplane vodka bottles later, I arrived in Baghdad and stayed a month, during which time two other colleagues, both of who had confided their own fears about doing this job, were kidnapped, and released. I told their stories in full. Then, I went home, regrouped, and returned to Iraq. Twice.

Read an excerpt here.

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Photo: Thomas Hartwell, via Wikimedia Commons