Footage with commentary by Paul Mysliwiec, a US soldier; Todd Swift, a poet; and Craig White, a journalist. George W. Bush announces the invasion.
Craig White, NBC cameraman, was embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, one of the first US Army units to enter Baghdad in April 2003.
Embedded: The role of the Press
This conversation was excerpted from Craig White's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.
Will controlling of war correspondents in Israel and the use of embedded reporters in Iraq continue?
I’m not sure that embedding press will continue. I’m sure it’s being looked at. I’ve been contacted by the military to do what they call an after-action review. The situation I was in was good. The soldiers and commanders who were gave us free rein. We could go where we wanted to go and cover what we wanted to cover.
I was never in a situation where I had to report on the military doing horrible things: especially premeditated horrible things, which didn’t happen. They generally conducted themselves in an extremely professional way.
On the other hand, I had to guard against myself against a Stockholm Syndrome. That is, you’re living with people and you get to know them. You see pictures of their children and learn about their family situations. They’re providing you with some relative safety: they’re guarding you. They’re giving you food and a place to sleep. There’s a natural reaction in a situation like that to give them the benefit of the doubt, so I had to constantly rethink everything and try to get back to a neutral stance. I think I was fairly successful at doing that, but I can’t say I was 100% successful.
A lot of people I saw were cheerleaders. I know people who were not given access to anything. In some cases I think it was for their own protection: soldiers actually thought, “Why would I want to put you in jeopardy?” In other cases, maybe it was to exclude them from something.
The contentious relationship between the military in the United States and the press is a hangover from the Vietnam era. The two cultures of the media and the military were able to feel each other out and realize “we’re not enemies.” We report bad things the military does, but we report good things as well.
If a journalist’s reporting is balanced, I think most military people can live with that. It was tougher with a lot of the older soldiers who had bad memories, but I think that trust grew with time. It worked for me and the people around me. I can’t say that happened in other units; I know that sometimes it didn’t.
I think it’s better to be close as you can be when covering a war because that’s the only way you really get to see what happens. It can’t be done from a remote location. It can’t be done as it was in the first Gulf War, watching Norman Schwartzkopf playing little gun camera videos. Those are video games that have nothing to do with war. They’re a representation of a war.
How do you see your role as a press person?
I look at myself as an observer, and to a certain extent as an interpreter. I think interpretation is necessary to a certain extent because events have to be put in context. It may be historical context or just a time context, or it may be just to paint the picture. Without that, I don’t think people can understand it for what it is. The idea is to show reality.
I didn’t think I’d be able to cover a war. I thought I could see a leaf on a tree. If we had enough on that tree, if enough people showed all those leaves on the tree, we could put together a quilt or a mosaic and see a war for what it really is. You couldn’t just take a wide shot of the quilt: you’d never get to see the detail. And it’s quite true in war that the devil’s in the details.
You present images of the incredible determination and grit of the ordinary citizens and soldiers. Did you see and feel that?
In times of war, people—I hate to say it—rise to the occasion. If you’re an ordinary citizen, your life becomes very basic: how do I exist? How do I put food on the table? How do I keep people in my family from being shot and my neighbors from being killed?
Soldiers think the same thing. How do I stay alive? How do I keep the soldiers around me alive? Do I have enough water? Do I have enough food? That’s what your life revolves around. It becomes very small and very base in terms of its level. Higher thinking goes away right away. We don’t think in complex terms. It’s the rare individual who can.
I saw some soldiers that I was amazed at, thinking in very complex ways in very stressing times. I watched some pretty creative citizens doing extraordinary things, too, in that way. But the normal individual can’t do it. You just hunker down and your world closes.
It’s difficult for a journalist: your world becomes so small. You live in that tiny world, and everything else goes away. That’s why I wasn’t so interested in covering a war. I was interested in seeing up close what a piece of that war would be.
As a cameraman, do you get footage that captures the absurdity of war?
I was able to show small moments of what happens in a war. You can’t be everywhere at once. You can only look in one direction at a time. Obviously, my judgment is clouded by fear. The biggest thing on my mind is “How do I stay alive?”
I didn’t even notice that I was kneeling on one foot watching a surgeon, a doctor bandaging up a soldier. Somebody mentioned to me afterwards. That’s part of the craziness of war.
Another time I was taking pictures of a prisoner being interrogated and I heard an explosion. I whipped around and didn’t notice until I played it back in slow motion, but shrapnel came flying by us. I never saw it. There’s a little hole in my flak jacket in the back. You really don’t understand all these things that are happening even when you’re there. You don’t catch everything that’s happening. You have to play it back in slow motion. You have to play it back in your brain in slow motion if you don’t have it on tape to understand the details.
You cannot cover everything in a war. There’s just too much happening. You can just take snapshots. Even if they’re video, they’re just small clips. Soldiers who are side-by-side see a different war. Soldiers who are hundreds of feet away from each other experience a totally different war. We never think of it that way. It always seems to be a vast landscape that the camera travels across as it does in military movies. It doesn’t happen that way. It’s a very small war. It’s very personal.
Reflections on modern warfare
This conversation was excerpted from Craig White's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.
Let’s talk about the other conflicts that you’ve covered and how the Iraq conflict is different.
I’d spent time in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and covered part of the Israeli invasion into Lebanon, the factional fighting there as well. Those conflicts are different from the current conflict in Iraq for me. I was used then to seeing small groups of people, occasional rifle fire, and maybe a little bit of a guerilla war in Nicaragua.
In El Salvador, there was more of an aftermath and less real fighting. You’d come across dead bodies, people would be shot, you’d hear shooting, or you’d run up and see a couple dead. The conflict in Iraq was a lot bigger.
In Lebanon, it was city-type fighting very much as it was in Baghdad, and there were different groups. That was scary, because there were so many people fighting so many people, you never knew who was fighting whom. There were different factional groups: were they Phalange, were they Druse? Who were they?
That’s scary: it’s amazing that my most trusted and valuable credential when I was in Lebanon was my UN pass in the United States. My pass got me into the building in the United States because that’s the only way that I couldn’t be labeled as having a country. I didn’t necessarily know who was at a checkpoint: should I be an American, or not? I would just say “UN.”
I could be a citizen of the world there. And it was respected, and that stupid credential saved me. It seemed like there was always a safe place for journalists in wars. This is the first time that journalists don’t have a safe haven. I worked with NBC people, and they had their hotel attacked in Baghdad. Somebody died there: a bomb went off.
Journalists are facing that almost everywhere they go now. There’s no place, no haven, no retreat, where you can relax. There’s always this tension: what’s gonna happen every time I get into or out of a car? Who’s gonna shoot me? It’s the same thing that a soldier feels. Journalists die at a higher rate than soldiers.
What about the power of these weapons that we have now?
In modern warfare, as I saw in Iraq, people don't die like they do in television or the movies. You don't see people get hit with a weapon, have a big red spot and fall down. People explode. Arms come off. Heads come off. Torsos are severed. They just explode.
It's devastating to watch the first time you see, it's like someone punches you. Just the power of it, and it's amazing that it's even used in an urban situation. When I think about it, the army was totally unprepared for the kind of warfare they would find—not warfare, but policing—that they would find in Iraq after the war.
There were times when people would be in what they call a paladin, a battle king, this is a moving howitzer, 155 or 105 millimeter canon on top of a vehicle that's supposed to patrol streets. The only that they could do anything would be—if they were to fire that—would be to blow up a whole building. It's just amazing the power of it. And so much is by remote control.
I never got to see the close-ups of a spectacular sight—the spectacular sight that I witnessed time and time again would be multiple launch rocket systems. It's a big truck with tubes on it and you just see an amazing stream these things going out. They're a cruise missile, each one, each one has a GPS on it. Each one lands. I never got to see what happened when they'd land. I could only imagine it. But I don't think anybody got to see it up close—you couldn't, you'd be blown up, too. It's not just a video game out there.
Have you covered Israel?
I was in combat situations a couple of times last year in Israel: in Gaza and in the West Bank. I was there when the Israelis made their incursion into Ramallah, and I spent time in the Gaza Strip.
The Gaza Strip is the hottest place that the Israeli military posts people: right on the Egyptian border at a little pill box in the middle of nowhere. That was particularly interesting because it’s staffed by the Bedouin Brigade of the Israeli Army. The Bedouin are tribal people who made it into the military.
They sit on a line with a city blown away around them, and their basic idea is to stop the flow of weapons going into Gaza from Egypt. So they dig holes in the sand. They have sophisticated listening devices to try to find the tunnels, and they get shot at every night. Their building looks like a piece of Swiss cheese that’s been shot at like crazy.
People with RPGs get as close as they can and fire them. They kill the citizens and keep them at bay, and there’s a stalemate cat-and-mouse game that keeps going on. Little children wander into it and get hurt. It’s just a strange place to be in the middle of it.
I was also in Ramallah and watched the situation there. It’s a two-sided story, and I don’t know if the two-sided story gets reported in the United States too much. The coverage is not all that detailed, and it’s certainly controlled to a large extent by the Israeli media.
The Bedouin Brigade don’t control what happens in what they call a closed military zone. The day I went into Ramallah, a friend was in a Jeep Cherokee from a TV station. Everybody knows what that means. It’s media. It came around a corner and an Israeli soldier fired at their vehicle from the front into their grill and stopped them. They put up their hands and turned on the lights inside.
The soldier looked at them for maybe 15-20 seconds, raised his rifle and put one shot right between the eyes of the cameraman sitting there with his hands up in the air. Dead square between his eyes. I sat in the seat of the Jeep afterwards. He was lucky to be alive, It was bullet-resistant glass. The bullet came within maybe a couple of millimeters of coming through the glass and hitting him right between the eyes.
Why did the soldier do that? To understand, you have to understand that these people are scared. It’s a soldier who’s really scared, and he doesn’t know how to judge the situation there. All he knows is that anyone who comes at him is a threat, and he’s got to keep that person away.
To be a young Israeli soldier at a checkpoint means you’re one step away from being blown up by the next passerby. They’ve been raised in fear, and they tend to take out those horrible feelings by doing stupid things like shooting at people.
At the same time, the Palestinians are being brutalized by people like that. I’ve seen it happen. I watched an Israeli personnel carrier going down a street where they’re not taking any fire and indiscriminately shooting into apartment buildings. They’re mad at the world.
Imagine what it’s like when you get into warfare where you don’t have trained military. In places like Africa, and places like Central America where you have militias, you have militias that are high on drugs. The soldier may take out his anger through rape or amputation of victims. It’s horrible. And many of these people are children!
If we think it’s young to be sending American soldiers at 18 into combat, all over the world as soon as they’re old enough to pick up a gun they’re given guns and told to kill with very little training. So in many ways what I saw was with the most highly trained military. And it just goes downhill from there.
Do you see any disparity between winning the tactical war, administering the war, or accomplishing objectives after the actual shooting stops?
The actual war-- the “before end of hostilities” that President Bush refers to and the aftermath--are two entirely different scenarios. In the military they talk about urban assault. Well there’s another term, urban patrol, and they’re two entirely different jobs.
Urban patrol requires totally different skills, different people, different weapons, and a different mindset than urban assault. It’s not one that we’re particularly adept at. I think the American military is doing what it can. Urban patrol is a much more sophisticated, guerilla warfare situation. It is not a case of what the military does best, which is identify the threat, kill the threat, or neutralize it. That’s what a tactical war is.
To a certain extent, you find some military people who are “I just want to survive this. I want to go home. I want to come home to my family and I want all my other soldiers to do that, so I’m not ready to go out of my compound and to risk any more than I have to, especially since it’s not appreciated by these people.” I think that’s a fairly common attitude. Behind that, they have a duty and they still do their best at it from what I can see. I have tremendous respect for the American soldier.
I think American soldiers are fairly well-trained. Most of them make honest decisions and try to do the right thing. But it’s inherently difficult for someone without a lot of life experience to be able to make good judgment calls. How do you take a man who is almost eighteen years old who’s lived in a city or on a farm in the United States, transport him halfway around the world and have him make life-and-death decisions without a lot of cultural background?
The Israeli example also comes to mind. The Israelis obviously have overwhelming military superiority to the Palestinians.
We’ve entered a time, maybe we can call it the Wars of the 21st Century, where there’s unequal power. The military knows where they have overwhelming military superiority, but they have difficulty fighting a guerrilla war. It’s called asymmetrical.
And people are fighting against an overwhelming military superiority in more sophisticated ways. We saw it in Vietnam, the Israelis are dealing with it in Israel, we’re dealing with it in Iraq, and we have ask whether a war can really be won. If so, how?
Can you win a war without obliterating an entire place and killing all the people? You can win a war by dropping a nuclear bomb, because there’s nobody left to fight, if that’s winning. But can you do it in a situation where a citizen can blow up a car, and blow you up? Or make a homemade bomb and stick it in a dead animal and blow you up? Or take a shot and run away?
We really have to look at that kind of war. The days of tank battles in the desert are over. As a society, we don’t know how to deal with guerilla warfare yet. Hopefully, guerilla warfare won’t keep happening, but it seems to be a pattern.
Clearly you believe war is a horrible thing. Are you a pacifist? What is the role of war in the future?
War is a last resort. We really have to examine why we do what we do. As a nation, we don’t think about that very closely at all.
Before a nation goes to war, they have to whip up a reason to go to war. Their citizenry has to get motivated to be behind it, and usually it’s a bunch of old men some place in some august body who vote for it, and then another person who’s never been in a war who says ‘Yeah, we’ll do it!’, and then they send the young kids off to kill each other for some noble cause.
There’s nothing noble about war. Is it necessary? I think it might be, to defend yourself. I can understand that. But we really have to look at where that line is.
If we’re going to be going to war around the world, we have to be very careful about when and why we do it. In this country, if we do it at the rate we’re doing it right now, we’re going to have to change what we call ‘military’. We may end up with a draft.
I don’t see young people joining the military to see the world anymore as was once advertised. If you are in the army now, you can bet that you can end up in Iraq within a year. If you’re in the navy, you’re not going to end up going to some wonderful port of call and go with your buddies and see the town, because chances are you’re not gonna be let off the ship. It’s a different world.
There was a big increase in enlistments after 9/11. That’s gone away. A great number of officers who were with me in Iraq are out of the military. They chose to get out as soon as they could. The people who are going to be left in the military are people who can’t find jobs outside for good pay. A lot of people have opted not to do it. A lot of military people are questioning.
That brings us to Afghanistan. What’s the story there?
We went into Afghanistan in a strange situation. Prior to Afghanistan the last military engagement that we had didn’t go well for the United States: it was in Mogadishu, Somalia, and we went into Afghanistan with the idea of taking out a third world country. But they also went there with Mogadishu hangover.
I was in a place called Tora Bora in Afghanistan, and the U.S. was very reluctant to commit soldiers on the ground there from their small, special force. They figured they would bomb Osama Bin Laden out of there. Well, they enlisted the help of the local mafia and warlords and paid handsomely for it. I think Osama Bin Laden went right out the back door there.
We have to think about who we’re going after, and why. I was surprised that we would pursue a war in Iraq with Afghanistan still going on, and I don’t know that we’re still fighting in Afghanistan as vigorously as we thought we would.
The people of the United States have a very short attention span. We’re used to sound bites of six or seven seconds on the news. We’re used to MTV and things cut very quickly. We forget very quickly. We don’t have the same historical sense that the rest of the world has.
It’s all the War on Terrorism. I don’t know where we’re going next, but I hope that we really think about it. The connection between Iraq and the war on terrorism was fairly tenuous, yet every soldier that went there believed 100% they were going there to get Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
Even the Bush administration was careful to not link Osama to Iraq too closely, but soldiers have to be motivated in order to fight. They have right and might on their side; they had to believe in what they were doing. And I think a lot of them question it now.
US Soldiers and Iraqi Civilians
This conversation was excerpted from Craig White's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.
Tell us about the attitude of the soldiers in Iraq.
The soldiers that went to Iraq had attitudes about the war that represented a cross-section of American attitudes about the war. Some were privately against the war: you couldn’t be against it publicly. Some were really gung-ho, and some had a more complex view.
Most had a non-judgemental, practical attitude: they had a job to do. Professional soldiers who were well-trained, could not let complex ideas of war get into their brain, because in combat you’re trained to neutralize the enemy. You can’t think about why.
Fewer people than I thought would be were gung-ho. They’re not stupid, but like the rest of Americans, the military includes a cross-section of education levels. Some soldiers are well-educated and some are less so.
You had footage of a soldier on a stretcher. Tell us about that.
At Objective Curly on the 7th of April, the day after my friend and colleague died, we found ourselves in a seven-hour gun battle. One of the most amazing pictures I saw was of an American soldier on a stretcher being carried out with a bullet in his knee. Ironically, we found out it was an American bullet. Had a shotgun on his lap protecting the people who were carrying him out on a stretcher and you actually see him turn over while on the stretcher and shoot and kill a man. We don’t see the man he shot; he was off camera. It’s pretty amazing to see that.
I’m trying to think what else. People running into the trucks, I think I mentioned that. There’s a few things like that. Bob Gallagher, a veteran of several wars. He was in Grenada, he was in Panama, he was in Mogadishu. He was the guy who while he was being bandaged up was still firing. He got his fourth Purple Heart that day, the day I was with him.
But it’s not all craziness like that. There are absurd moments in the middle of a gun battle where people are not sure if they are going to live or die. I see a sergeant who is firing, and every 100 rounds he has to go down into his armored vehicle and pull up another box and put it on and start firing again and he went down one time, and he was down too long. I thought he might have been hit. What happened?
He came up and it hit me. The next time he went down he stayed down another fifteen seconds, and he opens the door of his armored vehicle and a pot of coffee and mugs come out. These guys are so dead; they’ve been awake for so long. They needed the caffeine. These guys are doing what they do, having coffee. That’s an absurd moment in the middle of a war.
What is the position of the American men and women soldiers who are in Iraq now?
I had to leave the Third Infantry Division in May 2003. They stayed there until September 2003. They were told on two occasions before then that they would leave. So there was an expectation they would leave, and that was dashed when they were told that they were gonna stay.
Then they were told they were going home again, and then they were told they were going to stay. They felt betrayed by their government in many ways. They had no relief and were very tired of being there. Most of them had been there for almost a year, some for more than a year.
It’s interesting, in warfare, how things have changed over the years. In World War I or World War II, the average soldier was probably stationed for 500 days or more, and probably saw 45 days or so where they were in jeopardy. With the advent of helicopters and other changes to warfare after Korea, by Vietnam, they were seeing 250 days in jeopardy.
By the time we get to Iraq this time, soldiers are there, they face being in jeopardy every day, sometimes for hundreds of days in a row. That fear plays a long-term psychological game with you.
Coming back, I know soldiers found the re-entry phase difficult. I met a soldier who lives a mile and a half from my house. I never knew him. He went to the local school. His mother knows my mother. I met him in the middle of Baghdad. And I remember when he came back, I was invited to his welcome home party.
I asked him: “How is it coming back?” And he said, “Oh, it’s OK.” And I said, “Nah, you can tell me, how is it coming back?” His girlfriend was there, and she appeared to disapprove of my question. And I said, “You’re not sleeping, you’re having nightmares. You’re having some anger management problems, and that anger is sort of a free-based thing. You don’t know why it is. You scare yourself.”
A lot of it is being intolerant of the frivolous things in our society. It’s no longer a very simple life and death, distilled life that you’re living anymore, there’s a lot of garbage that goes on. That bothered him, too. And I noticed he would always be looking for a weapon.
In Iraq, the people who were fighting against him didn’t wear uniforms, so every civilian around him in the United States, and there, was a threat. Even though he knew all these people at this party, it still deep-seatedly bothered him. Any one of them could shoot at him. He didn’t have his flak vest on. There was no one around him wearing camouflage. His buddies weren’t there to protect him.
I watched him. To go to his garage, he peeked around the corner, and then looked. To go from the kitchen to the dining room, I saw him reflexively check both ways before he went through. He didn’t know he was doing those things. But they’re real. That‘s what you do. You’re trained to do it. I think it wanes with time, you come down from that, but it has its effects.
What happens to the Iraqi citizens during the war? Where are they?
Most Iraqi civilians prepared for the war. They thought it would come. They stocked up on supplies, they dug wells in their back yard for water, they had candles, they knew that there probably would be a disruption in fuel and power. The smart people actually bought live chickens to keep, because they didn’t have to be refrigerated. They knew that they could kill them one at a time and have fresh meat.
When the hostility stopped, there was a sense of jubilation: Saddam was gone. I remember interviewing people the next day. One man came up to me, one man had a red, white, and blue pin that he had saved for ten years. He talked about how horrible Saddam was, how Saddam had killed his brother, had taken other family members away, and how much he loved George Bush.
It’s interesting that people in places like that seem to differentiate between the United States and the citizens of the United States. In this case, early on after the war, they were very happy that Saddam was gone, and thanked the United States government. When I went back to Iraq, there were a lot of people who weren’t too happy with the United States government, but who didn’t blame the American citizens.
That was also in Afghanistan, where people may have disagreed with our government, but still loved the American citizens. Much of what the rest of the world sees about us as a culture is through media, is through television and films. They love all that pop culture stuff. They love McDonalds, they love Arnold Schwartzenegger, they love toys, they love computers.
People in Iraq thought that, within a week of us being there, that Iraq would be transformed into what they thought the United States was: they would have MTV and pop culture, everybody would be driving cars, people would have plenty of food, and everybody would have internet access. They actually thought that.
It was shocking to me that they thought it would transform that fast. As sad as the American preparation was for dealing with the aftermath of the war, the expectation from Iraqis about what would happen was also as unrealistic.”
What about the preparation of the American troops for this actual invasion? Iraq is a very different culture. Do you think they were prepared to deal with it?
What's interesting about this war, and about American soldiers—I think they're highly trained, highly disciplined, generally—and there are variations within that—to wage war. They're very highly trained, very motivated, highly equipped to wage war. By war, that's called destroying an enemy, identifying and destroying an enemy, and they do that very, very well.
Once it becomes a little murkier, once the "end of hostilities" happened, on April 9th, I remember, the light coming up. We were under a bridge this is at objective Moe, I think, at this point—no, I'm sorry, objective Larry—I woke up the morning of April 9th, underneath a bridge called Larry, Objective Larry. And for two days, actually for three days, there are soldiers had been shooting at anything that came at them. And we had car bombs coming at us, RPGs, soldiers with, uh, or anybody with automatic rifles and American soldiers sat there and were destroying everything in sight.
American soldiers did very well with urban combat, urban assault. But they weren't trained for very well was called urban patrol, or policing. On the morning of April 9th, I remember ordinary citizens coming out of houses and getting closer to where the American soldiers were, and up until then, Americans were destroying everything that was coming at them, but now they had unarmed citizens, and they didn't know how to deal with it.
I remember waking up and shouting across the intersection to a bunch of soldiers: "Welcome to Israel! You now are at a checkpoint in Israel. You get to figure out what's coming at you, are they friend or foe? Somebody's gonna put a flower in your hat or they're gonna blow you up. And you have to figure that out. Who knows any Arabic?"
Nobody knew any Arabic. "Do you have any signs in Arabic to stop people from coming at you because you're shooting at every vehicle that comes at you?"
They didn't have any signs. "Do you have any spray paint?"
Finally a soldier came up with some spray paint and put a sign up which was basically a stop sign which people can understand around the world to stop people. And those soldiers had to figure out how to deal with the public that they couldn't distinguish from soldiers fighting against them.
By the way, the Americans, from the time they got into Baghdad had very few people with uniforms firing at them. There were people who looked like average citizens. How do you distinguish between a combatant and a non-combatant? It's very, very difficult. And as soon as the hostilities stopped, they still had to make that same decision.
I remember asking the colonel who I was with, "What now?" He looked at me and said, "Well, we were supposed to take Baghdad, we took Baghdad." "Well, but what now?" "Well, there'll be MPs, there'll be all sorts of people coming…" When?" "I don't know." I asked the citizens, the few that could speak English, "What now?" It was the press, the American press—me really, that was it, I was the only person there—the American army and the Iraqi citizens just looking at us on April 9th after the shooting had stopped saying "What now?" and nobody knew. Nobody knew what to do.
Did they have any translators?
There were very few translators. We had one in the battalion. By the time the shooting stopped in Baghdad, within a week or two afterwards that person was removed to go interrogate prisoners someplace else. So here I was with 900 soldiers who were in charge of patrolling Baghdad, and nobody spoke Arabic.
On the morning of April 9th after the war ended, I remember teaching soldiers a few words in Arabic, just to try to get them to be able to deal with people. I didn't want to see people being hurt, and I thought a few words might make the difference between life or death for people. I think you have an obligation to humanity to maybe step in and try to stop someone from being killed for a mistake.
I think some soldiers were given a little card before that had a few phrases words but they didn't carry that into battle. Most of 'em didn't carry a wallet into battle—they never thought about things like that. How do you communicate with people? They had no way.
You mentioned that someone had been killed. Were they able to get his body back?
There was a soldier in the re-supply convoy, who was hit by an RPG, Rocket Propelled Grenade and blown out of the vehicle he was in. He was at the top of a weapon in the turret and was blown out and killed. Soldiers in the vehicles behind him saw this dead soldier with a big hole out of the side of him. It was a very disconcerting thing for them to see.
Part of what they teach the army is “We never leave the dead on the field.” They couldn’t stop. It would have been suicide to stop, they would have been sitting ducks to stop on the road where they’re taking fire from both sides. They thought when things calmed down, they would go back and get the body.
It took two days for them to get back and really look, and when they went back, the body was gone. They didn’t know where it was. It took a week, more than a week for them to finally recover that body. The colonel who was in charge of that battalion was going to have all 900 soldiers walking down that road, side by side, going house to house, trying to find the body.
The Iraqi citizens buried the Iraqi and American dead and left the Syrians that came to fight in their country to rot in the sun. They were so mad at the Syrians who came in, so angry with them, that they let them rot. The body of the American was found only sometime later when the 101st Airborne Division was going house-to-house looking for weapons, and one of the Iraqis who could speak English there mentioned an American soldier, and they said they sent the body home to the United States. They felt some sense of closure.
I remember a funeral, a few days after the hostilities stopped, for three people out of the battalion I was with who died: two soldiers and the reporter that I was with, David Bloom. 900 men and a few women were there. Tears flowed everywhere. It was one of the first times that people could cry.
The perception from the USA
This conversation was excerpted from Craig White's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.
You've been in a lot of combat situations—did this war affect you more or differently than in other wars?
I've always said that in a combat situation, a military-type situation, that I end up burying a piece of myself there. On this war I far buried the biggest piece—a bigger piece than I'm ever willing to do again.
It just takes a toll, it takes a toll on you mentally, it takes a toll on you physically. I'm 40 pounds heavier than I was when I came back from Iraq. I was pretty used up, I was pretty burned out mentally, physically. I'd had malaria, I had pneumonia.
Your ability to function at that point and be sharp mentally is tough, and physically. The physical part heals. The mental part takes a lot more time. And I think it's a wound that probably never does heal in people. And it's not just for press, it's not just for military; it's for the innocent citizens.
Americans, I think, are a little softer—we don't see harsh realities of life so much. In places like Africa, people are more used to this—if it's possible to say that—in places where they see more brutality, People are more used to this.
In America, we're such a litigious society. We never take responsibility for our own actions, it's gotta be somebody else's fault. If there's a problem, I'll call a lawyer! They'll figure it out. Well, it's real when it's life and death.
Lawyers don't help anything. You're responsible for your own decisions. They have a major effect on everyone around you and a lot of people make decisions that cause pain, lots of pain in your friends, in your enemy, and in innocent people.
Do you think that Americans have available to them the truth about what war is like?
It's very, very hard, I think, to convey what war is like without being there. I think people try very hard. In the war in Iraq, this time, I think that people thought that being with the American military they would see war up close. And in many cases, they didn't. I was very dismayed by that.
The first time I had combat footage to feed back over a satellite, people on the other end were like "Whoa, we haven't seen anything like this." That was the worse thing I heard in the whole war, besides, of course, seeing and experiencing death around me.
That was just so sad to me, that so much work, so much effort would go into covering a war, and yet people never really had a sense of it. It's difficult to cover a war—it was a "live cover the war right now," so if it wasn't live, it was late. So people didn't make efforts to tape as much, maybe.
Some people for their own reasons chose not to put themselves in harm’s way. And I'm non-judgemental about that—I would never ask anybody to do anything like that. And there military people who for their own reasons—most of them being protective—didn't allow a journalist to be in a situation where they would be in harm's way. So we never really got to see close up what happened.
It's interesting that Al-Jazeera and the Arab speaking news media was out-of-hand rejected in this country. And the propaganda parts of it I understand entirely, but they were able to come back with pictures from the Iraqi side that we couldn't get. And it's only because we didn't want to be in that position, I think.
I certainly did not want to be in a position where American bombs were falling on me, American shells were coming at me—I'm not that brave. I don't think I have the guts to do something like that. Maybe I had more brains, I don't know. I think it's like suicide, but—so we never saw the effect of the bombs landing, close up. Of being on the receiving end of America's military might, close up.
And I think some of the Arab services, news services, were able to capture that, although it was probably twisted a lot through propaganda purposes, the actual pictures I think we should have paid a little more attention to instead of rejecting them out of hand.
I can't say this through experience that much because I was there and I haven't seen that much what the propaganda part of the war was all about. But I do know that some of those pictures were real. And I've seen pictures of the opposite side of from where I was, and it's pretty devastating.
It puts a human face on war, and so often we don't get that. I think people try, I think news networks tried to have people covering the war from whatever angles they could, but they did not commit people to being embedded on the Iraqi side. I don't know who would be brave enough to do that.
What about the American networks reluctance about showing even the effect of the war?
Well, The American networks I don't think rejected out of handing showing footage that I had. There was some reticence to show the close up effects of war, to show the dead bodies, the mutilated bodies, the pieces of bodies. Ultimately they showed dead bodies, but they never showed mutilated bodies or pieces of bodies.
There's a mindset that the American public needs to be spared from seeing the brutality of war close up at the dinner table, at the breakfast table. It's interesting that many of our news shows air while people are having breakfast or having dinner.
I don't share that, personally. I think that we need to show in graphic detail what war is about, and we tend not to. It's interesting that television doesn't show it, but magazines do. Things that I probably would not be able to get on network television are shown routinely in Newsweek or Time.
And I think that people can handle that. I think that Americans need to know in graphic detail about war. Decisions are made, certainly every time they go to the voting booth. Buttons are pushed by people. They should know what it is that they're getting into, whether they're supporting a war, or not supporting a war. People need to know. Few people will ever really know, and maybe it's better that people don't. I'm not sure.
When you came back and you were surrounded by troops who were fighting for their lives, do you think the American public really got a sense of how touch-and-go the situation was?
The American public really never knew that it was touch-and-go for about three days during that war. It just didn’t come out. It took me three days to get those pictures back to the United States, and they were played wall-to-wall—I did a lot of television with it, and it’s ironic.
I was in a vehicle, and I had a system with me that could play back live pictures while we were moving across the desert. But the very bridge that I was underneath, that was saving my life, was stopping me from transmitting those pictures back. In a live war, it’s ironic that it was a piece of tape that would show the best representation of what war was.
Do the American people know that war is so widespread?
Prior to 9/11, the coverage of foreign news was almost nonexistent in major media in the United States, and little attention was being paid by major media to what was happening in the rest of the world.
I don’t know that American media is necessarily to blame for it. Times have changed. It used to be that the media would decide what was shown on media and what wasn’t. Today, it’s ratings-driven. If people don’t watch, they don’t see it. So people started to turn off foreign stories. The advent of the People Meter and how television is rated. It’s a ratings system that measures what people watch on literally a moment-by-moment basis during a news show. They can tell who’s watching and who’s not.
And when people turn off the People Meter, they aren’t shown that sort of thing as much. They’re shown what they want to see, and prior to 9/11 people didn’t want to see too much foreign news. One of the only silver linings to 9/11 is that Americans have become more aware of the world, it’s much more complicated than they thought, that’s more danger is out there, that people are killing each other in a lot more places now. We’re a little more aware of that right now.
What bothered me very much right after the current Gulf War, within a few weeks, was that the coverage of the war had less and less air time. Immediately, America was consumed by another story. It shocked me. Most American media shifted to cover the Laci Peterson murder story. And I didn’t really understand that until I came back here and someone approached me and said, you don’t know what it’s like to be back here, which is true.
The center of my world was Iraq. To people here, they were watching coverage of Iraq 24-7. They watched it until they couldn’t anymore, and they just had to turn away. They watched the next thing shown to them. It’s not something anybody could take on a steady 24-7 basis for very long. It is horrifying. Disturbing. People don’t want to watch that.
Do you think the American public is sufficiently aware of what’s going on Lebanon?
I don’t think the American public understands what’s happening in places like the Sudan, or Sierra Leone, or even Israel, which gets more coverage. News there tends to be reported in statistics. Five soldiers were killed. A bomb went off. It’s numbers. The human side of it doesn’t make it that much.
It may be a minute and 30 seconds on NBC’s Nightly News for example. And if it’s on, that’s good, but it comes and it goes, it comes by like a freight train. People cannot take it on a long-term basis. It’s too disturbing.
Do you think that it was worth it for the United States to go into Iraq?
We won’t know if it was worth going into Iraq for some time. That might be a five year, or a ten year look back. Right now, it’s a toss-up. It’s hard to know. I have more questions than answers. Are the Iraqi people better off now than they were before the war? I don’t know. Originally, I personally didn’t think we should go in there, but I knew that the Iraqi people had suffered a lot under Saddam, and I was really in a quandary about that.
When we first got into Iraq, I felt better about it because we were welcomed with such open arms by the Iraqis. I think to a large extent, most Iraqis still would prefer we be there than not be there right now. It’ll take time. Things have to be put in a larger historical perspective to know. I think that things have gotten worse in many ways. It’s amazing that the electrical system was better right after the war than it is right now.
I watched two young kids, over the period of a few months, dig a hole about four feet deep to pull out one copper cable, and they did it for about a mile and a half during that time. They had a piece of cable, a piece of copper—they had to feed their family somehow, and in a war people will do whatever is necessary to put food in the mouths of their family. They have to survive. They’d cannibalize their own country right after the war because we couldn’t provide them with what they needed.
Combat is a one-way door
This conversation was excerpted from Craig White's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.
Do these images [from combat] stay with you?
These images will always stay with you. They're little movies that kind of play back in your brain at 2 or 3 in the morning. And it happens to soldiers. I spoke to a colonel who I know, after he came back. I welcomed him back and said "How are you?" "I'm fine," he said.
And I said "How are you really? It's harder than you thought, wasn't it?" And he let down his guard and said "Yeah." I said, "You're waking up at two or three in the morning," "Yeah." "You can't sleep all night," "Yeah." You have little anger problems, you're not sure why? Everything you see around you in society is—doesn't make as much sense anymore, and that's true.
When I was under that bridge in Iraq, besides thinking of "Wow, I really got myself into it this time, how stupid this is, how crazy it is," what I was experiencing was very strange. At one point I thought I was in Lebanon. It was so familiar that I was sure for a period of time—maybe 15 seconds, 30 seconds—that I was in Lebanon. It was another similar experience. Nothing is like it in the world.
I think combat is a one-way door. When someone is in that and witnesses it and participates in it, especially, I think you never come back. I don't think you possibly can. You're altered.
Has it altered you?
I've definitely been altered by what I've seen. Changed. My priorities in life are different. It's obviously the most horrible thing people can imagine. There's no glory in it. The most anti-war people I know really are people who've been there, done that, they don't ever want to do it again.
I spoke with a woman recently who's talking about her husband who's a soldier, and she said: "GI Joe went to Iraq, and somebody else came back."
In war and combat it's a high-stress environment. I know that I've read accounts about what happened where I was by eye-witnesses. To a large extent, they're exactly as I saw them but there are a lot of details that are different. We know all throughout history that eye-witness accounts, especially in stress, are totally unreliable.
I think of myself as a reliable eye-witness, I'm trained to be that, to try to be objective, and yet I don't necessarily trust my memory in some cases. I woke up one night underneath a 50-caliber machine gun firing in a dream. I didn't wake up on the first shell—and these are very, very loud and there's hot shells coming down on my face—I didn't wake up on the tenth.
It was probably 30 shots in before I woke up and immediately looked out into the darkness: flames, things happening, and I'm not sure where the dream left off and reality started. That's a very, very disconcerting thing.
In combat situations, I've heard two soldiers talking to each other who were side-by-side and differing very much in their version of what happened. And they truly both believe what they're saying. They saw it differently.
In stress we tend to fill in blanks, to make things up, it's hard to get an accurate account of what happens in a bad situation.
You mentioned that to go to war you had to lose your mind. What do you mean by that?
In war you live for the moment. You live for what's happening immediately around you. Your senses are heightened, you're in a fight or flight type situation which you're trying to desperately control. There have been quite a few times when I thought "I have to run," but where are you going to run to? And that clouds things in terms of judgement.
People care about the people around them, immediately around them. That seems to be what counts most—I think that's why most soldiers fight, not for the greater cause but for the guy next to him. It's not what people think—it's not raw patriotism, because in a war situation, almost everybody's scared. It's just the level of fear.
It kind of rises and falls like a tide in people. I'm sure everyone in a situation like that thinks "What am I doing here? Why am I here? Oh my god, I made the biggest mistake of my life, how did I get myself into this?" I think that's a common feeling to a lot of people.
You said that the things that scared you the most were people being brave or afraid. Explain that.
I don’t know what is worse, somebody being too brave, or somebody being paralyzed by fear. They’re both very bad. Sometimes people take stupid chances, and sometimes people can’t function or just run, and either one will kill you in a war.
I watched a man run out in front of a tank. I’m not sure what his rank was. He tried to try to draw the fire of a tank at him, because he knew that the tank was aimed and going at some of his comrades in a trench, and it would probably kill them. That takes a lot of bravery. It’s also crazy. It depends on how you look at it. He could have died. It’s so arbitrary and capricious.
You could be three feet away and live or die, and you say, “Why? Why do I live, why do I die?” That goes through a soldier’s mind and through people in war over and over: “Why did I live? Why did he die?” There’s a lot of survivor guilt. I have no doubt that the price that our military and our country will pay is a lot higher psychologically. With combatants, post-traumatic stress syndrome is much higher than we’ll ever know.
I feel part of it myself, I’ve gone through some therapy. I participated in group therapy with some of my comrades. I think everybody who really saw a lot, or experienced a lot, benefits from something like that, and one of my colleagues around the table was saying, “I can handle this. I’ve covered 28 wars. I can survive in war, it’s the one thing in life I can do.”
He went around the table, and after I spoke, somebody else spoke, and I remember looking at him and saying, “Bullshit. You can’t tell me that you don’t wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat, living through this over and over again, the same things, over and over again.” And he looked at me and said, “Well, I’m not saying that doesn’t happen. You know, I go out with the guys, I get drunk, I’ve hit the bottle, I’ve had two nervous breakdowns, but I can handle it.”
That denial is fairly prevalent. You see it with the people that I work with around the world. I see the same newspeople, it seems, that want to do it over and over again. That’s pretty bad seduction, it really is. I see it in some soldiers, but not too many.
I don’t know why people choose to do this over and over again. I don’t know how I can. I’m not sure. At some point you have to call it quits and walk away from it. There’s a certain exhilaration in surviving. The first couple times, there’s a huge adrenaline rush in saying, “Wow, that was horrible, and I’m alive.” There’s an adrenaline rush, followed usually by the horror of it.
Next time, it doesn’t happen like that. The time after that, it happens even less, and the exhilaration of living through something doesn’t happen at all after a while. You just dread.
Did you see this effect on the soldiers you were with?
I remember interviewing a young infantryman who stood out because he was skinny and kind of meek. I think he was 18 years old at the time, and from the Midwest. After talking with him, I remember he looked a little scared, and he was all wrapped up in his flak jacket with grenades hanging from him and ammo everywhere. He seemed too small for what he was carrying.
I said, “Why are you in the military? Why aren’t you going to college?” And he looked at me and said, “Mister, I wasn’t mature enough to go to college.” The irony of that was amazing: That here’s somebody who thinks they’re not mature enough to go to college. Obviously he was told that by somebody, and is now in a situation to take lives and make very weighty decisions. It’s amazing. And I saw so many people like that.
I ran into a gentleman from group therapy about five weeks later, and he was a very changed individual. His body language was different. We were in Baghdad. The fighting had stopped. He had to have his weapon there, and you could see that nervousness that soldiers have, of having a weapon. It’s training, but a lot of it’s a security blanket.
Five weeks later, I remember seeing him wide-eyed, mistrusting and mad at everybody around him, including his own officers. He couldn’t get a sentence out without saying “Fuck” twice. He was a different person from being this meek, young kid.
I don’t think young soldiers really know for a long time what happens to them. They know the specifics of nightmares. They know that they don’t want to do it again, but I don’t think they really know the long term effects of war on them. People tend to close up or lie. You hear a lot of bravado afterwards. A lot of that is not really telling what they really did or felt. A lot of that is being trained to be a male: to not acknowledge the intense fear, and wanting to have some value. They tend to swagger. Deep down inside, it’s not that way at all. There’s a depression.
After Baghdad was taken, the Third Infantry division got bogged down in almost two weeks of paperwork. The copy machines and computers were brought in. I think it was a good accident that they had to file After Action Reviews which documented the complete inventory situation.
This included parts orders for everything they lost and every bullet that they expended. They had to apply for jobs in the next rotation and had to figure out who gets awards for what: silver stars, bronze stars, and so on.
When the Third Infantry Division got to Iraq, they were bogged down in paperwork for two weeks. I thought it was crazy. They could have done more then. But it also was a time of transition for hyped-up soldiers. When fighting a war, it’s very natural for soldiers to calm down, and bring some reality back to their life, but it takes a while.
How well equipped are people to make decisions? What's the role of sleep deprivation in a situation like this?
I learned a lot about sleep or lack thereof during this war. I think the army—categorically I can say—does not plan for sleep. They don't plan to let their soldiers sleep. We would go 72-hour stretches with no sleep. I saw soldiers having to fall asleep in a long convoy of 8,000 vehicles would stop and go, stop and go, people would fall asleep, there'd be people knocking on the door trying to wake them up, to keep them going.
I entered combat in a situation where I had maybe an hour's worth of sleep in the last 48 hours, and I've also been in a situation where I've seen everybody fall asleep, with the guns, in a combat situation, just totally exhausted. Bad decisions can be made, obviously, because of fatigue, and I have no doubt that that happens. I saw it happen a couple of times.
How much time do people have to make a decision? How good a decision can they make under those circumstances?
It's sad to say but in wartime life and death decisions are made in the snap of a finger—they have to be. Some are made right, some are made wrong. People rely on their training, they go back to automatic pilot whenever possible, but they have to make decisions based on information, and information may not be there.
Things happen at long distance in war now, with weapons things can happen from a quarter mile away or a mile away—how do people really know what it is they're shooting at? They make assumptions. We all read into what we see.
But decisions have to be made rapidly in a war, and I'm sure a lot of people would like those decisions back. It's the nature of war that mistakes will be made, innocent people will be killed, your own people will be killed. That's another thing—that happens more than we know. There is so much metal in the air in modern warfare, infantry-type fighting, that Americans get killed, get killed all the time.
It happened here—it happened here, it happened there. And it will continue to happen. It's the nature of warfare and it's one of the other things that soldiers who have to deal with for the rest of their lives—the idea they may have pulled the trigger that killed one of their own—or that you may be involved in calling in artillery.
The most common mistake that people make when they call for artillery support in a fire situation is to give their own grid coordinates. They have systems now to try to stop that from happening, but time and time again people have done that—called in artillery right on their head. It's really difficult.
I've seen places where they've tried to have mortars come in: sometimes they're accurate, sometimes they're not. And in a battle situation there've been times when you have to call in artillery support in something called "Danger Close." Danger close means the enemy is so close to me that if you make a mistake, I die.
That's stress—knowing that you're calling in weapons for someone who's so close to you that if they're off a little bit, you die, and everybody around you. It's difficult to be a soldier—that's one thing I've learned specifically in this one. I think it's one of the hardest jobs in the world.
I don't think that people ever can appreciate what people do in the military. And how underappreciated they are and how abused they are by our society. I saw it this time, I've seen it before, but this was the worst.
Seven hours under fire
This conversation was excerpted from Craig White's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.
Tell us what happened in Baghdad.
There were three objectives that the battalion I was with was charged with taking and holding. There were three key intersections on a road. Often in wars things are named by road numbers or hill numbers or beach names. The objectives were called "Moe," "Larry" and "Curly." The three stooges.
I was at Curly. I was with about 80 American soldiers, and we knew it would be a bad day going in there, that all of these vehicles would take fire. People started taking clothing out, smart people started bringing more ammo in. I saw soldiers taking rings off, letters to home—possible last letters home being put in envelopes and sealed—and in we went.
Immediately as they started getting into the city, they started taking fire from both sides. We thought it was the Iraqis who were waiting for us, but it was actually Syrians. Ahead of us they went on to Moe and Larry; we stayed at Curly, which was supposed to be lightly defended–I was mainly with mechanics, people who weren't necessarily trained for this sort of thing.
We thought we'd be in the rear of the fighting. But as it turned out, we were probably in the most heavily defended place, and we were under fire probably for about seven hours.
About six hours into it, it looked like we were starting to run out of fuel, starting to run out of ammunition. Prisoners were taken, people were wounded on both sides. It's closer war—it's not hand-to-hand but you can see your enemy.
It never really hit me until then that most of these soldiers had never been fired at before in their life, and for the first time 18-, 19-year-old boys became men in many ways. They had some hard choices to make.
I saw people grow up very quickly; I saw people who were expected to do very well decide not to come out of a vehicle. The medics certainly weren't expecting to be in a place like that. We started taking some fire from mortars and RPGs, there was constant small arms fire.
Special forces people came in with an attitude and thought they were pretty hot with their baseball caps turned backward, a swagger to them. They lasted a few minutes. They went into a situation to try and clear an area out underneath a bridge where we were, and one of 'em got hit right away. Second one got hit right away. The first guy was really bad—it looked like he was going to lose a leg. It turned out that he did. So they got out of there.
They decided to bring in a resupply convoy of fuel and ammo trucks for the tanks, for the Bradley fighting vehicles, for small arms, and a bunch of mechanics—it was literally the cavalry coming, we thought.
On the way in they ran a gauntlet of rocket-propelled grenade fire, machine-gun fire. Two soldiers were killed. One had his head blown off, the other one had a big hole in his side. One guy was actually blown right out of his vehicle. The other one pretty much was killed and splattered over the rest of the people that were in his truck.
By the time they got to where we were, several of those trucks were on fire. Then they started to get hit again with RPG fire, so we were now all hunkered down together. We're surrounded. Fire's coming from all sorts of directions, we can't get any kind of air cover cause it's a smoky day, and we all thought, “We might not make it out of here.” It looked very, very close.
As these trucks were on fire, I watched soldiers make choices that I probably couldn't have made.
I saw soldiers running into these burning trucks full of ammunition popping off. These are tank rounds, these are large-scale ammunition, much of it radioactive. It's depleted uranium, but when it burns it cooks off and you've got radiation going up into the air everywhere.
People were actually running into these burning trucks, trying to save them. The chaplain we were with, Steve Hummel, made a choice. He was a former infantryman before he became a chaplain. He chose to pick up his automatic rifle and fire back.
We were lucky. There was one rifle left, standing by itself. It was a sniper rifle, not exactly what someone would use in a case like that. It was the only weapon that I could see, and we all thought "we're gonna get overrun." We took some hard artillery shots near us, and it looked like the people around us sort of had our number.
And I say "our," because I was with them, but I very much separate myself from them. I'm not a combatant. I came very close to becoming one to save my own life, and I would have used that sniper rifle, if I had had to.
We'd all heard stories about what had happened down south. I was not under any illusion that because it said Press on my flak jacket that I would be treated differently from any other soldier. Soldiers had been executed there, some taken prisoners of war.
And I had made the decision, this time, that I would probably not just be taken prisoner, just put up my hands. I would probably fire back for the first time in my life. I'm not a gun person, by any stretch of the imagination.
What is going through your mind when you’re surrounded?
Combat under that bridge was the loudest thing I'd ever heard in my life. I'd lost hearing in my right ear to a machine gun back in 1980. My ear's been ringing since then. That's why I wear earplugs whenever I'm around something loud—I was wearing earplugs that day, but it was so loud.
Every time a large shell would go off, you'd reflexively open your mouth from the concussion. I was very close to a 50-caliber machine gun, it's just incredible how loud it is. You can't see very well, the smoke is stinging your eyes as it drifts back and forth. What you see and what you don’t see changes from one moment to another. It is literally the fog of war.
Did you see civilians?
In the middle of all this, people firing—it was sort of at an interchange, um, from all directions RPGs were coming in, machine gun fire, someone yelled "Technical!"
By technical, it was a term used—the first time I ever heard it was in Somalia, places where people would take a Toyota pick up truck or a van or something and mount a machine gun on it, and this truck van came screaming at us over an overpass in the middle of this at high speed, and immediately guns swung over and started shooting and they destroyed it within a matter of 4 to 5 seconds, and only then did they realize that it probably wasn't a combatant, it was just someone trying to get out of there.
In the next two days I probably saw that happen a number of times: innocent families who were trying to get out of a war-type situation, trying to flee, trying to get to a safer place would get caught in the middle of a battle, and they always lost. They always got blown up.
It was rare that people would stop when warning shots were fired. You'd think that they would stop, but people don't know, people are scared and they got destroyed. It's difficult to see people burning inside of a vehicle, or in one case to see an adult and a small person coming out the back of a car on fire. Probably a child.
Those are all hard, hard things for soldiers to see, and for anyone to witness. To go totally out of line here in terms of chronologically, at the end of the fighting, there were some people from the army who figuratively fought their way into Baghdad, too. These people were counselors.
There was a major and his group of people who came in and for the first time they were going to try to give counseling, psychological counseling to soldiers right after combat, first time ever—in theater, as they called it—and because I was close to a lot of these soldiers, or they trusted me, I was able to go in and shoot that, and it was amazing at what bothered them the most.
Besides seeing their own comrades killed and dead, the incidents where they had mistakenly killed or injured innocent citizens just weighed on them so heavily, and my guess, it'll weigh on them the rest of their lives. It's very very difficult to know you may have pulled a trigger or thrown a grenade at and killed some innocent person, for no reason.
In one case they had a woman who survived one of those, was in the back of a car, her husband and son were killed in the front seat and for two hours afterwards she sat there, she could speak English, and kept going to their faces saying, "Why? Why did you kill them? Why did you shoot?" And most of them said that they were dreaming of that, having nightmares over and over and over again.
When you'd been there in that battle for six hours, what were you thinking about at that point?
There was a feeling—I've been in crowds—there's an electricity, something changes in a second from people being confident to people going "Oh my god, we're not going to make it." And that's the sense that I had. As it started getting heavier and faster and coming from different directions, it felt like the Americans were not in control of the situation and that it didn't look that we'd survive.
Two American soldiers trying to bring in supplies for us were killed, one blown out of a vehicle, his body left there, and the other one—I remember them bringing what was left of him on a stretcher and I tried to shoot it in such a way that you didn't see the fact that his head was pretty much blown off but you could tell it was a dead American there.
They brought him to where we were: a medical group that we were with who were trying to patch up soldiers that were shot. At the same time, I watched American soldiers wading into this and pulling out enemy combatants and treating them along side American combatants. To see one ten feet away from the other is amazing.
How did you get from Curly to Larry?
After our relief convoy got to Curly, and the Iraqis and Syrians who were there started blowing it up, we knew we had to get out of there. We had large tank weapons blowing up everywhere in trucks around us, and the decision was made to get out as fast as possible. We ran. We left a few vehicles here to hold the intersection and ran to the next intersection as fast as possible, shooting and being shot at the whole way.
It was running another gauntlet to get to the next place of relative safety underneath a bridge that was built by Germans. Thank goodness it was because it was built very well and withstood a lot of pounding that would not necessarily have happened in the third world. So here I was in Iraq being saved by a German bridge while being with the American soldiers. It's just part of the absurdity of war.
I was at Larry for about two days. During that time all sorts of combatants just seemed to keep coming at us—mainly in buses, trucks, and cars. I remember a car-bomb coming at us and a lot of shooting. It didn't seem to stop, got really close and boom! Blew up. Huge fire ball.
My camera only got the beginning part of the fireball, and it shut off from the concussion. I remember being thrown backwards and couldn't find my camera. It was probably sixty or seventy feet behind me in the rubble. Took me an hour to find it.
Into Iraq with the US Army
This conversation was excerpted from Craig White's interview for the film Voices in Wartime: The Movie.
Tell us about the lead up to the invasion of Iraq.
I work for NBC news. I'd been to Baghdad and various places in Iraq, the year before the war, and witnessed a very silent population of people who were very repressed. More silent than I'd ever seen anywhere in the world.
It was pretty obvious they were in a brutal dictatorship. They were afraid to say anything. They were always looking over their shoulder. My next time in Iraq was the beginning of the war, but before that I spent some time in Kuwait with the correspondent David Bloom contemplating the question of how we cover a war? Do we want to?
We could do it from a distance, but then you never really see war. The only way to really experience it, see it, report on it, is up close. So we found out how to use modern technology to do that and decided to do it. We wouldn't take the risk of doing it from the Iraqi side. We did it from the American side. To do it from the Iraqi side would have been really close to suicide.
What was the war like at first?
I was embedded with the Third Infantry Division of the army. It was what they call heavy infantry, meaning tanks and heavy fighting vehicles. It was the oft-used tip of the spear. We were some of the first people to go into Iraq.
The beginning of the war was much as a travelogue. There was not that much fighting that we saw. It was kind of strange, we went in late on the night of March 19th—when the army crossed the berm into Iraq. I never saw too much resistance. People from Iraq welcomed us with open arms, cheering.
Next we traveled for hundreds of miles through this bleak desert and emerged very close to Baghdad. We got into some fighting in some small towns which looked like and reminded me of Vietnam. It was ironic—I could have had a picture that would have guaranteed made it on the front page of the LA Times, The Washington Post or The New York Times, and this was about a week into the war when the “shock and awe” was not going all that well and one of the tanks ahead of us in a column fell into a canal.
Over there all the tanks have names. It's amazing that in a war we put names on guns, but they all had names on their guns. And this tank slid into the canal that was separating our company and it stopped us dead. It said "Bush and Company" and I had a picture of it.
Were the first engagements that you had close or more distant?
I expected that we'd be fighting war in the desert, and that's how it started. Tanks would be in the distance—there were great distances—I had special cameras brought for us that could show things a mile away, and it looked like a video game. You'd see a tank, a little poof! You'd see in the distance another object go poof. It was just like a video game. In many ways it was like a travelogue you were narrating, traveling through the beginning of Iraq and then it started to get to be some form of warfare that reminded me of a video game.
What's the relation of the soldiers to the violence when it's that far removed??
There is no cause and effect at that point. Somebody pushes a button, that tank shell goes away, and something explodes off in the distance, and someone through some sort of a long lens sees that something's hit and off they go to identify the next threat and kill it. That's what soldiers are trained to do.
And desert warfare is a long-distance war. The army puts up what they call a wall of steel. They call it a wall of steel and they start at great distances with rockets, cruise missiles, and airplanes, and then it becomes artillery, and then it becomes tanks and then it becomes Bradley fighting vehicles, then machine guns and rocket launchers. Then, if necessary, it gets down to soldiers coming out of the back of those and fighting in trenches, close up with other soldiers.
What was there a disparity between the Iraqi preparation and armaments and the American armaments?
It was no contest, at first. The Americans basically just rolled over what was in sight. There was very little resistance. Very often, Iraqi soldiers chose to leave a uniform—usually a new one—a brand new pair of boots, a rifle, and a helmet, and that's all we would see. They chose not to fight.
They were told by Americans through whatever means, through intelligence, etc.—Internet, amazingly, played a part in this—that if they went to their garrisons and didn't fight, they wouldn't be killed. Some chose to do that. I think it was only the non-uniformed, non-regular fighters who chose to fight.
After you had gone through the desert, you got to Baghdad. On April 7th, you had a new objective, right?
Around April 4th, we crossed the Euphrates River for the first time, which meant we were very close to Baghdad. At that point there were still Iraqi tanks, most of them disorganized, some trying to flee, some looking for targets and not knowing where they were going. One at a time they were being destroyed and the people in them were killed by American tanks over the course of several days.
The Americans got involved in a propaganda war to a certain extent. Early on, the first people to enter Baghdad did what they call a Thunder Run: they took armored vehicles, ran 'em right through part of Baghdad and captured the airport. The Iraqis turned that around to say that the Americans came into their city, and they were repelled.
Our military took great offense to that, and they made a bold move on April 7th to go right into the heart of Baghdad. Originally everyone else thought that they would circle the city and there'd be some sort of siege of the city, very reminiscent of a Sarajevo or a Stalingrad which didn't happen. They made a bold move. They went right into the city, cutting it in half, and seizing the palaces and all the important government buildings in one day.
But that meant they had to take a big chance with American lives. It's a chance that ultimately paid off for them, but it came very close to not happening. When America was watching statues fall, palaces being destroyed, and jubilant Iraqis, American soldiers were fighting a hard battle for three days that could have gone either way.
They made a choice: they gave themselves eight hours. If they couldn't secure a way out within eight hours they were going to turn around and leave. Eight hours came, eight hours went and it was very unclear whether they would make it. A colonel made a choice to stay, took a chance, and it paid off for the Americans.