We are catching the New York Times’ ace war correspondent John F. Burns on his way back for his umpteenth tour in Baghdad. Burns was there with his eyes wide open, his ears tuned to “listen to whispers,??? under Saddam Hussein’s republic of fear. Burns filed every day from Baghdad during the US assault in March 2003. And he’s been an unblinking witness ever since to the crumbling of official US expectations. In a Sunday “Week in Review??? analysis this past July, John Burns marked indelibly for me a turning point:
From the moment American troops crossed the border 28 months ago the specter hanging over the American enterprise here has been that Iraq, freed from Mr. Hussein’s tyranny, might prove to be so fractured—by politics and religion, by culture and geography, and by the suspicion and enmity sown by Mr. Hussein’s years of repression—that it would spiral inexorably into civil war… Now, events are pointing more than ever to the possibility that the nightmare could come true.
I am riffling through the electronic file of John Burns’ dispatches with awe at his range: he has stared into the eyes of Saddam Hussein in the dock, and eaten with the regulars at the favorite diner in Tikrit—(not to mention that Burns has been kidnapped in Iraq, as he was also imprisoned and charged with espionage in another reporting incarnation in China). But I’m also struck by some persistent threads in John Burns’ last year of Iraq stories—the stuff of tonight’s conversation: the daily carnage, the oceanic depth of the insurgency, the multiplicity of roadblocks to a constitution, the steep decline of American hopes in Baghdad, and (weirdly!) the persistence of the unsinkable badboy in the epic: the now Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi.
John Burns made his name the first time as the Toronto Globe and Mail‘s reporter in Beijing–before American correspondents could go there. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his reporting from Afghanistan and Sarajevo under siege. He is one of those reporters out of the Harrison Salisbury tree who’s been to every awful place in the world and written exquisitely about it–one of those legends of whom you’d say: “they don’t make them like that anymore,” except that “they,” and especially the Times, keeps making them.