Graeme Wood

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In Baghdad, Wear Shades

The New York Sun

Review of Over There by Alan Feuer.

On page one of “Over There: From the Bronx to Baghdad: Two Months in the Life of a Reluctant Reporter” (Counterpoint Press, 304 pages, $24), Alan Feuer invokes A.J. Liebling’s adage about combat journalism – “a girl may sleep with one man without being a trollop, but let a man cover one little war and he’s a war correspondent.”

The line is deliciously ambivalent: Liebling, who was at Normandy, covered one big war, but the gouty old porker is no one’s first idea of a war correspondent, and he made no claim to be. Mr. Feuer, a New York Times metro writer who spent just a few weeks in Baghdad soon after the city’s fall, covered one war of very modest size. Out of that brief experience he has now squeezed a book about how he failed and succeeded to meet the demands of his brief career as a war correspondent.

The role fits Mr. Feuer even worse than it fit Liebling. By his own admission, he got on poorly with the jaded hacks at the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad and boozy swaggerers in Amman’s journo bars. Overshadowed by his colleagues at the Times, he broke not a single important story.

But Mr. Feuer’s book is not about Iraq. The chances of learning something from it about Iraq or about the lives of Iraqis are approximately zero. The bulk takes place in the New York, London, and Jordan way stations, where he waited to cross the Iraqi frontier. From Amman he filed pieces, promptly spiked by sensible editors, about the camps of reporters waiting along with him. These passages are wan, solipsistic, and even dated compared to the later sections about his brief time in-country. He bribes Baathist consular officials and befriends tight-lipped American mercenaries. But these stories fall well short of qualifying as amusing high jinks, let alone remarkable in any way.

Once Mr. Feuer crosses the border, the unpromising first half gives way to a tauter and smarter section. Mr. Feuer’s prose is mercifully free of the “a shot rings out, in the distance a machine gun rattles” style of war writing. He has the grace not to pretend to know about war or to compare scars with colleagues who had been in Afghanistan and Chechnya. In the place of the preening masculinity disfiguring so many war memoirs are frank confessions that to veteran reporters and Iraqis, Mr. Feuer must have looked like a bit of a chump.

He and his fellow reporters were indeed easy meat for enterprising locals. They rented hotel mop closets for hundreds of dollars, and they dined at places like Abu Sayef restaurant in Jordan, a roadside diner familiar to travelers between Baghdad and Amman. The canny owner told Mr. Feuer that journalists “have better manners than the smugglers” who usually frequent the joint, and “more cash” to boot – an indication of the class of esteem in which Arabs hold reporters with expense accounts. Readers interested in the privations (and occasional cosseting) salaried war correspondents must endure nowadays can learn the sordid details from Mr. Feuer’s narrative.

Yet the admissions of greenness and incompetence would be more charming had Mr. Feuer not mixed them with noisome suburban angst. Mr. Feuer half-seriously laments the “sanitary isolation that America perfects,” the freedom from “draft cards, protests, body bags,” and uncertainty, which had dulled his senses and
denied him the primal thrills that most people on earth have to suffer. Mr. Feuer “could still remember days on end at the kitchen window when he would have bashed in his own skull just to break that horrible sweet American monotony.”

He is surely aware that many envious Iraqis reading such a passage would gladly have handed him the crowbar with which to stave in his ungrateful skull. And I suspect other writers unconsciously share his vague ache for bloody misery and for assignments to confirm their bravery. Mr. Feuer at least knows these disgraceful thoughts have ravaged his mind, even if he cannot exorcise them. But self-hatred and anguished affluence are no more endearing for being self-aware and in print.

Mr. Feuer’s strongest moments are his humble portraits of his colleagues, to a man more competent and seasoned than he. The names Ian Fisher and Dexter Filkins are familiar to regular Times readers. Mr. Feuer provides brief and telling details, mostly flattering, that will perhaps give readers a better sense of the lives of these Times reporters. At one point John F. Burns – the legendary and patrician war correspondent who now heads the Times’s Baghdad bureau – bitterly accuses Mr. Feuer of stealing his cookies. Mr. Feuer could easily have compressed these vignettes into an elegant essay, and it is unfortunate that they will have to languish between the covers of an otherwise unexceptional book.

Long before “Over There’s” publication, press critics smelled fresh blood when they noticed Mr. Feuer’s apparent admission to having fudged minor reporting details in his Times stories. The narrator acknowledges making up the surname of an Iraqi and changing the age of an interview subject from “50-55” in notes to a nice even “50” in the published story. He also implies that Mr. Fisher wrote stories by cribbing wire services’ reporting.

In a weasel move, Mr. Feuer uses the third person throughout and thus avoids direct responsibility for the journalistic sins he records. But his author’s note says that the situations are “real” and that the book is “recollected fact” with occasional made-up dialogue. The Times itself has been content to construe “Over There’s” narrator as an unreliable, and therefore nonincriminating, voice. But it will be disappointing if the hunt for the next Jayson Blair keeps readers from noticing the book’s more serious vices.

The factual crimes implied in “Over There” do not reach Blairian heights of shamelessness, and they are disproportionate to the attention they have received. The real scandal is not that the Times reporter misspelled a source’s name, but that a Times reporter is incorrigibly disinclined to engage seriously with the story he is sent to cover. To go to Iraq and emerge with a book primarily about one’s own travails as a reporter requires an immense exertion of avoidance, not to say an inflated view of one’s importance as a bringer of news.

Mr. Feuer should be aware of this: At one point he notes rightly that the convoy of SUVs ferrying reporters from Jordan to fallen Baghdad could have been mistaken for the last and most critical wave of the United States’s invasion, since the last one onto the battlefield is customarily the commander. War in the age of press-savvy governments, where strategic objectives include bringing witnesses to the sites of victory, does muddle the traditional understanding of the journalist’s role and duties. Mr. Feuer raises the issue astutely and then loses interest too soon to suggest a conclusion.

What distracts Mr. Feuer from such topics? The book is a crime scene of clues. The allusions to Hemingway – both reporting and “The Sun Also Rises” – start right after the Liebling epigraph and persist throughout. When given a chance to compare a fellow newsman to Dennis Hopper’s addled photojournalist in “Apocalypse Now,” he opts instead to invoke the Russian in “Heart of Darkness” and to quote Conrad. We learn that Mr. Feuer has an unfinished novel pigeonholed somewhere.

Mr. Feuer (or his narrator – at this point it is not our fault that we cannot be sure) seems to be a most dangerous kind of reporter: one who imagines himself too gravid with fiction to exert himself fully in service to fact. Whether one takes his memoir as damning fact or, following the preference of the Times itself, as frivolous fiction, “Over There” is a disappointing effort, as well as ample cause for the Gray Lady to become ever so slightly crimson-faced.

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