John Burns

More from this show

We talk to the New York Times foreign correspondent who has been covering the war in Iraq from day one.

Ted Simons:
The center for the study of religion and conflict here at A.S.U. recently invited John Burns as part of the public lecture series. Burns is the longest-serving foreign correspondent in the history of the "New York Times." He was in Baghdad when American troops captured that city in 2003. Burns was just recently reassigned. Larry Lemmons spoke with Burns about reporting in the war zone.

Larry Lemmons:
When you think about the anniversary, five years, and the milestone, 4,000 dead in Iraq, you were there from the very beginning when the bombs fell in Baghdad. Can you give me an overview, if you will, of the sort of experiences you've had from the beginning of the invasion to the time that you have recently left?

John Burns:
None of us could have imagined when American troops rolled into Baghdad in the first week of April of 2003, none of us could have imagined the disaster that would ensue. To that extent we've been pretty good at chronicling the failures of the pentagon and the Bush administration in Iraq. But there was a failure of imagination on our part, as well, to foresee just how bad things would get. I think we need to think a little bit like that as journalists as to why it was, those who were there when Saddam was still in power, and stayed through the transition, in my case, on the run from the secret police during the period of the bombing until American troops, thank god, finally, from my point of view, finally arrived in Baghdad. We had chronicled very fully the extent of Saddam's terrorism, and I make no apology for that. Some of the left say we paved the way to war because we made it possible for bush administration officials to be quoting what we were writing. We were writing about the society in which we were then living. What we didn't do I think was sufficiently explore the official history of Iraq, the depths of the trauma of the people of Iraq after 25 years with Saddam, and how unpromising that made the entire American project in Iraq from the beginning, that looked at now against that hinterland, I think you can say that the American project in Iraq was perhaps a mission impossible from the start.

Larry Lemmons:
Far be it from me to apologize for the "New York Times," but I think most Americans were aware of Saddam Hussein's atrocities, at least from the time of the first invasion by George Bush's father. They knew that times were very difficult for the people of Iraq.

John Burns:
I think there's no need to apologize for that, but I think it's something that now on the fifth anniversary, when we're making a reckoning of the costs of this endeavor, it needs to be remembered also what was achieved. This wasn't just liked others, even a casual reading of the human rights reports of the last 10 or 15 years of Saddam's time, a knowledge of the terrible carnage of the Iran-Iraq war he started, installs this man in my mind as one of the great criminals of modern times, of all time. Of course he was not a killer on the scale that for example Hitler was, or Stalin, but then he didn't have the means that they had. He didn't have 50 panzer divisions. But within the means at his disposal, he was a killer on a very grand scale in fact the Iraq I knew right up until April 9th, 2003, was murder, incorporated. The ending of that was very definitely of benefit to the Iraqi people, and to the entire Middle East, because he held in thrall much of the Middle East. But of course the question now is at what cost?

Larry Lemmons:
Could you characterize the way that American troops have been received in Iraq, in terms of has there been animosity from many of the Muslims because they have been occupied by what has historically been a Christian nation?

John Burns:
It was certainly something you might hear from Muqtada Al-Sadr, from Al-Qaida, and from the Islamic militant wing of the Saddammist insurgency. Most Iraqis were happy to be liberated. It was the most secular of all the major countries in the Middle East. It wasn't a deeply religious place. They weren't all festering with anger about the crusades. They were subject to this terrible tyranny. They had attempted sporadically to liberate them, coup after coup, and they couldn't liberate themselves and America liberated them. I don't think they were much concerned at that time about American soldiers with a bible in their pocket.

Larry Lemmons:
Could you pinpoint a couple of moments in your experience in Iraq that you realized things were not going as was hoped?

John Burns:
On the very first day when the marines entered Baghdad from the southeast, and there was large-scale looting. It was a sort of festival in its early manifestations. These hundreds of thousands of people poured out of what was then Saddam city, now Sadr city in the northeast corner of Baghdad. There were scenes of great merriment, teenagers loading office chairs up to 15 or 20 feet with filing cabinets and pushing them home to mama. God knows what she was going to make of the booty. Then they started looting the hospitals and museums. Later on the first day I turned up with my friend Lee Anderson, and there was no burning at the oil ministry. The marines were there protecting it. This was the only building they had orders to protect. And I must say, as one who believed the liberation of Iraq by American forces was for the benefit of the Iraqi people, that was a bit jarring. That was the first time. And then pretty soon by the end of that summer, the insurgency was manifest. They attacked the United Nations, the Red Cross with major truck bombs, and we and the American commanders realized that the war had not ended. And the rest of those watersheds, I'm sure your viewers were very familiar with. Abu Ghraib, the story that broke as I recall in spring of 2004, was then and now scarcely believable to any of us. The flattening of Falluja in November of 2004, the city was very substantially destroyed in the liberation of it. I don't want to be talking about these things, I want to make one point rather strongly. And that is that I, and I think most of the reporters who have been embedded with U.S. forces in Iraq, have emerged with a great respect and admiration of American troops, and these things were aberrations. The greatest truths are the myriad daily kindnesses that American troops are responsible for in their dealings with Iraqi people. They are not widely regarded as murderers and rapists. There have been instances of that kind, and there are in every war. This is not to excuse it, but I had a brother-in-law who was I think you could say an authentic d-day hero who told me many, many years later, before he died, about the things that happened when British troops crossed the Rhine in 1945, and it was very unpretty what happened. These things happen in war-time. They've done enormous damage to the American endeavor in Iraq. I think they are the lesser story, if we want to judge -- if America wants a judgment with the people it has sent to war, I think it can take some satisfaction, in my view, the American soldiers, marines and troops have behaved overwhelmingly in a way that Americans have reason to be proud.

Larry Lemmons:
John Burns, thank you so much for talking with us.

Ted Simons:
Members of the state house of representatives have removed 12 sayings from the memorial, and the pros and cons will be discussed Tuesday on "Horizon". Thanks for joining us, I'm Ted Simons, you have a great evening.

John Burns:Foreign correspondent, New York Times

Plant the seed of support for public broadcasting

Psyche Mission
airs Oct. 4

Psyche Mission: First to Metal, An Origin Story

A green monster with a goofy grin holds a large toothbrush. Text: Video Contest: How does your favorite monster brush its teeth?
Oct. 8

Digital Video Contest 2023

Hispanic Heritage Awards image
aired Sept. 29

Hispanic Heritage Awards

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters

STAY in touch

Subscribe to Arizona PBS Newsletters: