Interviews October 2004

Iraq's Walled City

William Langewiesche, the author of "The Green Zone," on the dangerous and ever-increasing isolation of the American presence in Baghdad

Had they not been there I'm sure things would be much worse than they are. They shot down many of the really stupid proposals. They did leave some sort of hopeful legacy, at least in the short term, of the possibility of elections or of some kind of operational constitutional framework. If in the long term, they did not leave a legacy, that's not their fault. It's the power of history that will have overcome them.

As you prepare to head back to Baghdad, how worried are you about the recent abductions and beheadings of contractors from their homes?

I'm very worried about it. It would be foolish not to be worried about the danger and lack of safety in the streets. It's extremely dangerous to be in Iraq right now for a Westerner not in the Green Zone. Psychologically it's always been difficult coming in and going out. It's like the heat there; it takes about a week after you go in to get used to it again. I would hate to say I'm not worried and then get killed and have people say "What a dummy." I am worried about it, and I take every possible precaution, and it's a tense situation.

When you first went into Iraq, you didn't fly in. Didn't you come in overland?

Yeah, I came in through Turkey and overland from Kurdistan. At the time there was no way to fly in. Government people were coming in on C-130s from Kuwait, but for other people, it was very difficult to do. The road from Oman was extremely dangerous, so the safest way to get into the country was the long way, which was through Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish part of Turkey. The route was Istanbul to Diyarbakir, then from Diyarbakir by taxi to the Iraq border, and then by car or taxi south to Baghdad. Typically it was about a three-day trip from Europe.

Was it dangerous for you to be seen at that time? Were you able to sit up in the front seat, or were you hidden in the back?

When I first went in it was relatively safe. By the time I left, which was by the same route, it was getting really dangerous. Now it's really, really dangerous. Iraqis have no problem doing it. It's a little unsafe for them. But as a Westerner, in a non-convoy, non-militarized car—an individual car—you're taking very serious risks of being kidnapped. When I left the last time going north by that road I had a feeling that it was at the edge of what was an acceptable level of danger. I had some confrontations going north. There was a firefight that erupted to my right at one point, and there were some problems on the road, including exhortations to kill Americans. So it was tense. There were a lot of roadblocks. The roadblocks were frightening and still are because you really don't know whether they're set up by people who can be trusted. Even the new Iraqi security forces are not necessarily to be trusted. Betrayal is a constant concern.

So now I go the other way. Royal Jordanian is running these little flights that come in from Oman. There are at least two a day. They're very expensive, and they're packed with all these strange people, because the only people who want to go to Iraq these days are kind of strange. They're either mercenaries of one kind or another, security people, who seem to make up the majority, or they're hard-bitten journalist types. Sometimes they're government employees. The pilots are South Africans and they fly these beat up old Fokker 28s, these small jets. Everyone's luggage is heavy with body armor and stuff like that, and the planes can't carry it all, so they have to leave some of it behind and put it on other flights or truck it in. The funny thing about the flights is they have flight attendants—these pretty girls who act like we're going on vacation to the Caribbean or something. They're trying to be real, regular flight attendants, and they offer safety advice about putting on seat belts. But you're going to Baghdad, so why bother? They say, "We'd like to thank you for flying. Have a great day, the temperature is so and so degrees, have a wonderful stay in Baghdad. Thank you for your business; we know you have a choice in airlines." Actually, I don't think they say that. Anyway, there's this veneer of normality to that flight, and yet the fundamental thing is that it's completely abnormal.

It's a short flight and then you land and you're in this weird airport. It's a giant airport terminal in typical totalitarian style—very modern. And nothing's there. It's not served by many flights, just a couple little air-share charity charter flights and these Royal Jordanian planes. So you wander through this huge empty terminal, you go outside, and immediately you're in the pistol-carrying, automatic weapon-carrying world of Baghdad.

The airport, Baghdad international, is actually this huge military base. And it seems to me, and to many people, that it's where the coalition and the CPA and the State Department should have based themselves instead of in the middle of the city. It's a few miles to the west, and it would have been much less obtrusive and very secure.

So you're in the middle of this huge military base, and you have to take a bus to the edge of it, to a checkpoint—a very typical military checkpoint with Bradleys and tanks and soldiers all over the place. That's where you get your ride into town. You drive down this road; it's a divided road that goes into town by a highway. It's well known to be dangerous, because it's the country's main artery right now to the outside. So attacks happen there all the time.

How are the military guys you've met in Iraq different from the ones you profiled in your Bosnia piece?

They're the same people. I was writing about the Third Infantry Division in Bosnia, so these are literally the same people. With the difference that Iraq has turned into a nasty, deeply frustrating situation for the military. I think there's a feeling among many of the guys that they're being used as canon fodder by the American political system, which they are. They're put in a situation where they have to just sit there until someone shoots at them and then they can shoot back but they don't really know where to shoot back. It's a battlefield of confusion. There are exceptions to that, of course. There are the house-to-house searches—the Fallujah- and Sadr City-type stuff where it's more like a traditional fight with particularly nasty urban warfare. But for most of the guys that's not what Iraq is. Iraq is just sitting around for endless, endless months and basically waiting for somebody to take a shot at them. It's not exactly relaxing. As I say in the piece, once I strip all the equipment off of them they're the most human, ordinary, wonderful American guys—not particularly aggressively macho—and they often maintain a deep humanity. It's surprising how many have not been dehumanized by this experience. They think about Iraq and the United States, and about the American political structure. These guys are capable of quite sophisticated thought and they exercise it a lot. Strip the uniforms and the body armor away, engage in a real conversation, and you find lots of thoughtful, frustrated, often somewhat angry people.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.


A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Global

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In