John Burns's Poetic War Zone Correspondence

The New York Times journalist, who wrote his last article on Thursday, was a master at conveying the bravery of ordinary humans.

John Burns (R) is congratulated after learning that he won the Pulitzer Prize.  (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

On Thursday, the New York Times covered the burial ceremony of King Richard II, the 15th-century English monarch whose remains were found underneath a parking lot next to Leicester's Anglican cathedral. The article carried the byline of John F. Burns, a longtime Times reporter who, in spite of his British nationality, had spent most of his career elsewhere.

As it turned out, it would be Burns's last. Later on Thursday, the Times announced that the 70-year-old Burns would retire after 40 years at the paper, concluding a career that earned him a pair of Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting in Bosnia and Afghanistan.

Few contemporary foreign correspondents have worked in as many conflict zones as Burns. And fewer have his gift for telling vivid tales of ordinary lives interrupted by war.

In October 2002 Burns described the scene when Saddam Hussein, months before his fall from power, released tens of thousands of political prisoners:

The freed men emerged squinting into the bright sunlight, pallid, dazed and weeping, before shouldering bedrolls and sacks of belongings and racing for the gates.

For many, though, it was a day of abysmal grief. Aging women in black wandered across the complex until darkness fell, searching for relatives who had disappeared into the prisons years ago, leaving no trace. Many were probably long since dead, victims of secret executions that have been chronicled in Western human rights reports. Hopes for a miracle flared, then died, as the missing fathers and brothers and sons failed to answer the names shouted into the gathering gloom.

A decade earlier, covering the horrific destruction of Sarajevo in 1992, Burns opens with this unforgettable vignette:

As the 155-millimeter howitzer shells whistled down on this crumbling city today, exploding thunderously into buildings all around, a disheveled, stubble-bearded man in formal evening attire unfolded a plastic chair in the middle of Vase Miskina Street. He lifted his cello from its case and began playing Albinoni's Adagio.

There were only two people to hear him, and both fled, dodging from doorway to doorway, before the performance ended.

Burns's descriptive skill equalled his bravery. During the run-up to the Iraq War, he persuaded the Times to maintain and fund a large Baghdad bureau despite high costs and enormous security risks. Burns himself fell prey to some of the dangers inherent in working in a war zone. In 2004, for instance, he was blindfolded and imprisoned in Iraq for eight hours under suspicion of being a spy. Burns's candid coverage of the war—Saddam's cousin "Chemical" Ali Hassan al-Majid called him the "most dangerous man in Iraq"—earned him broad respect from both supporters and critics of the U.S. invasion.

"I felt quite strongly that as a matter of journalistic integrity we should write about Saddam's Iraq in as unbiased and honest a way as possible," he told the Independent in 2007.

Burns's lengthy career contained numerous other examples of how simply doing his job proved costly: Serving as the Times' bureau chief in China during the mid-1980s, Burns's was imprisoned and deported from the country after traveling in restricted areas. Nevertheless, he was careful put his own personal sacrifices in perspective. In the oral history Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, related by the press critic Jay Rosen, Burns said:

I travel in a suit of armor. I work for The New York Times. That means that I have the renown of the paper, plus the power of the United States government. Let’s be honest. Should anything untoward come to me, I have a flak jacket. I have a wallet full with dollars. I’m here by choice. I have the incentive of being on the front page of The New York Times, and being nominated for major newspaper prizes.

The people who we write about have none of these advantages.

That readers of the Times, and other publications, know about the lives of these people at all is due in no small part to the bravery and grace of people like John Burns.