ON THE JOB
An Iraq Diary
As the conflict's longest-serving broadcaster, Richard Engel describes the hell of war.
By Barrett Sheridan
They call it “compassion fatigue,” the neutered state of one's emotions after they become overwhelmed by horror and cruelty. For a war reporter like Richard Engel, it's trade lingo. In Iraq in late 2004, he interviewed a wearied military doctor who described a Marine who had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade meant to explode when it hit a hard tank. But in the man's soft abdomen, the unexploded RPG bored in like a spear. The medic operated on the man for an hour, then saw a tear in his patient's eye when the inevitability of his death dawned on him as a chaplain began to read him his last rites. The doctor cried silently as he told Engel the story. Engel turned the footage into a two-minute clip for NBC Nightly News. His editors sent him enthusiastic e-mails. “Wow!!!” one said simply; “Great stuff,” said another. Reflecting on the response later, Engel allowed an uncharacteristic cynicism to creep into his retelling: “We'd become war pornographers.”
In person, Engel, '96, is baby-faced and clean-shaven, and his emphatic broadcaster's voice gives no hint of the trauma he's seen. But he's seen plenty—five years in Iraq has made him the longest-serving broadcast journalist there and has thickened his skin. During a ride with a military convoy, a roadside bomb struck a vehicle ahead of his, killing several of the Iraqi soldiers inside. The sight of a mangled body thrown from the car was no longer “disgusting or even particularly sad,” he later wrote. “It was like looking at roadkill.”
To do his job, he has to remain outside of the story, which has led to a variation on survivor's guilt. “You see a particular event and want to help out,” he says. “But there's not that much to be done. I write stories about what's going on; I'm not trying to change it. I don't really think that's my mission.”
The mission he's chosen is one that he's performed admirably. Tom Brokaw says Engel “has the language, the courage and, most of all, the understanding to bring the story home.” In 2006 Engel won the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for his report “Baghdad E.R.,” and last year he won the Medill Medal for Courage in Journalism for his hour-long War Zone Diary. In April, NBC, where he's worked since May 2003, named him chief foreign correspondent. The winner of an Emmy in 2006, he is nominated for two more this year.
These days Engel lives in Beirut, but while he was in the States in June to promote his second book, War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq (Simon & Schuster, $28), we met at his hotel in midtown Manhattan for a meal of bacon-topped hamburgers. “There's not enough bacon in the Middle East,” he joked.
Home used to be the Upper East Side, where Engel grew up with dyslexia, and his parents—his father was a Goldman Sachs financier for many years, and his mother ran an antiques store—feared for his prospects. But by high school he had accommodated to serious study, and in 1992 he moved west to study international relations at Stanford. He showed only a sporadic interest in journalism, writing just a few articles for the Daily. Yet by the time he graduated, he was determined to become a foreign correspondent.
He took $2,000 from his bank account and boarded a plane to Cairo, informal capital of the Arab world, the region he had decided would be the biggest story of his generation. “Had it been 1986, I probably would have gone to Moscow or Poland,” he says, “but it wasn't. It was 1996, and the Middle East seemed like the place for a young journalist to start off in his career.” Arriving with virtually no knowledge of the language or culture, Engel opted for full immersion. He moved into a working-class neighborhood, took a job with Cairo's English-language paper and started freelancing for Western media.
By 2003, Engel had a permanent job with a wire service in Gaza. As President Bush began to make it clear that war in Iraq was all but inevitable, he thought, “Well, this is it—here we go.” He took $20,000 in savings, strapped it to his leg, and bribed his way across the border into Iraq. He bought a “human shield” visa, which obliged him to chain himself to Iraqi military targets to deter American forces. The Iraqi immigration official knew he had no intention of living up to that promise, but a few hundred dollars earned him the stamp anyway. Money also provided a safety net. “I wanted to have enough money to get myself out of one of many terrible scenarios I imagined, including kidnap and arrest.”
When the missiles began to fall in March 2003, Engel found himself one of the only Western journalists in the country—most media outlets had pulled their reporters for safety reasons. He covered the initial invasion with his own handheld camera, filing freelance reports for ABC. To protect himself, he regularly changed hotels and kept souped-up getaway cars close at hand. “When you're in a foreign capital that is being attacked by your own country, nobody is coming to help you.”
War Journal, although it maps the complex nature of the Iraqi occupation, is “not a history of the war. It's just what I've seen along the way.” From eating Thanksgiving dinner with the Marines to noting the rise of Iranian influence in the holy city of Najaf, the distant events of the war come to life because they're told with the kind of detail found only in a deeply personal account.
As his career has blossomed, his personal life has withered. He and his wife, whom he met at Stanford, divorced in 2005; he has grown apart from old friends, whose willingness to indulge Engel's obsession with Iraq ebbed as the story fell from the front pages. His parents, for their part, gradually have become accustomed to their son's trekking through a war zone. “I think they would be shocked, and a little saddened, if I suddenly announced that I was packing it all in and going to dental school.”
Engel's work has attracted the attention of more than just relatives and colleagues. In early 2007, the White House asked him to come for a private briefing with President Bush. The two discussed the Middle East in detail, from Sistani to Syria, and Bush appeared genuinely interested in Engel's thoughts, including his criticism of the president's diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, or lack thereof.
Engel met with Bush again in May while the president was in Egypt during a tour through the Middle East. On camera, any raffish rapport was gone. The president grew combative in the face of Engel's questioning on Iran and nuclear weapons and his legacy in the Middle East. The next day, the White House attacked NBC, calling its edit of the interview “deceitful.” NBC, which posted the entire interview on its website, denied any bias.
In his new role as chief foreign correspondent, Engel will continue to cover Iraq but will also venture into Pakistan, Africa, China—wherever there's a story. Will it be intimidating to go into places where the language and culture are as alien to him as the Arab world had been during his first months in Cairo? He shook his head vigorously. “That's exciting! To be able to go to a place where I have to learn new things, new names and new contacts: that's what keeps you fresh.”
BARRETT SHERIDAN, '06, is a journalist at Newsweek International.
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