Rough Draft of History

Howard LaFranchi, The Christian Science Monitor's war correspondent, weighs in on the situation in Iraq and on common misperceptions about the press.

"I want a positive story out of this", a base commander in Kirkuk told Howard LaFranchi during the journalist's May visit to Iraq. LaFranchi, a war correspondent for TheChristian Science Monitor, later learned that an earlier reporter had painted a particularly grim picture of the situation in the northern Iraqi city.

At The National Interest on Friday, LaFranchi talked about the journalist's proper role in a democracy and his most recent trip to Iraq. LaFranchi addressed many of the public misconceptions about journalists-some of which he has personally encountered.

While in Iraq, a U.S. soldier asked LaFranchi, "Why is it that most of you [journalists] hate our country?" The soldier's doubts about the patriotism of the press are misplaced, the correspondent noted. Journalists allow democracy to function, providing voters with the information necessary to become informed citizens. This role provides journalists with a "sense of service" to the public-not to a particular administration or partisan agenda. Journalists' skepticism comes not from some unreasonable distrust of authority, but from a desire to present more than one side of a story.

The importance of LaFranchi's yearly trips to Iraq has also been called into question on a few occasions, he said. "We all know what a disaster Iraq is", a guest at a dinner party once told him, "why risk your life when what you report won't change anything?"

LaFranchi believes that his visits to Iraq allow him to better inform Christian Science Monitor readers. Journalists provide the initial assessments of an unfolding event-well before the historians have the chance to analyze the situation. In that sense, journalism is a "rough draft of history." The more firsthand experience a journalist has with his or her subject, the more accurate the "rough draft" will be. Having been to Iraq, LaFranchi is in a better position to write about U.S. policy in the beleaguered country. For example, when General David Petraeus' report on Iraq strategy is released in September, the journalist will use the "filter of [his] recent trip to gauge what's being told", he said.

LaFranchi has been making annual trips to Iraq since 2003. He first left for Baghdad when President Bush was insisting that major U.S. newspapers were not accurately portraying the situation in Iraq. LaFranchi's 2003 trip convinced him that his peers were filing accurate reports; his counterparts stationed in Iraq realized that something in the country was amiss before the officials in Washington did.

LaFranchi's most recent trip to Iraq gave him little reason for optimism. The Iraqis LaFranchi spoke to "felt much more despair" during this visit than on previous occasions. The journalist's Iraqi friends refused to visit him, afraid of being seen entering a foreign compound. He noticed that "whole sections of Baghdad were virtual ghost towns", thanks to "quite advanced" ethnic cleansing. Displaced Sunnis and Shi‘a, "with no other place to go", had set up camps. Frequent bombing attacks made people "fearful of large markets", and "mom-and-pop stores had blossomed away from big streets and markets."

In addition to visiting Baghdad, LaFranchi traveled with U.S. troops, speaking with both soldiers and commanders. While embedded, LaFranchi saw the effects of the recent change in U.S. Army strategy. The army is now "putting soldiers out and keeping them out" among the Iraqi people. Before the surge, soldiers would conduct periodic patrols, always returning to military bases. Now, soldiers are stationed round-the-clock at makeshift outposts in the neighborhoods they are assigned to protect.

The high-ranking officers LaFranchi interviewed expressed strong support for the surge. There was a "sense among commanders that things were finally on the right track", the correspondent said. However, rank-and-file soldiers presented him with a much more "mixed" picture. Although some thought that they were "on the cutting edge of the new strategy", others felt that "we shouldn't be here."

LaFranchi keeps a piece of an improvised explosive device (IED) on his desk as a "reminder of what our soldiers over there are facing." He retrieved the IED fragment after a particularly nerve-racking day on patrol with a group of soldiers. When an IED exploded near LaFranchi's Humvee, the understandably spooked patrol commander targeted a group of nearby fieldworkers for questioning. After being roughed-up, the young Iraqi men could not reveal anything about those who had planted the device. A small boy accompanying the interrogated men began to cry; his older brother had recently been gunned down by insurgents. The frustrated patrol leader told LaFranchi that combating the insurgents was like "fighting ghosts." LaFranchi, distressed by what he witnessed, decided to write about the incident only after careful consideration.

The reporter noted that, to him, the explosive device's twisted remains symbolize the need "to express and convey all sides that you can."

Marisa Morrison is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.