Foreign Stories: The Remix – by Nancy Updike
In Iraq this summer, another reporter—Larry Kaplow—and I spent a lot of time driving back and forth to a city called Baqouba. Everyone hated going to Baqouba: our translator, our drivers, our guard, us. Larry, who reported from Iraq for six years and has seen a lot of jacked-up places, muttered one day as we were walking past the algae-covered sewage in the Baqouba market, “Jesus, what a shithole.” We were on our way back from an interview that had ended disturbingly: as I’d started asking my last question…
…an IED exploded in a nearby mosque. We left as soon as it seemed safe, and we found out later that our guard had wanted us to leave much earlier. While we’d been interviewing the guy in one room, his four Sunni guards had apparently been hanging out in the other room discussing which Sunni gang was better—the one that three of them belonged to, called 1920 Revolution, or the one that the fourth guard belonged to, Al Qaeda.
No joke, the happiest person we talked to in Baqouba was a doctor who’d survived a recent suicide attack that killed dozens of people around him. He cheerfully showed us a DVD of the attack, taken by a hospital security camera.
The doctor pointed to a man in uniform—a fake Iraqi police uniform, it turned out—and as the doctor fast-forwarded through the video, the suicide bomber was the only one who was always in the frame, as others moved in and out of the hospital’s emergency room and parking area. For 41 minutes, the man is there, waiting. The police commander shows up at one point.
None of this made it into the hour-long show we did about Iraq.
We aired the show months ago, and I’m still re-cutting and re-writing all the stories in my head. That’s part of foreign reporting for me, I’ve realized. With foreign stories, so much gets pushed out, even if I’ve got a whole hour: time gets eaten up trying to orient listeners, cover key backstories, explain conflicts, mix in translation. Good tape gets chucked—and then, if you’re me, it gets chewed over in your brain later.
For instance, the explosion that happened while I was interviewing the guy. At first it seemed like, of course we’ll use that. But then I decided that we wouldn’t use any of the interview with that guy, so what would the purpose of that moment of the explosion be? To show that Iraq is still dangerous? OK. I tried putting it in a couple of different places, but it felt flashy to me—like maybe it wasn’t saying something about Iraq, but was instead the radio version of the TV reporter in a war zone making sure the camera shows him in his flak jacket.
The doctor with the suicide DVD? We didn’t put him in partly because his happiness was so anomalous; he didn’t represent the vast majority of what we saw in Iraq. Even so, Ira and I seriously considered spending the Sunday after the show aired rewriting part of the script to include him. Then we realized we both had way too much else to do.
I’ve got a dozen of these what-ifs in my head from the Iraq show, some that are halfway settled, and others that are questions I keep asking myself. Should we have made room for the embed Larry did, including the memorial service for a medic, Sgt. Jamal Rhett, who was the second-to-the last US soldier killed during the official combat mission in Iraq?
After the speeches at the service, they did roll call, calling out two names, and getting responses, before calling out Sgt. Rhett’s name.
Should I have said somewhere, “The Iraq War, even its successes, has been a series of short-term decisions by the U.S. in a region full of countries that think very long-term”? Should I have found a place for this quote from former Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker—it’s dry, but I keep thinking about it, since this is the man who, along with General David Petraeus, helped turn Iraq from a war we were losing, into one we felt comfortable turning away from.
And what about this, which I cut and put back into the show half a dozen times before finally axing it, even though it was one of the first notes I wrote to myself when we were in Iraq:
War can unify a country, but only if everyone agrees on who the enemy was. Or is. In Iraq, people have been killed in too many different ways by too many different groups. There is no unified sense of grief, or grievance, here. And what people can’t agree on, they fight over. That’s why people worry about Iraq.
Nancy Updike is a producer at This American Life, and she has reported from the Middle East for several years. Her hour-long radio documentary about private contractors in Iraq, “I’m From the Private Sector and I’m Here to Help,” won a 2004 Scripps-Howard National Journalism Award and a 2005 Murrow Award.