Andrew Scutro Sees a Country Tied Up in Knots, with No Easy Solutions
As part of his beat covering politics, the environment and the military, Monterey County Coast Weekly reporter Andrew Scutro spent a lot of time at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center.
After the United States attacked Iraq last March, Scutro thought it would be interesting to follow some institute graduates to the war zone and see how the Iraqis and Americans were communicating, post-invasion.
In doing so, Scutro became the only alternative weekly reporter to embed with the troops in Iraq. He arrived in the country long after the war’s technical end but at a time when U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians continued to be in danger from guerrilla attacks. Because Scutro wanted to report on reconstruction, he asked to be embedded with a civil affairs unit. He hoped to find and observe people the Department of Defense had trained to be translators or intelligence gatherers at the language center in Monterey, Calif. “Do they understand the Iraqis and do the Iraqis understand them?” Scutro asks.
“I had to pitch the whole thing to the bosses, and it sort of all rolled together. By November, I knew it was going to happen,” he says. “We had the approvals, we budgeted the money, I got my Kuwaiti visa, and that was it.” He left on Dec. 15 and arrived home on Jan. 2, spending both Christmas and New Year’s in the Middle East.
Home safely in Monterey, Scutro is just finishing the last of three stories about his time in Baghdad. AAN spoke to him by phone about his time in the Middle East.
How did you connect with the unit you were embedded with?
You have to tell [the Army] what you have in mind. In order to make it a productive experience I had to be specific. I knew there were these units called civil affairs units, and that’s what I wanted to see. After the bullets slow down, the units figure out, “OK, do the trains run on time? Are the schools still standing?” I knew they were out there doing this work, and they also do some real hearts-and-mind stuff. They build soccer fields. They’re sort of like the conscience of the Army.
My request went through the chain of command, all the way to Baghdad — and they agreed. I was with the 490th civil affairs battalion.
How did it feel to know you were going to Iraq?
I think I described it to a friend as jumping off a high dive. I didn’t want to actually talk about it too much because I didn’t want it to get jinxed.
How was your experience as an embedded reporter from an alt-weekly different from a mainstream reporter’s?
I was on my own. The big papers have bureaus. And in a sense I wish I’d had that experience. I wish I could’ve landed in Baghdad met by the bureau chief and four other reporters; that would’ve been really cool.
As far as being from the alternative press, I don’t think there was any differentiation there. It’s not like they were like, “Oh, you’re an ‘alternative’ reporter.”
What was it like to spend the holidays in the Middle East?
Christmas kind of sucked. Christmas morning I was working, and to be honest, I’d forgotten all about it. There were inflatable snowmen at the base, but it was just like, Christmas, yeah, whatever. For New Year’s I was in Kuwait, where it’s illegal to have a beer.
Did you become friendly with anyone you met?
Just about everyone I met was friendly, and definitely appreciative of the fact that someone was paying attention to them. The news is dominated by violence and reaction to violence, as opposed to what these civil affairs soldiers do. But even though they’re out trying to fix a school, it doesn’t really matter—they’re still American. They’re still targets.
They’d ask if I could send their families a copy of the story, which I did. I’ve gotten some nice notes and e-mails.
Did you stick with your plan to report on the communication successes and failures between the Iraqis and Americans soldiers?
That went out the window. I want to learn Arabic, because I want to go back. It’s just not a good feeling when you’re looking at graffiti and you don’t know what it means. Or when you’re picking up a newspaper and you don’t know what it means. There are very few American Arabic speakers, and very few of them are there. So that whole focus of the story shifted into those three main vignettes.
[Scutro’s first story is written as three vignettes: one about the troops with which he was embedded hearing news about the death of an officer, one about a meeting between a colonel and some sheiks, and the last about a late-night raid carried out by the soldiers in his battalion.]
Were there any particularly captivating stories that you weren’t able to get?
It happened all the time—there’s a story around every corner. When I first got there I went to this meeting with the sheiks and Americans. There were supposed to be a bunch of sheiks at this meeting. They were trying to get the local governments set up in this rough area, where there’s a lot of unrest. So I start talking to the one sheik that showed up, and then he turns to one of the American commanders and says, “I’m sorry, I’m gong to be the only sheik here today. My cousin was assassinated yesterday and my other cousin was wounded.”
The reason he was assassinated was because he was dealing with the Americans. So everything took a hard turn, and after the meeting I ended up talking to a Special Forces guy, who was headed to the sheik’s funeral, and he asked me to go. I would’ve gone, but because of the way this whole thing had been arranged, to have followed that would’ve taken the story in a totally different direction.
There was a handyman who worked on one of the bases. He would go home every night. He lived in the Christian part of Baghdad. This was Christmas Eve, and I thought maybe I could go home with Kareem and hang out in his neighborhood and go to some Christmas services. I asked, and they said, “Well, it’s a nice idea, but if Kareem’s neighbors see him with an American—it would put Kareem in real danger.”
And that’s just so frustrating, because I would’ve loved to have seen that.
In your memo to your editors, which they published, you said you weren’t scared during your time in Iraq. Is that really true?
Not until I got home and thought about it. The scariest part was trying to get into Iraq. [Officials] wouldn’t let me into Kuwait, and they wouldn’t explain why. I had a valid visa, but they kept looking at my passport and handing it around, and it disappeared for a while. That was scary because it was unpredictable and I didn’t know what was happening.
When you read news about the conflict now, do you see it in a different light?
If anything happens, I wonder if it was where I was, and if anyone I met was involved. [The news] means more now, and I read it with more knowledge.
I’m just thankful that I got to go. This is the fifth paper I’ve worked for. I started out at some really small country papers. To have a job where you’ve spent time writing up the sheriff’s report about how Farmer Bill’s cows got away—having done that, and then getting to a paper where they would send me to Iraq—I’m just thankful for that.
Whitney Joiner is a freelance reporter based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Salon, Teen People, Time Out New York and Inside.com.