A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Q&A: Mike Dorning, war reporter

By Quill

Q: You have done five rotations in Iraq. What were the conditions like over there?

A: Those rotations, each lasting about a month and a half, have been spread over nearly two years, and conditions have changed quite a bit over time.

When I was last in Iraq, in February and March, security was still a big problem. An Italian journalist was kidnapped while reporting on a university campus in Baghdad. The airport road was dangerous day and night. Our bureau in Baghdad is located inside a guarded, fortified compound, and our correspondents’ movements outside were carefully planned, mostly to locations where we already knew people. I spent most of this past assignment embedded with American troops in various locations around the country. One soldier I profiled was shot in the face by a sniper two days after I finished spending time with him.

That said, life in Iraq is not all danger and doom. I met two soldiers from the Indiana National Guard who fell in love and got engaged in Iraq on Valentine’s Day. An Iraqi who is a good friend just had a baby daughter. And several Iraqis I know said they took heart from the relative calm during the national elections.

Q: Having been in Iraq and seen the coverage once you got home, do you think the media is doing a fair job of telling the complete story? What misconceptions do you think most have about Iraq and the war on terror?

A: For the first year and a half, I thought the American press was not sufficiently communicating the strength of the insurgency and the broad impact that it had on the country and on the work of American forces. Because the daily coverage tended to focus on attacks that killed Americans or spectacular attacks on other targets, I think the public initially did not appreciate that there were many attacks every day all over the country and the menace that created. But by last summer, I think most Americans had a general sense of how widespread the insurgency was.

Not surprisingly, most Americans that I meet at home still fail to appreciate the complexity of the situation in Iraq — that there is a real mix of opinion and interests among Iraqis, among different ethnic groups, among people with different views of religion’s role in society, among people who just plain react to life’s challenges in different ways. Those differences have been amply covered but I think there is always a tendency for people to over-generalize about a foreign land.

I do think the media is doing a fair job of telling the story in Iraq — given the very substantial limitations placed on reporters by the difficult security situations.

Q: While reporting from Haiti several years back, you were put into a situation where you had to dodge bullets.

A: I was covering a march by Aristide supporters a week or so after the arrival of U.S. forces in Haiti. The march passed by a building occupied by a paramilitary group that had been enforcers for the military dictatorship. The militia members began firing into the crowd. The marchers threw rocks back at the militia members. The melee went on for some time. I and other reporters continued to follow the skirmish by moving along porches along the side of the road and taking cover where we could.

Ultimately, the militia members charged down the road, executing a number of demonstrators as they overtook them. One of the demonstrators that they shot was taking cover on a porch a few yards from me. A USA Today reporter tried to shield the demonstrator — a young man probably in his late teens — as the militia members approached the porch. But the militiamen pulled the reporter away and shot the demonstrator in the head with a pistol. Then one of the soldiers picked up a rock and slammed it into the young man’s head.

Q: Was that your scariest moment in journalism? If not, what was?

A: During my first day in Iraq in May 2003 — just after the U.S. invasion — I was driving from Jordan to Baghdad when a band of men armed with AK-47s forced our vehicle of the road, assaulted my driver, tossed him out of the vehicle and then took me and the vehicle off into the desert. I tried to get out of the vehicle and let them take everything, but they would not let me out. I spoke no Arabic and they spoke no English. So I was left wondering whether I was being robbed or kidnapped like Danny Pearl. I realized there was nothing I could do but be quiet, remain calm and pray.

Eventually, we stopped. It turned out I was being robbed…

Since then, I’ve been mortared, fired on, had a car bomb blow up nearby. But in each case, I was with a translator, a driver or soldiers I knew. There’s something especially scary about being alone, unable to communicate and helpless to resist.

Q: Why do you put your life on the line? Do you enjoy the rush?

A: I don’t seek to risk my life or risk injury to myself for its own sake. But I understand that life is full of risks, and that risks can be worth taking. It’s important for Americans to understand the true face of war, particularly when so many people no longer have a first-hand connection with service in the armed forces. And, on a personal level, covering war and societies in conflict gives you a deeper appreciation of human nature — of courage and sacrifice, of brutality and betrayal, of human resilience and the often-surprising strength of everyday families swept up in extraordinary circumstances.

Q: What has been your proudest journalistic moment?

A: Back in 1993, when I wrote a magazine story about a cousin and my brother, who both died from AIDS within a year of each other. It was a difficult story to write, and my family was understandably nervous about publicly sharing such a wrenching experience. But I think I succeeded in capturing the spirit that we all loved in my brother without avoiding his flaws and in shedding a bit of light on how a national tragedy rippled through one family. My parents liked the story so much they sent it out to friends and relatives.