Boobs, Dogs, and John McCain: A No Nonsense Evening with Anne Garrels


I’m back. I have been flitting around the country — Chestertown, Maryland (just designated this week as one of a “dozen distinctive destinations” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation) then Carlisle, Pennsylvania, then Dallas, then Pittsburgh and now back to DC where I’ve been juggling dogs, taxes, a nuisance cough, and my thoughts and scribbling about my recent trip to Cuba. But none of this compares to Baghdad, which I’m about to discuss.
But first thing’s first. Anne Garrels — known by some affectionately as “Annie” Garrels or by her seemingly cool husband (I’ve only read about him) as Brenda Starr, the cartoon super journalist, in published emails of his — is one of the most interesting and compelling journalistic personalities I have met. She is, of course, National Public Radio‘s veteran roving foreign correspondent most often in Baghdad as of late — though she seems to have covered nearly all of the world’s rough and tough spots over the last couple of decades.
brenda starr bloggers.jpgI’m not mesmerized often (I may pretend to be for political reasons, but really. . .I’m not) but I was in this case. Garrels comes off as a been there, done that elder (but hot!) journalist who has the energy, passion, and even innocence of a newbie reporter. That’s a hard act to manage — lots of experience, but still lots of principles, lots of commitment, lots of frailty and uncertainty, perhaps humility — even though you know she’s tough as nails and taken on and outfoxed the toughest thugs in Saddam’s Iraq as well as post-Saddam Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan, the Soviet Union, among other global hot spots.
I want to just kick out to readers some of what she shared with a packed house of about 1,500 people at Chatham College (about to become “Chatham University” according to sources), a charming and buzzing liberal arts college founded in 1869 whose undergraduate enrollment is comprised entirely of women.
Anne Garrels was awarded the 2007 Hollander Award from the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Chatham College — which means that she spends a couple of days with students and local residents in Pittsburgh exhaustively discussing her exhausting world and work covering America’s war in Iraq.
I highly recommend that folks purchase and read her book, Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR’s Correspondent. The addicting volume includes letters from her witty and astonishingly supportive husband Vint Lawrence — who seems to manage her seven months away in war zones each year with a lot of humor and understanding (though I’ve just learned via Google that he was a pretty accomplished traveling CIA operative — so the “marital understanding” seems more understandable). The book is dedicated both to her husband and to her Iraqi driver and “fixer” — named “Amer” in the volume but just a pseudonym to protect him from sectarian, pro-Saddam, anti-Saddam, anti-American, or even classic criminal attacks for his support of the work of Garrels before, during and after the war.
I would like to invite this “Amer” to guest blog at The Washington Note some time. Maybe Vint as well as his letters to friends about the war time crusades of his wife are so captivating.
After some decorous comments by Chatham College’s very impressive president Esther Barazzone as well as a star student who did the introductions, Anne Garrels opened her talk last Thursday night blasting Baghdad visitor and erstwhile presidential candidate Senator John McCain.
Now old news, but then fresh off the wire, John McCain had said that things had improved so much in Baghdad that Iraq Multinational Force Commander General David Petraeus was driving around the city in an unarmord Humvee. Garrels — who when you read her book strains for balance in her research and reporting — really lambasted McCain for his duplicitous comments. She said it “was way too early to judge the results from a change in tactics in Baghdad.”
She said that McCain’s commentary seemed ludicrous to nearly anyone with real world Baghdad experience. Anne Garrels does NOT live in the green zone. She lives in the red zone, beyond the barriers of protection that most Americans have — and every day is one where one has to be very careful and win the day and survival by his or her wits.
When Garrels covered the invasion of Iraq while staying at the Palestine Hotel, she was there with just 15 other American journalists — including correspondents for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books.
In a bit of humor Garrels-style, she said that to remain connected to her husband, Anne and he thought that they’d do some high concept intellectualizing over email on a volume of collected essays by Montaigne. They never got to that — and she was trying to trade that book for something more interesting and never got any takers, even the writer from the New York Review of Books.
She told the audience that in Iraq the “resentment and disbelief in the incompetence of America was profound.”
She offered much of what any avid Iraq-watcher knows. The White House predicted a cost of this war at $50 billion and didn’t really envision an occupation. The costs are now well beyond ten times that amount. The Department of Defense had no serious post-invasion strategy.
But one of the numbers she threw out which shocked me is that today it can cost between $3,500 and $5,000 for a one way taxi ride from the Baghdad Airport to downtown Baghdad. She has arranged some alternative, permanent service that brings the costs down some for NPR.
I confirmed this with retired Col. Paul Hughes — now with the US Institute of Peace who also worked in the Coalition Provisional Authority under Jay Garner and L. Paul Bremer. Hughes has an Australian outfit that he has worked out a special arrangement with where a one-way transportation charge is $600 — which he said is the absolute cheapest one can get.
Paul Hughes — who is one of the real stand-out stars of Charles Ferguson’s Sundance prize-winning movie No End in Sight set to be released some time this summer in the US — was in Pittsburgh speaking in a program that took place last Friday along with Anne Garrels, former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson (also a major voice in No End in Sight), and myself for the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh.
The journey from the airport to the city is just seven miles.
If John McCain was right about the success of our operations in Iraq, one will probably be able to see the evidence in the cost of land transport.
As mentioned earlier, Garrels resides in the “red zone,” and a Deputy Minister was blown up outside his home just a couple of houses away from her.
She said that Petraeus and other military officials had told journalists (on an off the record basis) that they realized that the American efforts to stabilize Baghdad with a surge in US troop levels “might be too little, too late.” Garrels then regretted she had mentioned what the Iraq-deployed US military leaders had conveyed — but then said, “well, guess that’s out there now.” I’m just faithfully reporting what was a gritty, fascinating, and depressing talk from a great war correspondent.
She said that more American military are out in the neighborhoods. She said that the Captains, Majors, Lietenant Colonels in the field know what is going on and are impressive people — that they worked hard to make sure “embedded journalists” saw things. Garrels, however, while occasionally embedded works hard to move out into the real Iraq beyond the stories and framing spoon fed to many journalists.
She said that she didn’t travel with a cadre of armed guards. She said that NPR “couldn’t afford it” and “it looked dumb.” She said that “having guards made you look like you were someone worth kidnapping.” She said that the key to her success, in part, was the ability to make herself look like a lumpy black bag in a back seat — covered in traditional dress, hiding her hair and Caucasian features.
The funniest and yet most revealing part of Anne Garrels’ insights into America’s Iraq nightmare was her comment about entering the Green Zone.
Garrels said that to get in the Green Zone, she would be “padded down seven times, sniffed by a dog, processed through two machines — just to get into the first building.”
She said that there is a woman screener there who knows Anne’s body better than her husband. Garrels said that the female screener grabbed her “boobs” on one occasion and said “hmmm, nice.”
On another occasion, the female screener revisited Anne’s breasts and body and said, “ahh, lost some weight. . .”
While this may seem humorous, it’s also clear that Senator McCain has no sense at all of the tension that permeates Baghdad and of the hell that lies outside the green zone.
Among other things that Garrel said are that she feels that people in the US are suffering from “Iraq fatigue” and didn’t really wnat to hear more of what was happening there. She admonished the crowd and asked them to “pay attention.” She said “we can’t afford to do this again; we can’t make the same mistakes.”
Garrels said that “whatever grudging respect for us was there is now gone.”
She also talked of her interaction with military handlers — who replaced Saddam’s handlers dealing with the journalists. She said that she gets regular emails from the Department of Defense suggesting “happy story ideas.”
Some of these are: “Soldier Finds a Friend”; “Soldier Saves Puppy”; “Geraldo Rivera has Lunch with Troops.”
The last one really ticked her off. Garrels said that she wrote to the chief of the happy stories operation and said that she “had not been ‘disembedded twice’, had not divulged classified location information, and had not lied (like Geraldo). . .so what’s a girl to do?”
Garrels paints pictures through radio — and that Thursday night told a rapt audience of the miserably botched American stewardship of Iraq. Her dismay is even greater when you get the context of her book because her sense of the disdain that the Iraqi public had for Saddam Hussein and the peoples’ hope that America might correct things makes the image even more poignant.
It was a great and still disturbing evening with Anne Garrels, the memorable kind that is too rare.
She just sent me an email that she is heading back to Baghdad to make sure that we hear what’s going on in real Iraq rather than the imaginary one that John McCain tried to hoist on the nation about stress-free rug haggling in a Baghdad market.
— Steve Clemons


21 comments on “Boobs, Dogs, and John McCain: A No Nonsense Evening with Anne Garrels

  1. Scott says:

    Well having known McCain for a very long time and going to church with him at NPBC in ARIZONA, and having been before his committee he is deeply in bed with Covert Op’s and was or maybe still is involved with illegal shipment of arms with old General Vang Pao in his efforts to overthrow Laos.


  2. tom says:

    I like Anne Garrells. I really do. Her reports are informative.
    One thing stood out tho. Her husband is or was a CIA operative. I wonder if she works for the CIA? That would be something they’d do: have a husband/wife tream.
    The CIA recruited many journalists since it’s the perfect cover for what they need.


  3. PoliticalCritic says:

    McCain’s comments were downright delusional. He may have just marked the end of his presidential ambitions with those remarks.


  4. Matthew says:

    All: At no one is telling us how many schools they are painting in Iraq today.
    Steve: You need to get Zbig to tell us how much we have really lost during the Bush Mal-Administration. It would have been unimaginable for me that pre-Dubya, America would be thwarting peace entreaties between Israel and Syria, would be setting up a Gulug in Communist Cuba that shocks even the Communists, and would be known as the country that touts “military commissions” (show trials) with evidence obtained–without embarrassment–from torture. And to think that our Irish Catholic politicians used to criticize the British for using rubber bullets….
    How are we going to erase this stain from our nation? Bush has made “American values” a punchline.


  5. Alex says:

    Not to be picky about jon’s comment, but 100 = roughly 8 dozen. How many dozen did he hear? Of course, there is always the possibility that a news media outlet sees a response to previously reported news and wants to 1) change the tone or direction or 2) obfuscate the message and modifies its reporting from such things as 100 or 8 dozen to “dozens”, knowing that many people would substitute 2 or 3 dozen perhaps for the 100 originally reported, giving the impression that the previous reporting was way erroneous.
    This actually happens regularly and I cannot count the number of cyberarguments I have witnessed over words that are basically a distinction without a difference or intentionally misleading to accomplish a response demonstrated by jon.
    By next week, it will be just a “handful” of soldiers who accompanied McCain and the choppers and gunships were just being refueled and anybody who mentions the number 100 will be just another unpatriotic, treasonous, hater of America.


  6. Gary G says:

    Annie Garrels is an amalgamation of guts, humanity, and and brilliance. Every time I hear one of her reports, I shake my head with admiration. Thanks for the Chatman College story. Well done.


  7. David G. Stahl says:

    Dear Steve:
    Next time you are at the Army War College or Dickinson College give a hoot, I’d love to hear you speak or met you.
    Anne Garrels’ reports have been incredible from the first, will definitely put her high on my list of speakers to search out. NPR has another woman reporter, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro,
    whose stories capture the frustration that is Iraq in heart wrenching detail.
    War is never easy, and will never be easy. What is interesting is how recent reporting in the Washington Post and elsewhere has pointed out that the State Dept analysis was much closer to reality than the DOD analysis that led up to the war. One has to have the good analysis, and then be able to recognize it out of the chaff of other reports. Almost like trying to find an informative blog like yours in the maelstrom that is the internet self-publishing world.
    Thanks for your site and your commentary. Please write when you get a chance about the politics of the AG office and when Bush will accept the AG’s resignation.
    Thanks a Million,
    David G. Stahl


  8. HS says:

    From her unique vantage point, does Anne Garrels have any idea what U.S. policy should be at this point? Or does she fall back on the observation of an anonymous American officer, “When you drive the car off a cliff, your options narrow”?


  9. pen Name says:

    Just leave Iraq, it is best for you, for the people of Iraq, and for the surrounding countries. You have demonstrated your incompetence to the entire world.
    As to who: Get out by boats.


  10. yahaddasayit says:

    I have no use, and have never had any, for McCain but to suggest he isn’t a war hero, to me, is absurd. When someone survives the environment he did for as long has he did in the manner he did, well, that translates to heroic for me. That is, unless you believe his limits were restricted to being embarrassed by using the wrong fork.


  11. Brigitte N. says:

    Kim: While I did not contribute to McCain’s campaign in 2000, I, too, thought that he was an attractive candidate–especially in contrast to his Republican opponent George W. But even before the latest signs that he has lost any sense of reality–pretty much like his now idol in the White House, McCain showed that he is an opportunist out to sell himself as moderate and conservative and far-right believer at the same time. His past as POW does not make him into a war hero nor a particular moral high ground when it comes to matters of war and peace. Just as Rudy Giuliani was and is not a hero of 9/11–he did what every leader worth his/her salt must do in an emergency.


  12. jon says:

    I think McCain’s quote was that Petraeus travels in an ‘unarmed Humvee’, not that it is unarmored.
    He used very specific, misleading language to give the impression that conditions are safer than they are. Petraeus probably carries a sidearm. He is most likely accompanied everywhere by bodyguards. The vehicles preceding and following his are likely packed with fully armed soldiers and have .50 caliber machine gun posts on their roofs. Petraeus probably does not exit his Humvee before his body men have assured themselves of the security on the scene, and they probably establish multiple security cordons around him. But, no, Petraeus’ personal staff car does not require its own complement of weaponry
    Last night I saw a news broadcast that said that McCain & Graham’s visit to the market was accompanied by ‘dozens’ of US troops, rather than the 100 troops mentioned by others, and also not including the helicopters, snipers, informants and pre-visit security sweep.
    I can understand McCain and others wanting to portray things in the best possible light. And I’m sure that there are good things happening daily in Iraq.
    But I also expect reporters and the media to be sceptical and accurate when reporting. The job is more than dictation, and without checking assertions and providing fuller context and analysis, inaccurate and one-sided information gains the imprimature of accuracy, and of being confirmed and supported by the media.


  13. kim says:

    I am embarrassed to say that back in 2000, I gave a sizeable donation to McCain as he was battling Bush for the nomination. Boy, was that a mistake.
    I just hope he fades away and returns to fantasy world, the Senate.


  14. Alex says:

    Great report, Steve. I’ve got the creeping crud, too. 🙁
    I have read that one of the things that has happened in this “surge” is the (indiscriminate?) arrest of nearly 100,000 Iraqis and throwing them in jails. Did Anne give any hint of having heard that?


  15. Carroll says:

    What a marvelous, couragous woman!
    Thank God for the Garrels of the world.


  16. rich says:

    Interesting post–there’s a lot conveyed by the anecdote & nuanced. Thanks much–this one’s easily as informative as any other. Garrels has got, as it seems do all NPR correspondents, “The Voice.”
    A good thing that screener’s not running for President!
    Also fascinated by the interconnected social networks–clicked through to find this:
    ” “James Vinton” … was stationed in Laos from 1962 to 1964 and had a close relationship with the Hmong leader Vang Pao.”
    I’ll have to leaf through some Alfred McCoy to see if he mentions Vinton as well as Vang Pao.
    Why? At the same Wiki-link: “Poshepny’s courage and ruthlessness earned him the respect and loyalty of the Hmong.”
    Mm-m. Love the taste of respect and loyalty.
    McCoy recounts the deal Hmong highlanders made with the CIA: w/the war on, traditional cropping etc was disrupted. These Hmong villages were surrounded on all sides by lower elevations–& the North Vietnamese. No supply lines.
    So the CIA supplied rice by helicopter, and the Hmong sent an entire cohort of ~12-year-old boys down to fight on the side of the Americans. They never came back. The following year, the Hmong sent the next set of fighting-age ~12-year-old boys. They never came back. (going on memory, this may’ve happened 3 years running)
    The next year, the Hmong villages refused to send the next set of boys. They’d lost too much; their courage was no match for grief and common sense. So the CIA withheld the airlifted rice. No farming, no supply lines, on a series of big hills surrounded by the North Vietnamese Army, having just lost a generation of boys–and no helicopters. And no rice. The Hmong sent another cohort of boys down the hill, and into the war.
    They never came back.


  17. yahaddasayit says:

    How widely reported was the London Times report that 21 of McCain’s Market workers have been murdered since? Wonder if our boy took it personally? C’mon, John, start a right wing fund to support the families you just decimated.


  18. Pissed Off American says:

    She intends to feed us the truth from Bagdad????
    Dead woman walking.


  19. Jon Tupper says:

    Wow, talk about courage. Yessir.
    And funny too.


  20. DonS says:

    Thanks for the descriptive post, with a lot between the lines.
    I, too, like many posters here, keep wondering when a lot of reporters and the like will shuck the patina needed to be accepted by the power possessing beings, and become more honest, open and forthright, in the model of British journalists perhaps. Actually, much of the press corps needs to turn on the Bush regime to recoup not only their press fides, but some remnant of self-respect.
    I begin to think that the caution of “younger” generation perhaps results from some notion of preserving their viability, and marketability. Whereas, we somewhat older folks, mid 60’s on up, recognize that the situation is somewhat more dire than the almighty buck and some misconceived notion of respectability or being not regarded as a “kook” because, you know, its all going to turn out ok in the end and America will land on its feet. Don’t want to look like some activist pinko when that happens. Hah.


  21. daCascadian says:

    Steve Clemons >”…She just sent me an email that she is heading back to Baghdad to make sure that we hear what’s going on in real Iraq rather than the imaginary one…”
    Bless her.
    May the gods/saints protect her always.
    “Privacy is an inherent human right, and a requirement for maintaining the human condition with dignity and respect.” – Bruce Schneier


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