Jeffrey Gettleman ’94, New York Times Iraq war correspondent, gave an in-depth and dramatic lecture yesterday on his experiences as a journalist covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The lecture, sponsored by Cornell’s Program on Ethics and Public Life, was titled “From Ithaca to Baghdad.”
Gettleman began by first describing the circumstances of his kidnapping in early April 2004, when he was in a van surrounded by armed insurgents about five miles away from Fallujah. Using the alias that he was a Greek journalist trying to write about the Iraqi perspective on the war, Gettleman underwent multiple interrogations staged by masked and armed insurgents, who were insistent on knowing whether he was American. He pointed out that this incident was a mere week after the corpses of several Americans had been dragged through the streets of Fallujah, and that insurgents were being paid to kill or capture Americans. Fortunately, Gettleman was eventually released and driven back to Baghdad.
For the majority of the lecture, Gettleman focused on the sights and sounds that he observed while reporting on the war.
“[Most of] the images you see of Iraq … are very monochromatic, dry, dusty, barren, kind of pitiful … [but] we found ourselves in these glowing green rice fields … it was a slice of Iraq I hadn’t seen up until that time … it was an incredible journey,” Gettleman said.
At the start of his assignment as a correspondent in Iraq in September 2003, Gettleman worked in the Baghdad bureau for the New York Times.
“One thing that struck me … in Baghdad … was how much hope I felt; I really felt that at that moment, that the occupation might work, that the country was turning around.” He said parts of Iraq were even “quiet” and “peaceful.”
He continued: “and one story that I thought of doing, that I never did, was what Saddam had done right … there were parts of Iraqi society that really impressed me … there were really beautiful structures … a real tradition [existed] there, a civic pride … there was also this backdrop of a beautiful city.”
In early 2004, however, according to Gettleman, “everything changed.” He pointed out that there was an increased number of attacks on civilians and aid workers, and while few kidnappings and beheadings had taken place, insurgents were being told that thousands of dollars would be paid to anyone who killed or kidnapped an American.
He described the countless scenes of bloodshed that were difficult to convey through a newspaper article.
“Newspapers tend to sanitize a little bit. They don’t want to indulge in graphic language, they don’t want to sicken people. We have to write [in] an understated, muted way,” Gettleman said.
Gettleman commented in particular on the incidents in Fallujah.
“On March 31st, everything changed. That’s the day the four Americans had been killed in Fallujah … [that incident] let the Americans know … how deep their hatred is toward Americans. These people really hate us … [it is] reminiscent of what happened in Somalia in 1993,” he said.
He added, “[Fallujah became] a jolt of electricity — the insurgency just took off. The images of Fallujah invigorated different groups to stand up to America.”
He also mentioned that prior to the controversial release of the photos of the Abu Ghraib prison scandals, he noticed that during a raid of an Iraqi village, every man and boy over a certain age was arrested and taken to Abu Ghraib.
“We would walk through these fields and these villages … and we wouldn’t see any males, any boys or any men … everybody would say, ‘they’re at Abu Ghraib,'” Gettleman said. He added that according to his military contacts, nine out of ten Iraqis that were imprisoned were never charged with any crime.
“I think he was very down-to-earth, straightforward. His accounts were surprisingly vivid,” said Jacqueline Silva Sanchez ’05, an attendee at the lecture. She added that he had “shed light on particular facets of the issue” that she had believed had not been fully exposed in major newspapers.
Other than his experiences in Iraq, Gettleman also spoke briefly about how he got started in journalism. He began by covering a speech given by O.J. Simpson in his second year at Oxford. He then interned at various newspapers, citing anecdotes of how he was on the “police beat” and had covered court cases involving a woman mowing her lawn while topless, and having to interview a murderer alone in his trailer.
Gettleman was hired by the Los Angeles Times in mid-2001 to cover Egypt and Afghanistan.
He commented, “Afghanistan is a stunning country. It was one of the best experiences of my life … I was in northern Afghanistan. The hospitality [there] was spectacular … anybody I wanted to talk to I could talk to .. .and the Afghan people, it was their hospitality that really struck me.”
Gettleman went on to tell an anecdote about how several Afghanis were willing to walk onto an active minefield so that he could write an article on a battle that had recently taken place there.
In September 2002, he was hired by the New York Times, and was asked to cover a platoon unit stationed in Iraq in early 2003.
“The quality of his journalism was apparent. It was clear that he is very sensitive to the issues he reports [about],” said Sarah Brady ’05, another audience member.
At the end of the lecture, Gettleman answered questions including what he felt the future of Iraq might hold, what caused the rapid insurgent uprising after Fallujah, journalistic integrity, and his thoughts after being kidnapped.
Gettleman is scheduled to return to Iraq to cover their elections in January 2005.