Recently, I wrote about a crew of pundits and warrior-journalists eager not to see the US military leave Iraq. That piece appeared on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times (and in a longer version at TomDispatch.com) and then began wandering the media world. One of its stops was the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.
From a military man came this e-mailed response: "Read your article in Stars and Stripes. When was the last time you visited Iraq?"
A critique in fifteen well-chosen words. So much more effective than a long, angry e-mail, and his point was interesting. At least, it interested me. After all, as I wrote back, I’m a 65-year-old guy who has never been anywhere near Iraq and undoubtedly never will be. I have to assume that my e-mailer had spent time there, possibly more than once, and disagreed with my assessments.
First-hand experience is not to be taken lightly. What, after all, do I know about Iraq? Only reporting I’ve been able to read from thousands of miles away or analysis found on the blogs of experts like Juan Cole. On the other hand, even from thousands of miles away, I was one of many who could see enough, by early 2003, to go into the streets and demonstrate against an onrushing disaster of an invasion that a lot of people, theoretically far more knowledgeable on Iraq than any of us, considered just the cat’s meow, the "cakewalk" of the new century.
It’s true that I’ve never strolled down a street in Baghdad or Ramadi or Basra, armed or not, and that’s a deficit, if you want to write about the American experience in Iraq. It’s also true that I haven’t spent hours sipping tea with Iraqi tribal leaders, or been inside the Green Zone, or set foot on even one of the vast American bases that the Pentagon’s private contractors have built in that country. (Nor did that stop me from writing regularly about "America’s ziggurats" when most of the people who visited those bases didn’t consider places with fifteen-to-twenty-mile perimeters, multiple bus lines, PXs, familiar fast-food franchises, Ugandan mercenary guards and who knows what else, to be particularly noteworthy structures on the Iraqi landscape and so, with rare exceptions, worth commenting on.)