Baghdad Notes: Goodbye To All That

Barry Petersen, CBS News Correspondent
Barry Petersen

CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen has been posted in Iraq since mid-August, coming in from his regular post in Asia. The last time he was in Baghdad was in the mid-'90s, between the wars, when he worked out of the London bureau.

He has taken many trips to Sarajevo when it was under siege, and traveled to other parts of the former Yugoslavia, usually when there was trouble. He has also reported from Africa and Central America when countries were coming apart.

"I wrote this as part of a series of occasional e-mails mostly for my family, who have said way too many goodbyes and spent way too many hours worrying about me. I also sent it around to close friends, trying to give them insights into Iraq that they might not get from the editorial pages. Something personal, nothing earth-shaking. Just being there," says Petersen.

God willing, this is my last night in Baghdad. I'm booked on the first flight out in the morning.

It will be hard to go, but it's time. Smudge (our chief of security) told me last night it was time for me to leave. I was surprised and asked why.

"You've lost your sense of humor," he said. "When you first came here you were joking. Not anymore."

So that's what seven weeks of hotel life, cigarettes and cookies (more on that later) and working the day and night shift have done. I am now a man without a smile.

Part of it is tiredness. The old hands here tell me I have no idea how tired I am, and won't know until I get out and finally relax.

Part of it is sadness. How many days can you go on telling this story, seeing the pictures of distraught parents crying over wounded children, hearing the explosions in the middle of the day or the night and wondering who got killed, before it wears you down?

Journalists have a wall. I have one. It keeps out a lot of the emotion because your job is to report, not to cry. To see and, if you want to stay sane, not to feel.

The problem with the wall is that it works when you are on the story, but it can collapse once you leave. Maybe there are some tears out there, waiting for me somewhere in the dark of my soul.

Now you see what Smudge meant about losing the sense of humor.

Now, about those cookies and cigarettes. They got me through. They were my comfort food. I know that neither is good for you, but both worked. Although there are some pretty long treadmill hours ahead. Warning to dieters…the cookie diet just doesn't work. Everything I put on is tighter.

I noticed the cigarette smoking (not mine) when I was around U.S. soldiers. A lot of them smoke. I asked one lieutenant if he smoked at home back in the States and he was shocked.

"Never," he said.

But in Iraq - "Well, pretty much always."

He offered me a cigarette and we smoked together and pondered that. A private moment, a hit of feel-good nicotine. Why not? Who knows what's coming. This is for now.

What I needed most at the end of the day was some private time. For me, that started at 3 a.m. That is the point here in Iraq when the "Evening News" is just off the air. There's nothing more you can do at that point, until the next day when the morning show starts asking for this and that.

So, at 3 a.m., wired like a coffee addict on his 20th espresso searching desperately for a Starbucks, I trundle down the dark hallway to my room and - what - try and sleep? Fat chance.

That's when I watch a movie, and almost any movie will do. The other night I borrowed a DVD from the community shared supply (a stack in one of the rooms) that was so badly written I was anticipating the lines. The plot was so predictable watching the movie was like watching ice melt. I loved it.

I laughed at all the places I'm sure the script hoped people would laugh. I got into the characters in a way I am sure the director know someone would.

I'm sure the movie was a flop - forget the name - but to me as the clock moved it was perfect. A movie that required no thought, and no matter how bad the situation looked for the good guys, you just knew they would win in the end. (They did.)

The idea is simply to disengage. Join some other reality. Ponder the cute blonde lead in the movie and wonder if she would find an aging, cigarette-smoking guy who ate too many cookies as charming as the hero. Well, since the hero ran a local gymnasium, probably not.

Then there are the books. I brought some, read them quickly, donated them to the community library - another stack in the same room. So I started reading what other people brought. I roared through "1984," did a couple of spy novels, a couple of biographies.

The idea here is NOT to get engaged in the book. The idea is that the book should be sufficiently uninteresting that the eyes droop and, finally, sleep.

About Iraq. When I started here, I promised not to write huge thoughts about the fate of the country. There is plenty of that around, right?

What I quickly learned is how little I knew, and I've been reading as much as I could in the months leading to the war, during the war, after the war.

Maybe I missed an important chapter somewhere. But I can no longer look at this place as a country. It's a collection of loyalties. To religion, to heritage, to tribes, and to shared hatred of the Americans.

The soldiers I met and got to know have this shining hope. They talk of rebuilding the country, of fixing sewers and power lines and getting the garbage picked up. That is their mantra for winning - creating a better life so people will see it our way. The clash of civilizations summed up in the hope of winning by providing the conveniences of modern life.

The catch is - the soldiers never seem to get that chance. Visits to the community end in the tragic ways. One community leader that the soldiers especially respected and worked with was gunned down one morning outside his house. His crime - working with the Americans.

We had a picture one night of a translator hired by the U.S. Army chatting with a couple of GIs on a Humvee, then heading off to home. Our translator shook his head glumly and told us the rest of the story. The kidnappers were waiting at his house, and abducted him. His crime - working with the Americans.

You get the drift.

So the long nights are soon over, the noon live shots on the roof under a tent with huge bright lights are over - no more sweating in 120-degree heat.

The agonizing over scripts and the nights with the best writing got dumped in a second because the story took a sudden shift. The wonderful lines seemed so important at the time, and now I can't remember one.

Being hotel bound that becomes so claustrophobic that getting out, even as dangerous as it has become, is a relief. Daylight, air, people.

And once outside, the fear creeps in. You see a couple of guys talking at the corner and looking at you, you see a car slow down for no reason, and you feel your body tighten. Are they after me? Because there are plenty of people who are after me - the foreigner, the American, the journalist - I would be a big catch for the kidnappers.

But are THESE PARTICULAR PEOPLE after me? The only way to know is if they strike.

And in all those weeks, thank you God, no one did.

Only one last hurdle remains…the road to the airport, the most dangerous road in Iraq. Survive that, and you are - finally - on your way home.