Recently, I wrote about a crew of pundits and warrior-journalists eager not to see the U.S. military leave Iraq. That piece appeared on the op-ed page of the Los Angeles Times (and in alonger 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 emailed response: "Read your article in Stars and Stripes. When was the last time you visited Iraq?"
A critique in 15 well-chosen words. So much more effective than a long, angry email, 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 emailer 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 15-20 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.)
I'm certainly no expert on Shiites and Sunnis. I'm probably a little foggy on my Iraqi geography. And I've never even seen the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. On the other hand, it does occur to me that a whole raft of American pundits, government officials, and military types, who have done all of the above, who have spent time up close and personal in Iraq (or, at least, in the American version of the same), couldn't have arrived at dumber conclusions over these last many years.
So, first-hand experience, valuable as it may be for great reporters like, say, Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post and now the New York Times, or Patrick Cockburn of the BritishIndependent, can't be the be-all and end-all either. Sometimes being far away, not just from Iraq, but from Washington and all the cloistered thinking that goes with it, from the visibly claustrophobic world of American global policymaking, has its advantages. Sometimes, being out of it, experientially speaking, allows you to open your eyes and take in the larger shape of things, which is often only the obvious (even if little noted).
I can't help thinking about a friend of mine whose up-close and personal comment on U.S. military commanders in Afghanistan was that they were trapped in an American-made box, incapable of seeing beyond its boundaries -- of, that is, seeing Afghanistan. Let me be clear: I have no doubt that being there is generally something to be desired. But if you take your personal blinders with you, it often hardly matters where you are. Thinking about my Stars and Stripes reader's question, the conclusion I've provisionally come to is this: It's not just where you go, it's also how you see what's there, and no less important who you see, that matters -- which means that sometimes you can actually see more by going nowhere at all.