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He's Back From Iraq

Miami's own Lt. Alejandro de Armas and ABC newsman Charlie Herman atop a tank in central Baghdad
COURTESY OF CHARLES HERMAN/ABC NEWS

Don't get Charlie Herman wrong. He doesn't miss the gunfire or the backdrop of constant explosions. It's just that after being a producer for ABC-TV's World News Tonight in Baghdad, returning to his role as the network's man in Miami is a bit, well, strange. Not that his prior foreign postings haven't had their share of danger (being menaced by a mob of angry Hugo Chavez supporters in Caracas) or surreal sights (watching a life-size can of Spam gleefully dance past Fidel Castro at last fall's agricultural trade fair in Havana). But none of this comes close to working in Baghdad.

"How do you go from that to covering stories like the trial of the America West pilots accused of being drunk?" Herman muses of his latest assignment. "You just do, it's the job." He gazes up at the wall inside ABC's Miami office, where a bank of television monitors silently display the city's local news broadcasts -- a blur of car crashes and hyperactive weathermen -- and continues: "But it doesn't compare to something like witnessing a country trying to rebuild itself after years of a totalitarian regime and a war."

Herman is hardly the only journalist having difficulty readjusting to the homefront. NBC's Chip Reid, embedded with a U.S. Marine battalion, is now in California reporting on the Laci Peterson case. "I've got to say that it's a bit of a letdown," Reid told Newsday, "to go from covering the biggest story in the world and come out here and cover a story that's so on the periphery." Herman's colleague at ABC, Nightline's Leroy Sievers, embedded with an army infantry unit, added that his own return left him feeling like a bewildered Rip Van Winkle: "We had our time out there, this intense rush, and for everyone else back here, their lives went on."

Instead of trying to elaborate on Sievers's "intense rush," Herman slides a videotape into the belly of a VCR. It's the first chance he's had to watch his Baghdad nightly news reports from the passive side of a TV screen. Some of these pieces were transmitted via satellite equipment borrowed from Turkish TV, and beamed to ABC's New York City studio just minutes before its 6:30 p.m. broadcast -- 2:30 a.m. Iraqi time. After a long day of scouring Baghdad, sifting rumor from fact, filming, and then editing it all down to a minute-and-a-half segment on generator-powered equipment, Herman only had time left to crash for a few hours. And then get up and do it all over again.

Sometimes the stories woke him before his alarm clock did. On April 26, just after dawn, Herman was violently shaken as his bed was slammed against a wall by the force of an explosion. Even though it was several miles away, the blast rattled his hotel's very foundation. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Herman found himself thrown up against the wall three more times in quick succession. Today's top story was clearly calling. He and his crew piled into their car and raced off in the direction of the noise, which turned out to be a makeshift ammunition dump in Zafaraniyah. Four homes had been leveled in the explosions -- wounding six Iraqis and killing most of one family as their roof collapsed on them -- which were still visibly shaking the camera as Herman's crew rolled tape on the scene.

To hear the U.S. military tell it, as they moved into that southeastern Baghdad neighborhood that morning they came under fire from Fedayeen paramilitaries, who shot incendiary flares into the ammunition dump, purposely igniting it. Iraqis in the street, however, claimed that U.S. forces had been setting off controlled blasts at the site for days. And this morning the Americans had been fatally careless.

The conflicting accounts pointed to the crux of newsgathering in Baghdad, an anarchic situation but one with unparalleled freedom for journalists. "Everyone I've spoken with, Iraqis there and Americans here, thinks they're not getting the full story," Herman says. "So many people believe the press is censored by the military, or that we're self-censored." He shakes his head and laughs knowingly: "It would've been impossible for the military to censor us, even if they'd wanted to. It was just too chaotic to try and control anyone." For his ammo-dump story, Herman never asked permission before interviewing soldiers in the field, bystanders, or victims at a nearby hospital. And if he was barred from entering an area, as when he went hunting for Saddam's personal underground bunker, it usually just meant driving several blocks around a checkpoint. Or refusing to take no for an answer.

In the case of the ammunition dump, Herman knew firsthand that U.S. forces had just taken control of the area; Iraqi protestations they'd been detonating ordnance there for days were obviously lies. But it pointed to the conspiracy-theorizing that has driven much American reportage, such as the claim that 170,000 priceless artifacts had been looted from the Iraqi National Museum. "U.S. Army ignored alert on museum looting risk," ABC originally announced, while the BBC heralded "a loss to mankind" as American soldiers sat idly by.

The number of ancient cultural items now missing is set at 33 -- and those were reportedly lifted as part of an "inside job" before U.S. troops even entered Baghdad, using keys and the assistance of museum curators apparently working for international art dealers.

"You'd talk to people about the looters, and they'd say it wasn't Iraqis doing it," Herman recalls incredulously. "It was Americans, or foreigners who were brought in by the Americans. Or they were Iraqis paid to loot by the Americans.... Many people think the CIA has whisked away the 55 most-wanted Iraqi leaders. How else could they all be missing?" As bizarre as these notions may be, Herman can understand their genesis. "There are no jobs," he notes, "there's no government, and there's next to nothing for most people to do but sit around, talk, and come up with elaborate theories."

Add to that what now appears to be an organized campaign of Baathist guerrilla resistance and sabotage attacks on the U.S. reconstruction effort and you have a recipe for confusion. "It's completely contradictory," Herman says. "Iraqis will tell you they're glad Saddam is gone, but now it's time for the U.S. to leave. Yet in the same breath they'll demand that the U.S. do more to provide security. They'll ask for weapons searches, but then they'll say these searches of people's homes are disrespectful or culturally offensive."

Herman's own take on the situation remains jangled. The chanted refrains of outdoor prayers to Allah mix with the sounds of the Backstreet Boys, whose music Herman's driver, Raad, loved to play on his car's tape deck as they sped around Baghdad. Raad couldn't understand the English lyrics to Backstreet's "Quit Playing Games (With My Heart)," but oh, the melody. In that spirit, he may have the sagest outlook of all. "I hope Iraqis sleep for two years," Raad told Herman, and when his countrymen awaken, "things will be settled down. We don't want to suffer."


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