San Antonio War Reporter Challenges McCain's View of Iraq

By: E&P Staff Sig Christenson, a founder of Miltitary Reporters and Editors (MRE), is back in Iraq for his fifth tour of reporting duty for the San Antonio Express-News. E&P has covered each of his tours over the past four years (most recently in our April print edition). Besides sending back articles to his paper, he also maintains on this trip a blog at its site, at

Here is his entry from yesterday, which he forwarded to E&P.

Four long years have passed since the fourth anniversary of Baghdad's fall. The war that was supposed to be quick and easy has become long and hard. The misery index here in Baghdad is about as high as the temperature in August.

Imagine you live in Muholla 212 in Karkh, a district in Baghdad only
recently liberated from vicious fighting. The high-rise apartments are
riddled with bullets, a few of the windows scorched from missile strikes.
Some of your neighbors were killed by terrorists, at least one of them a

A drive to the market, if you're lucky enough to have a car rather than the three kids I saw the other day racing down Haifa Street in a donkey cart, is a heroic act of faith.

The killing goes on in parts of this country even as I write this sentence.

We reporters here aren't making it up. We're doing our jobs and sharing the same risks as U.S. troops and millions of Iraqis, and we're not running for any public office.

The same can't be said of Sen. John McCain. He's the pro-war presidential candidate, and he was just here last week on a nice dog-and-pony show to a Baghdad market.

The good senator is luxuriating back home again, indulging himself in
another rant on the media's coverage of this war.

"The new political-military strategy is beginning to show results," McCain, R-Ariz., wrote in Sunday's Washington Post. "But most Americans are not aware because much of the media are not reporting it or devote far more attention to car bombs and mortar attacks that reveal little about the strategic direction of the war.

"I am not saying that bad news should not be reported or that horrific
terrorist attacks are not newsworthy. But news coverage should also include evidence of progress."

Enough already. There have been enough distortions for one war.

This is a crass act of politics designed to energize the senator's
conservative base, which for the most part very badly wants to believe that things are much better over here than the media lets on.

This is a crass act of politics every bit as low as using Iraqis in a
run-down market as props in his race to the White House.

You've got to have a lot of ambition to have that kind of gall. It's truly

But it takes even more courage to report Iraq as it is these days, and
here's the litmus test for it: I dare John McCain or any other officeholder to go to that market in a small and often unreliable Iraqi car, his only support an Iraqi driver and translator.

That's how a lot of us media types got around Iraq three years ago, before it became too dangerous to work without high-end security. Photographer Edward Ornelas and I not only drove all over Baghdad with that arrangement, we also spent time far outside of the city, working in remote rural areas with no protection at all.

The Christian Science Monitor's Jill Carroll worked that way until she was kidnapped. We were luckier. Two of our cars broke down, once in Tikrit the morning after Saddam's capture. Somehow, and certainly with God's guidance, we made it home.

It seems McCain is proud of the fact that he's made five visits to Iraq
since 2003. Curiously, so have I. But I'd guess that my visits have run
longer and involved more danger, starting with the invasion. I'd bet that every journalist who has been here could say the same thing, but listen to him: "I just returned from my fifth visit to Iraq since 2003 ? and my first since Gen. David Petraeus's new strategy has started taking effect. For the first time, our delegation was able to drive, not use helicopters, from the airport to downtown Baghdad."

That must have been a thrill, my friend. But you almost certainly rode the old "Highway of Death" in a Rhino, a big armored bus.

Ed and I have ridden the Rhino. We came in once on a blue school bus with no protection at all, a soldier next to me gripping his rifle so hard his knuckles were white.

What McCain is trying to convey is that things are safer because you can take a big armored bus on that once-perilous journey from the airport to the Green Zone.

He's claiming that an hour-long market tour has convinced him that Baghdad is coming back to life.

Well, it is ? to some degree. There also are parts of Baghdad that are war zones, and soldiers die pretty much every day in this city. That's the real story.

It isn't happy news, but it's the truth and no soldier I've met would
dispute it.

You are welcome to believe everything McCain says. His testimony is based on a whirlwind tour of modern Mesopotamia with a "60 Minutes" crew in tow.

Or you can believe the reporters who come here for embeds that run months, or the truly intrepid journalists who spend years here.

But there's one thing I know from having lived this war, and something the senator should have never forgotten from his years as a POW. I am reminded of it every time I wear my Society of Professional Journalists T-shirt, which bears this thought. "Talk is cheap. Free speech isn't.


For E&P Editor Greg Mitchell's column on McCain's "from the ridiculous to the maligned" trip to Baghdad,

click here.


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