BAGHDAD — When New York Times foreign correspondent John F. Burns returned home to England after the fall of Baghdad last year, he nearly collapsed of exhaustion. Diagnosed with an electrical flutter of the heart, he was certain of the cause: the stress of those many months in Iraq, the hounding by the secret police, the accusation that he was a C.I.A. agent, the bombing, the invasion, his escape. Surely a martyr’s death awaited. But under questioning from his doctor, Mr. Burns admitted that he had been drinking 25 to 35 cups of tea a day, enough caffeine to kill old Earl Grey himself.
“I lost my Purple Heart right then and there,” he said on a recent morning at The Times’ Baghdad headquarters, to which he returned in October as bureau chief.
In country and off caffeine, Mr. Burns will have ample opportunity to win that medal back. You don’t have to be a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for danger to knock on your door in Baghdad these days. But rather than sit around and wait for the inevitable, Mr. Burns is in the meantime collecting some other distinctions. At 59 years, he is possibly the oldest member of the Western press corps in Iraq. He is certainly the hairiest.
Of course, there are greater mysteries in the quicksand of this country than the grooming habits of journalists. But at a time when attacks against foreign civilians have led to a run on black hair dye and Iraqi makeover specialists, Mr. Burns’ eye-catching crown of curly white fleece begs the question with all its unkempt mortar-magnet glory.
“Why do I not go to the barber very often?” he said. “This may be an affectation, but it’s true. My father was an air force general — Royal Air Force. Twenty years ago, I went to have my hair cut in England, and in talking to the woman cutting my hair, she said that her father, a pilot, was killed with the Royal Air Force in Germany. And I said, “Oh, my father was there at the time.” We quickly discovered that it was the same time. The following morning, I was staying at a hotel in the West End, she came to my room and said, “I want to show you a photograph.” And it was the photograph of her mother and herself as a young child at the funeral of this pilot, and my parents, my father in uniform and my mother, standing on either side of her. And she said, “My mother said your parents were so kind that I wasn’t to charge you for the haircut.” And I said, “I’ve got a better idea than that. Charge me for the haircut, but I will never have my hair cut anywhere else again other than by you.” And I have not had my hair cut by any other person than that woman in 20 years, and I’m not very often in England.”
Those sheepish locks are also a rebuttal to any who would say that war reporting is a younger person’s racket. Mr. Burns is mutton dressed as mutton.
“I find it difficult to think of myself now as being the oldest man around,” he said. “But it creeps up on you, and you suddenly realize: ‘My goodness, I’m nearly 20 years older than the next-oldest person in this bureau!’ When I first went to China as a foreign correspondent, 33 years ago, I was 26. I met, on a covered bridge leading from Hong Kong into China going north, the only other Western correspondent then active in China at the time, a German correspondent coming south, looking woebegone and quite a bit frightened. He said to me, in effect, ‘Abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Turn around. Go back.’ He was probably then 10 years younger than I am now. And I remember thinking, ‘Well, you lack the exuberance of youth, my friend. And that’s the essential difference between you and me.” So I headed north into the worst of the Cultural Revolution.
“Now, when I am gathered with my colleagues, many of whom are not much older than 26, I wonder if they look at me and think, ‘It’s way past your bedtime. The curtains have come down, the crowds have gone home.’”
“In one of John le Carr’s books,” he continued, “Smiley is trying to recruit his old network as they are closing in on Karla the K.G.B. chief, and he goes to this entirely dubious shop in London to talk to one of the Eastern European guys who work for him. And he says, ‘I need you,’ and the guy replies, ‘George, George, remember what you used to tell us in Secret Service training? “Old spy in a hurry — the worst kind.”
“Old man in a hurry. Is that true? Does age weary, and do the years condemn in this business? I don’t think it is. I’m not aware of having any less enthusiasm or any less energy than I had 30 years ago. I would hope that along the way one would have picked up a little wisdom about these affairs.”
Mr. Burns joined The Times in 1975; though born in England, he was raised in Canada, graduated from McGill University in Montreal, and became a reporter for Toronto’s Globe and Mail. During his Times career, he’s reported from Johannesburg, New Delhi, Moscow, Sarajevo and Belgrade. He picked up his twin Pulitzers for Bosnia and Afghanistan.
“And although there are things that make this job look stressful, there are important ways in which it has become so much easier than in the previous generation,” he said. “Just think of satellite phones and computers. Things have progressed so much in my lifetime, that when I started as a foreign correspondent in difficult environments, you could spend half or three-quarters of the day finding a way to transmit what you’d written. Finding a cable. Finding the man who’s supposed to be operating the cable, who’s gone off for tea. All that time has come back to us in the form of productive reporting and writing time.”
Of course, most journalists in Iraq are less concerned with maintaining productivity into their autumnal years than in actually reaching their autumnal years. Mr. Burns is hardly unaware of the security risks that journalists face — he is married and has three children — and asked that the location of The Times’ bureau not be mentioned in print. He said he was particularly disturbed by the bombings in Baghdad of the United Nations headquarters and the International Committee of the Red Cross last year.
“People who can attack these two organizations are not likely to give us an exemption,” he said. In two separate instances last month, The Times had members of its staff kidnapped, including Mr. Burns himself along with a photographer. And though all were released — a sign that there might still be some latitude for the press to cover both sides of the conflict — Mr. Burns said the bureau was now operating on the assumption that resistance groups would make little distinction between civilians and soldiers.
“We don’t walk around with hats on that say, ‘Press’” he said. “The privatization of the war — the role of private security firms for example — is a factor of this. There are quite a lot of foreign civilians in this country who carry weapons. So simply distinguishing ourselves in the battle zone is more difficult than it was before.
“Our employers make it possible to do everything to protect ourselves. For all that, there’s only so much you can do. You are left with a large measure of risk for which there is essentially no protection. There is no protection that I know of against suicide bombing or against people who fire heavy weapons at motor vehicles, nor ultimately against hostage-taking in battle zones.
“And still people want to come here and want to report this story. I don’t think there’s a single case of a New York Times correspondent — and I mean since before the war — we’ve never had a single reporter or photographer who’s been assigned here who hasn’t wanted to come back.
“Why is that? At least to speak for myself, I don’t think that bravery has much do with it. I think it’s the sense of being at the heart of the matter. Of reporting about something that engages the keen attention of just about everybody in America. I don’t want to sound grandiloquent about the position of The New York Times in American life, but there are many people who depend on us to report on what is happening here. We have to find a way to continue to cover this.
“It’s a challenge,” he continued, “it’s a real challenge to a find way to do this effectively and to do so without engaging in acts of bravado, to the find the balance between what we feel we need to do, on the one hand, and what is simply foolhardy. Every single assignment we take, we have to make that choice. And our editors insist that we err on the side of caution.”
For all the bombs and bland kebobs, working in Baghdad does have its charms, not the least of which is friendly competition among hacks. The Times bureau has a bulletin board where all the major Iraq stories from other papers are posted. “Every morning, first thing we do is read what The Washington Post has done,” Mr. Burns said. “Anthony Shadid in particular, but all of them.
“You know, it’s these very circumstances, as we’ve experienced elsewhere — Bosnia in my case in particular — where there’s great hazard, it does tend to forge a kind of collegiality,” he said. “It’s not to say that this hasn’t happened elsewhere, but there are probably closer relations between reporters of all major newspapers and news networks here than there have been in any place I’ve ever worked.”
The bonds formed under pressure have gone a long way to smoothing over any bad feelings remaining in the wake of the remarks that Mr. Burns made to the editors of Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq — An Oral History, a collection of first-person accounts by journalists who covered the invasion. In the book, Mr. Burns recalled that some correspondents whitewashed Saddam’s regime so that they would be allowed to stay in Iraq. In particular, he noted that one unnamed reporter had printed copies of Mr. Burns’ critical articles to show government minders “what a good boy he was compared to this enemy of the state.” Mr. Burns said that he never thought his comments would end up in the public realm.
“I believe that there’s tremendous redemptive power in nature,” he said. “One of the things that’s happened in the course of the last months of increasing hazard here is that we’ve all drawn together. And that includes myself and the people of whom I spoke critically at that time. It reminds me of a wonderful phrase from Rupert Brooke’s First World War poem. In another context, he talked about “all evil shed away.” We’re all in this together now. If there were people who were wary about stating the essential truth about Saddam Hussein’s regime, which is to say that it was a terror state, those people now are showing tremendous bravery, and I’ve also seen just how good they are as journalists. It’s a different time. It’s a different challenge. That seems a country far away and long ago. And one or two of my colleagues who were upset by those remarks are now friends again. So all evil shed away.”
The New York Observer