June 15th, 2014
12:55 PM ET

Iraq: A war reporter’s view

Above: As Iraq again falls into a state of chaos, famed war correspondent John Burns of The New York Times talks with Brian Stelter about covering the conflicts, both currently and back in 2003.

Here's the transcript:

STELTER: How does it feel as someone - as one of the many reporters who risked their lives covering this war 10, 11 years ago - to see what's happening now?

BURNS: Well, we were - certainly, most of us were wise before the event. That's to say we could have not told you that we foresaw this in the weeks and months up to the American invasion.

But very shortly after that invasion, certainly within a year, most of us, almost all of us foresaw this unfolding as a disaster, indeed unfolding much as it has. Nothing that has happened in the last 72 hours, or for that matter the last two or three years since American troops withdrew, I believe has surprised anybody.

STELTER: I hear you saying that we should have been listening more closely to journalists on the ground!

BURNS: It seems to be the central lesson, at least in my time there, was that the United States invaded the country to depose a murderous, tyrannical president which had, in the short term, some, many, in fact, beneficial effects for the Iraqi people. But we also discovered too late that this was a deeply fractured society and the sectarian animosities aren't just the ones that have been engendered in recent years, but ones that go back 1,000 years, were beyond our management and goodness knows American ambassador, American generals, American presidents, did everything possible to try and bridge those gaps. It proved to be beyond them.

And what we're seeing now, it seems to me, it's just an inevitable outgrowth of that.

STELTER: To hear the word inevitable is really striking to me. I mean, here, watching cable news the last few days, you can hear drum beats for air strikes or for drone strikes. How does that strike you - what is your impression of that possibility?

BURNS: Well, I think one of the great illusions of all of this has been that these events and events next door in Syria, or for that matter the events in Cairo, or much of the events we've seen under the Arab Spring, are manageable by the uses of American, in particularly western, power.

STELTER: In discussions in the media over the past few day, have you been hearing echoes of the media mistakes from 2003?

BURNS: Well, that's a very personal question for me. And for a number of others like me, who were in Iraq during Saddam's time and in Baghdad–

STELTER: –Certainly, the mistakes were made in Washington. The mistakes were made not so much in Baghdad as in Washington, where reporters were taking too seriously the Bush administration line and not seriously enough people who were skeptical.

BURNS: Well, that's absolutely correct. And "The New York Times" itself had a miserable experience with that. I think we learned a lot from that, and I think it's not going to happen again and certainly not in anything like that fashion. But to speak to the position of people like myself, what mistake did we make? We thought, many of us, that the toppling of Saddam Hussein, to end the ghastly brutalities he was besetting upon Iraq, wouldn't be a bad idea if it could be accomplished at reasonable cost.

Well, it turned out it couldn't be accomplished at reasonable cost, and that the American endeavor there was defeated and defeated rather early on now as we looked back by the sectarian enmities among the Iraqi people. It was impossible to build a civil society on that shaky, fractured foundation. I think the mistake we made was - I'm talking here about myself as well as some of my colleague,s not just at "The New York Times" but many publications - was not to understand how deeply fractured that society was, how strongly held those animosities were, and how they would not likely relent under any amount of American tutelage and encouragement.

STELTER: John Burns, thank you for taking the time to speak with me.

BURNS: Brian, it's a pleasure. Thank you.


Filed under: Iraq • Reliable Sources
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