TCS Daily

"Greetings from Baghdad"

By Greg Scruggs - August 30, 2005 12:00 AM

On August 3, Steven Vincent earned the dubious distinction of being, according to the New York Times, "the first American reporter to be attacked and killed in the current Iraq war." He was shot dead and left outside of Basra, where he had been living for the last few months.

Vincent published an op-ed in the July 31 New York Times in which he lambasted the British for their failure to inculcate Iraqi police trainees with principle alongside procedure. As many as 75% of the new officers, according to one of his sources, hold allegiance to militant clerics.

Whether he was murdered for his writing or not remains unclear. But at his August 13 wake in the Lower East Side, when his wife, Lisa Ramaci, showed me a depression on his forehead where she believes he was struck with a rifle butt, it was clear he had incensed some of Basra's malcontents.

That's somewhat unsurprising, given that the conviction of his voice remains unparalleled. I first read Vincent's work in Reason Magazine. His piece in the March 2004 issue, "Faith, Shame, and Insurgency: Life in Occupied Iraq," sliced through the ideological blinders of most opinions on the subject to render a complicated portrait of ambivalence in the Iraqi psyche.

These findings were a product of Vincent's surprisingly refreshing methodology:

        "I'd come to Iraq to test my beliefs. Back in New York, I'd been a firm and 
        vocal backer of the war [. . .] But a question had always nagged me: How 
        could I truly endorse the war unless I actually went to Iraq?"

Impressed by his gall and as a student intrigued by the profession of freelance journalism, I wrote Vincent an e-mail. What I got in response wasn't just a thoughtful three-page e-mail -- written "[from] my flat in downtown Baghdad" -- but the best advice I have yet received in my life.

Dated February 15, 2004 with the subject heading "Greetings from Baghdad," he began with the story of his entrée into journalism.

        "In those days [after he graduated college], every young kid read Jack Kerouac, 
        and convinced that I was the next great American author, hit the road for 
        New York. [. . .] One day, deciding I needed to improve my station in life, 
        I shot-gunned a resume to every damn magazine I could find. [. . .] An art 
        magazine hired me, even though, like I said, I never went to J-school -- or 
        had any knowledge of art. What I did have -- and didn't really know it until 
        later -- was an aptitude for investigative reporting."

That talent was clearly on display in his writing about Iraq. After a stint at the Wall Street Journal, he went freelance in order "to create a distinctive voice for myself, and [I] believe I have that voice, so I must be as independent as possible."

One couldn't ask for a better model of a journalist with integrity. Even more than his professional wisdom, however, was his enticing and daunting vision of the best way to spend one's twenties:

        "Unless you're born into money or are exceedingly talented, you will have a 
        small window of opportunity to pack in your best life experiences -- I'm talking 
        about your next decade. Take chances during your 20s, get some victories and 
        defeats and travel and love affairs under your belt. Work in some shitty 
        jobs -- learn what its [sic] like as a short order cook, or a cabbie or a 
        down-and-outer in Paris and London. The older you get, the more the window 
        narrows; the harder it is to have life-changing adventures. And the experiences 
        you have as a young man will form a major part of the bank of self-knowledge 
        that you will draw from your entire life -- so invest wisely."

Vincent clearly lived by his own advice, chronicling for me how he spent his time before the magazine hire "waiting tables, driving cabs, driving trucks, working on a soap opera, all sorts of experiences.

"My combination military experience and graduate school education," he wrote, "basically took place in New York in the 1980s."

At 49, living by wits alone in Basra, he was still embodying his ideals. And at age 19, on the cusp of that decade of one's life that affords the simple freedom to indulge in vicissitudes and vagaries, I am all the more appreciative of his counsel.

The author is a student at Harvard University.


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