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Dispatches from the Front

Interim Iraqi Government minister Nesreen Berwari’s phone number, area code 914 (a New Rochelle exchange!), rings in Baghdad, a satellite trick that momentarily closes the distance between New York and the Iraqi capital—or reminds us how closely the United States and Iraq are tied. If Major Stan Coerr’s mission was to topple Saddam Hussein, First Lieutenant Vincent Tuohey’s has been to maintain and even ameliorate that American presence in a Baghdad neighborhood. Minister Berwari returned to that city to rebuild her country. Colonel Elspeth Ritchie, a military psychiatrist, addresses the mental-health issues that challenge American soldiers. And Newsweek’s Beijing bureau chief turned Baghdad correspondent Melinda Liu chronicles America’s trials in Iraq, the place that unites these five Harvard graduates. Herewith, brief dispatches on their experiences; many others could be written by alumni soldiers on the front lines, others who covered the war news and tended to its casualties, and those who served alongside Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, M.B.A. ’66, former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority

~Sara Houghteling




"To rid the world of a tyrant"

Photographed against the sandy backdrop of the desert, Major Stan Coerr, M.P.A. ’99, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, stands by a camouflage-colored Humvee with its roof covered in brush. Coerr’s feet are planted apart and he holds a Czech RPK, standard issue for Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi Army. In the background, a red triangle of flame from a burning oil well spirals into an opaque cloud of smoke. The smoke looks leaden, as if it could fall to the earth in one solid piece.

"No One Asked Us," Coerr’s editorial defense of American involvement in Iraq from the perspective of "one who was there," originally began as a missive Coerr sent to 12 people—his grandfather, his father, and "a few buddies from the marines." Each recipient sent it to someone else. Now, on any given day, Coerr’s name attracts several thousand hits on Google. Coerr was there from March to May 2003, working to integrate American aircraft with British infantry maneuvers. A decorated helicopter pilot, Coerr remained land-bound during his time in Iraq, calling in air strikes and translating the parlance of aviators in order to direct the movements of ground troops.

Major Stan Coerr coordinatedAmerican airpower and British ground troops, like these sharpshooters near the oil fields in southern Iraq.
Photograph courtesy of Stan Coerr

Coerr credits his fellow students at the Kennedy School for giving him a deeper sense of the fearfulness of life under a repressive dictatorship. He recalls one classmate who had fled political oppression in the Congo only to face dire poverty in the United States. "Most Americans have never been exposed to that kind of destitution or political danger," he says. It is this argument against tyranny that Coerr posits as our country’s justification for war: "At no time did anyone say or imply to any of us that we were invading Iraq to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction, nor were we there to avenge 9/11. We knew we were there for one reason: to rid the world of a tyrant, and to give Iraq back to Iraqis." He grimly recalls that when his commanding officer opened the desk of the top Ba’ath party official in Ramaylah, he found a set of brass knuckles and a revolver in the top drawer.

Oil fields on fire during the advance across the border, March 22, 2003.
Photograph courtesy of Stan Coerr

Coerr is not uncritical of American military bureaucracy. On one occasion, when he had just learned that his son was in the hospital for oral surgery, that the Marine Corps had omitted to pay him, and that his wife had run out of money, a ferocious sandstorm severed his radio link to headquarters. "I remember thinking that day, ‘It can’t get worse than this!’" he says now. "The infrastructure of the American military can be highly problematic on its most basic level. Even receiving mail was difficult. One of my commanders, Sid Heal, would complain, ‘You know, we got letters in Vietnam faster than we get them here!’"

Along with his faith in the war, Coerr brought back from the Middle East an Iraqi officer’s beret and a Saddam-era flag. "It’s a time capsule for my son," he says. "When Jackson is older, he’ll look at this and say, ‘Here’s what my dad was doing while I was little.’"

 

"I think I’m ready for whatever comes"

"I don’t approve of journalists collecting war souvenirs," writes Newsweek reporter and Beijing bureau chief Melinda Liu ’73 via e-mail. "I saw too many reporters picking through loot in Kuwait in 1991, and in Baghdad last year. However, after touring one of Uday [Hussein]’s bombed-out villas—what U.S. soldiers called ‘Uday’s crackhouse’ because they’d found some drugs there—I did take some sheets of his personal stationery because I’d run out of notebooks and needed something to jot notes on."

Liu completed her first assignments for Newsweek in 1973, while in Taiwan on a Rockefeller Traveling Fellowship. She opened the magazine’s Beijing office in 1980. She has filed stories on Iraq since 1991, spending three months there in 2003 and again (to date) in 2004. The pull of places in conflict, she reflects, began during her time in Cambridge. "That I was at Harvard during the 1969-1970 years of antiwar activism in the U.S. (including [protests] at Harvard) probably heightened my awareness of America at war. I’m sure that had something to do with how I wound up as a war correspondent."

Helicopters of the 16th Air Assault Brigade, Coerr’s unit, landing on an improvised landing strip: a highway.
Photograph courtesy of Stan Coerr

Liu was one of only a handful of U.S. reporters who remained in Baghdad during the final days of Saddam’s regime and throughout the "shock and awe" bombing campaign. Her dispatches chronicle the eeriness of the emptying city: she wrangles for press privileges with a gnome-like Ministry of Information Press Center bureaucrat who has no fingernails, and wraps the mirrored disco-era décor of her Palestine Hotel room with Saran Wrap and duct tape in order to protect herself should it shatter during the bombings. Her March 2004 coverage of an insurgent attack on another hotel, the Hotel Mount Lebanon, is among her most harrowing: "The site of the huge explosion in central Baghdad on Wednesday looked like Dante’s Inferno. I happened to be just a few blocks away when the blast occurred…. The crowd of Iraqi bystanders became even more agitated when casualties started filtering out into the street…Some of them began roughing us up. I was pushed to the ground. Then an Iraqi man who could speak English grabbed my arm and said, ‘Come with me, you’ve got to get out of here.’ He helped me get away from the crowd, made sure I wasn’t hurt, then melted away into the darkness."

The site of devastation was only a short distance from Firdos ("Paradise") Square, where Iraqi civilians, with a nudge from American GIs, toppled Saddam’s iconic statue. Liu witnessed both the bombing and the statue’s dismantling: "Saddam’s downfall was very different from, say, the ouster of Marcos in Manila in the ’80s (where I also spent many months on assignment), or the deposing of the Taliban in Afghanistan (where I spent half a year). When those regimes fell, most of the citizens I knew were either unequivocally happy or upset. But in Iraq even the citizens who were happy about Saddam’s fall…were emotionally torn. Many didn’t celebrate but just watched. At the time I recall wondering about the Tiananmen Square crackdown [which Liu covered in 1989] and what Chinese would have said had the turmoil resulted in the toppling of the communist regime."

Perhaps this view of history as a continuum explains Liu’s disdain for trinket-seeking reporters. No object can encapsulate a war; during war, one collects only out of necessity, not out of journalistic tourism. From her self-made shelter in her Palestine Hotel room, she wrote in the March 31, 2003, issue of Newsweek, "This is where I’ve stashed my food and water, an air mattress and sleeping bag…I could live, work, bathe, and sleep here—for days, even weeks, if necessary. I have two humongous plastic barrels of water in case the plumbing goes out. I think I’m ready for whatever comes."

 

"You minimize travel"

First lieutenant Vincent J. Tuohey ’01 leads a troop of 30 cavalry scouts, ages 19 to 40, in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Al Jihad (population: 100,000), where his First Squadron, Seventh U.S. Cavalry is responsible for conducting reconnaissance, establishing checkpoints, and carrying out raids. Tuohey often fields the "Harvard question" from his men: "Why the hell did you join the army?" His answers range from steely serious ("I’ve had the opportunity to plan and lead hundreds of combat missions, where I’ve had to make life-and-death decisions within a few seconds") to wry ("I’m too young for a desk job") to a mixture of the two ("Decisiveness, discipline, and focus were not skills that I honed in college. Understandably, Harvard did not prepare me for the stresses of combat or the skills needed to fight an insurgency—the army did").

First Lieutenant Vincent Touhe at the polls for the local Neighborhood Advisory Council election.
Photograph courtesy of Vincent J. Touhey

Of the alumni interviewed for this article, Tuohey seemed both closest and farthest from Harvard. He writes in an e-mail, "Barret Bradstreet ’01, who is a marine infantry officer and is also stationed in Iraq, and I have desperately tried to arrange a reunion over here, but have thus far been unsuccessful." There’s a tone of the young graduate—two friends who have tried for a reunion—yet when pressed to describe these attempts further, the soldier who responds could not seem more distant from Lowell House or Ec. 10 class.

"Barret and I have e-mailed each other over here. The logistics of trying to visit each other make a reunion unlikely. He’s working in the west of Iraq and I’m in the center, in Baghdad. There is basically no time off for either of us, given our duties in our sectors. When you’re deployed, you can be on the job for a year without a day off. Also, travel in this country, particularly in the center and west, is extremely dangerous. Another classmate was here for a few weeks, working for CNN. He was in the Green Zone, only a few miles away, [but it might] as well have been a thousand. As a reporter, he would have to justify putting together an armed convoy of private security to make it to my base, while I would have to put together my own convoy to get to the Green Zone. Every time you travel, you risk lives, and in some respects it’s a numbers game. Chances are you get hit eventually, so you minimize travel unless absolutely necessary."

First Lieutenant Tuohey raising the flag with the NAC chairman on July 28.
Photograph courtesy of Vincent J. Tuohey

Tuohey was commissioned in Harvard Yard a day before graduating in 2001. In 2002, Harvard’s new president, Lawrence H. Summers, began a practice of attending the annual ROTC commissioning ceremony. Tuohey says he appreciates how Summers has changed the attitude of Massachusetts Hall toward ROTC and the military: "It meant a lot to the alumni over here when he spoke at the [ceremony] and mentioned many of us by name."

Tuohey arrived in Iraq in March 2004; his tour is projected to end next February or March.

 

First Lieutenant Vincent Tuohey, standing at far right, in the last row, with his platoon in Kuwait.
Photograph courtesy of Vincent J. Tuohey

"Conference in a combat zone"

At first glance, the titles of psychiatry articles by Colonel Elspeth Cameron Ritchie ’80 read like a list of the issues the U.S. Army would most want to keep out of print: Reactions to Rape, which reports on the frequency of assault by a superior on his subordinate; Suicidal Admissions in the United States Military; and Breastfeeding and the Military, which discusses the incompatibility between suggested U.S. Department of Health and Human Services standards for breastfeeding and the military’s stringent deployment rules. Drawn to thorny topics ever since her days as a joint biology and folklore and mythology concentrator, Ritchie wrote her undergraduate thesis on the cultural and medicinal uses for hallucinogenic plants.

After funding from the military’s Health Profession Scholarship Program financed her George Washington Medical School training, she worked in Korea and Somalia to fulfill her military responsibilities. And because the military provided her with more global and interesting work than the civilian sector, Ritchie stayed on. From 1999 to 2003, she served as program director for mental-health policy and women’s health issues in the office of the secretary of defense. At present she is a Disaster Fellow at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (the military’s medical school) in Bethesda, Maryland.

This past February, Ritchie represented the American Psychiatric Association at the first academic conference held in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Thirty American medical professionals and more than 700 Iraqi doctors met for three days with the goal of reconnecting Baghdad, the former "Mecca of Arab medicine," with contemporary scholarly debates.

The Iraqi Medical Specialists Forum, or, as Ritchie calls it, the "Conference in a Combat Zone," has so far been the only one of its kind, its ill fate foretold in an expedition Ritchie and two colleagues took into the Medical City, a cluster of seven hospitals in Baghdad. As the trio of American doctors and their Iraqi hosts drove past the looted National Museum and entered the dusty, under-staffed, computer-less Baghdad Teaching Hospital, two child victims of a bomb blast—one dead and the other near death—were rushed in. Suddenly Ritchie’s conference colleague, pediatrician Laurence Ronan of Massachusetts General Hospital, pushed her and shouted for her to take cover—he had seen the red laser from a sniper’s scope flicker across her ankles and back. That ended any excursions by the visiting American doctors to Iraqi hospitals.

In a happier outcome of the conference, Ritchie and Ronan linked Iraqi medical students with their contemporaries at Harvard Medical School (HMS). Upon returning stateside, Ritchie visited Boston to lead grand rounds at HMS and the undergraduate International Health Society, and spoke to students in the Harvard Hippocratic Society. She says she was in daily e-mail contact with many Iraqi doctors following her visit, but adds, "For a while after the revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, the number of e-mails went way down. Now they’re back up again." A few Iraqi colleagues wrote her on July 4 to wish her a happy holiday.

Under any circumstances, Ritchie admits, the connection between the academy and the military is likely to be uneasy. "I’m careful about proclaiming my Ivy Leagueness, for fear it might not go over well." She notes that at her fifteenth reunion, her Harvard classmates expressed surprise at her pursuit of a military career because "We all grew up in the ’70s so we all were, to a certain extent, flower children." Meanwhile, as newspapers daily report rising rates of troop stress, Ritchie leads discussions on the use of antidepressants in a war zone and on the tactical need for sending therapists to their patients, rather than vice versa.

She hopes to return to Iraq this September.

"We have nowhere else to go"

"Though Baghdad is the city where I was born, lived for many years, and where I completed my undergraduate studies, after 13 years away from it, I dreaded my return," writes Nesreen Berwari, M.P.A. ’99, upon learning of her appointment to the post of Minister of Municipalities and Public Works in the Interim Iraqi Government cabinet. Her e-mail continues, "The chaos and confusion, the out-of-control security situation, and my role as one of five Kurds in the cabinet and its only woman all generated in me a strong reluctance." Her "strong reluctance" requires no exaggeration: in late March, Berwari survived a second attempt on her life. Two bodyguards, traveling in a separate car, were killed.

Berwari worked with the UN in liberated Kurdistan until 1998, when she was accepted as a Mason Fellow at the Kennedy School. She writes, "The Kennedy School experience enabled me to re-enter Iraq at a level where I could make a more robust contribution to improve living conditions….The KSG-instigated approaches I take and the public-service language I now speak have attracted invaluable support from governments and international organizations."

Nesreen Berwari and Kennedy School classmates Michael Fenzel (left) and Michael Shinners with fellow Kennedy School alumnus Stafford Clarry, M.P.A. ’90, in Erbil, in the Kurdish region of Iraq.
Photograph courtesy of Nesreen Berwari

In Berwari’s new capacity as minister, she officially oversees some 300 municipalities, 40,000 employees, and 100,000 buildings throughout Iraq. Yet equally important, she believes, is the protection and advancement of women’s rights, particularly through the codification of civil, rather than shari ‘ah, law. In the U.S. State Department newsletter Washington File, she says, "For Iraq to move faster it is essential for women to play stronger contributing roles. Women need to have opportunities to more actively participate in decision-making….An enabling environment to promote women’s participation needs to be enshrined within the fundamental law of administration." This enshrinement, Berwari had hoped, would take the form of a constitutional amendment guaranteeing women 40 percent of the posts in all public and legislative bodies. The interim constitution has set the quotas at 25 percent.

Yet Berwari is somberly optimistic. As she noted in the Washington File, "For the first time in Iraq’s history, it is the education, water, and health sectors that are getting the highest allocation in the Iraqi budget." To the Harvard community, Berwari writes, "We will get through the current turmoil just as Iraqi Kurdistan got through a very similar period in the early 1990s, under arguably far more threatening circumstances and with extremely limited international support. Now that responsibility for our future has been returned to the people, we have confidence that our leadership will determine the means to collectively get this country under control and in a forward-looking mode. Our lives and future depend on it. Unlike the coalition administrators and forces, we have nowhere else to go."

 

Sara Houghteling ’99, a former Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow for this magazine, interviewed Iraqi-linked fellow alumni by telephone and e-mail from California.