An Intimate, Inside Look At Covering War
Tell Them I Didn’t Cry: A Young Journalist’s Story of Joy, Loss, and Survival in Iraq
By Jackie Spinner with Jenny Spinner Scribner
288 pages; $23
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
War correspondents often trade on their images as semi-crazed, larger-than-life characters hurtling toward any sound of bullets and bombs. But, as this book shows, many are something else entirely: regular reporters nervously and bravely doing their best with a harrowing, life-altering assignment.
Jackie Spinner belongs to the second group. A restless, early-30s Washington Post business reporter who didn't speak Arabic but had covered some Iraq-related stories, she talked editors into sending her to the Abu Ghraib court-martials, expecting a couple-week tour. She ended up in Iraq for nearly a year, ultimately running the paper's Baghdad bureau.
She survived a terrifying kidnap attempt, a $5,000 bounty on her head and a bombing that shattered all her bureau's windows. She learned to hang her shoes from a rope at night to keep out desert spiders, to shower fully clothed every half- hour to cope with 130-degree heat and "to pee in a Gatorade bottle in a moving vehicle with a bunch of guys around me." Through it all, she reported news and human-interest stories of all kinds.
Sometimes the ethics of staying alive looked different from the ethics of journalism school. When it was too dangerous to get out of her car, she sent translators into the crowd with questions for sources. Afraid to let on she was American, she pretended to be from Canada or Ukraine. Unable to move about freely, she made deals with rival reporters to exchange information.
"Tell Them I Didn't Cry" describes all this in direct, appealing style. The Iraq war has generated numerous good books by reporters. What makes Spinner's unusually ingratiating is the way it combines the professional and personal without narcissism or pomposity. An added twist is that Spinner's twin sister, Jenny, a professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, writes a postscript to each chapter, movingly conveying the anxieties of the family left behind.
For a reporter, Spinner is affectingly open: "The pace of covering the battle, of seeing the devastating injuries, of watching troops injured and killed, of watching insurgents blown to shreds, of seeing the city destroyed, of trying to capture all of it, exhausted me after weeks and weeks."
She is tough: "U.S. troops in Iraq could be a crude, insensitive, elephant-stomping lot... Many of the soldiers I encountered couldn't stand the place or the people... Some of them acted like American goons."
She is no cheerleader: "I can write that Iraq felt like it was falling apart because every Iraqi I met on the street, whether they supported the American invasion or not, told me that they felt like their country was falling apart... My stories unapologetically reflected the despair of the Iraqis I interviewed."
Upset by critics and bloggers who objected to negative stories, she wrote, "With the troops, I didn't feel like the media. I felt like me, one reporter searching for the truth, with a duty to deliver that truth to a readership that sometimes didn't think the truth necessary."
Spinner also stresses that "Iraq is not frightening all of the time." She writes affectionately about people she met, especially the Iraqis who served her bureau as maids, cooks, drivers, translators and bodyguards. She played soccer with them in hotel halls, baked brownies and cooked regular Friday night dinners, even shared poetry readings.
An amazing story-within-a-story involves her relationship with a translator she calls Luma. As they share assignments and adventures (including a "quintessential coming-of-age road trip" to Jordan), Spinner learns that Luma is a rape victim ostracized by her family. Eventually, in a tragic and extraordinary twist, Luma is shot and killed in an incident first called a suicide, then determined to be involuntary manslaughter involving gunplay with American soldiers.
Spinner does not tackle the big-picture questions about the war. She doesn't dwell on the excruciating moral consequences of the rising loss of life and limb by journalists (not to mention all the others) in a war many regard as misguided. Is there a limit to what reporters must risk to get a story? How should they handle their own feelings about the sacrifices and controversies?
Our profession probably should more openly discuss these matters, but high debate is not Spinner's goal. She does her job ("Iraq was a story that had to be told... When the Post needed me to go, I had to go.") and tells her story, to the point of admitting how traumatizing it was to return home. "I had never felt so lost," she writes. "I felt like I was going crazy... I curled up in a ball, fighting nightmares of insurgents chasing me with swords."
Spinner's book is an intimate, inside look at a dangerous side of the business. And it can be read as something more: as a memorial for the nobility – and vulnerability – of all those normal people, journalists, soldiers, doctors, nurses, diplomats and peacekeepers, groping to carry on with honor under ghastly conditions.
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com), AJR's senior editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.