John Burns is adamant about one thing. He is not a hero. Yet given the way he keeps risking his life to report from war-torn regions or to shed light on the brutish practices of dictators and despots, he sure acts like one. Burns is the chief foreign correspondent for the New York Times and the head of the newspaper’s bureau in Baghdad, where he has been kidnapped by Iraqi security and seen friends and colleagues die.
Iraq is not his first dangerous posting. He filed stories from China during the Cultural Revolution, from apartheid-era South Africa, from the former Yugoslavia during the siege of Sarajevo and from Afghanistan during the rise of the Taliban. In the process, he has earned print journalism’s highest honours — two Pulitzer Prizes and two George Polk Awards.
“He’s been everywhere, seen everything, and writes about it all with unmatched eloquence, sweep and authority,” says Susan Chira, foreign editor for the New York Times.
In a recent interview with the Columbia Journalism Review, Tucker Carlson, the combative conservative co-host of CNN’s Crossfire, singled out Burns for praise.
“Anyone who can bang out magazine-level prose in a war zone day after day on deadline is a hero of mine. He’s obviously physically courageous. And he seems to write exactly what he thinks is true, no matter where he is, which is what I admire most.”
Still, Burns is quick to dismiss any talk of heroism.
“I don’t believe at all in the concept of the journalist as hero,” Burns declares. “In a war, there are people who act heroically — the combatants on both sides, who put themselves at risk, and the civilians caught in the middle.
“We are here by our own choice,” he says of reporters. “We get paid to do this and our career prospects are certainly improved as a result of working on the biggest stories of our time.” He notes that his newspaper spares no expense in trying to keep its staffers safe in Baghdad. They work and live in a compound protected by thick walls and patrolled by armed guards. When they venture out to do interviews, they travel in armoured vehicles accompanied by professional bodyguards.
“The residents here live with much greater risk than we do. They have no flak jackets, no blast walls, no armed guards. Above all, they have no choice. We can leave whenever we like.”
Burns admits that some of his reasons for staying are selfish.
“There is adventure in this. There is an undeniable rush of adrenaline in living life on the edge. No one can deny that. The blood pumps through your veins that much faster.”
And he is still fiercely competitive about how he approaches his work.
“There is the question of the front page,” Burns relates. The Times employs hundreds of reporters around the world and each day only a handful will see their stories published on the front page of the planet’s most famous newspaper. Burns wants to be one of them. “It’s a lot easier to do if you’re in Baghdad than if you’re in Brussels.”
But Burns is also in Baghdad for nobler motives. After decades of covering violent clashes and unsavory rulers throughout the world, he believes he is specially equipped to cover the ongoing turmoil in Iraq. “I’m the right man in the right place.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Burns began his career in journalism humbly enough. Born in Nottingham, England, he spent much of his youth in Ottawa, where his father, a senior official with the British military, was assigned to head up the British Defence Liaison Staff. Burns’s first job as a youngster was toiling as a copyboy for the now defunct Ottawa Journal, ferrying newspaper stories from reporter to editor to typesetter.
He considered following his father into the military, but went to McGill instead. Years later, his father told him he had made the right choice. “He thought I was too much of a maverick, too uncompromising to survive in a military environment.”
At McGill, Burns delighted in the teachings of professors he continues to admire today, among them James Mallory, Canada’s foremost expert on constitutional politics for many years, and political philosopher Charles Taylor.
“Taylor was one of the biggest single influences on my career,” Burns states. “It was as if someone had handed me a road map of the evolution of Western liberal thought from the Enlightenment onwards.”
Burns does have one regret about his McGill years. He was too much of a bookworm.
“I don’t think I used my time at McGill particularly well. I regret not playing a much larger role in university life.” When his own kids went off to college, Burns told them, “Remember something that no one bothered to impress on me when I was your age: enjoy yourself.”
He graduated with first class honours and a fellowship from Harvard, but he had other plans. Throughout his studies at McGill, he had spent the summers as a junior reporter with the Ottawa Citizen. “I would cover the police beat at night, chase ambulances, cover a local appearance by Liberace. I had so much fun, I couldn’t bring myself to go back to university.” He signed on to work at the Globe and Mail instead and soon began covering Parliament Hill for the paper.
Burns filed a story raising questions about how Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau seemed to be treating buddies like Barbara Streisand to free trips on government jets and soon made himself a powerful enemy.
When Burns next encountered Trudeau’s press secretary, Roméo LeBlanc, in a corridor, LeBlanc grabbed the young reporter and a shoving match between the future Pulitzer Prize winner and the future Governor General ensued. Trudeau himself stumbled onto the scene. Canadian newspapers gleefully reported the donnybrook, to Burns’s considerable dismay.
He soon noticed that he no longer was receiving the briefing notes that went out to every other parliamentary reporter. He was out of favour and out of the loop. His editor summoned him to Toronto.
The editor declared that, as a result of the fuss, Burns could no longer cover Parliament. The reporter, fully expecting a demotion, wasn’t surprised. What he heard next did startle him. He was going to China.
China and Canada had just reached an agreement allowing each country to create a news bureau in the other. As Burns tells it, China wasn’t all that interested in reporting on Canadian goings-on. Their news bureau was principally a mechanism to enable Chinese spy networks to gain a North American foothold.
“When I went to China, I received extremely bad advice,” Burns recalls. Colleagues and other seasoned China watchers counseled Burns that, as a Westerner, he was in no position to judge Chinese society. “‘Nothing in your background equips you to understand centuries of Chinese history or culture,’ they informed me.”
Arriving in 1971 in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, Burns soon discovered that Chinese government officials had their own unique approach to spinning the truth. Spotting a body floating in the river one evening, bludgeoned and clearly the victim of foul play, Burns turned to his Beijing-assigned “minder,” who suggested that the dead man had probably tumbled into the water accidentally.
Burns experienced a career turning point weeks later when he had his car serviced at a Western embassy. “You write a lot of nonsense,” the mechanic informed Burns as he worked on the reporter’s Volkswagen. “This place is a goddamned prison camp and I never read that in what you write.”
The remark stung because Burns knew he was right.
“The truest things that journalists can bring to any foreign posting are our eyes, our ears and our own sense of right and wrong,” Burns says. If government authorities don’t like what you write and limit your access as a result, Burns reasons, “What I am able to see is still infinitely more than what my readers are able to see.
“If a whole picture is a jigsaw with 1,000 pieces, over a matter of years [in a closed society], you may never be able to assemble more than 30 or 40 pieces. But almost inevitably, that is enough to discern a pattern of conduct. If you see amber eyes and a striped tail in the pieces you’ve put together, you can be pretty sure that you are looking at a tiger.”
Burns began to take a more forceful approach in his coverage of China. The shift earned him his current job with the New York Times, whose editors were impressed by a blistering piece Burns authored about the various techniques used by government officials to manipulate the truth. His more aggressive reporting techniques also got him arrested when he embarked on an unauthorized motorcycle tour of Chinese locales that were off-limits to foreigners. He was charged with spying, spent several days in a prison cell and was deported to Hong Kong.
Burns’s next assignment would probably be the least stressful of his career. “The Times sent me to cover Canada as sort of a rest cure,” he says. “I was free to travel anywhere I liked. I went from the Queen Charlotte Islands to the high Arctic to the Cabot Trail to junior hockey games in Saskatchewan. I’ve rarely enjoyed any assignment as much.”
Once his stint in Canada was completed, Burns was again assigned tougher tours of duty, heading off to South Africa, Sarajevo and Afghanistan, under Soviet and then Taliban rule. In 2002, he was sent to Iraq.
“I thought I understood what repressive totalitarian regimes looked like. I had been in China and in South Africa during the apartheid era. Saddam’s Iraq was in a different league altogether.
“Saddam murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people,” Burns says. “He gouged out the eyes of his enemies and had their wives and daughters raped. The only other regime that comes close to my mind is North Korea and that country goes to great lengths to hide what happens there. Saddam took no such precautions. He understood the power of terror.”
Burns became disenchanted with the manner in which some of his Western colleagues in Baghdad approached their own reports. The book Embedded: The Media at War in Iraq, published last year, includes an interview with Burns and the veteran reporter’s pronouncements sent shockwaves through the journalistic community.
“In the run-up to this war, to my mind, there was a gross abdication of responsibility,” Burns declared in the book. He believed that many Western reporters were too soft in their coverage of Saddam’s brutality, charging them with an “absolutely disgraceful performance.”
Today, Burns is careful to say that many of the reporters he thought little of initially have since done outstanding work during the war — but he stands by his comments.
“You would have a TV reporter on camera acting as if he were in Brisbane, not Baghdad. And just off camera would be a government minder keeping a close eye. People would die if they said the wrong thing on air. In fact, if anyone in Baghdad made contact with an American journalist and did not disclose it, they risked death.” But that climate of fear was rarely alluded to in news reports.
In Embedded, Burns says some Western journalists wined and dined government officials at expensive restaurants. Others plied the director of Iraq’s ministry of information with $600 mobile phones for family members. In one case, a rival reporter, trying to ingratiate himself with government officials, actually contrasted Burns’s more barbed coverage with his own, “to show what a good boy he was, compared to this enemy of the state.
“The argument was made that, above all, journalists need to stay in the game. You have to make sure your visa is renewed. You need a certain degree of access to the regime to do your job. Compromises have to be made at times. I understand this point of view, but you do not do this at the cost of fundamental truth.”
Burns vividly recalls one press conference shortly before the war began. The information minister took note of Burns’s presence, calling him “the most dangerous man in Iraq.” “It was said in a mocking way. It was a dark and sinister joke. I knew what he was saying. ‘Just wait until we have no reason to leave you alone.’ It didn’t take a great deal of bravery for me to report on the regime as I did. I wore a suit of armour as a correspondent for the New York Times.”
A few days after U.S. and British forces and their allies began their assault, Burns heard from a source of his that the Ministry of Information building was targeted for destruction by the American military. He had no love for the minister himself, but worried about janitors, night clerks and other ordinary Iraqis who might be killed in such an attack. He informed the minister and even drove to the building itself to warn its occupants of the planned strike.
The attack was soon carried out, with minimal casualties. Shortly after, Burns heard a knock on his hotel room door. Armed men burst into his room, declaring that Burns must be a CIA official to have had such inside knowledge. He had better cooperate with them or he would never be seen again.
Burns erupted. If anything happened to him, their necks would be in nooses once the Americans and their allies took control of Baghdad, Burns thundered. The New York Times was the world’s most powerful newspaper and the death of a reporter would not be treated lightly. It was largely a bluff, he confides. The men departed, after helping themselves to his money and equipment. Burns went into hiding for ten days until he believed it was safe to re-emerge.
He took a quick break from his duties in Iraq to treat a minor heart ailment — caused in part by the 25 cups of tea he was drinking daily, according to the New York Observer — returning to resume his work in Baghdad.
Burns remembers watching with fellow reporters as the war began and the first cruise missiles rained down on the Republican Palace. “The journalists who were with me were shouting for joy. I had never seen anything like that before.” Whatever one thought of the rationale behind the attack, no one could dispute that Iraqis deserved a chance at a future without a bloodthirsty despot at the helm of their country.
“I was very much a believer that if Saddam could be deposed with a minimal level of violence, the people of Iraq would enormously benefit from that,” Burns says. “My belief was not based at all on the weapons of mass destruction argument. It was absolutely a case of terror, in my eyes. I believe the UN needs to take its charter seriously. It has a responsibility to end the barbarism that is still so often a fact of international life.”
Saddam Hussein in his first courtroom appearance following his capture.
Abaca Press (2004) all reight reserved / CPimages.ca
Unfortunately, poor planning by the U.S. proved to be disastrous once they actually toppled Saddam. “The elation I felt for Iraqis dissipated within hours,” Burns says. “There was a complete failure to halt the looting and the destruction of infrastructure. American troops were acting as traffic cops for looters as hospitals and museums were raided.”
Seven thousand U.S. troops took over the responsibilities of 130,000 Iraqi soldiers and police officers who were disarmed and sent home. Chaos ensued.”Americans have found themselves very quickly without allies. There was fury over the looting, fury over the failure to do anything about rebuilding Iraq. Promises made a year ago to the Iraqi people have yet to be fulfilled.” The U.S., Burns believes, “went in too light, too fast, and too unschooled in the ways of the Middle East.”
He doesn’t see any happy endings in Iraq for a long time to come. Fighting will go on as Saddam diehards, Sunni Muslims hotly opposed to rule by the majority Shia Muslim community, nationalists outraged by the occupation, and fundamentalists “absolutely unreconciled to the kind of secular society imagined by the Americans” continue to oppose U.S. forces and their allies, often with deadly effectiveness.
But the biggest obstacle to creating a workable new government structure might lie with ordinary Iraqis who are hesitant to play their role in establishing such a system. “I don’t think anyone counted on how dysfunctional a society Iraq was, the result of decades of intense psychological trauma. There is a tremendous unwillingness to step up and take risks. The lesson they learned from Saddam was to keep the lowest profile possible and stay out of the way of the gunfire,” Burns reports.
Whatever happens next, Burns wants to cover it. His insurance company might wish he saw things differently. “I’ve spent a great deal of my career in places of great risk, but I’ve never seen anything quite so hazardous and difficult as Iraq is today.”
Burns lost friends during the bomb attacks by Iraqi militants on the United Nations compound and the Iraqi headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Walking through the rubble of those two buildings, the message was clear. There will be no exemptions. All foreigners are at risk. At one point, the Red Cross was feeding about 75% of the people here and they weren’t spared.”
Now overseeing a staff of dozens of reporters, photographers and others working for the Times in Baghdad, Burns admits he has become considerably more cautious. One of his journalists was offered safe passage by acquaintances into the embattled city of Fallujah. Burns thought it was too risky and said no. “I knew what she was thinking. It was evident from my own career that I had not always been so precise in measuring risks.” As a bureau chief, though, his first task is to try to keep all Times staffers alive.
Still, Burns warrants, “There is no point in the New York Times being in Baghdad if we stay inside the compound all day long.”
Earlier this year, Burns himself, along with some colleagues and bodyguards, was kidnapped, blindfolded and held at gunpoint for several hours. Thanks, possibly, to the intercession of an influential imam alerted to the situation by a New Yorker reporter, Burns and the others were released.
It wasn’t Burns’s first close call. In Afghanistan, he and a photographer were standing in a field when a Soviet attack helicopter swooped down on them, the Russian soldiers mistaking the camera lens for a missile launcher. Thankfully, their aim was a little off. Burns watched as his car was demolished before the Russians realized their mistake.
In recent years, Burns has been offered safer jobs. He turned down the chance to be his newspaper’s White House correspondent. He said no thanks to proposed editorial positions. “I don’t want to be an editor. I want to be a reporter,” he explains.
Do loved ones ever try to persuade him to step away from the danger?
“I’ve had that voice inside my own head,” Burns acknowledges. “What I hear most often from my family and friends is, ‘If you still love it and you can still do it competently, why change it?’
“The only thing worse than being in Baghdad would be not being in Baghdad,” he declares. “Whoever succeeded me would have the best job in the world for a journalist. I know plenty of people who would be happy to be in my shoes.”