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War Zone Diary

During his time spent covering the war in Iraq, NBC News Middle East correspondent Richard Engel has survived bombings and kidnapping attempts, and has seen colleagues and friends injured, kidnapped, or killed by insurgents.

You gotta love the names. They're so eager, earnest, and hopeful: Camp Prosperity, Camp Liberty, and Camp Victory are the names of just a few of the U.S. military bases in Baghdad.

But there are other names, other realities, in the ancient City of the Caliphs.

A few miles from Camp Prosperity is what some U.S. soldiers call the "Dora Killing Fields," a fetid trash dump where militias, insurgents, gangs, and anyone else with a grievance and a gun dispose of bodies, often discovered by little boys who play soccer there and little girls who tend goats.

Not far from the PX at Camp Victory, where soldiers can buy frozen vacuum-packed T-bone steaks flown in from the states and a Harley Davidson (which is pretty damn cool), there is a cozy little spot other soldiers call "Sniper Fields."

There are many faces of the war in Iraq and they have changed dramatically over time.

When I first arrived in Baghdad in January 2003, I thought I would soon rent a house and envisioned myself swimming in the Tigris to cool off after reporting in the city the caliphs called Madinit al-Salam, the City of Peace. A year later, I realized I wouldn't be taking any midnight dips— Madinat al-Salam no more. Now, I think I'll have to be lucky to walk away from this story without being injured or killed. 

For the past four years, I have kept a video journal. It's primitive. Most often, I took my small mini-DV camera and turned it on myself, reflecting and commenting as I watched the war— and myself— change.

Over the last few months, I have strung this footage together to create an hour-long “Reporter's Notebook” with the help of our highly capable producer Madeleine Haeringer. The hour also includes interviews with soldiers and our local Iraqi staff.

The documentary is not intended to support or oppose the war. It just is. I have seen heroics— soldiers saving other soldiers lives— and horrors.  War seems to bring out our finest and, more often, our cruelest nature.  As Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “so it goes.”

In 1919, the British military’s official “eye-witness” to the World War I campaigns in Mesopotamia, Edmund Chandler, wrote in his war journal, “The Long Road to Baghdad” that Iraq's “thirsty soil has swallowed many empires.”

Chandler offered this warning to great powers like his own government, which he believed rushed to war in Baghdad without sufficient resources or a clear plan:

“Mesopotamia is a sinister, pestilential land. Not only has she devoured her own empires and kingdoms born of the soil, Ur of the Chaldees, the Assyrian Niveneh, three dynasties of Babylon, Ctesiphon of the Chosres; she has laid her blight on the greatest Empires of the West. It was in the malarious swamps of the Euphrates that Alexander caught the fever that cut short his life; it was at Ctesiphon that Julian and his Roman legions lost the Empire in the East.”

The American war in Iraq was clearly ambitious. But was it ruinous? What has it done? The documentary offers no answer, but merely tries to reflect what it has been like to watch it all happen from up close. 

I owe a great thanks to all of the crews, producers and engineers in our Baghdad bureau, especially our Iraqi staff, among the bravest, noblest people I know.