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The 9/11 attacks, 20 years on: A BBC journalist reflects on having his boots on the ground

Washington and London lacked the necessary first-hand knowledge when they embarked on military campaigns in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.
Image: Illustration shows James Rodgers in Iraq and U.S. troops toppling a statue of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.
The phrase “boots on the ground” means more to me than the deployment of troops. It has become a metaphor for the importance of journalists and policymakers understanding the world from personal experience.Photo Courtesy of Keith Vince; Getty Images; NBC News

Still stunned by the enormity of what had happened, jet-lagged, and amazed that I had managed to cross the Atlantic, I arrived in Manhattan late on the morning of Friday, Sept. 14, 2001. I immediately made my way toward the closed-off area around the still-smoking ruins of the World Trade Center to gather some impressions to share with listeners on the BBC show for which I was reporting.

I found myself in Iraq, and face to face with the anger against occupying forces that can undermine any grand plan for reshaping a country in one’s image.

The rest of that day was taken up with trying to find my bearings in a city I had last visited under deeply contrasting circumstances, as a British tourist, five years before. On my very different tour of the island that Saturday, I was impressed by the number of stores that were still open. I bought a pair of boots, a brand I had previously found reliable in war zones and that had the added benefit of being cheaper in the United States.

Sunday I remember for the people I interviewed near ground zero. “If I could, I’d go to war myself,” one man said. Another warned, “The wrath of the U.S. will be felt worldwide.” One woman, Claudia Sanchez, wished the rescue workers would let her help search for her missing brother. “I wish I could be there digging, and looking for them. Anyone.” It was heartbreaking to see how many people still really seemed to believe, five days after the attacks, that they would see their loved ones again.

A little over two years later, in December of 2003, I was in Baghdad — and wearing that same pair of boots — when Saddam Hussein was captured. Accompanied by triumphant U.S. troops, I crawled down into the “spider hole” where he had been hiding just 36 hours earlier. The Iraqi dictator who once enjoyed palatial luxury had spent his final moments of freedom cowered in a cramped underground lair, entry to which was akin to crawling down a chimney.

Since then, the oft-repeated phrase “boots on the ground” has meant much more to me than the deployment of troops. It has come to stand as a metaphor for the importance of first-hand observation — for journalists and for policymakers — that leads to understanding of complex countries and cultures and the way they respond to armed conflict.

It was exactly what Washington and London seemed to lack when they embarked on military campaigns first in Afghanistan and later in Iraq.

And it wasn’t just the politicians who were ill-prepared for what was to come. Since U.S. airspace was completely closed to civilian air traffic after 9/11, my plane from Europe landed in Montreal, and I had to travel overland by car to New York. On the way, I bought a newspaper at a gas station. In one cartoon, a family sat on a couch. Their TV showed the twin towers in flames. The father had a sports magazine, the mother a women’s magazine, the son read Teen People. “Who are these people?” they asked each other as they stared at the screen. I have since lost the cartoon, but its message has stayed with me throughout the “war on terror” that then-President George W. Bush was to declare shortly.

The crushing failure of British imperial troops in Afghanistan in the Victorian era, to say nothing of the humiliation of the Soviet army in the 1980s (a factor in the Soviet Union’s eventual collapse), offered a warning of how Western forces that didn’t grasp the intricacies of Afghanistan would fare.

As for Iraq, it was both encouraging that U.S. officers stationed there were reading for historical background the work of Lawrence of Arabia, a British intelligence officer who helped Arabs rebel against the collapsing Ottoman Empire during World War I — and worrying that they were seeking to educate themselves after actually invading.

From August 2002, as the war on Iraq loomed, and the second intifada— or Palestinian uprising against Israel — raged, I was reporting from the Gaza Strip. After Saddam launched scud missiles against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War, some Palestinians considered him an ally. As the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003 drew nearer, the Iraqi leader’s picture appeared here and there in shop and car windows.

As the only non-Palestinian journalist then based in the territory, and from a country about to go to war against Saddam, these shows of support made me worry for my safety. I kept a low profile for a few days once Britain started bombing Baghdad. But amid that unease, there was insight: America and Britain would not have long to persuade the people of Iraq that they really were liberators; not long before they risked Iraqis coming to loathe them as the Gazans loathed the Israeli soldiers who surrounded their 140 square miles of seaside scrubland.

Indeed, on a wet winter afternoon at the end of that year, I found myself in Iraq, and face to face with the anger against occupying forces that can undermine any grand plan for reshaping a country in one’s image. At first light the morning after the U.S. announced the capture of Hussein, my TV cew and I drove to the village where he had been taken (the roads were too dangerous at night). The villagers — kept at a distance by U.S. soldiers — shouted their defiant support for the deposed dictator. Sure, this was his home region, so that was not surprising, but it did show that not all of Iraq welcomed his downfall.

My BBC colleagues and I sought shelter for the night at the headquarters of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, which had taken over one of Saddam’s palaces. The huge number of military vehicles and equipment I saw made clear the troops would be there for a long time — whenever I hear the phrase “forever war,” that image comes into my mind. But all the young soldier who drove me to meet his commanding officer wanted to know was whether he might be going home soon.

This was a natural question, probably asked by soldiers since the first ever foreign war. Yet that line of thinking — like Bush’s now infamous “mission accomplished” statement some six months after that — betrayed a lack of understanding as to what victory and lasting peace really involve. That soldier might only have seen Iraqis at checkpoints or at a distance through rifle sights, but for his brothers-in-arms keeping the angry villagers away from Saddam’s hideout, a different reality was already starting to dawn.

As I took off my boots that night, I reflected on their long trip from Manhattan, as far a journey as so many young American soldiers had just made. The experience of covering the “war on terror” all the way from ground zero to Saddam’s palace reinforced for me the value of expertise fed by curiosity about, rather than assumption of, what others think and want. The people in the cartoon, and many policymakers, learned that lesson too late.