Today's news was even worse than usual. The killing of 14 Marines in Western Iraq was a horrendous loss, as was the murder of journalist Steven Vincent and his translator in Basra.
As it happens, I had spoken to Vincent once or twice in late 2004. I had been incredibly impressed with his writing on Iraq, not to mention his courage, and wanted him to write something for Campus Watch. During our conversations he mentioned he had read a number of academic books on Iraq prior to his first trip there, and none of them proved especially useful as preparation for what he actually encountered. I wanted him to develop this idea further but he had bigger issues to write about.
His journalism showed in an almost textbook manner how the big issues could be addressed by exploring the texture of daily life, simply by asking the right questions to the right people, by making careful observations about behaviors and beliefs, in particular the contradictions that comprise the lives of real people, and with clear and stylish writing. In these respects his work stands out from the shrill and vacuous stuff that passes for most reporting from Iraq, as does his moral clarity, lack of cant, abundant candor, and sheer bravery. It is worth more than an entire stack of academic and policy studies about Iraq.
Update, 5 August-Apparently Steven Vincent's translator was not killed but severely wounded. Many web sites have carried analyses, tributes, and links to Vincent's work, and they are all worth close reading. Vincent's own assessments of academic Middle East Studies specialists can be found here and here.
In this respect the contrast between Vincent's view of what is happening in Shiite Basra and that of America's Leading Specialist in All Things Middle East is especially glaring. I do not know how to react to the Cole's statement that he "would not have expected him to be killed in Basra, which is generally safer than Baghdad." Policemen working nights as Shiite death squads notwithstanding of course.
Looking over my files I also discovered that in fact Vincent had originally contacted me with questions regarding the international antiquities trade and the role of archaeologists in Iraq. It was through this that I became aware of Vincent's work and asked him to write for us. Vincent was an art critic before he became a war correspondent but returned to the subject repeatedly. His piece on the antiquities trade is available here.
As I recall it our conversation debated the contradiction between the archaeological profession's responsibility of stewardship toward the past and, more grandiosely, toward humanity, and the freedoms inherent in open, capitalist societies. For his part I think he believed in the potential of capitalism to transform people's lives for the better but distrusted both art dealers, and the collectors they served, and archaeologists.