Writing the first drafts of war

For Chad Garland (LAS ’11), reporting on the war against ISIS in Iraq requires body armor, bravery, and not a small amount of wits and wisdom—much of which he credits to his days at Illinois as he earned degrees in Russian language and literature and rhetoric.

Interviewed by Dave Evensen

What’s a typical workday for you?

I’m a war correspondent [for Stars and Stripes] mostly covering Iraq and Afghanistan. Right now (editor’s note: Garland wrote this reply in March 2017) I’m covering the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group, which has held Iraq’s second largest city since 2014. I often wake up, meet up with my team—a local driver and a translator—and head out to somewhere I think I can get a story. That might mean donning a helmet and body armor to go along with the Iraqi military and tour areas they’ve retaken (barely, in some cases), visiting an underground ISIS training camp, visiting a camp for families fleeing the violence, or going to an American military base to meet with troops. I interview people, take photos, and record videos. Depending on the story or the news that day, I may spend half the day out collecting information and half the day writing.

I live in Germany but spend much of my time in countries in Asia. I’ve gotten to see and experience cultures in an intimate way—sitting on the floor of a tent drinking tea with refugees or in an abandoned house eating pomegranates with soldiers, for example. I also think it’s cool that I’m writing “the first draft of history” and capturing a visual record for people who can’t be here to see it themselves.

Chad Garland travels to some of the most dangerous spots in the world, including Iraq, to report on conflicts involving the U.S. military. (Image courtesy of Chad Garland.)

What about college best prepared you for your life and career?

I came to college from a fairly comfortable career because I wasn’t satisfied and I wanted to try out new things and find something more rewarding. That was the best thing. I was able to take classes that challenged me and exposed me to new ideas. I enjoyed creative writing classes, but in particular I liked (senior lecturer of English) Julie Price’s nonfiction writing class, which is when I knew I wanted to do that for a living.

How did your major prepare you for your career?

Learning about language, literature, and writing was major preparation for a career in writing. Even though Russian in particular is less useful in the Middle East than Arabic would have been, I have had a few opportunities to use the language. Some Afghans trained by the Soviets during the occupation there in the 1980s still speak Russian. In Iraq, Quran verses and Muslim prayers were scrawled in Cyrillic script on the walls of homes liberated from ISIS, where Russian-speaking women were rumored to have been held captive. Just last night I was drinking tea and eating kunafa (a desert made of cheese and shredded wheat) at a bakery run by a Syrian here when a group of aid workers walked in, including a Ukrainian doctor with whom I was able to converse in Russian. On top of that, employers have been impressed that I speak a foreign language, even if it hasn’t been directly useful in my work. It shows them you’re a well-rounded person with a variety of interests and skills, and it sets you apart from the crowd.

What’s your proudest achievement?

I’m proudest I went to college at 30. I had a few circumstances (including the GI Bill from my service in the Marines) that made college and a career change an easier choice than for (others), but it was still a risk and in a lot of ways a giant step backward not only in my career, but in my life. I like to think of it like a mountain climbing expedition. I could be a lot further up the mountain slope I was on in 2008, had I stuck with (my pre-college career) for the last nine years, but I’d be that much further from doing the fulfilling work I’m doing now. I may never reach the top of this mountain—it’s certainly harder and more fraught with peril—but it’s a much more enjoyable climb.

Editor’s note: Chad urges readers to ask him anything on Twitter (@chadgarland) “if you’re interested in Middle East conflict reporting and the errata of a life lived out of a suitcase in a war zone.”

This story was published .