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March 20th, 2008
07:55 AM ET

Recording ‘Shock and Awe’

I'd been in Baghdad for the first Gulf War and was probably one of the first journalists to get to the bomb shelter when the bombs started raining in.

ALT TEXT

AC 360 takes a look back at the start of the Iraq War and where it stands now five years later. WATCH: "Shock & Awe: 5 Years Later" airs Saturday & Sunday night, 11p ET

My grandfather had told me during World War Two he always knew German bombers were on the way to London way before the bombs fell, because the dogs started barking.

For that reason I was listening at my open window in the Al Rasheed hotel that January night back in 1991. Sure enough, the dogs barked, then the bombs fell. With the first flash I was already half way down the stairs leaping half a floor at a time.

Needless to say, I was no sooner secure in the bunker than I wanted to get out and see what was happening. Iraqi officials blocked the way. Peter Arnett, John Holliman and Bernie Shaw hid out upstairs and made TV history. I made a mental note, next time stay out of the bomb shelter!

So 12 years later when we got the call 'shock and awe' was about to begin I knew what I must do.

My head was saying go upstairs, my gut was telling me head for the basement...

We were in a different hotel than 1991, the Palestine, right across the Tigris River from Saddam Hussein’s main downtown presidential compound. We’d chosen the hotel for this very reason, its ready vantage point overlooking the most likely target in the Baghdad and I'd taken the best room, the Presidential suite on the top floor. Something ironic I suppose in the name, but 17 floors up it had a 270 degree view of the city. Like having the Royal box at a London theater, only this was no play, lives would be at stake, possibly ours. We'd been told when shock and awe started, if we were within two miles, our ear drums would be blown out.

I agreed to share my room with a couple of photographer friends, Jim Nachtwey and Alexandra Boulat, a wonderful woman who sadly died last year. To me they were the cream of the photography crop in Baghdad, at the top of their game.

So when the warning came and my gut said 'hide,' my head said 'be a journalist,' my heart said 'warn my friends.' I ran up the 6 flights from our 11th floor office. Jim and Alex began bagging their gear, we were worried, what would happen when the bombs fell. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The top guns not staying for the top shot.

My head came in to play, 'let's wait and see what happens' I said. We all set up on the balcony again, grabbed some cushions for protection, threw them on the floor in the corner, put our flack jackets and helmets on and waited.

As the bombers got closer, the anti aircraft fire got louder and louder. I began to doubt myself in more ways than one, were we crazy? More importantly, had I set my camera to record?

I went out to the balcony to check and became transfixed as the night sky was rent by wavering lines of anti-aircraft tracer rounds, snaking through the sky as desperate Iraqi gunners sought an invisible prey. The huge yellow flashes erupted from the huge presidential complex just across the river. Then one almighty bang and a massive ball of flame. I pulled myself back into room, hid behind the wall, waiting for the shock wave. Would the hotel shake? Would it crumble? Would the windows shatter and we'd be shredded by flying glass? Then it hit, windows burst open, dust came down from the ceiling, and that was it, the worst was over. From that moment I knew we'd be safe.

For over an hour we watched and recorded 'Shock and Awe.' Then a banging at our door. Iraqi government minders had come to close us down. We went silent, pretended not to be there, they left.

We breathed a sigh of relief and I stashed my tapes in a bag. Half an hour later they came crashing back, breaking the door down. I pulled a curtain over the balcony window to hide my camera... it went on recording Shock and Awe.

The men Saddam employed to control our every move didn't get my tapes, we were expelled the next day and the material broadcast as soon as we got over the border to Jordan.

– Nic Robertson, Senior International Correspondent

Program note: AC 360 takes a look back at the start of the Iraq War and where it stands now five years later. "Shock & Awe: 5 Years Later" airs tonight 11p ET....and read other blogs from the 360° team of contributors at cnn.com/360


Filed under: Iraq • Nic Robertson
soundoff (38 Responses)
  1. Steve

    I forgot one:
    Instead of all the bravado of Bush after 9/11, The bombers, jet fighters and paratroopers should have been immediately running 24 hrs non-stop over Afghanistan.

    That's where the Taliban and Bin Laden were openly creating and directing all terrorist operations.

    They could have been killed and stopped from retreating into Pakistan. That was the enemy and #1 target in the world. Bush never went after them.

    Instead Bush just flapped his mouth for weeks. Making idle threats, creating the crazy Iraq WMD story and ignored advice from all over the world.

    Now the few troops that have any energy left are in Afghanistan trying to keep the Taliban from taking that country back over. More shock and awe.

    March 21, 2008 at 1:32 am |
  2. Steve

    5 yr Report on Iraq was absolutely OUTSTANDING.
    Great job to all.

    I purposely did not use Shock & Awe because I think it highlights how misguided & unprepared Bush & his neo-conservative gang were in the War.

    Who uses a marketing buzz line when so many American lives are being put at risk and they sleep comfortable at home?

    They put on a publicity show that the media jumped on with both feet with all the imbedded reporters & cameras during the invasion. They thought it was going to be over by the evening news.

    The major points that stood out then & now:
    1) Bush, Cheney & gang plus most americans know very little if anything about Islam. the middle east, the history, culture and all the little details that you should know before going into a war.

    2) They had no respect for the enemy and still don't.

    3) They never had any plans for after the invasion and alternatives when situations changed which was highlighted so effective in the programs tonight. The keep wishing for a "silver bullet".

    4) They have no clue when it comes to down & dirty urban warfare especially when the enemy is highly motivated & not intimitated by bravado of an ignorant administration. The military has learned a lot on this front now.

    5) High priced US military vehicles that the USA likes to brag about can be turned into ashes by simple weapons operated by a teenager.
    They have blown up ever fancy tank, fighting vehicle, etc . Plus have taken out fancy helicopters too

    6) Never studied the failed 10yr Soviet war in Afghanistan – the one we supplied weapons to Osama Bin Laden. The tactics, weapons and fighting techniques honed by the Mujahideen are now used worldwide by extremists.

    The only Shock & Awe after 5 years are those Americans who believed Bush plus the 4,000 families that lost loved ones & the thousands who will never be the same due to terrible injuries.

    It has wasted so many lives & nearly a trillion $$ so far

    Again, great job for showing all the key points in this 5 year tragedy.

    March 21, 2008 at 1:21 am |
  3. Lisa

    Nic,
    Thank you for all of your reports from Iraq. You put things in perspective. I have a son that is over there and every day I wake up and pray for his safety. I think that this war is going to continue for a long time and honestly doubt that there is a way to "win." I think Iraq's want to be ruled by secular law and democracy is not in their realm of thought.
    I am very proud of America's children who have stepped up and have gone over to Iraq to fight this war. I am very proud of my son.
    Thanks again.

    March 20, 2008 at 11:54 pm |
  4. RSHUNTER

    I just sat through the first couple of segments of your absolutely disgusting hit piece on the Iraq war. What a one sided, left wing, anti-war rant, couched in thoughtful tones. If I wanted to watch biased garbage, I would go to the Daily Kos or Huffington Post. I expect a lot better from CNN.

    March 20, 2008 at 11:39 pm |
  5. richardinho

    Excellent, excellent. A superb, well edited, segment highlighting the crucial events in the recent past. How important to do this now, and how evident iit is that memories are so, so short.

    March 20, 2008 at 11:33 pm |
  6. Sharon

    What a shame that Shock & Awe turned into Bomb & Fizzle.

    March 20, 2008 at 10:23 pm |
  7. Hamdu

    CNN and the Media = The real war profiteers

    March 20, 2008 at 8:55 pm |
  8. Lorenzo Tindal

    The term of Shock And Awe now has a new meaning to most Americans. It now means losing my home, four dollar gasoline per gallon, higher prices at the supermarket, losing their jobs, college tuition cost, the economy , Hillary Clinton trying to steal the nomination from Obama and President Bush not knowing that gas is almost four dollars a gallon in america and John MCCain not knowing exactly who the enemy is in Iraq. And bailing out Bear Sterns and leaving homeowners and tax payers holding the bag.

    March 20, 2008 at 7:06 pm |
  9. Cookie South Dakota

    I remember that day and felt fear and dread for our great country. My husband and I were one of the few that thought at the time this is wrong and we shouldn't be in Iraq. Now look at us 5 years later. I wish with all my heart my fear and dread of that day did not come true. America is now is a recession and spending billions of dollars a week in Iraq. We have lost 4000 men and woman. I do hope this war ends and our wonderful loyal troops can come home soon. But for your work on that night we would not have seen the start of this awful war, and for that I thank you. We Americans need to see more of the wars effect on Iraqs people and what it is doing to our troops. We need to see the coffins come home and make the war real to all Americans. This is just another Veitnam and it will end the same way. God Bless America and get us of of Iraq!

    March 20, 2008 at 3:09 pm |
  10. Abu Salam

    The problem with people like "Jr" is that they only believe the news that suit their previously tailored beliefs. They don't understand why reporters don't report on the "progress in Iraq", because they're convinced that some progress is being made. Regardless of whether there is some progress.

    Hey, big guy Jr, who rejoiced while "sitting on his couch" when he "watched on TV" 17 of my (innocent) relatives die from US bombs, why don't you join me and what's left of my family down here in Baghdad, and see for your own smart self how good a life we're having. Maybe then will you understand (although this seems unlikely) that living in Iraq sucks now more than ever. Independently of your political biased views.

    March 20, 2008 at 3:06 pm |
  11. Nick Herald

    One million Iraqis dead, 4,000 US troops dead, trillions of taxpayer dollars spent and all we can talk about is "should we stay or should we go?" We need to review recent history and ask ourselves how/why we invaded Iraq in the first place.

    Why Iraq?...WMD?...Hardly. There are plenty of other countries with WMD that do not like the US. So why Iraq? Oil. The biggest untapped "elephant field" in the world is there. Since oil is a national security commodity, worldwide demand is increasing, and the world is running out, it is common sense that we need to be proactive about securing our future supply. Saddam was not about to start trading with us. Our oil companies needed some security if they were going to sign on in Iraq. Sending 100,000 troops to back this agenda makes far more sense than nonexistent WMD.

    How Iraq? It is not an easy task to get the peaceful people of a democracy to invade another country. The masses have to be enraged or fearful about someone or something. Iraq happened shortly after the post 9/11 fear of "terrorists." Do you really think we could have had the consensus to invade Iraq without the fear/rage to "stop the terrorists" that ensued after 9/11? Do you really think we would devote so many resources to one country if we did not PLAN on getting "compensated" by some resources in return? Business does not work that way and the US government and our oil companies are the two of the biggest, most powerful businesses in the world.

    At the five-year "anniversary" of the Iraq war, the debate should not be about whether we stay or go without honestly addressing the two fundamental questions from a rationale and unbiased perspective: what was our unspoken INTEREST in invading Iraq in the first place and how did we reach that decision?

    March 20, 2008 at 2:46 pm |
  12. frmdetroit

    I was just starting my first year of college at the time, and to be honest, i was more concerned about the death of r&b star Aaliyah, than this war. I thought it was pathetic how this 'shock and awe' campaign was being telivised. From the safe confines of my dorm room, all I saw was what looked like fireworks. I bet no one could imagine the innocent families and children who were caught in this mess. I look back at that time as being the beginning of this disgrace of this nation. I have been even more dissapointed to find out that just like Hitler used fear to get Germans to commit horrible crimes, we're doing the same thing today.

    March 20, 2008 at 2:34 pm |
  13. Polar Bear

    I will never forget that day after the bombs hit Baghdad and the sight of an innocent child laying on a side street with part of her face severed and a huge hole on the side of her little tummy.

    March 20, 2008 at 1:54 pm |
  14. Christopher Meisner

    Shock and Awe

    Shock...sure the American taxpayer and future generations who will be paying for the trillion dollar quagmire Iraq has become.

    Awed....that America missed the boat,the target.

    9/11 was radical Islam from Afghanistani training camps,Pakistani inaction and Saud indifference.

    160,000 troops for the liberation of Iraq? More like 500,000.

    Should have finished the job in Kabul.Should have lit up the southern plains of Afghanistan with a couple 5 megaton warheads.

    Remember – "An attack on one member is an attack on all" – NATO.

    March 20, 2008 at 1:44 pm |
  15. Hrold Massengale

    I woulod like to say that I thank that you are very brave being there to report the news to the people of America.And alos that as long as you are away from your family and friend that I will say a prayer for you every night intil the day that you come back HOME TO AMERICA!!!!!!!!

    March 20, 2008 at 1:39 pm |
  16. Greg

    I felt kinda sick to my stomach when the invasion began, because I knew the inevitable consequences of invading the heart of the Arab world.

    March 20, 2008 at 1:36 pm |
  17. Kathleen

    Thank you, Nic. You are a true professional.

    March 20, 2008 at 1:31 pm |
  18. Nelson Evans

    Thousands dead on both sides, a country in turmoil with millions displaced yet here we are glorifying a time in history that we should be ashamed of. Now that we Americans have put up with our all knowing and intelligent leader for almost eight years I suspect the same electorate will vote for Iraqi John and traitor Lieberman. Their continuation of 100 more years of war is a thing to look forward to.
    Meanwhile the world despises us and our aggressive behavior with a tanking economy never ends. We all should be proud to call ourselves Americans. We have rather degenerated into an elitist corrupt driven nation benefiting the 5 percent.

    March 20, 2008 at 1:30 pm |
  19. Maggie C

    Nic,

    Thank you for your "up close and personal." It still seems strange to me to say that I watched the beginnings of both wars on TV, and saw the end of the first one.

    I was a CNN fan even then but I had no connection to any of the reporters except the three you mention. Actually I only remember Peter and Bernie.

    The first time it was more of a celebration, a warning that ended rather quickly. Sometimes I think this one never will. You, Michael and Arwa are so good at what you do. Not that others aren't, it just seems that you.ve been there the longest.

    Remember the election? Scary! I thought for sure you were going to get your head blown off with that zinger that came so close! Hang in there, stay safe.

    Maggie

    March 20, 2008 at 1:14 pm |
  20. Judy Stage Brooklyn MI

    You know Nic, Without you courageous journalist, we would sure be in the dark about most things.
    I was born before World War 2 and I still remember sitting by a radio during the air raid warnings listening for news of the war. We were told to turn all lights off when we heard the sirens and we did. I doubt that we were in any danger, living in Michigan, but we sure felt that we were. These drills seemed so real to a young kid.
    I am such a wimp I could not do the job of a journalist in todays world.
    God Bless every one of you and may God and your beloved angels keep you safe.

    March 20, 2008 at 1:05 pm |
  21. dan

    I do not see anything great about shock and awe.

    March 20, 2008 at 1:04 pm |
  22. Andrew Colton

    I was at work when Shock and Awe started. There was no TV on the entire floor and we were trying to see video from CNN.com or anybody else we could but the I.T department had video blocked on all the computers. We tried all the major news web sites and the proxy server was blocking all video no matter which network we went to. Everybody was fustrated and wanted to see what was going on in Iraq and Shock and Awe. Then I got a crazy idea, I told a co-worker who had a bigger monitor than I had to try BBC.com. Magically we got video the I.T department had not blocked BBC and all of us watched Shock and Awe for quite a long time. The news quickly spread thru the entire building and everybody was watching BBC.com. Needless to say the video was blocked the next morning.

    March 20, 2008 at 12:39 pm |
  23. Erica

    I remember that night as well. My uncle was in the army and had been in Saudi Arabia for weeks. My grandfather was dying of leukemia and I was only ten years old. I never thought that out of the U.S.'s involvement in Iraq that I would meet my husband. In 2004, my husband an Iraqi journalist had to flee his homeland after his life was threatened. I still haven't been able to meet his parents or brothers who still live in Baghdad. I hope that one day we can put all of this war to rest and that I will be able to take my children to Iraq.

    March 20, 2008 at 12:11 pm |
  24. David Mo

    Your 360 blog entry reminds me of a lyric from the always-profound David Tibet, who has recorded with many musical luminaries under the group name Current 93. An obscure track, "The Signs and The Sighs of Emptiness" includes the chorus:

    "Hark, Hark! The Dogs Do Bark!
    Pain is Coming To Town!
    Hark, Hark! The Dogs Do Bark!
    Pain is Coming To Town!"

    Sorry I do not have the CD with me or I would provide more of the lyrics which are quite vivid and apocalyptic.

    March 20, 2008 at 11:57 am |
  25. Fern

    We desperately need more coverage of the war.

    We need to see the progress, the mistakes, the hope restored for the future of that country.

    We need to know what the plans the Iraquis have for themselves once we leave.

    Mostly we need to leave and get back to our lives.

    March 20, 2008 at 11:50 am |
  26. Jon

    Nic,
    You have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that you are completely insane. Regardless of what you say about being a journalist, you were crazy for sticking around in a warzone. Still a great story...from a madman.

    March 20, 2008 at 11:23 am |
  27. Jr

    I remember sitting on the couch, with my Fiance and her family, seeing the first bomb drop.

    I had a flood of mixed emotions:

    First was an emotion of cheer (this is the only way I can describe it), like we were finally going in to get the bad guy, after warning him for what seemed like years (giving him plenty of time to hide anything incriminating he had).

    Next, as I watched the tears stream down the face of my fiancee, came sadness, as the reality of people dying, good or bad, struck.

    Now, I just see the Iraq war as something that is not covered properly by the media. I grow weary of hearing of the same repetitive story: 4 Marines died today, 3 Soldiers died, we lost another helicoptor, etc.

    Would you all please start covering the progress being made in Iraq? I've talked with soldiers that have come back, and they bring me vastly different stories. They bring me stories of new schools, of children now being able to play in the streets, of people getting cell phones, being able to vote for the first time, etc. I think that America really needs to see the payback to the hundreds of billions of dollars we have spent on another country whenever our own country needs so much work.

    Lastly, I would like to show my appreciation for all of the wonderful journalists over there who are so unselfishly putting themselves in the line of fire to bring us coverage of the war. The initial video of Shock and Awe was just that.. I as very shocked, and in awe at the same time.

    Jr.

    March 20, 2008 at 10:58 am |
  28. Enrique Gonzales

    I also remember that report. This is when I became and Anderson Cooper fan. You are crazy but you really know how to put people in the place your standing. Not many people can do that. Best Wishes on healing up.

    March 20, 2008 at 10:47 am |
  29. Filip

    I will never forget that night when I glued myself to the TV. At the age of 15, I remember watching the bombs come down. Your report that night had brought an understanding that, America, will never be the same.

    March 20, 2008 at 10:40 am |
  30. RealityKing

    It was the best of times and the worst of times. The beginning of a lot of blood shed and yet also the beginning of 26 million newly freed lives.
    History in the making...

    March 20, 2008 at 10:15 am |
  31. carmen

    Hi Nic,

    About time we got back to the real issues and events around the world. We need a break from CNN's continuous loop of the Rev. Wright in prime time and it will quite refreshing to see both you and a real story for a change.

    March 20, 2008 at 10:09 am |
  32. Tony

    The dogs bark before earthquakes and tornados hit too. They seem to always know when impending doom is approaching. Maybe we could take a lesson from them.

    It took a lot of guts to stay up there and keep reporting. Keep up the good work.

    March 20, 2008 at 10:04 am |
  33. Ayse

    Hello Nic,

    2 things:

    1) Interesting how you say that you guys recieved a call to say that shock and awe was about to start. Did everyone really use that jargon in the newsroom?

    2) I think that (for me at least) the war became a reality when you, your team and Raihm (I think that was her name) were kicked out of Iraq, but you had to cross the border in groups. The first team were filming your cross-over, and when you all met up there were hugs all around. You and Raihm then went on to discuss your experiences in great detail. That was hard-core raw journalism at it's best.

    March 20, 2008 at 9:59 am |
  34. Jackie

    I saw your reports from Iraq. I saw your reports from New Orleans.

    Actually, I believe that those are moments like those experienced by the people that were physically present at the Hindenburg.

    By technology and media taking us to war and tragedy we are all changed.

    And so are you. I have to ask you after experience war and tragedy up close has it how has it impacted you personally? And also I have to tell you that I fear that the constant barrage of these images shown over and over again has in many ways minimized and dehumanized the impact.

    Like watching constant barrages of slander and hate. I fear that overexposure could have the effect of somehow making us immune to the hate and violence.

    On this end of things in front of a TV suddenly a war may have the impact of a video game. After enough exposure hate and lies from a pulpit may seem acceptable and lose its reality. In front of a TV or sitting in a church we may come to accept it. So when someone cries "Fire" in a crowded theatre we are at a lose to explain why no one leaves the show.

    March 20, 2008 at 9:57 am |
  35. Paul Roy Schwartz

    I want more done for the real innocents in war. And that is the domestic animals, and the wild animals in these regions around the world. Get them out of the way as fast as you can ! Thx ~ Paul ~ O . . .

    March 20, 2008 at 9:44 am |
  36. Amber Plank

    Amazing. Simply amazing. Thank you for being so dauntless. And thank you for sharing this visual.

    March 20, 2008 at 9:40 am |
  37. Sophie

    Nic,

    I saw the movie version of 'Live from Baghdad' about a year ago. It was an amazing story and I was very surprised by the appearance of a young Nic Roberson! I managed to track down a copy of Robert Wiener's book which was a fascinating read.

    Your experience during Shock & Awe sounds remarkably similar. I bet you had several moments of deja vu. Thanks for this detailed blog post. For someone so young, you've been a part of some very historic moments. I'm looking forward to tonight's special. Stay safe.

    March 20, 2008 at 9:28 am |
  38. Cindy

    Nic,
    I remember seeing your reports that day. They were great. If I was you I think I'd have set my camera up to record, went down stairs and hoped for the best! Good thing your the reporter and not me huh!? Thanks for sharing your memories from that day.

    Cynthia, Covington, Ga.

    March 20, 2008 at 8:29 am |