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Reporter Covered Ordinary People Doing Extraordinary Things In Wartime


The numbers alone are remarkable. Reporter John F. Burns's career with The New York Times spanned 40 years, 10 bureaus, included more than 3,300 articles and two Pulitzer Prizes. Burns retired last week, ending his career covering the reburial of Richard III, perhaps fittingly, given the many bloodstained tyrants he covered in his huge career as a war correspondent for the paper. He joins me now for a brief look back at a long career. Welcome, Mr. Burns.

JOHN BURNS: Hey, it's very good to be with you. I've been with NPR one way or another for many, many years.

WERTHEIMER: I want to ask you about the Baghdad Bureau. Now, you are accredited with basically owning the story for The New York Times. You were in at the beginning, and you watched Iraq fall apart. That has to have been an extraordinary sort of end to end experience.

BURNS: Well, of course, I shared the coverage of Iraq with many reporters from The New York Times, indeed, of course, as you know, scores of American reporters. What separated me - perhaps that I stayed in Baghdad from the period before the invasion through the invasion and went on the run from the secret police, which - for a couple of weeks during the bombing, which was, I suppose, one of the scariest moments of my life. And what to say about it now? Many of us - I wasn't alone in this - felt that the toppling of Saddam Hussein might be a good thing for the Iraqi people. So miserable was his tyrannicide. And we had failed to consider the hinterland - what would come next. And we can see now, all these years on - 12 years later - what a catastrophe it's all been.

WERTHEIMER: I wonder if there's something about 40 years of death and destruction and shot and shell that just finally just gets to be more than a person can stand.

BURNS: Do you know, I think it's the other way around. It becomes addictive. We could spend a long time discussing why it becomes addictive. I think because you're living on the line; that narrow, fickle line between life and death. I don't mean our lives and deaths, but the life and deaths of so many thousands of millions of others. And once you have become addicted to that the really difficult thing is to put it behind you and start to relive a normal life. I know, now that I've been away from Iraq for four or five years, that it took a long period of transition for me to return to what I suppose we would call normality. I noticed, for example, when I was only shortly returned from Iraq that I would go to the golf club, to which I belong here, without really thinking about it and choose to go in the late afternoon where I knew that the pro shop was not going to team me up with other players. In other words, I retreated into a sort of period of solitude because of all the undigested experience. I think I can say now I have made that transition only to face another transition to retirement or semiretirement. But giving up the wars was more difficult by a long way than it was to cover them.

WERTHEIMER: Do you miss war do you think?

BURNS: I think without wishing to sound too preachy because for all the miseries that war entails, they also ingenerate an equal and opposite force of good. It's quite extraordinary how ordinary people - I don't think about journalists here. I'm talking about the ordinary citizens of lands at war; how they rise to the occasion, how brave they are, how resourceful they are, how hard they strive to maintain life. And that becomes itself very addictive, very appealing. And that's, I think, what has been a large part of what kept me going back to the wars for so long.

WERTHEIMER: John Burns retired from The New York Times just last week. He joined me from Cambridge, England, just where he lives. Thanks very much.

BURNS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.