National Public Radio journalist Quil Lawrence spoke at Loomis Chaffee on Monday, April 29, about his experiences as a news correspondent from areas of conflict in the Arab world and Latin America and now as a news reporter covering veterans affairs.
"I got into journalism really just by keeping a journal. I loved travel and I loved writing from the first time I got a taste of it," Mr. Lawrence said to the large audience gathered for the Bussel Family International Lecture.
Traveling and journaling during a gap year between high school and college "punctured the myth" that there are places to which he shouldn't or couldn't go, Mr. Lawrence said, and led him to "a lot of improvised border crossings around the world." Those formative experiences steered him toward eventually becoming a war correspondent and pursuing a career in journalism.
Early in his career, Mr. Lawrence covered conflicts in the Middle East, the Arab World, Sudan, Pakistan, Israel, Cuba, and Colombia. He covered Latin America for NPR, the BBC, and The Los Angeles Times.
In 2000, on a Pew Fellowship of International Journalism, he traveled to the Middle East to report on tensions between Iraqi and Kurdish people living in northern Iraq.
After the September 11, 2001, attacks on the Unites States, Mr. Lawrence said the overseas wars felt more personal to him, and he began a 12-year stretch of covering the United States's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and other parts of the Middle East and Asia. He served as NPR's bureau chief in Baghdad and Kabul, covering the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the second battle of Fallujah in 2004 as well as politics and culture in the region.
Mr. Lawrence said he experienced many challenges as a war correspondent given the complexity of modern warfare with few set battles and with conflicts that don't adhere to clearly-defined geopolitical borders blurring the lines of morality. Rebellious uprisings and insurgent, guerilla-style warfare have become ubiquitous making it difficult to report on it in a way that can be understood, he said.
Like other journalists covering military conflicts, Mr. Lawrence said it was hard to avoid bias and not side with the soldiers with whom he was embedded as a reporter. In war, dehumanization of people is necessary for soldiers to be able to carry out their orders, he said, and a journalist's job is to do exactly the opposite. According to Mr. Lawrence, journalists seek to humanize people in warn-torn communities to convey the reality of war to the people back home. He admitted that seeing so much human suffering first-hand led him to become desensitized over time — something he regrets.
"Now I report on the three million American people who served in these most recent wars and other conflicts," Mr. Lawrence said, in order to erode stereotypes and bridge the societal divide between veterans and civilians who have no family experience in the military.
"I'm trying to figure out, as I cover this beat, what it means that our country has been at war for such a long time," and the impact on society of the normalization of being at war, he said.
Throughout his presentation, he shared audio clips of his reporting from the front lines and from his interactions with military veterans back in the United States.
Mr. Lawrence, whose brother is Loomis Chaffee Director of Studies Timothy Lawrence, said he shares his stories with audiences beyond his NPR listeners to combat the misconception that "you can't understand something just because you haven't been there." He encouraged Monday's audience to continue to reach out to people in other places to seek better understanding of the world.
Connect to the NPR website for more about Mr. Lawrence's career and for his archived NPR stories.
The Bussel Lecture was organized through Loomis Chaffee's Alvord Center for Global & Environmental Studies. Connect to the center's webpage to learn more about Alvord Center programs.