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Not so cheery letters from Baghdad
ljbyline1
rodgersjamesm

In one of his poems, Siegfried Sassoon imagines a conversation between two fathers of men fighting in the First World War.

'Snug at the club two fathers sat,
Gross, goggle-eyed, and full of chat.
One of them said: 'My eldest lad
Writes cheery letters from Baghdad.
But Arthur's getting all the fun
At Arras with his nine-inch gun.'

The line about 'cheery letters from Baghdad' was in my mind when I travelled across Iraq's western desert in late 2003, on the way to my first assignment in Iraq since the invasion earlier that year.  It had an echo that Sassoon himself could never have imagined - its resonance for a different generation in different circumstances perhaps reflects his great skill as a poet.

The First World War was a shameful episode in the history of war reporting. Correspondents readily agreed to present a sunny, sanitized, version of what happened in the trenches. Sassoon makes direct reference to this in 'Editorial Impressions.'

In conflict, soldiers and journalists often have an uneasy relationship. They do, though, share similar experiences. Sassoon and his contemporaries are not the only soldiers also to be poets. Few journalists, though, have published verse based on their experiences of reporting war.

My friend and former BBC colleague, Patrick Howse, is an exception. His work - published here - deals particularly with his experience of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, with which he was diagnosed last year. The diagnosis followed countless demanding and distressing assignments to Iraq.  I recommend his poetry to anyone wanting to understand a side of conflict reporting which is not often talked about outside journalistic circles, and rarely within.

Were they able to read it, it might even force Sassoon's snug, gross, goggle-eyed, fathers to read the 'cheery letters from Baghdad' in a different light: exactly what the poet - who himself received treatment for 'shell shock' - would have wished.  

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