Commencement 2009

Commencement Address

“Looking for a Little Light”
Eric Westervelt ’91

Reed College, May 18, 2009

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westervelt imageClass of 2009, you’ve talked a lot, let’s have a look at you. Come on, this is a celebration. Let’s hear and give it up for the largest graduating class in Reed College history!

I’m having trouble getting used to this academic burka they’ve given me. I feel like The Man in Black. Hello I’m Johnny Cash. Folsom Prison Blues in G. Where’s the band?

Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of your celebration today.

I was in the Gaza Strip—a seafood lover’s paradise: come for the shrimp, stay for the tragedy—when I kept getting bombarded with emails from Reed. I thought, “It’s official, the Reed alumni association is now as annoying as public radio fundraisers.” Then I actually opened one of the emails and it was an invitation to address the Class of 2009. So, again, thank you. It is an honor.

I turned to my friend and Gaza news assistant Ahmed Abu Hamda. “So, they’ve asked me to speak to students as they graduate college. They’re entering a crazy post-9/11 world during one of the worst economic crises in recent memory. What should I tell them?”

Ahmed looked at me with a mix of puzzlement and genuine annoyance. He was not in any mood for instant wisdom or pithy inspiration.

Israel had just ended its 22-day offensive in the Coastal Territory; an operation, it said, aimed at stopping the rocket and mortar fire that had plagued southern border cities for years.

Whole neighborhoods in Gaza were devastated. Earlier in the day we’d interviewed Gaza civilians who’d returned to their homes only to find rubble. Morgues were overflowing. Hospital hallways were packed with wounded men, women, and children.

That day we’d heard from a young father who was burying his three week old daughter in a sandy lot near a cemetery, lowering her, carefully swaddled in a blanket, into a makeshift grave. The child’s grandfather was distraught and angry that he couldn’t afford a proper grave or grave marker.

So, Ahmed was not in much of a mood to be magnanimous towards American college students.

He thought for a minute, and smoked another cigarette. “Tell them . . . we need cement,” he said dryly.

Smuggled sacks of low-grade Egyptian cement—when available—were selling on the black market for five times the normal price. Other basic building supplies were unavailable.

“Cement? Come on Ahmed, I know there’s scarcity here, but I’m not addressing the Home Depot convention. And it’s not about your suffering. These are students who are about to enter the world of work. Have a little sympathy,” I told him. “The U.S. economy is in horrific shape. Housing foreclosures are at a post–World War II high. Home values have plummeted. This is the deepest recession in a generation. Unemployment is nearing double digits. Their parents’ retirement accounts have been leveled like Fallujah or Gaza. It’s rough out there.”

Ahmed seemed unmoved. Shrapnel from a high-explosive-tank-round had blown out most windows in his building and made earthquake-like cracks down the walls of his flat. A winter rain was dripping into his once comfortable apartment. His wife, nearly six months pregnant, was understandably stressed. Dust, rubble, and broken glass covered their unborn child’s room.

“Well, then,” he said, smoking another of the cigarettes he had vowed to quit in the New Year, “tell them they are really screwed by this economy, but at least they can get all the cement they need to fix their cheap houses.”

I gave up. It’s hard to argue gloom with a Gazan, where the real jobless rate is over 50 percent and three quarters of the population rely on weekly emergency food handouts from the United Nations refugee agency.

When I was sitting in your seat on graduation day 18 years ago, I remember thinking three things: One, where are we going to take the grandparents for dinner? Octogenarians can be picky eaters. Two, would my friend John get Full Sail amber or a lesser beer for the graduation party? He had a long history being dangerously frugal, but he came through with a decent brew. And three, wow, I did what?

Fair warning: for some of you, entry into the post-college world—the transition—will be rough, as it was for me.

I wanted to be a journalist. That summer, after graduating, I tried to get my break. Instead, I was hauling lumber and trying not to hurt myself with a nail gun on a construction crew building McMansions in the Portland suburbs. Then the seasonal construction work dried up. I was trying to find work I loved. I wanted to be a reporter. But instead, as summer turned to fall, I was waiting tables at a crappy restaurant out near the airport.

I was trying to follow my passion, but at the start, I kept running into a brick wall. I’m a Reed college graduate, would you like fries with that?

Newspaper editors in the Northwest, if I could get them to take a look at me, would stare at my scant resume with puzzlement. “Why don’t you have more news clips?” they’d ask.

“Umm, well, the Reed paper is a little different,” I’d say. “We didn’t do a lot of hard news. And, um, well, I was really busy writing this senior thesis.”

Awkward silence.

“Yeah,” they’d say. “I see that you wrote about the transient unemployed and organized labor in the cultural context of late 19th Century America.”

“Uhh huh.” More awkward silence.

I’d fumble for some explanation as to why I didn’t have more news stories. I’d try to save the interview from imploding by adding something like, “I know how to ask good questions, and I know I can learn to write on tight deadlines. I love news and I can think critically and....”

It was too late. The interview had tanked. I wouldn’t get the job or even really much encouragement.

Thankfully, I started to get some breaks freelancing. And then the local Portland Morning Edition host—Henry Sessions, at the time—and the station agreed to let me help out on the show. “If you wanna get up in the middle of the night and come work, sure,” Henry told me. “Here, re-write these stories. You’ve got eight minutes until the top of the hour.” I learned a ton. I’m grateful that Henry took a chance on me and encouraged me.

So all I can advise is: try to have high tolerance for the pain if you get hit with rejection notices at first. Try to think: this can make me stronger.

I became an American Studies major at Reed because, for me, it seemed like the perfect mix. It was history, but with an openness to exploring many other sources. We’d examine what leaders did and said. But we’d also study advertising, diaries, novels, pulp fiction, music, workers’ journals, the literature of the day—and more—to try to explain the cultures of the United States. American Studies helped lead me toward wanting to become a reporter. I thought, if there’s anyway I can get paid for exploring ideas, issues, and people without worrying so much about damn footnotes or writing another thesis, sign me up. Then I realized that in radio I didn’t have to iron my shirts very often, and I was in heaven.

The friends I made at Reed are doing great things. Many of them are teachers at the middle, high school, and college levels. They’re working daily to try to inspire and motivate kids—including their own children. They’re involved in their communities, still embracing a work-hard play-hard ethos, and taking the idea of local and global civic responsibility seriously.

Speaking of responsibility, it is implicit in the invitation to be here that I pass along some advice—or maybe even words of warning. So, here goes.

One: I’d encourage you to always have an exit strategy. This certainly applies to melees, riots, revolutions, and general uncontrolled, violent street chaos. Maintain situational awareness at all times of an escape path. Think: if this little thing turns vicious and the high-velocity teargas canisters, wooden truncheons, or bullets start flying, what alleyway, what wall, what shop or side street can I flee to? Of course, the need for an exit strategy also certainly applies to bad jobs, bad relationships, bad loans, and disastrous foreign policy wars of choice. Exit strategy.

Two: I’d advise you to think long and hard before spending significant time in conflict zones. War can be heady, powerful, intense, and addictive. It can also prove to be a toxic soul-sucking beast that can start to deform your spiritual and emotional world.

A veteran photographer friend who lives in the region full time observed, “if you’re not a little screwed up after years in the Middle East, you didn’t see enough, you didn’t get close enough.” Former war correspondent Chris Hedges of the New York Times put it this way, "once you sink into the weird subculture of war, it is hard to return home, where everything seems banal and trivial.”

I think it’s vital to have passion for the career you choose. I got into journalism because I was curious, skeptical, and wanted to tell people’s stories. I had—and still have—a deep curiosity, a sense of adventure, and a desire to explore. But it was a rough awakening, then, for me to confront the limitations of my vocation and realize the cost of a probing, adventurous spirit, as I got deeper into doing the job I love.

It was Afghanistan in the summer of 2002.

The U.S. military reported that dozens of Taliban fighters were killed and many more wounded in a U.S. air strike north of Kandahar. Residents of the village, however, said the attack hit a wedding celebration. So I made the seven-hour trip in a feeble four-wheel drive vehicle through dangerous Taliban territory to follow up on the disputed report.

I arrived, and you could still see the bloodied sandals and mangled footwear of the dead in a wheelbarrow near where the AC-130— basically a flying tank—had struck. One mother came up to me with her six-year-old. She lifted up his dirty shirt and peeled back a ragged bandage, showing me a small piece of shrapnel still stuck in her son’s back. The wound was not in good shape. I started asking her about her son and about that night. But other people were slowly coming forward with more wounded . . . cautiously coming out of the small mud-brick homes and forming a makeshift line.

“What the hell’s going on?” I asked my translator. “What’s happening?”

“They think you’re a doctor,” he told me. “Someone passed the word a doctor is here.”

It felt like someone kicked me in the stomach. Damn, I thought, all I can do is fire up the satellite phone, batteries permitting, and offer a few minutes on Morning Edition that some American commuter will hear while taking his six-year-old to school. But I cannot, really, help with this child’s seeping, infected shrapnel wound. The woman’s other son, nearby, looked haunted. He needed a trauma expert or a Doctors Without Borders team, not my microphone sticking in his face.

It was hardly the first time I’d have to confront the limitations of the job I’m passionate about.

One day, in the early morning of April 5, 2003, I was crouched in the back of a Bradley armored fighting vehicle as a lead element of the U.S. Third Infantry division pushed into southern Baghdad and into what was then called Saddam Hussein International airport. The army called this mission a thunder run.

The unit had been fighting its way to Baghdad for weeks. But this was a hellacious, horribly unnerving armored bolt though a disorganized yet well-armed gauntlet of Saddam Fedayeen soldiers. Several dozen of the Fedayeen, a special paramilitary unit created by Saddam’s brutal eldest son Uday, died while charging the convoy in small pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns.

The explosions were deafening. There was fire all around. I tried to calm the intense fear as the Iraqis fired rocket propelled grenades and mortar rounds.

Some of the people killed that April morning in southern Baghdad will forever be etched in my consciousness.

As small arms rounds pinged off the Bradley I was in, I rolled tape and watched out the small windows in the back of the vehicle at the raging fight.

“Watch your fire,” I recall the battalion commander telling his men over the radio. “Some of these people are just trying to get out of the kill zone.”

And the kill zone was wide . . . and merciless, that day.

I watched a man burning alive in the concrete median of highway six as he tried to crawl out of his Toyota, engulfed in flames. I could see a woman, most likely his wife, and certainly dead, burning inside the car next to him. A child, no more than six or seven years old, stood by her burning father, her mouth agape in a sharp howl of intense fear made all the more unnerving by the fact that I could only see her screaming. I had to imagine what she sounded like. That family was among some of the first of the now estimated more than 100 thousand Iraqi civilians killed in the war.

A few days before that attack into Baghdad airport, I had chatted with Staff Sergeant Stevon Booker, a commander of one of the many tanks in the battalion.

Booker was a friendly, hard-charging African American soldier from Apollo, Pennsylvania. It’s a small, rural town in the former coal mining belt northeast of Pittsburgh.

Booker loved video games, basketball, darts, and above all his job as a United States solider. He was a Gulf War veteran and was trying to advise some of the younger soldiers who’d never seen combat: trust in your training, trust in your equipment, he told them. You’re going to be all right.

I remember Booker’s striking laugh and the way this enlisted man would jokingly bark at some of the junior officers in the unit as if he outranked them. “I’M THE FUCKIN’ TANK COMMANDER, SIR!” he would growl. “You may outrank me,” he seemed to say, “but inside my tank, I’m in charge.”

During that attack to the airport, an Iraqi rocket-propelled grenade slammed into Booker’s tank. He took a fatal and gruesome hit to his head. The career Army NCO was 34 years old. Rest in peace Staff Sgt. Booker, who was among the first of now four thousand and three hundred American service men and women killed in Iraq.

I’ve returned to that road several times over the years. It remained a dangerous strip of highway as the insurgency raged. I would think about those ghosts from that day as I worried about the new threats: roadside bombs, kidnappings, and occasional sniper fire. Today, that road in south Baghdad is safer, much, much safer. But it was pacified at an enormous price.

It is not enough. It’s not sufficient. But telling these peoples’ stories is what I do.

There were 20 plus other journalists embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division unit I traveled with during the initial invasion. Four were killed before we reached Baghdad: Christian Liebig with the Germany magazine Focus; Julio Parrado with the Spanish daily El Mundo; David Bloom of NBC News and Michael Kelly of the Atlantic Monthly. They were some of the first of the nearly 200 journalists who’ve been killed covering Iraq.

Like those fallen journalists, I still very much believe it is my job, despite the dangers, to try to bear witness.

Especially when it comes to issues of war and peace, I believe everyone has an obligation to move outside the safe realm of theory and look at the effect policy decisions have on real people. We need to challenge not only our leaders, but our own beliefs about what is right and what is just, to get out of what law professor Cass Sunstein called “the information cocoons”—comfortable spaces of our own convictions. We need to move outside the echo chamber.

There’s a deep crisis in journalism right now. Many newspapers are struggling to survive. Some have folded. Many networks have cut back on foreign news coverage. Bloggers and micro-bloggers are often a great addition to the mix. They can enrich coverage. But quick and prolific doesn’t always mean insightful or accurate.

At the end of the day, in this age of digital distraction, I think we still need people to hit the ground and see the impact firsthand, to take the risks and witness the suffering and the courageous acts, to smell the white phosphorous, to look at the faces of the survivors, the traumatized, and to see people picking up the pieces, re-building, and trying to move on with their lives.

I’m still sorting it all out. I’m not entirely sure what I’ve learned from my work covering conflicts. I do try hard to look for the moments of brightness, the light, in these difficult places.

And the light can shine unexpectedly. There was the Gaza Bedouin family cooking outdoors on the ruins of their home. They were burning scrap lumber from what used to be their living room. The father smiled and invited me to sit down on the debris and drink tea.

Always take time to drink the tea.

There was a neighbor I had in Jerusalem. Ruth is a holocaust survivor in her late 70s, but is more active than most people half her age. She was originally from Poland. The Nazis murdered every single member of Ruth’s family, from mother and father, to cousins. Every one of them. Ruth has every reason in the world to be angry and bitter. She is, in fact, one of the most positive people I know. One day she told me about her passion for modern dance, the beauty and the grace, and her love for teaching dance and passing her knowledge on to kids.

The light comes when I hear my wife practicing. Lisa is a professional singer and an amazing woman. Sometimes she’ll be giving a lesson and some lovely part of a song or aria will drift down the hall my way. She often jokes that combatants should hold a fierce singing competition—a kind of Global Idol—instead of killing each other. The UN and the Joint Chiefs have yet to respond to her suggestion, but we hear Fox is considering a spin-off.

And Ahmed, who I told you about at the start. Today he is re-building his apartment, one over-priced bag of junky Egyptian cement at a time. The biggest light: his wife Suha gave birth to a healthy baby boy last month. He remains upbeat, despite all that he’s been through. He’s cautiously optimistic, not really about the future of Gaza, but that perhaps his son might be able to someday live in a place without violence and grow up in relative peace.

My final bit of advice: no matter the profession you get into, the real joy is likely to come from friends and family. So it’s important to slow down and take stock of what you see and hear—to create time and space to reflect. Remember to unplug once in a while, to get off the grid, to drink the tea.

NPR’s senior foreign editor, Loren Jenkins, who I’m convinced is the journalistic love child of Nikita Khrushchev and Edward R. Murrow, tells a story about covering the Vietnam War, one of many conflicts he covered.

He was taking a much-needed break from the conflict. He had escaped to the Himalayas up around Everest. He was enjoying the stunning beauty and the calm on the side of a giant mountain. He was a full week’s hike away from the nearest airport. Suddenly, a Sherpa, who had hiked for several days, arrived at base camp with an urgent Western Union telegram for him. It was from his editors in Washington. Loren knew they probably wanted him to return to Vietnam urgently. He looked at the date of the telegram. It was five days old. Then he read the message in the telegram. It read, simply, “MESSAGE GARBLED, MESSAGE GARBLED, PLEASE REPEAT.” Now, he knew his editors wanted him to return to the war. But, message garbled. He hiked for another day until his conscience got him. He made the long trek out and got a flight back to Vietnam in time to cover the final, chaotic weeks of America’s tragic involvement in Vietnam. He caught one of the last helicopters off the roof of the US Embassy as Saigon fell.

Today it would be nearly impossible for a message from Washington to take five days to reach a reporter. They keep us chained to our Blackberrys, mobile phones, and satellite phones.

During the Israeli offensive in Gaza in January I was stupidly trying to multi-task, and I accidentally dropped my cell phone into the toilet just as I hit flush. I quickly shoved my hand into the foul water and yelled, “NOOO!” I could feel the phone slipping away. It was gone.

I had actually flushed my cell phone—my lifeline, with years of phone numbers on it—down the toilet on deadline during war time. After the initial shock, I have to confess . . . it felt terrific.

In conclusion, I’d advise you in the years ahead to sometimes flush your cell phone down the toilet, and tell your boss “MESSAGE GARBLED, MESSAGE GARBLED. PLEASE REPEAT.”

Congratulations again to the class of 2009!

Thank you

Read more about 2009 Commencement Speaker Eric Westervelt ’91.