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Bernard Shaw: A look back on the 10th anniversary of the Gulf War

January 16, 2001
12 p.m. EST
Clinton Legacy
Bernard Shaw, 1991  

Bernard Shaw was one of three CNN reporters who broadcast continuous coverage of the first night of the Allied Forces' bombing of Baghdad during Operation Desert Storm.

CNN Moderator: Look back 10 years to the night of January 16, 1991. Are those events still vivid in your mind?

Bernard Shaw: Those events always will be vivid in my mind for numerous reasons. That experience is made somber on this anniversary date because my friend and CNN colleague John Holliman died two years ago in an automobile accident outside Atlanta.

CNN Moderator: What scenes or feelings experienced during the war are as fresh for you today as when they occurred?

Bernard Shaw: First, my feeling and description of the opening moments of the war when I looked outside the hotel window and saw silvery pieces floating from the sky; instantly I knew it had to have been radar jamming chaff. Equally instantly, anti-aircraft batteries surrounding the hotel began firing frantically and aimlessly into the black sky. Air raid sirens wailed and I became very angry because I knew I had no control over my safety or fate and I knew the war was now underway.

CNN Moderator: Did security personnel at the Al Rashid Hotel try to remove you from the hotel room before the U.S. began its air strikes, or only afterwards when it realized you were broadcasting to the world that Iraq was not in control of its airspace at the moment?

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Bernard Shaw: Over long stretches of time into the night, security forces tried to flush us out of Suite 906 at the Al Rashid Hotel. I told Peter Arnett and Holliman that when anyone banged on the door at least two of us should hide -- under tables, anywhere -- so that if one or two of us were pulled out of the suite then one of us remaining could come up on the air and report to the world what was happening.

CNN Moderator: When did you realize that Desert Storm would be more of a television war than Vietnam? Did you feel special pressure in covering a war "live"?

Bernard Shaw: The broadcasting difference between Vietnam and Gulf War coverage was fated with the inception of satellites.

Question from the chat room: Mr. Shaw, who did the superb camera work outside those windows that night?

Bernard Shaw: Our cameraman was Mark Biello. Once the war had begun, Mark positioned at least three small video cameras on tripods looking out from the hotel into three different directions. He hand-held a fourth camera. Regrettably, during the nighttime commotion and the effort by security forces to flush us from the ninth floor suite, very valuable pictures were commandeered by the security soldiers, who just snatched the cameras out of frustration.

Question from the chat room: Did anyone among your crew get hurt covering the war?

Bernard Shaw: There were some cuts and bruises, but, more importantly, there was some psychological pain among some staff members who did not want to be there. CNN's stated on-air policy, repeated again and again by CNN management, was those who wanted to go could leave and those who wanted to stay could remain. In fact, a twin-engine jet was waiting in Amman, Jordan, to fly into Baghdad in the morning to pick me up as well as any others wanting to leave.

My prime assignment in Baghdad at the invitation of the Iraqi government was to re-interview Iraqi President Saddam Hussein following our October 1990 interview. Lloyds of London had warned CNN that if hostilities broke out, they would cancel insurance on my plane. Obviously, with the outbreak of war there was no plane the next morning, and it wasn't until days later that I, John Holliman and a few others left Baghdad.

Question from the chat room: Did you want to stay in Baghdad?

Bernard Shaw: No. Twice in each 24-hour cycle I was talking with my children and my wife back in Takoma Park, Maryland. Each time her central question was, "When are you coming home?" And each time I assured her and our children that I would be wheels up as soon as I completed my interview with Iraq's President Saddam Hussein. When the outbreak of war prevented that interview, my reason for being in the capital of Baghdad no longer existed and CNN headquarters in Atlanta began to want me to relocate to Washington, thinking that I could better serve CNN from my home base. Several days later, Holliman and I made the 16-hour drive over desert roads and highways and arrived safely in Amman, Jordan.

Question from the chat room: Do you have any regrets about being in Baghdad during the bombing?

Bernard Shaw: My lone regret is that the interview with Saddam fell through. It was imperative that the Iraqi side of the war be covered and reported as best we could, given the censorship.

CNN Moderator: You interviewed Walter Cronkite at the start of the war and he encouraged you to stay and do your duty as a journalist. Did his voice and words help fortify you?

Bernard Shaw: Holliman, Arnett and I were determined and had agreed to report what we could. In fact, Walter, a friend of 30 years at that point and former colleague, was calling to ensure that at least we not leave Baghdad. Cronkite felt as did we, and as did our boss, Ted Turner, urging us remain on the ground there and do the best we could. I took Walter's remarks as affirmation of what we were doing.

CNN Moderator: Have you been back to Baghdad since the war?

Bernard Shaw: No, I have not returned to Baghdad since January 1991.

Question from the chat room: Did you ever ask yourself, "What am I doing here?"

Bernard Shaw: When I was growing up in Chicago, my mother used to caution about "being in the wrong place at the wrong time." Moments after war broke out all around me in Baghdad during those early hours of the morning, I thought to myself, "This is the wrong time, and I am in the wrong place." After that, I concentrated on my work of reporting what I could.

CNN Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

Bernard Shaw: Thanks to all for taking the time to join this chat. It brings back memories that are quite close.

CNN Moderator: Thank you for joining us today.

Bernard Shaw: Thank you.

Bernard Shaw joined the chat room via telephone from Washington, D.C. and provided a typist. The above is an edited transcript of the interview on Tuesday, January 16, 2001.

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