Overheard at the Pentagon

20 Questions with Nancy Youssef

Journalist Nancy Youssef discussing political revolution in Egypt at a 2014 event (Amanda Mainguy photograph)

On any given day, the Twitterverse is alive with an otherworldly buzz as millions of ideas, conversations, and sales pitches bounce around in 140-character bursts of energy. Much of the traffic is forgettable, often mundane: endless memes, the latest “lifehack” for Google, and emotional exchanges about celebrity personalities and their inane lifestyles. What I wouldn’t give for a day without hearing about Kim Kardashian’s inability to find something to wear.

Then there’s Nancy Youssef. Never shy about expressing her thoughts, Nancy is an old friend and a longtime McClatchy journalist now writing for The Daily Beast. She reported from Tahrir Square in Cairo in the midst of revolution. She spent four years in Iraq and logged countless trips to and from combat zones around the world. She’s been desk reporter, a bureau chief, and a chief correspondent. But when I think of Nancy, I think of her dispatches from the E-Ring: Overheard at the Pentagon.

Few journalists manage a nuanced sense of humor quite like Nancy, and fewer still can package that humor in quite so brilliant a fashion. Part Richard Pryor, part Rodney Dangerfield, with a dash of Melissa McCarthy added to “keep it real,” Overheard at the Pentagon captures the gallows humor so common to Defense Department insiders while offering an exclusive glimpse over the wall that separates the rest of humanity from the select few who men and women who defend it. It’s nothing less than genius.

So, what makes a journalist tick? What drives a writer to do what they do? How do they see the world around us? And in those rare quiet moments, what thoughts come to mind?

1. You don’t seem to have an “off” button. Are there limits to your energy? Oh, that is not energy but rather a constant state of righteous indignation. They look the same though.

2. What’s an average day like for a Pentagon beat reporter? I think the only constant is that each day is spent swimming through a pool of talking points. In between, my job is to follow the wars and national security issues and try to think of the smartest questions I should be asking about them. If I get past that challenge, I then have to write up the answers in the form of a story that is tangible to the reader. And if I survive that, I then endure an editing process that often leaves my editor wondering why he hired me.

3. You have a reputation for making some people squirm. Is there anybody in the Pentagon you don’t scare? What?! I think of myself as demure. I must say, my favorite sources are the ones who welcome a lively conversation about the issues of the day.

Overheard is my way of taking people into the Pentagon and giving then a sense of what people really think, all in a format conducive to the Twitter age.

4. Your Twitter feed is becoming increasingly entertaining. What is your favorite “Overheard at the Pentagon” moment? I don’t know if I have one but Overheard is one of my favorite parts of the job. In light of the aforementioned talking points, Overheard is my way of taking people into the Pentagon and giving then a sense of what people really think, all in a format conducive to the Twitter age.

5. Have we learned enough to save Afghanistan from imploding? If so, what are the right conditions for us to make a dignified exit? I suppose we first must define what constitutes a dignified exit. Is it dignified to acknowledge the limits to what the US can do to shape the outcome in another country? Is it dignified to set a date based on the political calendar? These of course are not questions for a journalist to answer but as a news scribe, it strikes me that 15 years in, such questions remain unanswered.

6. What does “right” look like when the dust settles in Syria? I don’t know because I am not sure Syria exists anymore. When I talk to Syrians, they are not convinced the borders remain in tact. Can a state crafted of artificial borders survive the kind of war Syria has seen in the last five years? I don’t know.

7. Is there hope for a unified Iraq? Oh, Iraq. It could be unified in name. But at the same time, we now have various sectors that identify themselves as something other than Iraqi.

8. You were on the ground during some of Egypt’s most tense moments over the past few years. What was your most frightening moment? I think being in Rabaa when security forces and the Muslim Brotherhood clashed in August 2013, leaving roughly 1,300 dead. We were in the middle of it, and we sought shelter in a nearby apartment building. The man at the front gate initially refused to let us in — as gunshots were flying all around us — because he suspected we were MB [Muslim Brotherhood]. For me that was particularly frightening. In an instant I was not only in the middle of carnage but also in an Egypt I no longer recognized, one that would allow a fellow Egyptian to die in front of his home. And in a way, I haven’t recognized Egypt since that day.

When you do begin to write, find your voice. Report because you have something to say, not to simply repeat what others are saying.

9. What advice would you offer a young journalist coming out of college today? I know war reporting appears to be an incredibly exciting job but the reality is, it has never been more dangerous. The smallest mistake can lead to the biggest consequences. The mistakes I made in Iraq in 2003 would get me killed in Syria or Libya today. So please don’t drive toward the frontline but learn the language, culture and environment of the region all around you. And then, rather than charge forward, move gently. When you do begin to write, find your voice. Report because you have something to say, not to simply repeat what others are saying.

10. You’ve interviewed no shortage of senior military leaders over the past decade. Who stand out to you as our most capable leaders? The first chairman I covered after living in Iraq for four years was Admiral Mullen, and he was the first commander I met stateside who really impressed me as thoughtful about the war. Moreover, his love for the troops seemed genuine. So he is one of my favorites.

11. Who do you see as the rising stars in the national security arena? I love people like Aaron Zelin at the Washington Institute, young scholars who fully delve into the world of jihadists so the rest of us can understand them better. He reads everything they write — in Arabic — and watches every video they publish. His attention to detail helps me make accurate conclusions about what the reader should know about the direction of the jihadist movement. In an age when people wants news summed up in a tweet, I love his attention to detail.

12. What makes you laugh? The questions on the US Army form for reporters seeking an embed. And Overheard.

13. You’ve had the opportunity to work with a very select group of senior journalists. Who influenced you the most and why? Oh too many to count. I think one of favorite reporters is CJ Chivers of the New York Times. A former Marine and a beautiful writer, I love the way he integrates those two skills to write pieces that are wonderfully detailed about what’s happening on the battlefield and yet read effortlessly. Besides that, he is one of the kindest war correspondents I have ever met.

I feel so lucky to have a job that — mostly — doesn’t feel like one.

14. What is your passion in life? What drives you? Funny enough, it is this job. I feel so lucky to have a job that — mostly — doesn’t feel like one. I can’t imagine a greater cause than to push leaders to answer why they are sending other people’s children into harm’s way. Moreover, I love the challenge of making the Middle East or the war on ISIS tangible to readers.

15. Tell me about the last good book you read. I am in a Middle East book club that dominates my reading selection. I loved A Land of Aching Hearts by Leila Fawaz as she walks readers through how the Middle East came to be, particularly Syria, after World War I. I am in the middle of Go Set a Watchman, as To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books of all time. It is fascinating to read essentially the first draft of what became a classic.

16. If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would play the lead role? One night during the Iraq War, a bunch of us journalists were sitting around and positing what a movie about our time there would look like. We agreed the title would be Shaku Maku, and the group decided that Salma Hayek would play me. It was a ridiculous proposition of course but perhaps the greatest compliment ever, so I would have to stick to that because it was the coolest thing anyone ever suggested regarding my place on the big screen.

17. iPad, Kindle, or old-fashioned book? So I love proper books as I find I retain information better than on the Kindle. But I am too lazy to carry books around so the Kindle has become my go to method of reading.

18. You’ve been selected for an interstellar voyage to search for life in other galaxies, and you get to select your crew from your cronies at the Daily Beast? Who would you pick and why? My beloved cohort, Shane Harris, because he is wonderful journalist and an even better friend.

… I am no longer sure I can end my career as a journalist… whatever happens, it has been the greatest job in the world for me. And I am so grateful for every minute of it.

19. Tell me about the last really good movie you watched. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Spotlight. At first, I thought it was an obituary to the kind of journalism I knew when I first entered this business. But really, it was a reminder that the story is always there for whomever wants to get it. It may be harder now to get that story — with fewer resources — but if we really want, each of us can do impactful journalism.

20. What’s next for you? I have no idea, and it is the first time in my life I have answered such a question that way. There are fewer and fewer places that allow me to do the work I love. So I am no longer sure I can end my career as a journalist. Perhaps I could teach or be a historian. I just don’t know anymore. But whatever happens, it has been the greatest job in the world for me. And I am so grateful for every minute of it.