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Columbia Alums Hold Reunion in Baghdad

 Capt. Dan McSweeney
Capt. Dan McSweeney in Baghdad in July.

Baghdad’s Green Zone is 6,000 miles from Morningside Heights. But the Columbia connection extends even to the middle of a war zone. The School of International and Public Affairs has 14 graduates who work there now or have worked there in the last few months. One is Capt. Dan McSweeney, ’07. He has run into eight Columbia alums in Baghdad since stepping off the plane in June.

Last month, he organized a reunion lunch at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. It wasn’t quite like meeting for a quick cup of coffee in the Butler Library café, but for those who could make it – Sudarsan Raghavan (J ’93, SIPA ’94) and Megan Greenwell (Barnard ’06), both reporters for the Washington Post, and Christine Weydig (SIPA ’05), who covers the economics portfolio for the Deputy Chief of Mission – it was a welcome chance to escape for a moment the relentless pressures of war and trade stories about cooler and calmer days on campus.

McSweeney is in his second tour of duty as part of the U.S. Marine Corps press office. He also served in Iraq with the 24th Marine expeditionary unit during the invasion, before attending SIPA.

“It's a lot different” now, he says. “There's a much higher concern for security.”

Related links

SIPA's Iraq blog, with entries by Capt. Dan McSweeney and others

Barnard alum Megan Greenwell's recent stories from Iraq for the Washington Post (login required):
Baghdad Briefing: A Child Survivor (audio), Aug. 16
Toll in N. Iraq Passes 250; Attack Is Deadliest of War, Aug. 15

Indeed, the feeling of danger is inescapable. “People are a lot angrier here. I’ve definitely had moments of home sickness,” says Greenwell. The reunion lunch “really did feel like a little slice of Morningside Heights sitting in the desert in the middle of Baghdad.”

Of course, there is nothing in Morningside Heights to compare with the reality in Iraq, where car bombings rip through local markets, refugees are on the road and tragedy is a daily staple of life.

Even those Columbia grads in the relatively safe confines of the Green Zone and other US-controlled areas cannot avoid the grim reality and danger of war. Several times a week, rockets and mortar rounds slam into the base near Baghdad Airport where Lt. Col. Charles Miller (SIPA ’99, PhD ’02) is stationed.

“Some of them are close enough to shake your trailer once in awhile but that’s fairly rare,” he says. “Usually it’s somewhere between the sound of a car backfiring and the much bigger explosions you see on TV. But you get used to it.”

These Columbians frequently draw on their educational experiences to make intellectual sense of the chaos of war and help them do their jobs in one of the most challenging post-graduation environments imaginable. As an American Studies and religion major, Greenwell took a number of classes on Islam, and as a reporter and later editor-in-chief of The Spectator covered Columbia president Lee Bollinger, an assignment that taught her a lot about covering leaders as well as institutions.

Nothing, however, could prepare her for the emotional challenges of what she covers now, where she writes about everything from political developments in Iraq to car bombings. Recently, she has been working on a story about the dwindling artist community in Baghdad. "It does have ramifications for the future of Iraq when the cultural elites are leaving the country," she said.

At SIPA, Miller studied international relations theory and learned “that politics is about the distribution of power,” he said. “It’s what we’re dealing with in Iraq.” He also learned how “to condense a lot of complex subjects by writing about them, how to think about complex issues in precise ways and refine it so it’s understandable.”

Those skills are essential in Miller’s current position as a strategist in the commander’s initiatives group under General David Petraeus, preparing the four-star general’s talking points for meetings, speeches and briefings.

McSweeney says his experience in his current tour is very different. But his education at SIPA has helped him do his job better, giving him, among other things, a firm rooting in the history of insurgencies and war by reading Clausewitz and Sun-Tze.

Though McSweeney has not yet rescheduled a second lunch, he says he’s planning on it. “Not everybody could make it, so we’ll definitely do it again.”

– Written by Adam Piore. Photo courtesy of Dan McSweeney.

Published: Aug. 21, 2007
Last modified: Aug 23, 2007