By Leslie Thatcher t r u t h o u t | Book Review 1/3/08

We were a minority, but still, there were many of us to whom it was as plain as the nose on our own face, in the fall of 2002 when the great “marketing campaign” for the Iraq war was rolled out, that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and no connection whatsoever to 9/11, that the war was an illegal act of aggression that could only hearten enemies of the United States. Some of us turned out for the great global “focus group” of February 15, 2003; some of us wrote to the editor, argued with family members and neighbors, were horrified by the mainstream media’s pornographic endorsement of “Shock and Awe,” but Dahr Jamail came down from his job as a Park Service rescue ranger on Mt. Denali in Alaska, and, armed with $2,000, a laptop, digital camera, and some indie media listserve advice about how to get there, set off for Baghdad. What he has described as “an act of desperation” provoked by his sense of complicity as an American is also, in a very real sense, an ultimate act of patriotism, an assertion that Americans are better than what we have done in Iraq, a faith he still champions that:

“If the people of the United States had the real story about what their government has done in Iraq, the occupation would already have ended … If people in my country could hear the stories of life under occupation and put themselves in Iraqis’ stories, they would understand. I hold that hope because the stories of Iraq are our story now.”

The decision to “embed” with the Iraqis, to tell the Iraqis’ side of the story – or what he could learn of it – has won Dahr Jamail four Project Censored awards. He broke stories about American house raids, torture and use of white phosphorus in Fallujah. He has written for The Nation, The Independent, the BBC, Democracy Now, and continues to work principally with the InterPressService as editor and fact-checker for Ali al-Fadhily and Ahmed Ali, two Iraqi reporters working under pseudonyms in Baghdad and Baquba, respectively. And in his book, “Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Reporter in Occupied Iraq,” published by Haymarket Books this October, Jamail supplies the Iraqi perspective he garnered from the four visits he made to Iraq between November 2003 and February 2005, spending a total of eight months in the country.

Jamail’s conviction that telling the Iraqis’ stories is a path to personal and perhaps national redemption provides his book with a focus, perspective and objective very different from the so-called “objectivity” of the “professional” journalist. Perhaps, because he is aware of his absence of “professional” credentials, this citizen journalist makes it clear he verifies his stories, checks his sources, and generally applies the standards “professional” journalism contents itself with paying lip service to. By adopting the standpoint of the occupied, he is forced to violate one of the most fundamental tropes of mainstream media reporting: the sacrosanct virtue, integrity and wholesomeness of US military personnel.

Americans may not be able – or willing – to put themselves “into Iraqis’ stories,” but Jamail reproduces Iraqi voices:

Quite soon after his arrival, he observes US troops fanning out in the street from a balcony where he stands with Iraqi interpreter and driver Hamoudi. Jamail describes one soldier twitching, jerking and swiveling as he walks backward. Hamoudi leans over and says, “Look at that poor bastard. It’s clear to anyone with eyes that he has mental problems from being here doing this shit job.”

Dr. Aisha Abdulla in the supply room at Yarmouk Hospital rages against the occupiers:

“They’ve destroyed the foundations of Iraq – what do you think we can do without foundations? Even if the Americans stay here 15 years, there will be no security … Anything they do or build is superficial, not fundamental. Abu Ghraib attacked the dignity of the Iraqi people. Did America not become barbarians from killing Indians, Vietnamese, Central Americans, Afghanis, and bombing us and our young children, who now have psychological scars? If these did not reveal the true barbarian nature of America, then Abu Ghraib did. I never liked Saddam, nor did I support him, but at least under the dictator there was order and some basic services. Now, there is no order, no electricity, no fundamental stability.”

One detainee released in the spring of 2004, tells Jamail, “The Americans brought electricity to my ass before they brought it to my house.”

An Iraqi policeman comments on the case of an Iraqi driving home from work who was gunned down by US troops, “This is the usual policy of the Americans. They always shoot first, because there is nobody to punish them for their mistakes.”

And Jamail shows how US brutality and heedlessness, the military having “all the power and no accountability,” radicalized ordinary Iraqis from the outset, as their sense of justice and honor was repeatedly outraged. Without even making an explicit argument, the book wholly refutes the notion that a continuation of the occupation in any form could promote stability: By the time Jamail arrived in November 2003, all trust and any sense of joint purpose between occupier and occupied had already been exhausted.

“Beyond the Green Zone” details what it’s like to be on the receiving end of troops searching a boy’s high school for boys who took part in a pro-Saddam demonstration and threw rocks, of house searches that end in murder and destruction, of arrests that end in torture and death, of “reconstruction” that leaves people drinking sewage – but only during the hour in the day the electricity is running – of assassination attempts on independent journalists, and, most notably, of the two sieges of Fallujah.

The coverage of war crimes in Fallujah: the use of cluster munitions and white phosphorous against civilians; the targeting of hospitals, clinics and ambulances; snipers hitting women and children is more vivid because he introduces the people of Fallujah, whom he met prior to either siege; describes how the city turned from moderately cooperative with the occupation to totally opposed to it; how its people gloried in self-government between the April and November 2004 sieges; how virtually everything the US military did there boomeranged.

The stories of Iraqis’ resourcefulness, hospitality, sense of humor and warmth; Jamail’s descriptions of shared meals and experiences that are spread throughout the book, are other angles, missed – in every sense of the word – by embedded reporters for whom the Iraqis are always “the other.” Jamail, instead, conveys Iraqis’ shock – because it has become his own – at the apparently wanton bulldozing of a grove of date palm trees that belonged to his interlocutors’ fathers’ fathers’ fathers, at a friend’s inability to get home from a shopping trip because she lost her American-issued biometric ID card, at the vastly inflated turn-out numbers in the Iraqi elections reported by the US media.

Jamail’s immediate and intense identification with the Iraqis he encountered and his ability to convey their experience makes for matchless reportage. His book is also very strong on deconstructing propaganda: This is what happened; this is what the US media, the Pentagon or the CPA reported. Jamail may have been reporting too close in to provide an outside perspective on how Iraqi society works: He ascribes sectarian violence largely to US troublemaking, but the basis and trends of Iraqi allegiance is not clear. One fixer describes an Iraqi policeman as a “US spy”; Jamail refers to “militants,” and certainly describes how they are created, but the patterns of loyalty, rivalry and leadership are no clearer from his unembedded perspective than they are in the mainstream media vocabulary of “insurgents,” “foreign fighters,” “Shia factions,” Sunni tribesmen” etc.

That is both the weakness and the strength of choosing the perspective from the ground, of ordinary Iraqis still reeling from their world being turned upside down, trying to survive and to protect their families, still testing narratives that can make sense of their lived experience.

And by bringing us their voices, their experience, trying to project us into the lives of ordinary Iraqis, the ones who could be you or me, were we willing to exercise our imagination and put ourselves into their stories. Dahr Jamail continues to try and rescue his fellow citizens from obliviousness, folly, hubris, from the consequences of their heedlessness, just as surely and courageously as he did on the slopes of Denali.


An Interview With Dahr Jamail
Leslie Thatcher Interviews Dahr Jamail
t r u t h o u t | Interview

Thursday 03 January 2008

Leslie Thatcher for Truthout: First of all, Dahr Jamail, thank you for your book and for bringing us the voices and experiences of ordinary Iraqis. Thanks also for taking the stories of Americans who oppose the invasion and occupation to them.

It was clear from your book that your periods in the US, in between trips to Iraq, took on a surreal character, that “the American dream” took on a completely new meaning after the intensity and harsh realities of war. Do you ever regret your decision to go to Iraq?

Dahr Jamail: Not for one instant. It is critical for me, and I believe other US citizens, to have a full knowledge of the situation in Iraq.

How do you personally adjust to being unable to return to Iraq for the moment?

Of course, it is extremely frustrating. I would return in an instant if I felt I could report unembedded without jeopardizing the life of any Iraqi who worked with me, but that’s just not possible now. Fortunately, I’m in a position to be able to continue reporting by working with several Iraqi colleagues who remain in their country; so, in this way, I have been able to remain closely connected to the situation even though I have not been back inside Iraq for two years.

And how should we reconcile your inability to return because of the danger to yourself, and especially the danger to your Iraqi colleagues, with the statistics General Petraeus offered this past weekend suggesting Iraq has become a safer place?

The rhetoric and propaganda about the occupation from hacks like Petraeus and Bush administration officials would make Orwell proud. If we simply look at the facts on the ground: over five million refugees, over four million in need of emergency aid, over three million wounded, and over one million dead – how could any rational person ever define that as good? Or safer? Or improving? The reality is that since the so-called surge began, the number of displaced Iraqis has quadrupled, tens of thousands more have been killed, and the deepening political crisis within the Iraqi government has increased in severity.

Finally, the fact that Muqtada al-Sadr has his militia, the largest in the country, on stand-down orders, while the US military is arming and backing various Sunni militias and former resistance fighters has led to a sharp, albeit temporary, decrease in the number of US soldiers being killed. But I wouldn’t necessary classify this ticking time bomb as an “improvement.”

One problem for Americans trying to understand what is happening in Iraq is trying sort out the country’s various political characters and factions. For example, until I read your book, I had believed that Muqtada al-Sadr was generally considered responsible for the April 2003 assassination of Ayatollah Abdul Majid al-Khoei in Najaf. But you write that Sadr had disproved his involvement in the killing. How did he do that? Who is al-Sadr “really”? And whom do Iraqis or do you consider responsible for al-Khoei’s assassination?

An Iraqi court had already found Sadr innocent of that accusation, long before Bremer decided to blame him for it and use it as an excuse to begin military operations against Sadr and his militia.

Sadr is a young, fiery, anti-occupation Shia cleric who inherited his position of power via familial ties. He has excellent advisers and has played his position, politically, quite well throughout the occupation. He has expressed loyalty to Iran, when less than two years ago during one of the louder instances of bellicose Bush administration rhetoric against Iran, Sadr announced, from Tehran, that any attack on Iran would be an attack against himself and his followers and he would respond appropriately. He has already called for two uprisings against the US military, and, in time, will likely do so again. For now, his militia controls most of Baghdad, and much of the south.

Who do Iraqis consider responsible for al-Khoei’s assassination? That would depend on whom you ask and what their politics are. A great number blame the Americans, which is common now in Iraq – for the occupation forces to be blamed for anything bad that occurs.

Do you have a sense of what the group dynamics are today, whether there is genuine sectarian civil war or some elements of that with other forces at work? What are those forces?

When we discuss sectarianism in Iraq, we mustn’t underestimate the role the US has played in fostering it. From the beginning, including the US-installed Iraqi Governing Council, which was structured to appoint positions of power strictly along sectarian and ethnic lines, the US has been playing the game of divide and rule.

The most important element of this, I believe, is the US role in establishing sectarian based death squads in Iraq. I discuss this at length in my book; but, in sum, Negroponte and Steele, two men who did the same in Central America in the 1980s, played crucial roles in organizing and facilitating these death squads.

These death squads, along with sectarian-based militias, have split Baghdad up into sectarian neighborhoods; and, today, we’re looking at the end-game of this process where the capital is now nearly completely segregated.

Of course, there is also the element of power struggles within various groups, political and otherwise, within Iraq as well, in addition to the fact that every single country in the region, literally, has a hand in Iraq.

In the book, you make some flat statements about US motives: “Bremer’s real reason for delaying the election was to allow sufficient time to install a ‘stable’ pro-American puppet government in Baghdad … A legitimately elected Iraqi government would have demanded an immediate timetable for withdrawal of the occupying forces. It was to avoid this fate that the US government wanted to postpone the elections and to create conditions of bloody sectarian chaos that would irreversible fragment the country,” suggesting that there was a malicious plan to foment sectarian strife rather than “mere” ineptitude at work. Are these the views also generally held by the Iraqis you know?

Most Iraqis I know and spoke with about this felt similarly. Carrying on with the example of sectarianism – it’s not a coincidence that, prior to the invasion and occupation, there were mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, and had never been sectarian based civil war.

Insert the occupation, and the policies of the US government, and we have violent sectarian civil war, sectarian cleansed Baghdad, sectarian based death squads backed by the US, and marriages between Sunni and Shia which are being split up. It’s not a complex equation to figure out, particularly when you have the details of US policy, which I also address in my book.

Have you any additional evidence for US training and backing of sectarian death squads? Your book quotes a Kucinich letter to Rumsfeld of which I had been unaware. Certainly, the way the war has been funded and the reappearance of Iran contra personalities suggests the means are there.

I discuss retired Col. James Steele as well, along with how these squads were run via the Ministry of Interior, which was, of course, being funded and overseen by the US and a US “adviser.”

I also mention in the book the fact that Rumsfeld publicly discussed the “Salvador option” in Iraq, as a means of attempting to tame the “insurgency,” as it continued to spread and grow in lethality after the second US attack on Fallujah.

Your contention that democracy was never an objective is certainly supported by the illegal Maliki-Bush deal to keep US troops in Iraq, although the Iraqi parliament does not support it, and by US support for Turkey bombing Kurdistan, the one semi-functional area of the country. What do you believe the US administration is striving for now?

Permanent occupation, as they have been from the beginning. As I wrote in an article for Truthout in Spring 2006, all one needs to do is read the US National Security Strategy and make up their own mind what they think the US is up to in the Middle East. In addition, look at the “embassy” and types of mega-bases which are being constructed in Iraq. The Bush administration itself has told reporters, within the last year, to think of the occupation along a timeline of the US bases in South Korea. I would add, ask yourself how long the US has had bases in Germany, in Japan. But those have never been referred to as permanent either.

This administration, and future administrations like that of a Hillary Clinton or Rudy Giuliani for example, will likely push for decreasing troop numbers to 50,000 or so, and keep them on the bases and embassy. That’s the plan, and thus far, they are heading in that direction.

You spoke eloquently on “Democracy Now” about how Iraq became an “atrocity-creating situation”, which explains, if not excuses, US soldiers’ brutality; but who/what do you believe is responsible for US soldiers’ ignorance? Has five years of occupation made the troops any more culturally aware, as far as you know?

Big question – but I think it’s a number of factors. The education system in the US is a joke, the fact that most people serving in the military have not had the privilege of traveling abroad to experience different cultures, ignorance, prejudice, fear and racism are all critical factors.

Being a journalist, I blame the media, particularly the establishment media in the US. With few exceptions, the media has, from the very beginning, dehumanized Iraqis and Arab culture, and done well to instill fear, ignorance and loathing into American homes regarding the situation in the Middle East. Let alone US historical involvement, and answering some of the questions about why there is anti-American sentiment in the region to begin with.

You make clear that “embeds” cannot see what you saw, such as the Iraqis who celebrated after the departure of US troops in April 2004 with a parade and victory celebration, that Western non-embeds like yourself can no longer report in-country, and that independent Iraqi journalists run huge risks such as the assassination attempt on journalist Ismail Zayer or AP photographer Bilal Hussein’s 18 month plus detention and upcoming rigged trial. What sources can Americans trust to provide actual news of what’s happening in Iraq now?

This web site consistently does a fine job of posting important news stories about Iraq. I also suggest finding English translations of Arab news outlets. Today in Iraq, the only reporters going around unembedded are Iraqis and Arabs from other countries in the Middle East. Al-Jazeera Arabic is a good source, if you can get it translated, among others. I also suggest the Mosaic program with Link TV, which is translated news, and, a critical source of translated news from throughout the Middle East. But with few exceptions, most of the news produced about Iraq in establishment media outlets in the US is akin to that from state-run media outlets.

When, in your book, the translator Harb suggests the Iraqi policeman apparently helping you to investigate an incident is actually a US spy, I, as a reader, was immediately plunged into a “spy vs. spy” world. Did you as a reporter ever feel it was difficult to tell black from white?

Yes. It was quite confusing at times, and often was difficult to not be overly paranoid. But such is reporting from any war zone. The key for me was finding Harb, and a few of the other translators I mentioned in my book, people I could really trust, and work with them consistently. That way we had experiences to build on, and after awhile, came to be able to look at each other and know what the other was thinking, which came in handy in tight situations.

I had a policy of always interviewing different people, at different times, in different locations, about events. That way, I didn’t open myself up to being taken advantage of, or to being used to spread rumors or propaganda.

Some stories now coming out of the US (I’m thinking, for example, of Robin Fox’s “Kindness of Strangers” or Sunday’s New York Times’s article, “Feed the Hand that Bit You”) suggest that Iraqis have no sense of larger society because they can’t get beyond family and tribal allegiances, or that Iraqis lost their initiative and ability to get things done under the dictatorship. That was certainly not the sense of Iraqi society I got from your book?

No, because Iraqis are an advanced culture, civilization, and the area is the historic location of where and how the west obtained much of its math and science. The articles you mention, particularly the Times piece, are a fine example of what I mentioned earlier – of how establishment media plays a critical role in dehumanizing Iraqis, of showing them as the “other” and/or less-than you or I. That type of propaganda then becomes useful for an administration which envisions a long-term presence in Iraq, as it serves to portray Iraqis as a people unable to take care of themselves, or worse, unwilling, all of which is nonsense.

That type of thinking is not new for Empires – Throughout history this type of mindset, and that type of propaganda, has been used by empires as they invade countries, plunder their resources and commit acts of savagery upon other people.

Finally, Dahr Jamail, you write, “If the people of the United States had the real story about what their government has done in Iraq, the occupation would already have ended … If people in my country could hear the stories of life under occupation and put themselves in Iraqis’ stories, they would understand. I hold that hope because the stories of Iraq are our story now.” Can you still maintain that hope, knowing as you do, that ten years of sanctions before, the occupation had already broken lives and damaged infrastructure and that it has only gotten worse?

I do still believe that if people had the facts, and are willing to use their imagination in order to put themselves in the shoes of Iraqis today who are suffering greatly under US occupation, that things would look differently. Do I hope for that? I guess I cannot really say that I do. But I think it is imperative that people have the information available so they can, perhaps one day, know the truth about what the US is doing, and has done in Iraq.

Sometimes, I fall back on something the journalist Robert Fisk, who writes for the Independent in the UK, wrote. He said that at the end of the day, as wars continue to be fought and atrocities continue to be carried out, and people ask why and how this can continue, one thing they won’t be able to say is, “But nobody ever told us this was happening.”

It is our job as journalists to make sure that remains the case, particularly in regard to the catastrophic US occupation of Iraq.

Truthout French language editor Leslie Thatcher.