Complicit - Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry An UnEmbedded Journalist Speaks His Truth about the Killing Fields of Iraq - The InnerView with Dahr Jamail
This interview was conducted by Peter Moore and Werner Brandt of Alternatives Magazine on February 22, 2008.
Five years into war, with no end in sight, it is virtually impossible to get the holistic story from the mainstream press about what is happening over there in our name, paid for with out taxes.
Dahr Jamail goes after that story. He finds that we’re paying for it in more than blood, taxes and tears. We’re paying for it in war crimes committed, honor broken, and spirits in the void.
Dahr also finds an America that gets no corporate press coverage: people working hard to create a better world to live in.
How did you become an unembedded journalist in Iraq?
Well, it was kind of by accident. I ended up going to Iraq as a concerned citizen—concerned about the horrible reporting during the selling of the war, and then the war itself, and then the first months of the occupation. I was outraged, and decided to go over to Iraq and write about what I was seeing myself. I had no intentions of working as a journalist, I was just going to send emails back to my friends in Alaska for the two months I was there, then go home and hopefully sleep better at night. But by the end of that trip I was getting picked up by a couple of outlets and getting paid, and I realized that I could come back and work as a journalist.
So you didn’t have the journalist credentials hanging around your neck to get through doors & blocked areas?
Well I made my own press badge off the internet, using a laminating device. I knew I would need that. I had some freelance journalism experience at our weekly alternative paper, The Anchorage Press, but that was the extent of my journalism experience. I didn’t go to journalism school in college or anything like that.
Did you go to Iraq as a person named Dahr Jamail, or did you pick that name up while you were there.
No, that’s my name. I have an Arabic name because I’m 4th generation Lebanese on my father’s side. It’s a bit of a fluke that I got one of the traditional family names passed down to me, but my mom is German/Irish and my middle name is Kelly—born and raised in Houston, as were my parents and grandparents.
Could you highlight some of the key experiences that really transformed you while you were in Iraq?
It happened fast. My very first trip there I was on the ground less than 72 hours and I was hearing rampant stories about torture coming from Iraqis who had been in detention centers all over Iraq, not just Abu Graib. I had read enough before I went in and I knew it was going to be a bad situation, but nothing had prepared me for how bad it actually was. The infrastructure was already crumbling rapidly. When I had been there less than three weeks—it was a couple of days after Saddam Hussein was captured, in mid December 2003—I went to the Al Amira bomb shelter, the one that was bombed by the US in the 1991 Gulf War, where almost 400 women and children were killed. It was made into a monument by Saddam Hussein. Coming back into the main part of Baghdad, I came across a secondary school that was totally sealed off by the U.S. military. They were detaining kids that had had a pro-Saddam demonstration the day before (kind of as a joke) but the military came in and sealed off the whole school and took 16 school kids and detained them, one of them for overnight. Literally terrorizing the kids, going into their school with guns, dragging them out, putting them into a military vehicle and driving them away. This type of brutal, heavy-handed policy was the norm that I was seeing repeatedly during my first weeks there.
And then you came back again?
My first trip was December 2003 through January 2004. My second trip was April through the end of June 2004.
The second time, what was the main reason for leaving?
Burnout, basically. The second time I went in was an extremely intense trip, plus I stayed way too long, I stayed three months. I probably should have left after two. I arrived the first day of the siege of Fallujah (April 4) and then I went into Fallujah five days later, which was traumatic to say the least. So much happened that trip—we had the first siege of Fallujah, we had the Abu Graib photos come out, we had the Muqtada al Sadr first uprising kicking off against the occupation forces. The infrastructure was crumbling even further, and the U.S. was losing control of most of the country at that point. So it was really an intense trip.
When you came back the second time, you must have been affected emotionally and psychologically. Was there a numbness, or did you feel more engaged to do something here at home?
Well both. That’s when I really started to get that I had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). At first I was in denial about it, like, “I am a journalist and journalists don’t get PTSD, you have to be a combat soldier and be killing people to get that.” That was just because of my inexperience as a war correspondent. Finally, a Vietnam vet friend of mine pulled me aside, because he knew what I was doing as far as just being really, really angry all the time, and not being able to feel much else. He said, ‘Look, you need to get treated for this. You need to talk with some people.’ I realized then that I had PTSD. You come back here from Iraq, after becoming normalized to that situation as a means of survival. You do that psychic numbing that Robert J. Lifton the psychiatrist has written about, where you literally push down your feelings, and your humanity to a certain extent, just to survive. Because the occupation is so brutal and dehumanizing that you have to do that as a human. Then you come here and you’re still doing that, you can’t just turn it off. Couple that with running into majority mainstream America and they’re more concerned with what movie they’re going to see tonight than the occupation of Iraq. It creates a kind of schizophrenic experience.
Do you think that the PTSD is going to come home to roost for American society as this occupation wears on?
It already is. There is a horrific story that I saw just a couple of days ago, AP reported it. It was about a soldier who had served two tours in Iraq, and he raped a 3 month old baby. This type of thing is already happening. We have vets coming home and doing what they refer to as “suicide by cop”. They are completely unable to deal with what is happening here, deal with their PTSD, they can’t get in and see the VA as much as they want to because the VA won’t let them—budget cuts, etc. So, they’ll do things like call the cops and say, ‘I have a gun, come over to my house’, and then sit out on the porch and have a gunfight with the cops in order to kill themselves. They’re going into liquor stores and doing the same thing. Military suicides are up to the highest levels since the peak during Vietnam. And the reality is that we’ve had a million military personnel cycle through the occupation of Iraq so far. How many of those people, hundreds of thousands for sure, have PTSD, and are back home not getting the treatment they need? I think the figures that put PTSD at 30-35% are grossly low, because anyone over there who actually goes out and sees what is happening in the country for even a short amount of time does not come home without PTSD. All of those people need some sort of help and the vast majority of them aren’t getting it.
How about society at large? I’m old enough to have gone through the Vietnam experience. I remember, after the war had dragged on for a decade, that the whole of society started exhibiting symptoms of PTSD. Do you think that is the same trajectory for this war and occupation?
American society? I think you’re right. Robert J. Lifton has written about that as well. It is arguable that the whole American society had PTSD just from 911. But now, with the occupation of Iraq, I think that consciously or subconsciously, everyone in this country, like it or not, knows what is going on in Iraq. We know it’s a bad situation. Everyone understands that huge numbers of people have been killed, and are suffering. There is a sense of collective guilt around that. That’s inescapable. There is a pervasive feeling of impotence, that there is nothing that can be done to change what the government is doing over there. All of that is affecting our whole society deeply.
Without a doubt, this situation is going to haunt this country for at least al long as Vietnam has. And I would argue longer, because we are going to be in Iraq indefinitely, it is going to last a lot longer than Vietnam. There are the permanent bases there, but additionally there is the use of depleted uranium, which is so pervasive there and is affecting both Iraqi and U.S. forces. This war is not just a war that is debilitating Iraqi people and American soldiers serving there, but everyone over here. Because everyone, even if it is just subconsciously, understands that we’re funding it with our taxes, and not doing more to stop the government from doing this. We’re all complicit.
We’re into an election cycle and I’m looking at the front runners, one of whom will be the President of the United States. Here is Barak who, according to his public pronouncements before he was a senator, was against the war—but since he has had a vote, he has voted for every appropriation that keeps this war going. And Hillary has also voted for every appropriation but says she is against the war. There is such a disconnect between views expressed against the war and voting to keep the war going. What do you think is going on here?
(Laughs) You pegged it. It’s watch what they do and not what they say, right? It’s classic politicking where they’re either voting for the appropriation funds, or not voting, but certainly not voting against that. At this point voting to cut off funding is the only tool left in the government to stop the Bush administration from doing what they’re doing. It’s all that’s left. And when you have Clinton and Obama talking about who is going to handle the situation in Iraq better, neither of them is talking about total, full and unconditional immediate withdrawal of all US forces. None of them is talking about compensating Iraqis. None of them talks about handing the construction projects back over to the Iraqis, and refunding them. None of them talks about stopping torture in Iraq. None of them talks about taking down the bases and bringing all the equipment back home. I think it is classic politicking.
Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton (we don’t even need to waste our breath on John McCain) won’t talk about what’s in the National Security Strategy of the United States. I encourage people to pull that document up. Google it and have a read. That document states that the natural resources in other countries (particularly countries in the Middle East, like Iraq), are in the national interests of the United States. The USA militarily dominates its access to those resources, and the shipping lanes that transport those resources, that’s our policy.
When the Bush Administration took power in the year 2000, they basically adopted large chunks of the PNAC and made them part of the National Security Strategy. And until people like Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton are willing to talk about changing the National Security Strategy of the United States, which is based on the PNAC, it’s naïve to expect any real change in policy in Iraq. Both candidates want to draw down the number of troops, because they want it to look something like Afghanistan where you have these large garrisons with tens of thousands of troops in each one that don’t go out unless they absolutely have to. Because dead soldiers are not good PR. Neither of them is talking about total unconditional, permanent withdrawal.
Can you give a short description of what PNAC was prior to the year 2000, and how that got integrated into our defense policy?
The Project for the New American Century (PNAC) is essentially a blueprint for global domination by the US, using the US military to accomplish it. It was authored in the ‘90’s by the neocons—so many of them are or have been in the Bush administration—people like Don Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, Elliot Abrams, Zalmay Khalilzad (who actually became the US Ambassador to Iraq for awhile and is currently US Ambassador to the UN). They authored this PNAC. Many of these authors had encouraged Bill Clinton to invade and occupy Iraq back in the late 1990’s, but he wouldn’t do it. Instead he launched the largest air campaign since the Vietnam war against Iraq. Ultimately, these guys did manage to take power in the white house with the Bush administration. And people like Cheney then made it possible for them to roll their plan into the National Security Strategy.
The picture you’re painting is pretty bleak regarding ending the Iraq occupation. Can this be turned around? And can the people who engineered this war be held accountable any time in the future?
It is bleak. And hoping for justice for these war criminals—because that is specifically what they are—justice for them is kind of a pipe dream. (I’d be happy to see people like Henry Kissinger go on trial for war crimes, and that’s been decades ago.) I don’t expect, in this political structure, to see it happen.
But I’ve gotten hope from going round on my book tour for example, and speaking in one community after another. There really is broad grassroots activism just about everywhere in the country. People are doing the work necessary to create the change that has to happen. They’re not in the government, they’re not even necessarily involved with the big leftist or antiwar organizations. But I think that’s actually even better because as long as people are activated in trying to create change, both in their communities and nationally—with some having success at doing that—I think that’s where the answer lies. Iraq Veterans Against the War is a good example. Vets are coming back, some of them active duty still, and leading the charge to end the occupation in a very grassroots effort of people following their conscience. I think that’s where the hope lies. But of course, it’s not getting any media so it’s easy for people to get discouraged. But just because it’s not being reported by the corporate media doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
If I remember correctly, you’re going to be participating in March in The Winter Soldier event in Washington, DC? Can you say a little bit about that?
The Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) has put together this event, March 13 – 16th in Maryland, right on the outskirts of DC. It’s called The Winter Soldier and it’s based on the event by the same name that occurred during Vietnam. What happened then is that vets from the war came back and held a two day press conference and got up there and said, “This is what I did in the war”. Well that’s what’s going to happen this time around, they’ve already vetted over 50 people from Iraq and Afganistan who are going to come and give their testimonies. I’ve interviewed a couple of those people giving testimony for an article I wrote for The Progressive. What these two guys told me is exactly what I saw from the Iraqi perspective when I was in Iraq. Massive, rampant home raids, destruction of property, theft, detaining innocent people, knowing full well that most of the people detained were innocent. Beating people up, running over cars with tanks, calling in air strikes on fully populated apartment buildings—this kind of thing. They’re going to be talking about the war crimes that they certainly carried out and they’re also going to be talking about the illegal orders that were given from their superiors to carry out these activities.
Illegal orders. Are you saying that American commanders, with full knowledge of the formal rules of engagement, are giving illegal orders for people to carry out, resulting in war crimes?
Americans are viewed around the world as arrogant and uncaring, undifferentiated from the aggressive policies of the USA. What is your view of the American people you’re meeting on your book tour?
What I see when I go around the country talking with people is basically the opposite of how the country is perceived around the globe now. Which is another hopeful thing to me. I meet countless people who are deeply concerned—saddened and upset—about what their government is doing. They are doing everything they can think of to try and stop it, volunteering, dedicating their lives to this work, with no media attention, no praise whatsoever. Doing it because their conscience demands it.
I think that most people in this country are good, they care, and they don’t want this government to be doing what it is doing. All polls indicate this. At this point well over 65% of the people of this country vehemently oppose the occupation and think it should end right away or within a year. A look at Bush’s approval rating gives a sense of that. But we have a corporate media that is basically a state propaganda outlet. That’s how I see it, with few exceptions. That’s what the world sees too. The media is reporting on the primaries, but never the massive suffering in Iraq, with over a million dead and over four million displaced.
Nobody—not people here nor people across the world—is able to see into American communities, that there is this huge movement that is completely unreported for the most part. Americans are still going forward and trying to do positive work, regardless of what the government is doing.
And yet if you look at the polls they indicate that the number one concern is now the economy, and not Iraq.
Actually that’s not true. An AP/IPSUS pole just came out less than two weeks ago showing that over 50% of Americans believe that our economic problems are tied directly to Iraq, and that the first and best solution to the economic problems would be to withdraw from Iraq. People understand that it is costing us 3 Billion dollars a week just to be in Iraq, and what would 3 Billion dollars a week do here in the public school system or for our own infrastructure? I think people get that.
So what are you going to do next, Dahr?
I’ve got two months of book tour coming up, coupled with Winter Soldier, and that’s pretty much the last of my book tour for ‘Beyond the Green Zone’. I’m starting another book for Haymarket, this one is going to focus on the G.I. resistance movement. It’s another big, almost completely unreported story of the Iraq situation. We have a growing G.I. movement now that is actively involved in carrying out resistance actions of one form or another, both in Iraq and back here at home, whether they’re active duty or not. I’ve started to talk with lots of vets about things they did in Iraq to either refuse orders overtly or covertly, and things people are doing back here. Winter Soldier is an example of this type of activism. Speaking out and informing the public, joining groups like IVAW, going into schools and doing counter recruiting, all of this counts, and so I’ll be doing a book that highlights this. It’s a relatively small movement now but it’s actually growing very, very quickly.
As an unembedded journalist you were not guaranteed the kinds of security that embedded journalists had, but you obviously survived the ordeal. How did you feel about your security there in Iraq, and how do you feel about security here in the States for yourself and for others who are speaking out against the war?
That’s a good question. In Iraq I felt that my best security was no security. I actually felt that the less attention that I drew to myself, and the more I tried to be just one of the people on the street, the better off I was. Obviously, it worked. Embedded reporters go out with flak jackets and helmets, some even carry their own side arms, and certainly all of them have their own guards, either private or military. All of this just makes you another target. I always felt nervous being around our military in Iraq because I knew all of them were targets and I didn’t want to attach myself to that as a journalist.
Back here, I assume that I’m being watched and all of my emails are being read, and all of my phone conversations . . . but that’s not necessarily unique anymore, just because I’m a journalist that’s worked in Iraq… (laughter). We all get to participate in that. I haven’t had any problems at borders or anything like that. I just adopt an attitude that, well, I don’t have anything to hide. I’m doing my job and any information I have I put out into my news stories anyway.
The bottom line is that if I adjust my behavior because I know that the government is carrying out surveillance—either by becoming more secretive or by not doing things that I would do if I assumed I was not being watched—then they win. I’m not going to change what I do just because we have a government that’s spying and doing illegal things. Once we start censoring our own behavior, the struggle is lost.
One last thing. Any advice for the rest of us?
All of us have to keep doing what we’re doing. This can all change to something better, but it isn’t going to happen unless we all stay active.
Dahr Jamail is author of Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded journalist in Iraq. His mideast dispatches quickly became an important media resource. He is now writing for the Inter Press Service, The Asia Times and many other outlets. His reports have also been published with The Nation, The Sunday Herald, Islam Online, the Guardian, Foreign Policy in Focus, and the Independent to name just a few. Dahr’s dispatches and hard news stories have been translated into French, Polish, German, Dutch, Spanish, Japanese, Portuguese, Chinese, Arabic and Turkish. Dahr Jamail now lives in the Bay Area, and can be reached at: [email protected]