Deadly Occupations - US Troops in Iraq & Afghanistan: Growing GI Resistance to Endless Illegal War The InnerView with Dahr Jamail (Part 2) by Peter Moore & Werner Brandt
In late 2003, weary of the overall failure of US media to accurately report on the realities of war, Dahr Jamail went to the Middle East to report on the war himself. Dahr spent a total of nine months in occupied Iraq as one of only a few independent US journalists in the country. Since then, he has become world-renowned for documenting the human costs of the Iraq war. His first book, “Beyond the Green Zone”, describes his experience as an unembedded journalist reporting accurately on how the United States has destroyed, not liberated, Iraqi society.
His most recent book, “The Will to Resist: Soldiers Who Refuse to Fight in Iraq and Afghanistan”, covers a subject that has received little mainstream press—the growing antiwar resistance of American GIs. Gathering the stories of these courageous men and women, Jamail shows us that far from “supporting our troops,” politicians have betrayed them at every turn. Jamail shows us that the true heroes of the criminal tragedy of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars are those brave enough to say NO.
Earlier you said it doesn’t matter who the figurehead is, whether Bush or Obama—the leader is irrelevant. What we are confronting here is a system, with its own systemic needs and processes, and the only way to effectively deal with that system is to deconstruct it. Do you think that’s actually a possibility? Or is that the rhetoric of a good activist with no practical chance of accomplishing the goal?
Well, I think we’re in the midst of actually watching the whole system collapse. You know, the US is no longer the sole super power. Runaway-train-corporate-capitalism is the snake eating its own tale at this point. Everyone’s completely against the Wall Street bailouts. A poll just came out showing most people are completely against both occupations, Iraq and Afghanistan. The signs are there. Most everybody is fully aware of global climate change and the catastrophes that are coming, and are already happening, with that. We are in the midst of a collapsing system.
On one hand, that’s good. It leaves the door open for a new system to come up, a system of sustainable culture, people working more together as opposed to this atomization wrought from this corporate capitalist model. Things like growing your own gardens and behaving in communities, that’s much more sane as well as more enjoyable.
But at the same time, it’s a bit creepy as we look at what measures the power structures will go to maintain power. Because, as we know, power does not concede power. Not freely, not willingly. I think as things continue to collapse, and as we move further on this trajectory we’re on—and we are moving further on it, there is no question about that at this point—then how will the power structures behave? Unfortunately, that means it’s likely going to get a lot more ugly than it is today. I think we’re still on the front end of the economic collapse, we’re absolutely on the front end of climate change and there’s going to be more and more catastrophes coming with governments being less in a position to respond effectively to those. More and more, the onus falls on our shoulders. That’s extremely challenging but ultimately a good and empowering thing for each one us, for how we live our lives. And then, what we do to try to bring this change about has more power today than ever before, as our own government, mainly because of over-stretch and greed, really loses more and more of its own power as we continue on all these current trends.
You had this deeper calling to go to Iraq in 2003, and really live your sacred dance in doing so. How has that decision shaped your life? Where do you get your resources to continue this work?
Well, it’s completely changed my life. Basically, it’s that old saying, “Follow your heart and everything else will take care of itself”. That’s literally what’s happened. I decided to go to Iraq, it felt like kind of an act of desperation at the time. I spent all the money I had—I had saved just enough to buy a plane ticket and finance my own trip for as long as I could afford to stay over there. That one trip has turned into five, two books and five years of reporting, and hundreds and hundreds of articles, and traveling around giving talks about it and such. It just worked out, I’ve been supported by the pay I’ve received for those articles, and even more from people paying to fly me out to give talks and supporting me by donating through my website and such.
And I’ve been able to keep going. There’s no guarantee that in two months from now that I’m going to have enough money to keep doing it—but that’s been the situation from day one, that whatever I’ve needed to keep doing this work, it’s always been there. Sometimes it’s been really really tight but it’s always been there. For me, it’s been just a good example of, there’s no need to stay with doing something that I don’t like to be doing because if I really deeply follow what I’m really really passionate about, I will be supported, I will be taken care of while I do that.
That doesn’t mean I’m always going to be safe and secure and comfortable—pretty much the opposite—it means I’m going to be putting my butt on the line on a regular basis and taking risks, and taking shots sometimes, but at the same time I’m able to be wholly free as a human being, and do what I love to do. I have actually done work that has made a difference, and continues to do so.
Does despair ever settle in?
(Laughs) Oh, absolutely. Anyone who really sees clearly what’s happening on the planet, whether it’s these wars, or climate change, or ... pick a topic that has to deal with despair. It’s definitely part of the package, is how do you juggle doing the work with the feelings of despair and anger and rage and sadness that come up when you see daily what’s happening to the planet. For me, I’ve had to find my own creative ways of doing that, whether it’s from, for example, doing work with Joanna Macy and the work that reconnects, or planting my own garden, or exercising, or moving to a small town. In sum, it’s all the above.
On the subject of despair, we talked about post traumatic stress disorder—PTSD. There’s more and more reportage now about service members who are impacted by that condition, and what some of them are doing about it. There was the recent shooting at a stress clinic in Iraq, and then Fort Hood. Some would call PTSD an invisible wound. How do you think this condition shapes individuals coming out of the war zones? Also, how about the cumulative impacts? How do so many people so affected shape society for the next generation, and in generations to come?
Yeah, that’s a huge topic, and really important. Speaking from personal experience, I mean, nobody comes back from a war unscathed. Everybody comes back with PTSD. There’s even been military studies to confirm this. RAND Corporation, a US Army think-tank, released a study that showed that a minimum of 20% of all people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan had severe depression or PTSD, and it IS the silent killer. And then these people don’t get the assistance they need from their communities, and certainly not from the government, and then they go on to drink themselves to death, or drug themselves to death, die in car crashes or die in gunfights with police, and destroy their lives and destroy their families—horrible, horrible things happen.
And what happens when these people are just rampant in society, untreated, engaged in self-destructive behavior that of course affects the communities where they live? And then, what does that do to a country as a whole?
When we look at how deeply the Viet Nam war cut into the psyche of the country and bled the country in so many ways . . . and now we have two ongoing occupations generating hundreds and hundreds of thousands of these people coming back home—so far, we’ve had almost two million soldiers cycle through Iraq and Afghanistan. What happens when all those people come back home and try to go back into society? Most of them with completely untreated PTSD, what’s that going to do to the country? I’m no expert on this, but just speaking for myself, looking at the damage I did to myself and the people around me when I had untreated PTSD, and before I realized, “Oh, I really need to do something about this.” And fortunately, I was really in a privileged position where I was able to actually take some time and go do the work I needed to go do to really take care of myself. What happens with most of these other people who don’t know what to do, and don’t have that help, and don’t have the support they need to make that happen? I think we’re looking at long-term consequences for the country.
If we just look at it from a purely economic standpoint, we look at that Joe Stiglitz book, “A Three Trillion Dollar War” by most conservative estimates on Iraq financially. Three trillion dollars! Well, how do you take care of someone that has PTSD, that needs long-term physical/medical assistance for the rest of their life? We’re talking three trillion dollars—this is insane. To give you an idea of how much money that is, how many years is one trillion seconds? Well, it’s just over 32,000 years. And we’re talking three trillion dollars at the most conservative estimate. And that’s just the economic aspect. We’re not talking about spiritual and psychological impacts. That starts to at least touch on how devastating these conflicts are to the country, and especially to the people involved in them.
Is there any headway being made to be more proactive in treating it? It seems most of the treatment is reactive—someone freaks out and then they treat the person. Are there any agencies, organizations, or is the Army doing anything on a proactive level to deal with PTSD and associated disorders?
Not really. You mentioned that horrible thing that happened at the stress clinic in Baghdad in May where the soldier freaked out—he was at the end of his third tour, and killed five people. Basically what the Army’s done is we need to give people longer time at home between deployments. Now, they’re not talking about fewer deployments, they’re not talking about ending the occupation for example, they’re only talking about giving people a little longer between deployments. So this is band-aid kind of stuff. Basically there hasn’t been any real solutions being offered. The thing that would change it would be ending the occupation.
Getting back to the geo-political issues, when I listen to the apologists for the war, or the people who say they are guiding the war, whether Petreaus or Obama, they’re essentially saying to the American people that if we leave now, especially Afghanistan, it’ll be a bloodbath, it’ll be so much worse, and if we think it’s bad now, if we think that the chaos is intolerable the way it is now, it’ll be immeasurably worse if we leave. It’ll destabilize the world. Therefore we must stay engaged. How would you answer that?
Well, this is just tired propaganda that’s been used through history. All empires have used this propaganda. The British used it in Iraq when they were occupying that country in the 1920’s. They said, “We can’t leave. Things will completely disintegrate. The Arabs will kill each other off.” It’s the great white hope mentality, that if the white man leaves, the natives will just kill each other. You know, it’s propaganda, it’s just not true.
Both the occupations are the source of most of the violence and chaos in both of these countries. When you talk about Iraq, we didn’t have violent sectarianism until the occupation started, we didn’t have two-thirds of the country lacking access to safe drinking water, we didn’t have 40% to 70% unemployment, people had electricity, they didn’t have car bombs—we could go down a long list of things that are just a direct result of the occupations. So if you take the occupation out of the picture, yeah, there’s going to be some chaos and instability while people figure things out in Iraq on their own, and some different groups jockey for power, but overall, the situation will rectify itself just like it did when the Brits pulled out after their occupation in the early 20th century. The same thing would happen now. Again, I would answer that if you look back through history, this is the exact same type of propaganda that all empires have used to justify a continuance of their occupations in countries that they’ve invaded.
So what do you think the key factor is in this country, that we go about our business as usual while this is all going on?
That’s a tough question. I think it’s partly misinformation, you know, the education system, being raised on “The US is the great City on the Hill”, you know, the benevolent empire, the best country in the world, manifest destiny—we have to go down to the roots of social programming. And then, all of this being backed up by propaganda from corporate media that is really off the charts at this time. And on top of that, you know, the ramifications of corporate capitalism consumer culture. Where is spirituality in this? Where is community in this? Where are people being rewarded for practicing those things? No, our culture, the whole mindset of the busier you are the better, that you are rewarded for being insanely busy and mulit-tasking, and going it on your own, and lifting yourself up by your bootstraps, instead of “No, I’m going to slow down and grow a garden, and have community. These are the important things in my life.” When all of that really starts to shift—and that’s the stuff that actually is shifting as we speak—then I think we’ll start to see some deeper change begin to happen.
We have this vast array of information available to us, but most people don’t take advantage of that, to offset this corporate media. It’s been said that, with the internet, we have developed the global brain. But we haven’t really developed the global heart yet.
Exactly! That’s really at the core of it. Until that global heart is more in peoples’ consciousness, especially in this country, then what we have is business as usual. But I do think it is starting to happen. Obviously we have a long way to go but I really do think that is in the works as we speak.
What advice would you give young people today who feel disillusioned and disconnected with society, and just find it easier to continue with the status quo, even though deep within they might feel some heartache about the ecological and economic destruction, and the crisis in community, as well as the crisis in US foreign policy? How would you speak to that generation?
Well, I would use the analogy of the military, like with Victor Agosto who we were talking about earlier. The military wants him to feel that he’s powerless, and that he has no rights, and that if he stands up they will throw the house at him. The reality is, the whole system is reliant upon people believing they’re atomized, they’re powerless, they’re alone, there’s nobody else out there like them. That’s supported by our culture, by the media, by the government. The reality is the opposite: the only reason that system even exists is because we give it our permission. And we behave that way. What Victor Agosto learned was that if he was bold, and stood up and did the right thing, and followed his heart, then that system basically evaporates. It’s essentially an apparition. All of a sudden, they back off and they just want to get him out of the picture because he’s a threat. And I think that that’s an example that all of us can follow.
Dahr Jamail is an award-winning independent journalist whose work has appeared on National Public Radio, in The Guardian, The Nation, The Progressive, and more. In his latest book, The Will to Resist: Soliders Who Refuse To Fight In Iraq And Afghanistan, Jamail brings his readers inside the movement of military resistance to the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.