Texas-born Dahr Jamail was outraged that the US media were swallowing the Bush administration's line on Iraq and so, with just $2,000 and no previous journalistic experience, he set off to find out what was really happening in the country. He talks to Stephen Moss
In the spring of 2003 Dahr Jamail, a fourth-generation Lebanese-American with a taste for adventure, was up a mountain in Alaska, climbing and earning a living by working as a guide. He was, though, following news of the invasion of Iraq, and what he read and heard made him so furious that he decided to leave the mountains - "my church", as he calls them - and head for that newly subjugated land, armed only with a laptop and a digital recorder.
In a world of gung-ho, embedded, flak-jacketed US reporters telling the tale from the military angle, he had decided to try to find out what was happening to the Iraqis, who seemed absent from the story, which was odd considering there were 29 million of them in the country, dodging the bombs and the bullets. Or not.
"I wanted to report on where the silence was," he says. "There's this huge story going on and nobody's talking about it. How are Iraqis getting by, what's their daily life like?"
Jamail, a spruce 39-year-old who is the author of a new book, Beyond the Green Zone, says the supine nature of the US media encouraged him to act. "With a few exceptions, most of the US mainstream was just stenography for the state," he says. "It wasn't journalism; it was writing down what the Bush administration was telling them. I was amazed and outraged. I felt that the lack of clear information was the biggest problem I could see in the US, so I decided I should go over and write about it."
It took him until November 2003 to get the money together - $2,000, everything he had - and make some contacts, via the internet, in Iraq. He flew to Amman in Jordan, found a driver and an interpreter - he spoke no Arabic - and took a car to Baghdad, accompanied by a young couple from the UK who intended to spend a few days there "for the experience". The border was unguarded, US troops notable by their absence. The war had been fought at long range; now there was a vacuum.
Jamail visited hospitals and went to the town of Samarra, 50km north of Baghdad, to check out a "firefight" in which the US military said they had been attacked and had killed 54 Iraqi fighters. Jamail found the locals telling a different story: two Iraqi fighters had attacked a detachment of US troops guarding a delivery to a bank, and the soldiers had responded by firing indiscriminately, killing and wounding many civilians.
At first he had no intention of trying to compete with the mainstream media. "For the first two weeks [of a nine-week stay] I was just sending emails back home," he says. "I had a list of a little over a hundred friends, mostly in Alaska. I would go out in the day with an interpreter - I found someone to work with me who was really cheap because I didn't have much money - and interview people, take amateur photos, and then go back to the hotel and write it up. It was essentially blogging, but I didn't know what blogging was and I didn't have a blog, of course. I was just sending out two, three, four, five pages a night with a few photos attached to friends.
"After about two weeks someone suggested, 'Hey, you should post on this website electroniciraq.ne.' They wanted posts from people on the ground. I did that for about a month and then towards the end of my trip, with about two weeks to go, I was contacted by the BBC to do a little bit of work with them. A start-up website in New York also contacted me to start doing some stories. I actually got paid to do some work, and that's when it became clear I could actually come back and work as a journalist."
I try to probe why Jamail should have made this extraordinary gesture: was there something in his make-up that led him to take this stand? Born and raised in Texas, the son of a grocery store owner, he says that there is a streak of unpredictability in his family. He is the youngest of three: his sister is a pilot, his brother is a police officer. "My parents have always had their hands full and were broken in a bit, so I guess they weren't completely shocked when I started to do my thing," he says. He means climbing, but what about Iraq? How did they and others close to him react? "Most people thought I was crazy. My closer friends supported it. They felt, 'If this is what you think, and you really want to do it, then all power to you.' I decided, wrong or right, not to worry my parents about it until I got in there, so I waited and wrote [to] them after I reached Baghdad. Fortunately they were open to it; they were shocked, but they were open to it."
Before he headed for Alaska in 1996, Jamail had worked as a chemical technician on Johnston Island, an atoll in the Pacific where the US military had dumped parts of its obsolete stockpile of chemical weapons - no problem here finding weapons of mass destruction. Jamail was there to check air quality in a pilot plant designed for decommissioning the weapons, but became disillusioned when he thought results were being rigged and leaks covered up.
It is tempting to see that disillusionment as the key to his later engagement, but he insists that it wasn't. He just packed in the job and went climbing - in Central America, South America and Pakistan, as well as Alaska. His journey to Iraq, he says, was born of anger and frustration; it was not a calculatedly political act. "I did it for more personal reasons," he explains. "I felt if I went and did this, I'd be able to come home and sleep a little bit better at night." He was wrong about that.
He had seen that first trip in the winter of 2003 as a one-off, but when he realised he could probably earn enough to live through his journalism he decided to go back. The fact that the security situation was deteriorating and that other journalists were pulling out increased the marketability of his on-the-spot reports, but also underlined the personal risks. Did he worry about the dangers? "By then I felt like I really wanted to stay in there and cover as much of the story as I could. You get into the story and you want to stay on it. It had its limits, though, and I didn't feel like I'd be able to stay in indefinitely."
He entered Iraq for the second time in April 2004, on the very day that Falluja, the town 70km west of Baghdad that became the focal point of the battle between US forces and Iraqi fighters, was being sealed off. "We immediately started hearing these horrible stories of what was happening there," he says. "I had a chance to go in and was really on the fence on whether I should do it or not, because I knew it was pretty crazy. But it seemed like we had a reasonable chance of going in safely, so I decided to take it. I ended up reporting for a couple of days from this makeshift clinic, and saw women, kids and some men being brought in who were all saying the same thing: the US pushed in [to Falluja] as far as they could and then just lined up snipers and started shooting into the city. There was no water, no electricity, medical workers were being targeted. It was a turning point for me."
By now, Jamail was filing his reports predominantly for the Inter Press Service, an agency based in Rome that sets out to "give a voice to the voiceless" and promote a new global order based on equality, democracy and justice. It is reporting, but reporting with a purpose, a clear agenda. So is it objective? Can someone who goes to Iraq convinced that the war is wrong and being fought for control of oil and strategic power offer unbiased reporting?
"Objective journalism is a myth," says Jamail. "Going into Iraq, I felt it was really important to read up on the history, find out what is the US security strategy, what is US foreign policy. Only then can you understand the facts and the nature of the US's historical involvement in Iraq. If I'm guilty of something, I was guilty of going into it looking at it through that lens, as opposed to those who were looking at it through the lens of anonymous briefings from Bush administration officials. Any journalist going into a war zone is going to be looking through a certain type of lens. It's a myth that you go in without opinions on the situation, or that you won't feel emotions and that nothing that happens is going to affect how you report on it. I don't buy that. I just don't think it's humanly possible."
He immediately qualifies that, however, by saying that he was not so blinkered that he made every fact and opinion he encountered fit his preconceived view. "When I came across Iraqis who were happy that Saddam was gone - and there were plenty, especially seven months into the occupation, before things had really started to degrade rapidly - I said so. I did run into things that challenged my preconceptions. I would from time to time run into a soldier who really believed in the mission. Early on, I met plenty of Iraqis who were glad the Americans were here, were still hopeful and wanted to give them some time, and I wrote about that."
In the introduction to his book, he quotes the story of an indigenous Canadian hunter who was called to give evidence at an inquiry into a planned dam that would flood his homeland and destroy his traditional way of life. The hunter was asked to swear on the Bible that he would tell the truth, but he had never seen a Bible and wondered how this miraculous truth-telling instrument worked. "He spoke with the translator at length," writes Jamail, "and finally the translator looked up at the judge. 'He does not know whether he can tell the truth. He says he can tell only what he knows.'"
I take it that is how Jamail sees his own role: to give his view, to write down what he sees, to filter what he discovers at first hand through the knowledge he has gained from reading official documents; to tell what he knows rather than claim to be relaying some almost metaphysical "truth", arrived at by being perfectly objective. He sees the war in Iraq as the direct consequence of the stated national security strategy of building a worldwide network of US military bases and "projecting power". Talk of withdrawal from Iraq, he says, is a case of "putting the cart before the horse"; the whole strategy has to be rethought first. Iraq, in his view, is just a symptom of an endemic illness.
What this role as an avowedly anti-war journalist means, however, is that Jamail's political opponents can write him off as a propagandist. American TV networks have largely ignored him and his book. Even as the public mood has turned against the war, the mainstream media have not been able to disengage themselves from their view that, in time of war, the commander-in-chief and the boys in the field should be supported.
"I certainly get accused of being an activist, but I don't consider myself an activist," he says. "I've never done any kind of activism or organising. My response to my critics is to say, 'Tell me which of my facts you dispute and I'll give you my sources.' I ask people, 'Be specific.' If you want to attack my personality that's fine, but if you want to attack my work and my information, then tell me which of my stories you have a problem with and I'll happily give you my sources. I give talks in the US and people accuse me of being a conspiracy theorist, but I say, 'No, it's very rational, read these documents.'"
Jamail's Lebanese name doesn't help when he tries to argue that, while trying to fill the silence on the Iraqi side, he remains committed to reporting what he sees and telling what he knows. "One time I was on this rightwing radio programme, and the guy started out trying to describe me: 'Dahr Jamail, you're a Muslim, aren't you?' 'No. Would it matter if I was? But no, I'm not.' 'Where are you from, Dahr?' 'Anchorage, Alaska.' It didn't go real well for him. I didn't even have a Middle-Eastern accent."
Jamail made two further trips to Iraq, but hasn't been back since early 2005. The danger was now too great, and he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. "Having never reported in a war zone before, I was ignorant about PTSD," he says. "I assumed that journalists didn't get it. I thought you had to be a combat soldier to get it. When I got home after my fourth trip, I started having trouble sleeping. I was constantly thinking about Iraq, getting random visions of the times when I would go into morgues, and feeling guilty that I could leave the country but the friends I had made there couldn't. I just felt numb a lot of the time. All of that put together made me realise that this was not the same guy that went over there, and that I needed some help. I took counselling, and still do it off and on when necessary."
When he returned to the US after his fourth visit to Iraq, he decided it was time to digest his experiences. He attended a session of the World Tribunal on Iraq in Rome and, rather like the Canadian hunter, reported what he had seen in the eight months he had spent in the country. He told of Iraqis who had given him accounts of being tortured, of towns collectively punished by being deprived of electricity, water and essential medical supplies, and of ambulances being shot at by US soldiers. "With 70% unemployment, a growing resistance and an infrastructure in shambles," he concluded, "the future for Iraq remains bleak as long as the failed occupation persists."
Jamail also embarked on his book - part reportage, part catharsis - and this summer plans to write another, this time on resistance to the war within the US military, based on the stories of soldiers he has met who engaged in sabotage and fake patrols (called "search and avoid" missions) to hamper the war effort. Then he plans to return to the Middle East and maybe even to Iraq, if the security situation allows him at least some degree of freedom to report. The return to the mountains will have to wait; his heart now is in the desert.
· Beyond the Green Zone is published by Haymarket Books (£11.99).
It should come as no surprise that the Bush administration’s newest military-man-of-substance-turned- political lapdog, General Petraeus, maintains that the situation in Iraq is not only salvageable, but actually improving, due to the "surge" of U.S. combat troops into Iraq over the past year. All the president and his collection of GI Joe hand-puppets ask for is more time, more money and more troops.
There is no reason to believe that the compliant war facilitators who comprise the "anti-war" Democratic majority in Congress will do anything other than give the president what he is asking for. No one seems to want to debate, in any meaningful fashion, what is really going on in Iraq.
Why would they? The Democrats, like their Republican counterparts, have invested too much political capital into fictionalizing the problem with slogans like "support the troops," "we’re fighting the enemy there so we don’t have to fight them here," and my all-time favorite, "leaving Iraq would hand victory to al-Qaida."
There simply is no incentive to put fact on the table and formulate policy that actually seeks a solution to a properly defined problem. Like the Republicans before them, the Democrats today seek not to govern with the best interests of the people in mind, but rather to game the system in order to consolidate political power. Political sloganeering has so trumped reality that any political backlash that is generated from the so-called "Petraeus Report" will be limited to how the Democrats could better sustain a conflict that kills American troops, since no mainstream Democratic leader has expressed a true "get out of Iraq now" policy.
Nearly 4 1/2 years after President Bush’s ill-fated (and illegal) decision to invade and occupy Iraq, few people in a position to influence policy formulation and implementation in America have actually grasped the horrible truth about what has transpired, and what is transpiring, in Mesopotamia today. As the United States places the finishing touches on Fortress America, the new half-billion-dollar Embassy complex in the heart of the Green Zone in downtown Baghdad, and more troops pour into mega-bases throughout Iraq, the reality (and futility) of permanent occupation has yet to sink in. What could be going through the minds of those members of Congress who keep signing blank checks for the president? Is there no oversight of how and why this money is spent? How can someone fund permanent infrastructure one day, then speak of the need to get out of Iraq the next?
The compliant mainstream media, of course, is no help. The war in Iraq has become a major generator of advertising revenue for these corporations, so there is no incentive to actually report the truth, but rather manipulate the fiction. Iraq has become a prestige destination for every aspiring journalist or struggling anchor, determined to get "the big story." The most recent manifestation of this syndrome is CBS News anchor Katie Couric, who earlier this week traveled to Iraq because she was (in her own words), "Curious about very basic questions regarding living conditions, about how much fear there is in the street, about how the soldiers really are doing." That the situation in Iraq has been boiled down to these three big, burning issues (living conditions, fear in the streets, and how the troops are really doing), and that CBS is sending their multi-million-dollar investment to investigate, speaks volumes about the truly degenerate state of American journalism today.
The real big three she should be addressing are "Why do Americans keep dying?" "Who is killing them?" and "Why?" Of course, answering these questions would undermine the very fantasy world Couric is being sent to cover, one where Americans are doing good deeds in the name of peace and justice for downtrodden Iraqis. Couric’s jaunt is fraud on a massive scale. Ironically, she herself acknowledged this when she admitted that her upbeat reports from Iraq were reflective of what the U.S. military wanted her to see, and not honest "reporting" on her part.
If Couric and her ilk won’t answer these questions, I will. "Why do Americans keep dying?" Simple: Because we are in Iraq. We don’t belong there. Our presence is derived from our own violation of law, not someone else’s, and as such any effort to sustain our presence is tainted by this same foundation of illegitimacy. In short, Americans will keep dying in Iraq as long as we remain in Iraq. If Katie wanted to really get to the bottom of this story, she could venture out on her own to any one of the villages and towns where Americans have been killed recently. Of course, she would probably end up dead herself, which would defeat the purpose of trying to report the story.
"Who is killing them?" Another easy answer: Iraqis. We are occupying their homeland. We are violating their sovereignty. We are butchering, abusing and torturing their citizens. Our continued presence is an affront to the socioeconomic-political fabric that is (or was) Iraqi society. If someone occupied my hometown in the same manner Americans occupy Iraq, I’d be killing them any way I could. And I would be called a hero by my own people, not a terrorist. The Bush administration, in an effort to deflect public attention away from this reality, has created the fiction of a massive al-Qaida presence in Iraq, working in parallel with a similarly large Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command presence, which apparently is responsible for the majority of anti-American violence and dead U.S. troops.
Rhetoric aside, however, American officials who make these claims have been unable to back them up with hard facts and figures. There is an al-Qaida presence in Iraq. However, the majority of what is known as "al-Qaida in Iraq" is composed of Iraqis, not foreigners. The whole phenomenon is a direct result of the American occupation of Iraq, and would dissipate the moment America left the country. Likewise, the accusation of direct Iranian involvement in anti-American violence is questionable. Iranian political support of Iraqi Shiite groups who violently oppose the American occupation of Iraq is real, but then again we know this: We invited the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq to join us in toppling Saddam. Based out of Iran, functioning as a de facto arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Command, SCIRI did as we asked. Why, then, are we shocked when SCIRI maintains ties with the very entity that created and nurtured it? It is Iraqi Shiites who are killing Americans, not Iranians. And they would kill us with or without the support of Iran.
Now we come to the third and perhaps most difficult question: "Why?" In some odd way, Katie Couric’s jaunt to Iraq answers that question: Because Americans truly don’t care. Oh, we care about vague softball issues, such as "conditions in the street," "fear," and of course, "how the American troops are really doing," especially when they are fed to us in 30-second sound bites or three-minute "in-depth" stories. Little feel good segments planted in between commercials, designed not to infringe on our intellectual curiosity for more than 30 minutes so we don’t loose our focus watching the latest "reality" show or made-for-television drama.
The fact is, Couric’s made-for-television news is to what is really happening in Iraq as "CSI: Las Vegas" is to what is really happening on the streets of Sin City. CBS knows that, which is why they are packaging Katie in this fashion. The shame is that for most Americans watching, they think they’re getting the real deal. They are not, but will continue to wallow in their ignorant indifference. Katie will struggle to tell us that our kids keep dying in Iraq to "improve the quality of life" and "reduce the level of fear" on the streets of Baghdad. She solemnly informs us that "our boys and girls" are suffering, but they know it is in support of a just and noble cause. Katie will continue to report the story in Iraq from the perspective of an American political dynamic, not Iraqi reality.
She won’t go visit one of the American mercenary units in Iraq, the private military contractors who challenge the American military for numerical supremacy. She won’t burrow into the never-never land of legal ambiguity that allows these mercenaries to commit murder at will, to treat Iraq (and Iraqis) as second-class citizens in their own nation, and whose continued abuse of Iraq results in a deep and undying hatred for all things American. Katie may catch a movie in a hardened underground theater on one of the Pentagon’s mega-bases, or go shopping in a PX inside the "Green Zone" to get a "feel" of life for our troops, but she won’t venture up north, into Kurdistan, where other secure outposts of foreign occupation sit, out of sight and mind. If Couric would visit the Iraqi Oil Ministry, she might be shocked to witness the legal maneuvering and exploitation carried out by foreign oil companies (including, directly or indirectly, American oil companies).
Working with local Kurdish officials, small oil exploration and drilling camps are sprouting up all over northern Iraq, where they siphon off the wealth of the Iraqi people. Shipped out of Iraq via Turkey and (surprisingly) Iran, using long-established smuggling routes, these illegal ventures are generating billions of dollars in income for oil companies, and because these ventures aren’t supposed to exist, this income goes unreported. You can’t miss these sites. Any review of Google-Earth imagery would show these facilities springing up like mushrooms over the last few years. The U.S. military knows about them, and yet does nothing. Note to Richard Kaplan (Katie Couric’s producer): If you want to investigate this story, I’ll provide you with the geographic coordinates. Drive up and try to talk your way into the security perimeter. Position Katie well for the camera shot and demand answers. Just look out for the Canadian, South African or American mercenaries who are charged by "Big Oil" to keep this dirty little secret "secret."
Instead of going to Iraq to report on why Americans keep dying, Katie could just stay here, in America. There are any number of corporations whose boardrooms she could visit. Or she could smooth-talk her way into a number of country clubs, to interview the human face of the "military industrial complex" that President Eisenhower warned us about a half-century ago. She might take a look at congressional campaign financing, where the profits from these corporations fund the campaigns of the politicians who continue to do nothing about Iraq. Then, and just then, would Katie come close to answering the question of "Why?"
But she won’t. Or should I say, she can’t. CBS is owned by General Electric. GE is working hard to get favorable trading status with any number of foreign trading partners. The U.S. trade representative is working hard on GE’s behalf. Hard-nosed "reporting" by the likes of Couric would not go over well in the bowels of the White House, where instructions to the U.S. trade representative are issued. "I’m Katie Couric," her broadcast could begin. "Tonight I am declaring independence from corporate control over how I report (i.e., read) the news." Answering the "why" of Iraq requires confronting the layers of corruption and corporate domination of America on so many levels that even if Katie wanted to, she couldn’t—at least not from her perch as anchor of the CBS Evening News.
In a way, Iraq is a manifestation of all that ails America today. A complete breakdown of fundamental societal checks and balances brought on by greed and hubris. From General Petraeus who will give it, to the mindless corporate-owned minions who populate much of Congress who will receive it, to the entertainment-as-news media which will report on it, and to the American people who will consume it with no foundation upon which to evaluate it, the "Petraeus Report" will have little relevance to what is really going on in Iraq. Once again, Americans will be searching for a solution to a problem they have yet to properly define.
:: Article nr. 36058 sent on 07-sep-2007 20:47 ECT
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