Voyage of the 'Little People' shames self-righteous West
The Israeli blockade of Gaza breached by a handful of dedicated advocates for compassion and humanity...it is now time for us to funnel large-scale aid into the beleagered nation...one vessel at a time, if need be!
Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach (Photo: marinecorpstimes.com)
There was quite a struggle in Congress this week. The Department of Defense refused to allow the senior civilian in charge of its Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) to testify in Thursday's hearing on sexual assault in the military. Rep. John Tierney, chair of the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, angrily dismissed Principal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense Michael Dominguez from the hearing when Dominguez said that he, the DoD chief of legislative affairs and the chief of public affairs, had ordered Dr. Kaye Whitley, chief of SAPRO, to refuse to honor the subpoena issued by the subcommittee for her appearance.
Full committee Chairman Henry Waxman called the DoD's decision to prevent Whitley from testifying "ridiculous and indicating DoD is covering something up." It could also place Whitley in contempt of Congress. Rep. Christopher Shays said the DoD's decision was "foolish."
One of the questions that would have been put to Whitley was why DoD had taken three years to name a 15-person civilian task force to look into allegations of sexual assault of military personnel. The panel was finally named early in 2008 but has yet to meet. She would have also been queried on the SAPRO program's failure to require key information from the military in order to evaluate the effectiveness of sexual assault prevention and response programs.
I spoke with Dr. Whitley in April 2007 and had asked for an appointment to bring to her office four military women who had been sexually assaulted and wanted to tell her in what ways the DoD programs to prevent sexual assault were not working. Whitley declined, saying she worked at the policy level, and steered me to the chief of the Army sexual assault program. I called the Army program's chief, who initially said she would talk to our group. However, when I mentioned that the mother of Army Spc. Suzanne Swift, who had been raped in Iraq, would be with us, she said she could not meet with anyone involved with an ongoing case. I replied that Swift's case was closed as far as the Army was concerned. Her rapist had not been prosecuted, and Swift ended up with a court-martial and 30 days of jail time because she had gone AWOL for her own protection when the Army would not move her out of the unit to which both she and her rapist were still assigned. In view of the fact that the Army chief of prevention of sexual assault refused to meet with any of the four women who had suggestions on how to improve prevention and reporting of sexual assault and rape, I'm not surprised that the DoD snubbed Congress over the same issue.
Rep. Elijah Cummings joined Rep. Waxman in speaking of cover-ups. Cummings raised the cases of military women who had been sexually assaulted before dying in "non-combat incidents." He spoke specifically about Army Pfc. LaVena Johnson, who was found beaten and dead of a gunshot wound at Balad Air Base, Iraq, in a burning tent owned by the contractor KBR. Her parents suspected that Johnson had been murdered and that the homicide was being covered up by the Army, which deemed the death a suicide. Cummings also spoke of Army Pfc. Tina Priest, who was raped at Taji, Iraq, and found dead 10 days later of a gunshot wound. After her family had measurements taken of her arms and of the angle of the bullet and found that she could not have pulled the trigger of her M-16 with her finger, the Army said she had pulled the trigger by using her toe. Cummings asked Lt. Gen. Michael Rochelle, chief of U.S. Army personnel, for assistance in getting all the documents the Army had on Johnson's death. Additionally, four House members have asked for congressional hearings on the deaths of military personnel who have been classified as suicides, among them LaVena Johnson.
The fireworks with DoD followed the dramatic testimony of Mary Lauterbach, the mother of murdered pregnant Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, who had been raped in May 2007 at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Accused in the case is Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean. After the rape, several protective orders were issued to keep Laurean away from his victim. The burned body of Lauterbach and her unborn baby were found in a shallow grave in the backyard of Laurean's home in January 2008. Laurean fled to Mexico, where he was subsequently apprehended, and he now is awaiting extradition to the United States to stand trial. Lauterbach's mother explained in great detail the warning signs that Laurean was a danger to her daughter and claimed that all these signs were ignored by the Marine Corps.
Two other military women have been murdered near military bases in North Carolina in the past two months.
Red Cross employee Ingrid Torres told the subcommittee of being raped at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea by an Air Force flight doctor. She spoke of the difficulty she had obtaining medical and emotional treatment from the facility where the doctor still worked, and later from military facilities in other parts of the world where she was assigned.
Rep. Jane Harman cited Veterans Administration statistics that one in three women in the military has been sexually assaulted. She said the prosecution rate of those accused of raping fellow military service members is abysmally low. Of the 2,212 reported rapes in the military in 2007, only 8 percent of the cases ended in court-martial of the perpetrator, while the rate of prosecution in civilian courts is 40 percent.
Lt. Gen. Rochelle, the Army chief of personnel, reported the little known statistic that 12 percent of reported rapes in the military are of male military personnel.
Rep. Shays said he had no confidence in DoD or the military services and their policies of prevention of sexual assault, and asked how recruiting will fare when young women learn that one in three women is sexually assaulted and when young men find out that one in 10 men is raped while in the military.
Brenda Farrell, director of the Government Accountability Office, said that getting data on rape from the military services is difficult because there are no common definitions of terms for the services to use in such cases.
Farrell said the GAO believes rates of sexual assault currently used by DoD are low because many military personnel do not want to report what happened and suffer the gossip, harassment and stigma prevalent in units when confidential reporting is compromised. In a survey of 3,757 persons on 14 military installations, 103 said they had been sexually assaulted in the past year and had reported it, while 52 others said they did not report the sexual assault.
Several Congress members spoke of lack of leadership and accountability in stopping sexual assault. The same day as the sexual assault hearing, the Navy relieved two senior officers of the USS George Washington because of the injury to 23 sailors and $70 million in damage to the ship caused by a smoking violation. Imagine if commanders in units where rape occurred were relieved of command for the harmful actions of their subordinates. That would send a signal of zero tolerance of sexual assault, whereas in the current climate victims are intimidated and alleged perpetrators are given administrative punishment instead of court-martial.
Sexual violence against both female and male military personnel must stop. Let Congress know of your concern about sexual assault in our military. Call or e-mail members of the House and Senate Armed Services committees and members of the Oversight and Government Reform committees.
Ann Wright is a retired Army Reserve colonel and a 29-year veteran of the Army and Army Reserves. She was also a diplomat in Nicaragua, Grenada, Somalia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Sierra Leone, Micronesia, Afghanistan and Mongolia. She resigned from the Department of State on March 19, 2003, in opposition to the Iraq war. She is the co-author of "Dissent: Voices of Conscience" (www.voicesofconscience.com).
Marine Lance Cpl. Maria Lauterbach, who reported being raped in May 2007, was found dead, along with her unborn child, in January 2008 in the backyard of the suspect in the case, Marine Cpl. Cesar Laurean. A Progressive Journal of News and Opinion. Editor, Robert Scheer. Publisher, Zuade Kaufman.
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).
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