Blind Spot

Seeing Iraq through Uncle Sam’s eyes

Over the last five years, as I’ve consumed one dispatch after another from journalists embedded with U.S. soldiers in Iraq, I’ve wondered how accurate a picture of events such reports provide. Given the stark dangers journalists face in Iraq, embedding clearly offers a valuable means of getting around the country and seeing the troops in action—but at what cost? Does the presence of journalists affect the way soldiers behave? Do journalists—physically protected by soldiers—in turn protect them in what they choose to write? How willing are soldiers to talk freely about their experiences? And to what extent is it possible to talk with Iraqis while on an embed?

This past May, on a visit to Baghdad, I got a chance to explore such questions myself. On my embed application, I wrote that I wanted to visit a typical Baghdad neighborhood to see the effects of the surge and to get an idea of what more had to be done before the U.S. could begin to reduce its forces in significant numbers. I was assigned to the Second Battalion of the Fourth Infantry Regiment of the Tenth Mountain Division, a light infantry unit stationed in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora.

At 9 o’clock on a blistering morning in mid-May, I was met in the Green Zone by a four-vehicle military convoy. Emerging to introduce themselves were Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Watson, the battalion’s commanding officer, and Captain Brett Walker, the public-affairs officer (pao) assigned to watch over me. On the fifteen-minute ride to Dora, they told me how a year earlier the neighborhood had been one of the most violent in Baghdad, with Sunni fighters attached to Al Qaeda in Iraq setting off car bombs and leaving mutilated bodies along roadsides. But thanks in part to the stationing of hundreds more troops in the area, to the application of counterinsurgency techniques, and to the Sunni insurgents who had turned against Al Qaeda, Dora had become one of the safest districts in Baghdad. The Dora marketplace, which the previous year had been all but shuttered, was once again thriving, with some eight hundred shops and stalls open for business.

In the marketplace, I was met by an infantry patrol and taken on a walk-through. Over the next twelve hours, I would see a local church that had recently reopened; a joint security station where both U.S. and Iraqi soldiers were based, and where I could talk with some American troops; a school that the U.S. had helped to refurbish; another, smaller marketplace, where we encountered three “Sons of Iraq”—former insurgents now working with the U.S.; a house that U.S. soldiers had blown up after discovering bomb-making materials inside; and Forward Operation Base Falcon, a sprawling U.S. camp in southern Baghdad.

Though brief, my embed put to rest some of my concerns about the process. To begin, it dispelled any doubts I had about the willingness of soldiers to speak candidly. Several mid-level officers complained vigorously to me about the multiple deployments they’d been on. Some had been to Iraq and Afghanistan three, four, even five times, and their relationships at home had suffered. One captain told me that he had been stop-lossed; another said that he had stayed on only because he knew he would be stop-lossed if he tried to leave. A military-intelligence officer spoke on the record about what he saw as the weaknesses in U.S. strategy. While the surge had helped to bring Al Qaeda under control, Staff Sergeant Zachery Brown told me, the U.S. still needed to deal with Iraq’s many political and social problems and, as far as he could see, it lacked a coherent policy for doing so.

Not every soldier I met felt aggrieved, of course. Some expressed satisfaction at the help they felt they were providing to Iraqis. Others seemed guarded, making it hard to get a fix on their true views; had I spent more time with them, they might have opened up more. All in all, I came away convinced that embedding provides an excellent opportunity for journalists to talk with soldiers, see them in action, and get a sense of how they see their work.

Talking to Iraqis is another matter. I had a few chances to approach the locals, but these tended to be fleeting and awkward, and my lack of Arabic aggravated the problem. In the Dora marketplace, the soldiers accompanying me spoke expansively about all the microgrants and other assistance they were providing shopkeepers. Yet the shopkeepers kept to themselves, and neither they nor their customers even made eye contact with the soldiers. What, I wondered, was going through their minds? I had no real way of finding out.

Later, when we came upon the three Sons of Iraq, Captain Walker—seeing my interest in interviewing them—moved off so that they could speak without inhibition. An Army interpreter (an Iraqi who wore a ski mask to conceal his identity) remained by my side. The three Sons, in tattered beige uniforms, seemed eager to talk. Dora, they said, “had died” while in Al Qaeda’s grip, but now “everything has changed.” The Americans, they added, “are doing good things.”

What more, I asked, remained to be done? Providing jobs, they replied. One of the men pointed to a row of half-finished buildings across the way. Three hundred people could be put to work completing them, he said, but the Iraqi government had little interest in helping out—it was “too sectarian.” I couldn’t tell if this last remark came from the interpreter or from the Sons. The interpreter’s next comment—“Every house we’re in, the people say, ‘Can you help us?’”—clearly came from him, and as the interview wound on, it became increasingly hard for me to tell where the Sons’ views left off and the interpreter’s began. Even if the interpreter had been more careful, I’m not sure how much I would have learned, for interviewing former insurgents while surrounded by U.S. troops (within earshot or not) hardly seemed conducive to getting at their true thoughts.

My inability to talk frankly with Iraqis was all the more frustrating given the many comments the Americans were making about them. The soldiers never said anything overtly negative. They made no references to hajjis or towel-heads. Rather, they spoke incessantly about how much help they were providing the Iraqis. On the ride down to Dora, for instance, Lieutenant Colonel Watson told me how hard the U.S. military was working to boost the capacity of the local government. With violence down, he said, it was essential that the delivery of basic services be improved, and he and his soldiers were straining to figure out the lines of authority among various Iraqi agencies and to get them to work together. He told me of the satisfaction he felt when the local municipality picked up the trash in the Dora marketplace. “We consider it a huge success when we get the Iraqis to do the job themselves,” he said.

At Forward Operating Base Falcon, Captain Emiliano Tellado, a field-artillery officer turned government-fix-it man, told me with great enthusiasm about all the work he was doing with neighborhood councils to streamline the delivery of services. He spoke with pride about how his unit had helped open the first bank in the area and how it was trying to find ways to help the Iraqis improve the pickup of trash, the control of sewage, and the supply of electricity. The Iraqi government, the captain said, “is making a lot of strides.”

And so it went throughout my embed. The overall impression conveyed was one of American know-how, expertise, and efficiency and of Iraqi bumbling, idleness, and ineptitude. And, without quite realizing it, I absorbed this perspective. The Iraqi government is almost universally loathed for its disorganization and dysfunctionality, and the soldiers’ earnest descriptions of their efforts to mend it jibed with my own preconceived ideas about American competence and can-do spirit.

It was only the day after my embed, while I was interviewing American officials in the Green Zone, that I had a chance to reflect on what I had heard and to place it in broader context. I recalled the nonstop looting that had occurred in the wake of the invasion, a spasm of anarchy that had resulted in the razing of eighteen of twenty-three government ministries. I recollected the de-Baathification order that had been issued by the Coalition Provisional Authority, a sweeping and (most now agree) disastrously ill-conceived decree that had resulted in the dismissal of 120,000 officials, bureaucrats, and civil servants. And I thought about the acute security vacuum that had opened up on the Americans’ watch, a catastrophic breakdown in authority that had resulted in the slaughter or flight of virtually the entire Iraqi professional and technocratic class. To the extent that Iraq was broken, the U.S.’s many missteps were certainly a major factor.

Nor is such blundering a thing of the past. As I learned during my stay, the U.S., along with its military surge, has carried on a political surge, bringing to Iraq hundreds of advisers, specialists, and contractors to help boost the capacity of Iraqi ministries and improve the quality of services. From conversations I had after my return to the U.S. with two advisers who travel frequently to Iraq , I learned that this project has been a fiasco, with the visitors having few language skills and even less familiarity with how Iraq works. One think-tank analyst who has spent time in Iraq’s ministries told me that the Iraqis he met seemed much more capable and knowledgeable than the Americans sent to help them. The U.S., he said, still seemed to be trying to remake Iraq along American-style free-market lines, without much regard for Iraq’s history and traditions.

This ran completely counter to assessments I’d heard—and reflexively accepted—during my embed. Enveloped in the cocoon of the U.S. military, exposed nonstop to its views, insulated from independent Iraqi voices, I had bought the storyline—talented, high-minded Americans helping out hapless, pitiable Iraqis—when the truth was far more complicated.

From conversations I’ve had with other journalists in Iraq , I know that they take steps to avoid falling into this trap. Leila Fadel of McClatchy (who speaks Arabic) told me that she makes a point of getting the cell phone numbers of Iraqis she encounters on embeds so she can call them afterward and check her impressions with them. Tina Susman of the Los Angeles Times told me that, after doing an embed, she sometimes sends an Iraqi reporter back to the site to talk with locals and get their perspectives. Occasionally, U.S. reporters bring along their own interpreters, thus facilitating contact with Iraqis.

No matter what precautions they take, however, it seems to me difficult for U.S. reporters on embeds to avoid getting swept up in the American narrative. As Americans, we come out of the same culture as U.S. soldiers, subscribe to similar values, and bring to foreign societies many of the same preconceptions. As a result, we see the war zone through the eyes of the occupier rather than those of the occupied. And the coverage itself inevitably reflects this, taking on the paternalistic tint that the act of occupation invariably breeds. That this process occurs so subtly and unconsciously makes it all the more dangerous.

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Michael Massing is a contributing editor to CJR and the author of Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq.