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.