Enemies and Civilians

How big stories could hide in plain sight

Anthony Shadid
The Washington Post

It was before Saddam’s capture. I think it was November 2003. I remember I was out in the countryside in Ramadi, and I was working on a story about how the American military was arresting relatives of suspected insurgents as a way of pressuring [them]. And about the repercussions this was having on the fabric of villages there. And it had huge repercussions. It created vendettas that I don’t think the American military understood they were creating.

Anyway, as far as reporting, Iraqis were telling me just fantastic stories about abuse that I just kind of shook my head and blew them off. But I remember one guy was being so detailed about this stuff that I think I even wrote it down in my notebook — because it was remarkable and maybe the detail made me think: maybe there is something here. Like all of us, I didn’t follow up.

James Hider
The Times
Everyone I knew from the British press had heard stories of beatings, and fairly severe. People would show us the scars of handcuffs on their hands, whatever, the bruised backs, and I don’t think we pursued them nearly as rigorously as we should have. I think it’s very difficult to prove who’s beaten somebody.

The thing was, it was an extremely violent place, Baghdad. People were getting killed every day, beaten up in the street. I mean I saw somebody being dragged out of his car and stabbed by carjackers. It was really difficult to pin anything down in those months after the war. There was so much, people telling incredible stories. It was very difficult to find out any sort of accountability, responsibility. If you went and spoke to a soldier, he’d say one thing, and if you spoke to the Iraqi police, they’d say another. And it was difficult to get any hard evidence. I think this is a classic case of the power of images, and it came from the Americans themselves in the end. Seymour Hersh wrote a story [in April 2004] that basically came from those [Abu Ghraib] pictures, and that was the first proof that we had. But it was very difficult — you couldn’t get into the camps. People would show you a bruise on their back and say, “American did this.” So it was very difficult to come down hard on that story. But I think that also we didn’t investigate enough because there was so much stuff happening at the time, that we didn’t delve into it enough.

Larry Kaplow
Cox Newspapers

Well, I didn’t ask people about how they were being treated in Abu Ghraib before the big Abu Ghraib story came out, which is probably the biggest single story of the war since the government fell. And in a way I’m glad I hadn’t been approached with those stories; I’m not sure I would have believed them if I had heard them before I’d seen the proof, because it seems so outrageous — American soldiers making prisoners get naked and pile on top of each other and simulate sex acts. But after that happened, yes, I was a lot more on the lookout for those kinds of things.

Patrick Graham
Freelance Writer

If you went to the hospital in Fallujah in the fall of 2003, they would tell you about bodies coming from Abu Ghraib with signs of torture. And you heard a lot about the torture. The Eighty-second Airborne had a camp called “The Farm” — Iraqis called it “The Farm” — and the Iraqis talked about being arrested and being, you know, all the stuff that Captain [Ian] Fishback talked about [Fishback was a captain in the Eighty-second Airborne who protested to his superiors about the harsh treatment of detainees]. Fishback talks about guys, cooks with baseball bats being pissed off and breaking prisoners’ legs, right? And the Iraqis, in Fallujah they were talking about this.

I didn’t realize the extent of — I had doubts about it. How do you prove it until you find someone who’s been tortured? How do you do it until you see the body? And how do you know that body came from there? All you could do was write an interview with an Iraqi that said this happened, but is that enough? I don’t think that’s enough to get published in an American paper.

Dexter Filkins
The New York Times
I’ll tell you a very good example of a problem that I’ve had — that everybody’s had — with the military, which has never been resolved. The military complains when there’ll be an engagement of one sort or another, whether it’s a car bombing or whether it’s a bunch of insurgents attacking American soldiers or they blow up a Humvee or something. And the headline says, four Americans killed in humvee attack. And whoever of the American soldiers or civilians or whoever will say, “All you do is report the Americans who were killed and we wiped out those insurgents that day.” But, by and large, when you ask them, “Did you return fire and if you did what were the results of that?” they won’t tell you, and they’ll say, “Well, we don’t do body counts.” It’s a leftover from Vietnam, kind of a bad memory. “We don’t do body counts, and so we’re not going to tell you how many people we killed and wounded.” And that becomes a huge problem because there’ll be, say, a large incident, a lot of people have been killed — insurgents, civilians, and American soldiers — huge battles going on, and you’re trying to get some sense of what actually happened and maybe somebody’s making an accusation, and they’ll say, “Well, we don’t do body counts,” and that’s like just a conversation stopper: “We don’t do body counts, sorry.” Well, it turns out they really do do body counts and they always do them. The military will decide that it is in its interests on this particular day to tell you how many insurgents they killed and wounded, they will have a very precise number, and they’ll say, “Well, actually, we killed seventeen and wounded forty-two and we took ten of them prisoner.” And then you’ll scratch your head and say, “Well, I thought you didn’t do body counts?”

Nancy Youssef
Knight Ridder (McClatchy)

You know, my focus since I’ve been reporting here has been on civilian casualties. Really since the beginning, actually. In 2003, you know, there were a million stories to pursue. I drove in the day after the regime fell. And there were these dead bodies all over the street, these swollen bodies on the sides of the streets, and I was curious. How many people died, how many civilians died in this conflict? You could go anywhere and you could do anything, and I really wanted us — and Knight Ridder wanted us — to be out on the forefront on civilian casualties. So my three colleagues and I, we got a list of every major hospital — I think it was twenty-one in Baghdad at the time — and we went through and we asked them, “How many civilians died here? How many civilians came in?” It just seemed natural. It was always about hearts and minds, hearts and minds, hearts and minds, and you would talk to civilians, and they would say, “Well, how can they win our hearts and minds? They’re killing us. They’re killing us at checkpoints, they’re killing us in our houses. What hearts and minds are they talking about?”

To me, if we’re going to talk about winning hearts and minds, it begins and ends with how many civilians are being killed in the conflict. It just kept manifesting itself in different ways: Iraqi frustration with U.S. presence here, the growth of the insurgency, the growth of terrorism, the development of al Qaeda — there was always a link back to civilian casualties. And then I thought, as an Arabic speaker and someone who can get out a little bit more, that it was a good use of my resources to focus on that, because we could get to that story in a way that most people couldn’t.

It was just on a whim one day. I thought that I’d just go to the Ministry of Health and see if they have the statistics. Because the U.S., at the time, said they didn’t have them. I thought, “Who knows, maybe they’re keeping them.” And the officials there, they gave us the numbers. I said, “I don’t suppose you have, you know, the number of civilians killed. I don’t suppose you have this divided by coalition versus noncoalition.” They said, “Sure!” And they handed me the sheet, and I thought, “Well, good Lord.”

That was in September of 2004. And one thing to point out: at the time, Iraq was pretty well known for its record-keeping. You know, there are some countries where you can’t depend on records at all. But there was a real, I don’t know, commitment to details, and to records, and to being accurate in the record-keeping. So I felt really comfortable going with their numbers. The Iraqi health ministry is sort of an objective group that has no incentive to taint the numbers one way or the other at the time. I mean these were statisticians, they weren’t politicians. So, I felt it was important to import [into an article on civilian casualties published on September 24, 2004] what they had recorded, based on their information. They weren’t doing it haphazardly.

I wanted to keep following it, but I’ve gone back, oh, maybe four or five times since, and they will not release numbers on their records of Iraqis killed by coalition forces. And no one else has ever reported that number. There’ve been reports of civilians killed, but never that breakdown. Well, [the official at the health ministry] hinted at [why]. He said, “I’m not allowed to release them. I got in trouble, it caused a lot of problems, it went all the way up to the health ministry. You know, the top levels of the government went crazy and were upset about these numbers being released.”

Hannah Allam
Knight Ridder (McClatchy)

We haven’t been aggressive enough in having our home bases petition the Pentagon and the administration to reveal these [civilian casualty] figures. They keep them, we know they keep them and we have some partial figures released from time to time or somebody’s been leaked something. But I think it’s shameful that they have the figures and won’t release them.

And I just don’t understand why. I’m a firm believer in “the key to p.r. is honesty, honesty, honesty,” so why not say, “Look, here they are. War is bloody. There’s going to be civilian casualties. Here’s what they are. We’ll give it to you month to month.” And then it wouldn’t be this big scary unknown, where you have all these wild speculations that range from hundreds of thousands to a few thousand. And, I think even what they have is not a complete picture, but at least it would be a starting point. And I think it would work to [the military’s] advantage because it would be far smaller than some of these estimates that have been put out there.

Patrick Cockburn
The Independent

Iraqis don’t keep their money in banks because after the invasion of Kuwait, Saddam closed the banks, and when they reopened, people found that instead of the dinar being, whatever it was, one to three dollars to the dinar, that they were getting two thousand dinars to the dollar. After that they generally kept their money at home, and in hundred dollar bills. So often Iraqi houses have a surprising amount of cash in them, but this is the total savings of an extended family. Like anywhere else in the world where people keep large sums of money in their house, they are afraid of someone stealing it.

So if you knock on their door at two in the morning, they’re likely to answer it, and they’re all armed with guns. The U.S. military didn’t seem to realize this, so when the door was answered by an Iraqi with a gun, he was often shot dead — totally innocent farmers or businessmen or whatever. This created an enormous outrage at the time.

Larry Kaplow
Cox Newspapers

A country doesn’t want to believe that an army they sent overseas, their brothers and sons and fathers, have done bad things. It’s very hard to get the home country to accept that fact. And that’s not just in America. You see this in other places that have sent armies places. Every time there is a war, a nation goes in here with the whole mythology, and the whole rationale. It’s very difficult to work in anything that contradicts the mythology.

Scott Peterson
The Christian Science Monitor
Getty Images

The moment of Abu Ghraib [the photos of abuses were made public in April 2004] reinforced in [the Iraqi] mind all those rumors, all those prejudices — all those concerns that they weren’t certain were true but might have been, they now became very, very real. And whether they were real or not, the fact that they were real in Abu Ghraib — that those kind of abuses and those kind of events took place — all of a sudden made, in many Iraqi minds, every single abuse a real thing.

Thomas Dworzak
Magnum Photo
Ask the Pentagon, or ask the military: What harm has photography brought to the effort in the war? In a way, in a sick way, we’re pretty corrupted, by the reality — the bad pictures have been taken by their own people. The shocking pictures have been taken by Lynndie England. She should get the Pulitzer for investigating. That’s what brought out the real dirt. It wasn’t us, trying to get in while they rough up some Iraqi a little bit. The big iconic pictures questioning the effort in the war on terror, or whatever they call it — these have been taken by their own people. It doesn’t need a professional photographer to take a halfway decent picture. The pictures in Abu Ghraib, some of them photographically are very good pictures. No photographer has managed to take a more harmful picture — no professional photographer — has managed to take a more harmful picture than these guys in Abu Ghraib.

Colonel William Darley
Military Review

We have never recovered from the Abu Ghraib thing. And it’s likely all the time we’re in Iraq, we never will. It will take a decade and beyond. I mean, those pictures, a hundred years from now, when the history of the Middle East is written, those things will be part and parcel of whatever textbook that Iraqis and Syrians and others are writing about the West. Those pictures. It’s part of the permanent record. It’s like that guy in Vietnam that got his head shot. It’s just a permanent part of the history. That will never go away.

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.