Los Angeles Times
I know how religious the people in Iraq are, how traditional they are with regard to gender relations and stuff like that. I would see certain stuff and I would just cringe and want to say [to U.S. soldiers], “You guys are really, really making a bad name for yourself here by storming into this guy’s house with your shoes on. This guy’s done nothing and yet you’re going to make an enemy out of him because he’s gonna talk about you guys for the rest of his life, and that day when they came storming into my house with their shoes on — nobody walks into my house with their shoes on!”
One time I was really tempted to say something to U.S. soldiers when I was in Najaf. And Najaf is a very American-friendly place in general. And there were these soldiers and they were just sitting there, taking pieces of bread and throwing them at each other. They were just kids — like twenty-two years old — just playing around. There’s these Iraqi police officers looking at this from out the window and they’re just totally aghast. They’re totally shocked: Look at what they’re doing to bread! You know, bread is considered holy in Islam. You know, you’re just not supposed to do that. People pick up pieces of bread and you’re not supposed to step on bread. You’re not supposed to play with bread. And I felt tempted to say something and I didn’t. I just didn’t feel it was my place.
I tried to interact with the Iraqis who were being ignored. And even by then there was a great deal of literature being produced by various religious organizations; they all had their own newspapers and journals and magazines and CDs, and they were very clear about their position and their grievances and their attitude towards the Americans. And I think the Americans, for some reason, didn’t take religion that seriously as a factor in Iraqi society, which is weird because we’re like the most religious nation in the industrialized world. We have a born-again Christian president and the religious right is so powerful, but we didn’t think that religion was an important motivator for Iraqis. So we just ignored that, except for the so-called moderate clerics who we could try to use to our advantage. But that Iraqi anger and hostility toward the American occupation, and fear of the Americans, and fear that the Americans are going to corrupt their values, steal their women, bring the Jews in to create a greater Israel, bring the Jews in to divide the land — all these fears that just sounded stupid to us were real for them.
I’ve been struck by how essentially humane a lot of the soliders are, with a very strong sense of right and wrong, which I think comes with growing up in America. And how ill-equipped they were to apply that to a situation like Iraq, without enough historical or geographical or cultural knowledge to actually — unless they were under the command of a very gifted officer, and there are some who are extremely well-equipped, but a lot of them are not — to apply that sort of fairness to Iraqi society. I feel that a huge majority of them are good men trapped in an impossible situation and have not really understood where they are historically, as well as culturally and physically. I think they’re hostages of a terrible situation as well; it’s given me enormous sympathy for them, and certainly a new appreciation for how ill-prepared they were for the mission, at least in the early days.
I remember early on in Baghdad — it must have been the end of 2003 — some American soldiers who were very keen to befriend a couple of families — families who had been, who were essentially caretakers of properties in Baghdad. They were very poor and these soldiers wanted to befriend the children. They had this tremendous human instinct to try and help them make life easier. It was just at the time when the insurgency was really getting going, and Iraqis who were seen to have relations with the American forces were in great danger, and the soldiers found it very difficult to accept that this gesture of friendship — their wanting to help look after these children and give them gifts and so on — could, in fact, get the family killed.
The daily things the Iraqis endure — and those that I experienced just because I looked Iraqi and then because I was a male, and a so-called “male of fighting age.” My [new Iraqi] friends would ask me, “Why do Americans say ‘fuck’ so much, what’s this word ‘fuck?’” I heard that a few times. “Why do Americans spit so much?” They didn’t know about chewing dip — the tobacco thing. So they see Americans spitting all the time; they’re going into a house on a raid, and in order to stay awake they chew dip and they’re spitting constantly, spitting all over people’s yards, things like that. Having to deal with the barbed wire everywhere, the tanks and Humvees blocking traffic in your roads, pointing their guns at you, firing into the air, shouting at you. It was constant humiliation and constant fear, because they control your life. They have these huge guns and you can’t even communicate with them adequately. And that summer , it was just unbearably hot and American soldiers were dressed in all that gear. Obviously they were not in a good mood. Iraqis had no electricity. They were in a bad mood. It was always very tense, they were always shouting at Iraqis and shouting at me sometimes. I was walking down the street toward a checkpoint once, and I heard one American soldier say to the other, “That’s the biggest fucking Iraqi I ever saw.” And the other soldier said, “I don’t care how big he is, if he don’t stop moving I’m gonna shoot him.” And there were one or two other times I heard soldiers talking about shooting me, and whether it was in jest I don’t know, but at least I understood and could shout, “Don’t shoot, I’m an American!” Most Iraqis couldn’t, and that’s a very scary thing.
In April 2003, there was the big Fallujah killing, where members of the Eighty-second Airborne opened fire on a demonstration in Fallujah after they said they had heard shots fired. And they killed anywhere from ten to maybe twenty-five Iraqis there. First of all, we could just drive out there in those days. We heard about it somehow, I think maybe on some radio report, and just drove out to the scene and showed up at this little school in the middle of the Fallujah neighborhood. And the Eighty-second Airborne guys were there. And they said, “Okay, come in, we’ll show you around, and we’ll tell you our version of what happened.” And then you could walk across the street and talk to Iraqis who were around there, and ask them what happened, although it was difficult to get a clear version from either side. It turned out to be a seminal event. Later when you’d talk to insurgents in the days to come, you’d hear them refer to that event.
The Independent I was struck at the beginning at how the rules of engagement appeared to allow U.S. forces to open fire when there were civilians around. As in the early stage in Fallujah, according to what has emerged subsequently in writings from there. It was shooting at a crowd of demonstrators in Fallujah which gave the first real boost to militancy there.
The U.S. Army propaganda about who the insurgency was — that they were dead-enders and it was over, a bunch of criminals — was very effective, and that was essentially what was written for a long time. So I think that, in many ways, there was an enormous amount of press self-censorship early on, for about almost the first year of the invasion.
If you look back at how things were reported in that first year, it was pretty close to the way the U.S. government wanted it to be presented, which is, “It’s not so bad, it’s coming along, we’ve got a few criminals but we’re handling them,” when, in fact, what was going on was the Eighty-second Airborne in Fallujah was doing what aggressive, elite units always do, which is create a lot of enemies.
By September or October of 2003, the Eighty-second had already killed at least forty people around Fallujah, probably more like one hundred, some of them even local police, a lot of them kids, all of them from a tribal area. You just knew things were going to go badly.
[In Najaf, August 2004], me and Ivan Watson [of NPR] found ourselves at the top of a tower. We found two American soldiers, very, very young soldiers — they were snipers — at the top room of the tower, and they invited us to eat the MREs [Meals Ready to Eat]. And we were very happy because we didn’t eat anything, like only eggs and potatoes all of these days, because there is no food in the city. And we ate with them and started chatting with them, and myself personally, I had like a friendship with them, and one of them called me to come and hold the sniper machine and look through the sniper zoom and look to the [Imam Ali] Shrine, because I wanted to look at it. And we were like joking about the situation until the moment when suddenly we heard the voice coming from the shrine for the prayers. At that time the two soldiers were back in position. They were furious, and I said, “What’s wrong?” They said, “The sound — it means something,” and I said, “What?” They said, “It does mean that they’re calling their soldiers to come kill us, isn’t that right?” I said, “No, it’s not. It’s prayer calls.” It seems like these soldiers didn’t know that these are prayer calls, because it’s long, long prayer calls — it’s prayers they do for the martyrs. And they thought that this was something like a call to start fighting.
Iraq wasn’t a country that was fact-checkable, right? It wasn’t a country where there were a lot of facts. And it wasn’t a country that anybody knew anything about, so your problem wasn’t selling the story. It was convincing touchy magazines to run things. I had a story on insurgents killed because the magazine couldn’t fact-check it [the story eventually appeared in Harper’s, which had not commissioned it]. American magazines have been beaten up very badly by various scandals, and they just couldn’t take a risk. If you said this is a group of insurgents that I’m with, they’re not a bunch of former Baathists, they’re fighting for kind of tribal, nationalistic reasons — that was the opposite of what was being written in the press in the fall of 2003. The majority of the articles were that they were a group of Baathists, they’re dead-enders, they’re criminals, they’re disgruntled Sunnis who want to take over the country again. The insurgency was over, the insurgency would soon be over. And I was saying, “No, actually, this is an expression of a minority that’s scared and doesn’t feel that it’s going to participate in the future of the country. It’s very tribal; it has to do with the cultural context.” And it’s very hard to prove that.The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.