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.