Embedding added to the problem. Once you cover a group of people through the prism of an occupation—through the tiny windows of armored vehicles—you demonize a whole nation. It happened to me when I embedded. I was sitting in the back of this armored vehicle, a Stryker. There were no windows. You saw the street through a thermal camera. Everything that was moving was black; everything that was not moving was white. I saw all these black figures walking around the vehicle, and suddenly I began to see them not as human beings but as a threat. They were ghost-like aliens walking outside this cone of safety. I thought, “Kill them, shoot them.” I had so much fear and hatred, because one of them could be carrying explosives. I wasn’t thinking about what was happening in the minds of those people—how they’re disoriented, how they’ve turned into these killing machines because of the war. No, you describe them as ignorant and ungrateful. You dehumanize a whole population.

Still, today, Iraq is described as progress, as being a stirring example of democracy in the region. It’s such a huge, massive lie. What has the US achieved? Eight years, so much money, so many people killed. Then you leave Iraq, and, again, you have a terrorist state. I don’t want the Americans to stay, but I want people to come to terms with the fact that Iraq is not better off than it was in 2003. Yes, fewer people are being killed, but in ten years’ time or five years’ time, people could go back to killing one another, because you haven’t solved the central problems: corruption, sectarianism, one-party rule, militia control of the security apparatus.

The New Mukhabarat

During six or seven years of reporting on Iraq, I managed to create a space for myself where I enjoyed the benefits of being Iraqi and used those benefits to report on Iraq. Yet when I wrote, I didn’t write as an Iraqi. But earlier this year [2011], when I was in Iraq, I didn’t enjoy that space any longer. I just felt the anger. Because now it’s a conflict not between the Iraqis and the Americans—it’s a conflict between corrupted political elites, warlords, and militiamen, and 29 million Iraqis. Every person I talked to who’s been detained was tortured and released from jail only after paying $5,000. Before, Iraq was ruled by one mukhabarat, now it’s ruled by six or seven. In terms of democracy and human rights, the country is not much different from Syria or [Qaddafi’s] Libya.

Neither the Western nor the Arabic press is doing a good job on this. Only the local Iraqi TV networks are doing good investigative reporting on corruption in the government and abuses of power by the security services. I speak as one of the few Iraqis who have benefited massively from the war. It ended my running-away period and provided me amazing opportunities. Yet I think it was a mistake—a disaster.

In 2001, I was sitting in a taxi in Baghdad, listening to the radio. An Iraqi news reader was talking about planes hitting buildings in America, about buildings falling down, in a very Armageddon-like way. That was ten years into sanctions, ten years after the 1991 bombing. Baghdad had been bombed from 1993 to 1998. So there was no love whatsoever between Iraq and America. And yet I couldn’t find a single Iraqi who would say that September 11 was a good thing. Everyone thought, “This is crazy; this is madness; this is wrong.” Now in 2011, in the bars of Beirut, you see Western-minded people who say that September 11 was a good thing. This change has happened because of the Iraq war. It has driven both Sunnis and Shia to such levels of extremism. The viciousness, the massacring—people have lost their sanity. And all because of the war.

Kabul and Saigon

After my experience reporting on the Iraqi insurgency, I tried to replicate it with the Taliban in Afghanistan. Before I went, I assumed that the Taliban had learned their ideas and beliefs in the madrassas of Pakistan and were imposing them on the people in the villages of Afghanistan. But it wasn’t like that. A lot of what we call Taliban extremism is the local village culture of Afghanistan. The Taliban did not come and make the men wear beards, because everyone was already bearded. Every single woman wore a burqa when she went to town. This was their culture.

I eventually realized that the Arabs in al Qaeda in Afghanistan were more hard-line than the Taliban. The Arabs wouldn’t pray with the Taliban because they thought the Taliban weren’t pure enough.

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