Up until 2005, most of the media—even the liberal media—were thinking, “What can we do to make things work better in Iraq? How can we stop making these mistakes?” They were not questioning the whole enterprise of the war, the invasion, the occupation. That was a disastrous mistake. How many voices came out criticizing the war in 2003-2004? Very few. At the end of 2004 and in 2005, the situation changed and people became critical, up to the point of confessing that the war was a mistake. But from 2003 to 2004, no one said these things. I didn’t say these things. During the first two or three months, when I saw the chaos, the burning, the looting, I thought, “If only the Americans would do so and so, everything would be okay and there wouldn’t be any insurgency.” But by the middle or end of 2003, I started questioning the whole enterprise. By 2004, I had come to the conclusion that it was wrong. But the media in general—CNN and others—kept going with the narrative of “How can we fix the war?” In the first two years, the media must take a huge responsibility for selling the war to the people—to the Americans and the British.

Dehumanizing a Whole Population

The civil war also took some time for people to grasp. We went through a whole year where people asked, “Is this a civil war? Is it civil strife?” “Do we call it a civil war?” Now, I feel sick when I remember this. This whole notion of progress—we had to highlight it, even while people were being massacred in Baghdad.

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.

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