Acts matter. Here's how Dahr Jamail, a young mountain
guide and volunteer rescue ranger in Alaska (who did freelance writing in the
"off-season") describes his rash decision, back in 2003, to cover George W.
Bush's Iraq War in person: "I decided that the one thing I could do was go to
Baghdad to report on the occupation myself. I saved some money, bought a laptop,
a camera, and a plane ticket, and, armed with information gleaned via some connections
made over the Internet, headed for the Middle East." That was it. The next thing
he knew he was driving through the Iraqi desert from Amman, Jordan, toward Baghdad
and directly into the unknown. He had few contacts; no media organization to
back him; no hotel/office
with private guards to return to at night; no embedded place among American
forces for protection; not even, on arrival in Baghdad, any place to write for.
Call that a shot in the dark. The result? A singularly remarkable running
account of what Iraq actually felt like, of what life for Iraqi civilians actually
was like after the shock-and-awe onslaught of March 2003 devolved into the endless
occupation/catastrophe we all know so well. Jamail, who has written regularly
for TomDispatch these last years, has now published a book on his time on (and
always very close to) the ground in Iraq, Beyond
the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq.
Unnerving as it is to come, once again, upon the real face of the American occupation,
largely seen through Iraqi eyes, Jamail's new book is also a gripping adventure
to read, the odyssey of a neophyte becoming a journalist under the pressure
In reviewing the book for Mother
Jones magazine, Nick Turse recently wrote:
"I suspect Jamail's account will prove an enduring document of what really
happened during the chaotic years of occupation, and how it transformed ordinary
Iraqis. To paraphrase one of the Vietnam War's finest correspondents, Gloria
Emerson, writing about Jonathan Schell's exceptional accounts of that conflict:
If, years from now, Americans are willing to read any books about the war, this
one should be among them. It tells everything."
Don't miss it – or Jamail's latest below. Tom
Iraq Has Only Militants, No Civilians
"Tactical Perception Management" in Iraq
by Dahr Jamail
"Sometimes I think it should be a rule of war that you have to see somebody
up close and get to know him before you can shoot him."
- Colonel Potter, M*A*S*H
Name them. Maim them. Kill them.
From the beginning of the American occupation in Iraq, air strikes and attacks
by the U.S. military have only killed "militants," "criminals," "suspected insurgents,"
"IED [Improvised Explosive Device] emplacers," "anti-American fighters," "terrorists,"
"military-age males," "armed men," "extremists," or "al-Qaeda."
The pattern for reporting on such attacks has remained the same from the early
years of the occupation to today. Take a helicopter attack on Oct. 23 of this
year near the village of Djila, north of Samarra. The U.S. military claimed
it had killed 11 among "a group of men planting a roadside bomb." Only later
did a military spokesperson acknowledge that at least six of the dead were civilians.
Local residents claimed that those killed were farmers, that there were children
among them, and that the number of dead was greater than 11.
Here is part of the statement released by U.S. military spokeswoman in northern
Iraq, Maj. Peggy Kageleiry:
"A suspected insurgent and improvised explosive device cell member was identified
among the killed in an engagement between Coalition Forces and suspected IED
emplacers just north of Samarra. … During the engagement, insurgents used a
nearby house as a safe haven to re-engage coalition aircraft. A known member
of an IED cell was among the 11 killed during the multiple engagements. We send
condolences to the families of those victims and we regret any loss of life."
As usual, the version offered by locals was vastly different. Abdul al-Rahman
Iyadeh, a relative of some of the victims, revealed that the "group of men"
attacked were actually three farmers who had left their homes at 4:30 a.m. to
irrigate their fields. Two were killed in the initial helicopter attack and
the survivor ran back to his home where other residents gathered. The second
air strike, he claimed, destroyed the house killing 14 people. Another witness
told reporters that four separate houses were hit by the helicopter. A local
Iraqi policeman, Capt. Abdullah al-Isawi, put the death toll at 16 – seven men,
six women, and three children, with another 14 wounded.
As often happens, the U.S. military, once challenged, declared that an "investigation"
of the incident was under way.
And So It Goes
On Oct. 21, two days before that helicopter strike near Djila, American soldiers,
again aided by helicopters, but this time in a heavily populated urban neighborhood,
claimed to have killed 49 "armed men" in a "gun battle" in Sadr City, a sprawling
Shi'ite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. Then, too, the military initially insisted
"no civilians were killed or injured." A Shi'ite citizens' council and other
Shi'ite groups responded that many innocent bystanders had died. Among the 13
dead mentioned in initial reports by local Iraqi police were three children
and a woman. Other Iraqi authorities announced that 69 people had been injured.
The U.S. military had no explanation for the widely varying American and Iraqi
tallies of casualties.
The official American account went like this:
"The operation's objective was an individual reported to be a long time
Special Groups member specializing in kidnapping operations. Intelligence indicates
he is a well-known cell leader and has previously sought funding from Iran to
carry out high profile kidnappings. Upon arrival, the ground force began to
clear a series of buildings in the target area and received sustained heavy
fire from adjacent structures, from automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades,
or RPGs. Responding in self-defense, Coalition forces engaged, killing an estimated
33 criminals. Supporting aircraft was also called in to engage enemy personnel
maneuvering with RPGs toward the ground force, killing an estimated six criminals.
Upon departing the target area, Coalition forces continued to receive heavy
fire from automatic weapons and RPGs and were also attacked by an improvised
explosive device. Responding in self-defense, the ground force engaged the hostile
threat, killing an additional estimated 10 combatants. All total, Coalition
forces estimate that 49 criminals were killed in three separate engagements
during this operation. Ground forces reported they were unaware of any innocent
civilians being killed as a result of this operation."
To be fair, the military admitted that the target of this manhunt was not,
in fact, among those captured or killed.
After the "operation," television news outlets broadcast images of grieving
families in the streets of Sadr City. One man reported that his neighbor's 6-year-old
child had been killed, and a 2-year-old wounded. Arab television outlets caught
scenes of ambulances with wailing sirens carrying the injured to the Imam Ali
hospital, the largest in Sadr City, where doctors were shown treating the casualties,
Typically with such incidents, those 49 dead "criminals" turned back into civilians
when local police began checking, including two (not three) children in their
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki vowed an investigation for which U.S. military
officials offered to form a joint committee; but, as is so often the case in
such "investigations," there have been no follow-up reports. In this "incident,"
the U.S. military, as far as we know, still stands by its assertion that no
civilians were killed or wounded.
Two months earlier, in a similar incident, the U.S. military claimed 32 "suspected
insurgents" killed during an air strike, also in Sadr City, a claim disputed
by Iraqis in the neighborhood, followed by the usual promise of an investigation
– of which, once again, nothing more was heard.
"Tactical Perception Management"
For perspective, let me take you back to Iraq in November 2003. I had been
there less than a week on my first visit to that occupied country when the U.S.
military reported a raging firefight between American forces and 150 of Saddam
Hussein's former Fedayeen paramilitary fighters. According to Gen. Peter
Pace, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, American soldiers, on
being attacked by the group, had responded fiercely and killed 54 of them. "They
attacked and they were killed, so I think it will be instructive to them," Gen.
Pace had smugly observed.
Most of the Western media simply chalked up the number of "insurgent" dead
at 54 and left it at that. Local media in Baghdad, as well as outlets like al-Jazeera,
were, however, citing very different figures taken directly from the hospital
in Samarra where the wounded were being treated. Doctors there announced a count
of eight killed in the incident, including an Iranian pilgrim, and 50 Iraqis
I traveled to Samarra that week, visited the morgue at Samarra General Hospital,
spoke with wounded Iraqis at the hospital, and interviewed one of the leading
sheiks of the city as well as several eyewitnesses to the event. What I found
was general agreement that a U.S. patrol had, in fact, come under attack – but
by only two gunmen while delivering money to a downtown bank. Jumpy American
soldiers had responded with a spray of fire that had killed neither of the attackers,
but eight civilians, while wounding 50 others. The streets in the city center,
where the firing took place, were riddled with bullets.
The military, nonetheless, stood by their figure – 54 dead – and insisted that
the enormous force of "insurgents" had attacked with mortars, grenades, and
A man I interviewed, who had been in his tea stall in the vicinity and witnessed
most of the incident, summed up the local reaction this way:
"The Americans say the people who fought them are al-Qaeda or fedayeen.
We are all living in this small city here. Why have we not seen these foreign
fighters and strangers in our city before or after this battle? Everyone here
knows everyone, and none have seen these strangers. Why do they tell these lies?"
Another man at the scene had drawn my attention to a parked car scarred with
112 bullets. As I was photographing it, a man with two children at his side
approached. They were, he said, the children of his brother who had been killed
by the gunfire.
"This little boy and girl, their father was shot by the Americans. Who will
take care of this family? Who will watch over these children? Who will feed
them now? Who? Why did they kill my brother? What is the reason? Nobody told
me. He was a truck driver. What is his crime? Why did they shoot him? They shot
him with 150 bullets! Did they kill him just because they wanted to shoot a
man? That's it? This is the reason? Why didn't anyone talk to me and tell me
why they have killed my brother? Is killing people a normal thing now, happening
every day? This is our future? This is the future that the United States promised
My life as an independent reporter in his country was just beginning, and his
questions felt like so many blows to the gut. Of course, I was the only American
reporter there to hear him and I was then writing for an e-mail audience of
under 200. This is what it means, in Pentagon terms, to dominate not only the
battlefield, but the media landscape in which that battlefield is reported.
And that sort of domination was, it turned out, very much on Pentagon minds
in that period.
Within days of the incident, for instance, the New York Times published
an article about how the Pentagon had awarded a contract to SAIC, a private
company, which was to investigate ways the Department of Defense could use propaganda
for more "effective strategic influence" in the "war on terror." The Pentagon
referred to this potential propaganda blitz (which would eventually come back
to haunt Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) as a "tactical perception management
campaign." The title of the document SAIC produced was "Winning the War of Ideas."
On Dec. 2, 2005, the U.S. military would admit that the
Lincoln Group, which described itself as "a strategic communications &
pubic relations firm providing insight & influence in challenging &
hostile environments," had been hired by the Pentagon to plant pro-American
good-news articles in the new Iraqi "free" press that the Bush administration
was just then touting. This was exposed during a briefing with Sen. John Warner
of Virginia, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The admission would not, as one might have expected, prove a step towards deterrence.
Not only did the Lincoln Group get further contracts, but a wide range of similar
tactics continue to be employed by the military in Iraq today with even greater
impunity. In Iraq, the propaganda and misinformation have, in fact, been continual
and on a massive scale. And, of course, the regular announcements of Iraqi "insurgent"
or "criminal" deaths in American operations have never stopped, nor have the
announcements of "investigations," when those claims are seriously challenged
on the ground – investigations which, except in a few cases, are never heard
of again. All this is a reminder of something George W. Bush once
said: "See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and
over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."
The Military's Wrist Is Slapped
Even when one of those investigations did lead somewhere, that somewhere was
almost invariably a dead end. Take Haditha. Witnesses told reporters that, on
Nov. 19, 2005, in the western town of Haditha, 24 Iraqi civilians had been slaughtered
by U.S. Marines. It was no secret that the Marines had shot men, women, and
children at close range in retaliation for a roadside bombing that killed one
of their own.
The Washington Post quoted Aws Fahmi, a Haditha resident who was watching
from his home as Marines went from house to house killing members of three families.
He had heard Younis Salim Khafif, his neighbor across the street, plead in English
for his life and the lives of his family members. "I heard Younis speaking to
the Americans, saying: 'I am a friend. I am good,'" Fahmi said. "But they killed
him, and his wife and daughters."
A Post special correspondent and U.S. investigators in Washington reported
that some of the dead were women attempting to shield their children. According
to death certificates, the girls killed in Khafif's house were aged 14, 10,
5, 3, and 1.
After the news broke in the U.S., the military ordered a probe of the incident.
An Iraqi had actually managed to film the interiors of the blood-soaked houses,
as well as scenes of the wounded at the Haditha hospital, and had recorded statements
of eyewitnesses to the massacre.
Even now, two years after the massacre, investigations continue. Anonymous
Pentagon officials having admitted to reporters that there is an abundance of
evidence to support charges against the accused Marines of deliberately shooting
civilians, including unarmed women and children. Currently, Marine Corps and
Navy prosecutors are reviewing the evidence, and they will likely ask for further
As for the charges levied against the soldiers involved in the massacre, on
April 2 of this year, all of the charges against Sgt. Sanick P. Dela Cruz, who
was accused of killing five civilians, were dropped
as part of a decision that granted him immunity to testify in potential courts-martial
for seven other Marines charged in the attack and in its alleged cover-up. On
Aug. 9 , all murder charges against Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt and charges of
failing to investigate the incident against Capt. Randy Stone were dropped by
Lt. Gen. James Mattis, well-known for claiming
of fighting in Afghanistan, "It's fun to shoot some people." On Aug. 23, the
investigating officer suggested that charges against Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum
be dropped as well. On Oct. 19, Tatum's commanding officers decided the charges
should be lowered to involuntary manslaughter, reckless endangerment, and aggravated
assault. More recently, on Sept. 18, all charges against Capt. Lucas McConnell
were dropped, and the investigating officer recommended that charges be similarly
dropped against Lance Cpl. Stephen Tatum.
On Oct. 3, an investigating officer of an Article 32 hearing (a proceeding
similar to a civilian grand jury) recommended that Staff Sgt. Frank D. Wuterich
be tried for negligent homicide in the deaths of two women and five children,
and that the murder charges for his involvement in the killing of 17 innocent
civilians be dropped. In other words, so far, no one has gone to jail for the
massacre in Haditha.
It is now commonplace for such investigations, regarding heinous crimes against
Iraqi civilians, to drag on for months or even years. Equally commonplace: On
completion of these investigations, the low-level soldiers, who are charged
with the crimes, are often either cleared entirely or given laughably light
sentences by military courts.
On Nov. 8, for instance, Staff Sgt. Michael Hensley, a sniper, was found not
guilty by military judges on three charges of premeditated murder for killing
three Iraqi civilians. He was instead convicted only of placing an AK-47 rifle
with the remains of a dead Iraqi during one of his missions – as evidence that
the man was an "insurgent."
In January 2004, 19-year-old Zaidoun Hassoun and his cousin Marwan Fadil were
forced off a ledge into the Tigris River in Samarra at gunpoint by U.S. soldiers.
Fadil survived. He testified that the soldiers, after forcing the two into the
water, had stood by laughing as Hassoun drowned.
Sgt. 1st Class Tracy Perkins was the only soldier tried in the case. Defense
attorney Capt. Joshua Norris suggested that Perkins could not be convicted of
manslaughter because there was "no body, no evidence, no death." He was, in
fact, cleared of the involuntary manslaughter charge in a military court on
Jan. 9, 2005, and instead was reduced in rank by one grade and sentenced to
six months in a military prison for assault.
Similarly, on June 6, 2006, three British soldiers were cleared of charges
of killing 15-year-old Ahmed Jabber Kareem in May 2003 by forcing him into a
None of this – from the unending "incidents" themselves to the way the Pentagon
has dominated the reporting of them – would have been possible without a widespread
dehumanization of Iraqis among American soldiers (and a deep-set, if largely
unexpressed and little considered, conviction on the American "home front" that
Iraqi lives are worth little). If, four decades ago, the Vietnamese were "gooks,"
"dinks," and "slopes," the Iraqis of the American occupation are "hajis," "sand
n*ggers," and "towel heads." Latent racism abets the dehumanization process,
ably assisted by a mainstream media that tends, with honorable exceptions, to
accept Pentagon announcements as at least an initial approximation of reality
Whether it was "incidents" involving helicopter strikes in which those on the
ground who died were assumed to be enemy and evil, or the wholesale destruction
of the city of Fallujah in 2004, or the massacre at Haditha, or a slaughtered
wedding party in the western desert of Iraq that was also caught on video
tape (Marine Maj. Gen. James Mattis: "How many people go to the middle of the
desert … to hold a wedding 80 miles from the nearest civilization? These were
more than two dozen military-age males. Let's not be naive"), or killings at
U.S. checkpoints; or even the initial invasion of Iraq itself, we find the same
propaganda techniques deployed: Demonize an "enemy"; report only "fighters"
being killed; stick to the story despite evidence to the contrary; if under
pressure, launch an investigation; if still under pressure, bring only low-level
troops up on charges; convict a few of them; sentence them lightly; repeat drill.
At the time of this writing, the group Just Foreign Policy has offered
an estimate of Iraqis killed since the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.
Their number: 1,118,846. Consider that possibility in the context of the latest
round of news from Iraq about lessening violence.
The estimate is based on figures from a study conducted by researchers from
Johns Hopkins University in the U.S. and al-Mustansiriya University in Baghdad
and published in October 2006 in the British medical journal The Lancet,
which found 655,000 Iraqis had died as a direct result of the Anglo-American
invasion and occupation. The report methodology has been called "robust" and
"close to best practice" by Sir Roy Anderson, the chief scientific adviser to
Britain's Ministry of Defense. Since that time, in addition to Just Foreign
Policy, the British research polling agency Opinion Research Business has extrapolated
a figure of 1.2 million deaths in Iraq. Based on this, veteran Australian born
journalist John Pilger wrote
recently, "The scale of death caused by the British and U.S. governments
may well have surpassed that of the Rwanda genocide, making it the biggest single
act of mass murder of the late 20th century and the 21st century."
It is an indication of the success of an effective Pentagon "tactical perception
management campaign," of the way the Bush administration has continued to "catapult
propaganda," and of the dehumanization of Iraqis that has gone with it, that
the possibility of the number of dead Iraqis being in this range has largely
been dismissed (or remained generally undealt with) in the mainstream media
in the United States. Add to that the refusal of the U.S. military to bring
justice to those charged with some of these heinous crimes, the lack of accountability,
and an establishment media which has regularly camouflaged the true nature of
the occupation, and we have the perfect setting for a continuance of industrial-scale
slaughter in Iraq, even while the news highlights the likes of Britney Spears
and Lindsay Lohan and their adventures in various rehab clinics.
In what could reasonably serve as a summary of the American occupation of Iraq,
the 18th-century philosopher Voltaire wrote, "It is forbidden to kill; therefore
all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound
Dahr Jamail. an independent journalist, is the author of the just-published
the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq
(Haymarket Books, 2007). Jamail reported from occupied Iraq for eight months
as well as from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey over the last four years.
He writes regularly for TomDispatch.com, Inter Press Service, Asia Times,
and Foreign Policy in Focus. He has contributed to The Sunday Herald,
The Independent, The Guardian, and The Nation, among other
publications. He maintains a Web site, Dahr
Jamail's Mideast Dispatches, with all his writing.
Copyright 2007 Dahr Jamail