A must-read article by Jason Vest: On-the-ground-reality TV: Shocking footage of US military conduct in Iraq is available through major news services, yet the American public seldom sees what reporters see
Here’s an excerpt:
In a yet-to-be-released documentary, a top international investigative reporter offers a tentative explanation for both forms of derailment. On March 14 — almost six weeks before 60 Minutes II aired its Abu Ghraib story — the Australian NineNetwork’s Sunday newsmagazine program aired a scaled-down version of Iraq — On the Brink, reported by Ross Coulthart, a journalist whose award-winning investigations have spanned rough-and-tumble assignments in East Timor and Afghanistan to seminal intelligence and public-corruption investigations in the US and Australia. Indirectly, Coulthart raises serious questions about American media self-censorship — something journalists have been wrestling with since the first Gulf War. The film also raises the possibility that, then as now, such self-censorship may have helped the military cover up Iraqi wartime deaths. (A 15-minute trailer for Iraq — On the Brink can be seen at www.journeyman.tv/?lid=14772. Latest RealPlayer required. American audiences may get to see snippets of the documentary in Michael Moore’s award-winning Fahrenheit 9/11, depending on how it’s released.)
The soldiers don’t exactly approach with stealth. They kick open a gate to the house’s yard. What happens next, as Coulthart explained in an interview with the Phoenix, illustrates a perilous gap in American and Iraqi cultural understanding. “First, you have to understand that guns are ubiquitous in Iraq — most people have them, and it’s very common for them to shoot them in the air all the time for any number of reasons — from celebrations to anger to whatever,” he says. “Burglary has become very common in the past year, and oftentimes, if people hear something outside their homes at night, they’ll fire a shot or two into the air to scare burglars away. Now, you could just go up to a house, like other soldiers do, and just knock on the door. But some treat these missions like full-fledged combat operations and start kicking things in with guns drawn, and then you get what happens next.”
Coulthart’s voiceover continues: “The officer’s son — thinking the soldiers are thieves — goes to the roof of the house and fires into the air to scare them away.” The response from US soldiers: “We’ve got a shooter on the roof!” followed by a hail of bullets loosed at the house.
The next shot — of film, that is — shows Abbas, a clearly unarmed, middle-aged, balding man in pajamas, hands above his head, trembling as he stands across from at least a half-dozen US soldiers whose M-16s are trained on him. “Inside the house, the officer surrenders, but he doesn’t understand what the Americans are saying — and they don’t have a translator,” Coulthart explains. Abbas repeats the only English he appears to know — “Welcome! Welcome!” — over and over again, keeping his hands far above his head as the Fourth Infantry Division soldiers handle the situation in a way almost exactly the opposite of how the Third Cav troops acted in similar circumstances. The Fourth Infantry soldiers’ manner foreshadows the images at Abu Ghraib that the world would see months later.
“Want me to shoot him in the leg?” one soldier yells. “I might shoot you!” another growls at Abbas. As Abbas stands motionless in the doorway between his kitchen and the next room, one soldier shouts, “He’s trying to draw us in there!” Another solider half mutters, half yells, “I don’t give a shit, I’m gonna shoot, I’m gonna shoot, I’m gonna shoot!” while another hollers, “I can shoot him in the leg!”
“Get the fuck over here, get the fuck over here,” shouts another, while the previous soldier repeats his desire to shoot Abbas in the leg, adding that someone should also “shoot him in the foot.”
Abbas steps away from the doorway and moves his back to the wall. “The Iraqi officer, thinking he’s about to die,” Coulthart’s voiceover resumes, “can now be heard praying.” The American response is far from ecumenical, with one soldier yelling, “Who the fuck are you talking to? Who the fuck are you talking to? Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up!” The soldier then grabs the man’s pajama top and hurls him across the room into the hands of another soldier, who in turn hurls him into a chair that goes flying as the Iraqi sprawls onto the floor. One soldier begins to kick Abbas, who, though on his back, has his hands in the air again, repeating “Welcome! Welcome!” Three soldiers put their gun barrels in his face, with one solider yelling repeatedly, “Shoot him!” Another asks, “Who’s shooting?” when he hears gunfire from the roof, and then yells, “Bullshit” at the prone Abbas, who continues to repeat, “Welcome!”
The next sequence shows the capture of Abbas’s adult son, who had shot the gun off on the roof; as he’s being restrained, a soldier’s voice barks menacingly, “Take the camera off him.” The film then resumes with a shot of two women — apparently Abbas’s wife and daughter — kneeling on the ground at gunpoint, their hands on their heads, their faces pictures of anger and humiliation.
The final shot shows the former general. Though fleeting, it is, perhaps, the most disturbing sequence of the film, given that in his previous appearance Abbas was terrified but physically unharmed. Now, his arms are restrained behind his back. His face is battered and bruised. His left eye is beginning to swell shut. The front of his shirt is stained with blood, and a stream of snot and blood dangles from his left nostril.
“No one here was killed,” Coulthart’s voice resumes. “But it’s raids like this that can only fuel the resentment against Coalition forces.”
Speaking with the Phoenix from Australia, Coulthart doesn’t entirely fault the soldiers for their initial reaction to gunfire from the roof: “One could reasonably, though incorrectly, conclude that one was being fired on, and it makes perfect sense to fire back if that’s what you think.” But, he says, it again raises the question of who gave the order for the squad to apprehend the general in the way it did — especially without a translator — given the obvious potential for creating an unnecessarily inflammatory situation. “People don’t seem to realize the incalculable damage something like this causes,” he says. “You can see on the face of the young woman that her heart and mind are gone forever to the Americans. When we first saw this footage, the first reaction of our Iraqi fixers was absolute anger — I can only begin to guess what the reaction is to the scenes from Abu Ghraib.”