A Letter From IAVA
To the Editors of The Nation
"The Other War: Iraq Veterans Bear Witness," by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian, paints a horribly inaccurate picture of civilian deaths in Iraq and the experiences of many veterans interviewed for this article.
That innocent Iraqi civilians are caught in the conflict's crossfire is a great tragedy, one felt deeply by American service members. Difficult, and sometimes questionable, decisions are made in the fog of war. However, this article does the US military and The Nation's readership a disservice with its sensationalistic and unethical reporting methods.
The Nation violated the trust of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and many of the service members interviewed. Reporters told our members that the focus of this piece was their experience in Iraq generally, not civilian casualties specifically. Many of the veterans involved spent hours talking to Ms. Al-Arian and shared deeply personal recollections on a variety of subjects, only to have their experiences misrepresented and/or isolated. The most graphic recollections were removed from context and used to bolster a preconceived conclusion by the authors about the patterns and frequency of civilian deaths. Critical facts were obscured or omitted entirely. This entire piece is a glaring example of the type of low-quality journalism that has been all too common in the coverage of the war in Iraq since it began.
The reporting tactics employed by Ms. Al-Arian were consistently questionable and even nefarious. One of our members wrote, "I did a two-hour interview with Laila [Al-Arian] and she cherry-picked one tiny anecdote for the piece. I felt used by the whole process." Another interviewee repeatedly asked the interviewer to clarify the definition of Iraqi "civilian." The reporter's refusal to provide that clarification led to a complete misrepresentation of the circumstances they discussed.
In the interviews, veterans described thoughts and responses that were specific to particular circumstances on the battlefield. In the article, those sentiments were portrayed as being the norm. As a result of this selective representation of the facts, egregious practices by service members in Iraq are described in the article as common. For instance, the use of the term "haji" is mentioned in the piece, but the reporters never state that the military banned the use of the term once its use in a derogatory manner became widespread. One of our members explained that to the reporter, but that detail, like so many other relevant ones, did not make it into the published piece.
Our organization was shocked and extremely disappointed by the tactics and low standards demonstrated by The Nation in the writing of this article. The men and women quoted in this article bravely spoke out precisely because they were concerned about the war and its effects on all people in Iraq--military or civilian. Like honorable military service, solid journalism requires an extremely high level of integrity and professionalism. This article is journalism at its worst. The veterans quoted trusted The Nation, and that trust was betrayed. Our members put themselves and their families at tremendous risk by choosing to participate in this article. But that is for each of them to worry about now. And The Nation has a sensational story that is sure to gain significant attention and sell numerous copies.
After this experience, it is unlikely that Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America will choose to work with The Nation in the future. And we strongly recommend that all 1.6 million veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan exercise the same reservation and caution in any dealings with this magazine.
While not excusing any clearly criminal behavior, we must all guard against blaming this new generation of veterans for the terrible and tragic circumstances in which they've occasionally found themselves. Above all, a responsible investigation into the treatment of Iraqi civilians would consider how US troops ended up in the situations described. It would target the critical breakdowns in military and civilian leadership and accountability. Anyone who wants to write a serious piece about the ethical lapses of the US troops should start and end the article by putting blame where it belongs--on the politicians who sent our troops to war unprepared and without a clear mission.
Much as the Bush Administration cherry-picked intelligence to make the case for this war, The Nation cherry-picked the stories it reported to support predetermined conclusions.
Your readers, our veterans and the Iraqi people deserve better.
Executive Director, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
CHRIS HEDGES AND LAILA AL-ARIAN REPLY
Paul Rieckhoff's assertion that the fifty combat veterans who spoke out in our article were brave is correct. Many risked their careers and friendships to do so. Far from being "nefarious," we were clear that our investigation was focused on the treatment of Iraqi civilians.
In August 2006, we sent this description of our project to numerous veterans, including Rieckhoff: "The Nation seeks Iraq War Vets: The Nation magazine would like to interview Iraq War combat veterans. The focus of this in-depth, investigative story is Iraqi civilians caught up in the war zone."
Rieckhoff claims that "graphic recollections were removed from context." We were careful, however, that each incident described in the piece specified the person involved and the date and location of the event. Fact-checkers reviewed the transcripts to insure that the incidents were fairly represented. The authors and fact-checkers made follow-up calls to those interviewed to reconfirm incidents and the context in which these incidents occurred.
Laila does not recall being asked to clarify who a "civilian" is for any interviewee. However, if that term was confusing for a member of the armed forces who served in Iraq, that bolsters the very premise of our piece. Those interviewed described broad patterns of abuse that are the result of a mismanaged war in Iraq and a failure to enforce proper rules of engagement.
A July 11 article by McClatchy reporter Nancy Youssef has confirmed that civilian deaths are "common." Pentagon sources revealed that US troops shot 429 civilians at checkpoints alone in the past year. As The Nation states in its editorial accompanying "The Other War," "The problem is not a few 'bad apples' (Bush's phrase after Abu Ghraib) but the occupation itself."
The article presents the unvarnished testimony of veterans. It does not lay blame on individuals. The killings and abuse of Iraqi civilians, nearly all veterans said, was perpetrated by a minority. The problem is that the culture of the occupation has allowed this minority to act with impunity and without constraint.
More letters from readers about this article can be seen here