Collateral Damage: Reporting the War in Iraq

Collateral Damage: Reporting the War in Iraq

Collateral Damage: Reporting the War in Iraq

Three new books vividly portray the devastating impact of the invasion and occupation of Iraq.


Anja Niedringhaus/AP ImagesFalluja, November 13, 2004

In the screen adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead, about a crack sniper unit deployed to the Persian Gulf in 1991, marines at movie night joyously sing along with the “Ride of the Valkyries” soundtrack as they watch napalm-bearing helicopters swoop down over rice paddies in Apocalypse Now. “There is talk that many Vietnam films are antiwar,” writes Swofford in the greatly superior book, but “filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.” Killing is what the snipers have shed sweat and tears to do, and they do not want to be cheated of the opportunity. HBO’s summer offering about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Generation Kill, features young marines with similarly itchy trigger fingers.

For most soldiers–and Swofford is open about the fact that he saw very little combat–the frisson of drawing blood, naturally, does not last. In The Forever War, Dexter Filkins finds Capt. Sal Aguilar gazing upon a field strewn with dead Iraqi soldiers who had vainly resisted the initial US drive to Baghdad. “When you’re training for this, you joke about it, you can’t wait for the real thing. Then when you see it, when you see the real thing, you never want to see it again,” Aguilar says. Filkins’s first encounters with gore make it clear that he concurs.

The Forever War is no ordinary reporter’s book. Filkins, who was in Iraq for the New York Times from 2003 to 2006 and previously in Afghanistan for several years, has comprehensively recast the events that he wrote about in the newspaper–as well as chronicling some personal experiences that haven’t seen print before–to better convey what it was like to be there. The chapters are discrete vignettes organized in only loose chronological order. For this unconventional format, and for its literary merit, The Forever War has been compared–and not at all outrageously–to Michael Herr’s Dispatches.

Filkins evokes the terror and terrible thrill of battle better than any of his colleagues who have so numerously crammed their notebooks between hard covers. Not only does he display a reporter’s sharp eye for detail, both grisly and mundane; he captures the sights and sounds of combat with considerable skill, in spare but powerful prose. His account of the November 2004 US assault on Falluja, wherein militants’ shouts of “God is great!” are drowned out by AC/DC singer Brian Johnson’s screech of “Satan get ya!” from the marines’ massive loudspeakers, is unforgettable for its craft. Equally fluid and affecting is his narration of an episode days later, when he and his photographer Ashley Gilbertson, looking for a good camera angle, are escorted up the stairs of a Falluja minaret by Lance Cpl. William Miller, only for Miller to be shot dead by a waiting fighter. “That’s what happens in war,” philosophizes the platoon sergeant, seeing Filkins and Gilbertson’s grief. “Yeah, it was your fault,” Miller’s lieutenant tells the journalists later.

Reporters who embed in Iraq often make no secret of the understandable debt they feel to the grunts around them: half gratitude at being shielded from opposing fire, half guilt at being a burden on the foulmouthed, stouthearted working-class enlistees. Filkins shows the requisite support for the troops and, more consequential, for the idea that their sacrifices should mean something. He evinces bewilderment, if not annoyance, at what he regards as insufficient Iraqi gratitude for what the troops endure. As he rides into the southern border town of Safwan on March 20, 2003, the residents look on “slack-jawed, gaping, uncomprehending,” failing to cheer their liberators with gusto or to join in as American soldiers tear down posters of Saddam Hussein. Later, he curses at an Iraqi applauding at a burning US supply truck and the gravely wounded American on a stretcher nearby. But it is the experience of embedding with a combat unit in Falluja that cements his loyalties.

A similar concern for the troops permeates the stories of Richard Engel, a correspondent for NBC News, whose second book about Iraq, War Journal, appeared over the summer. Engel enters Iraq in February 2003, backing the invasion as “the start of a radical plan to redesign and improve the modern Middle East.” This earnestness begins to fade by that Christmas, when he hears a general motivating the homesick soldiers under his command by asking them to imagine a terrorist bombing the malls where their loved ones are shopping for gifts. The ham-handed invocation of the flypaper theory–fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here–disquiets Engel more and more as the war drags on. “By 2006, it was hard for a soldier trying to restrain Sunni and Shiite militias in Baghdad from drilling holes in each other to see how he was making his mother or sister any safer back in Texas or Florida.” The recent drop in violence has made embedded journalists feel better about the price the soldiers have paid, though Engel, for one, is still wary. Asked last spring by PBS talk-show host Charlie Rose what the next stage of the war will bring, he concluded his comments with the warning that “it would be a very devastating blow” to the troops if the gains of the surge were to erode, as if the ultimate gauge of the Iraq adventure were the morale of the US military.

To point out such morale minding is not to disparage Engel’s or Filkins’s journalistic integrity or resourcefulness, though it must be said that Filkins once earned the quiet reproach of peers, and a tongue lashing from his editors, for carrying a gun on assignment. It is merely to appreciate the genius of the embedding concept, which Pentagon culture warriors must surely have calculated would propagate this subtle but visceral attachment to “the mission” among the press corps–and, through that instrument, among the public.

Yet Filkins’s and Engel’s identification with the troops’ Sisyphean heroism sits uneasily within the overall narratives of political failure that their books unfurl. Back when the Bush administration claimed to be engaged in top-to-bottom reconstruction of the Iraqi economy and polity, Filkins notes, Iraqis lied to cadge the largesse of cash-laden US officers, but “the worst lies were the ones the Americans told themselves.” Engel blows the whistle on the network executives who bowed to right-wing pressure, echoed by the US Embassy’s public affairs officers, to track down the good news in Iraq, even as the country descended into mayhem. He also offers fresh tidbits of evidence of how the Bush administration tried to schedule the ballyhooed milestones in Iraq’s post-Saddam political transition for American consumption. In the fall of 2006, as an Iraqi court wended its way toward the foregone conclusion of Saddam’s execution, Engel heard a US diplomat say, “We’re doing everything we can to make sure they’re done by the midterm elections.” Then the diplomat caught himself. “But don’t report that…. This is entirely an Iraqi process.” Saddam was eventually hanged on December 29, 2006, the news breaking at 10:15 pm Eastern Standard Time, far too late to buoy the Republicans’ electoral hopes but not too late for the NBC anchor to interrupt Law & Order.

Lawlessness and disorder, indeed, are a central theme of these latest missives from Baghdad. The search for good news in Iraq was rendered absurd, first and foremost, by the extraordinary security measures that journalists were forced to adopt merely to feel safe after work, let alone cover happenings in the field. Farnaz Fassihi, who first reported from Iraq in October 2002 and then covered the war for the Wall Street Journal from 2003 to 2006, chronicles these measures memorably. Her Waiting for an Ordinary Day is, in essence, a book-length version of an e-mail she sent to family and friends in September 2004 that opened with the complaint that “being a foreign correspondent in Baghdad these days is like being under virtual house arrest.” The e-mail soon went viral and brought Fassihi unintended fame, not only for revealing the dangers of her job but for contradicting the Bush administration’s continual talk of corners about to be turned. As numerous strangers asked her, “Is it really that bad in Iraq? We had no idea.”

Fassihi, like most in the Iranian diaspora in the United States, is deeply critical of what clerical rule has wrought in Iran, and so she did not share the equanimity of her Western female colleagues at having to don a black abaya to leave the house without fear of harassment or worse. But the strictures on women’s freedom of dress and movement were not the worst of it. By 2004 the ambient mayhem meant it was unsafe for anyone, Iraqi or non-Iraqi, male or female, to roam about the city. Like all other major news organizations, the Wall Street Journal employed security contractors who imposed strict rules. Fassihi was driven to her rare in-person interviews accompanied by men with guns; on most occasions, she simply relied on Iraqi staffers to act as stringers, calling in details that she would then write up.

After sending her famous e-mail, Fassihi and her journalist housemates were compelled by a car bombing outside their house to decamp inside the Green Zone, to the once opulent Rasheed Hotel. There she was to refer to herself by a number, 315. She was never to tell anyone in the hotel, and especially not the Iraqi staff, who she was. She was not to leave identifying papers in her room or use her satellite phone. The maid was not to change the towels except with a non-Iraqi watching. These precautions were dictated by the rash of kidnappings, ending in ransom or gruesome death, of journalists, diplomats, businessmen and even antiwar activists by shadowy gangs linked to Sunni Arab guerrillas, Shiite Arab militias, Baathist conspirators, Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the criminal underworld and almost any combination thereof. And many of the kidnappings were indeed hard to explain in the absence of inside information. For too many Iraqis who worked with foreigners, particularly Westerners, the temptation of easy money or the threat of retribution was simply too much to withstand.

The greatest strength of these three books, and Engel’s and Fassihi’s in particular, lies in their vivid portrayal of the impact of the invasion and occupation on Iraqis, not only the toll of death and displacement but also the damage to the social fabric and the dislodging of the soul, which already bore the scars of Saddam’s repressive regime and thirteen years of UN sanctions. Fassihi’s translator Haqqi, a Sunni Arab and son of a Saddam-era ambassador, tests the patience of his Iranian-American boss with his dark mutterings against the poor Shiites poised to flex political muscles in the January 2005 elections. When the balloting rolls around, Haqqi puts aside his disdain for the exercise and pleads to be allowed to vote outside his district. That evening, however, he wraps his ink-stained finger in a Band-Aid, because to be seen with it uncovered in his Sunni neighborhood, where the elections were seen as a sham, might imperil his life. Another of Fassihi’s Iraqi assistants flees to Damascus when his wife learns she is pregnant: “She is crying nonstop. She doesn’t want to leave her family but she doesn’t want to raise our child here either.” Engel tells of a grocer who tells his daughter’s abductors to keep her when she admits she has been raped; of Sunnis who removed the heads of Shiite neighbors in the southern Baghdad suburb of Dora with a band saw; and of his fixer Ali, who witnesses a Mahdi Army execution and remarks, “You know, and I shouldn’t say this, but all this makes me hate Islam. It seems that the more you kill the more you go to heaven.” The two men sit silenced by the enormity of what Ali, a pious Shiite who had never doubted his faith before, has said.

Fassihi, Engel and Filkins are less insightful about the political events and trends behind these searing tales of man’s inhumanity to man. Filkins and Engel broadly reproduce what has long been the mainstream explanation of what went wrong in Iraq: the troops were initially well received; the capital was looted and the Coalition Provisional Authority incompetently run, undermining Iraqi trust in the almighty United States; dethroned Baathists and disenfranchised Sunni Arabs mounted a rebellion, which was lent a vicious anti-Shiite edge by non-Iraqi Arab jihadis; Shiite religious parties, swept into office by an increasingly vocal clergy and enriched by Iranian funds, captured the security organs of the quasi state and abused them for sectarian reprisals; the country melted down into civil war; the troops, despite flagging support at home, persevered.

This story line, though incomplete, would be innocuous if the two reporters did not embellish it with nonsense. Engel sees effortlessly through the right-wing tripe that the war pits “Freedom Lovers” against “Freedom Haters,” but in the same breath he reinforces the equally gross simplification that in Iraq “we are in the middle of an ancient power struggle” between the two main sects of Islam. Sectarian strife in the Middle East, while acute in the aftermath of the invasion, is not timeless, and in Iraq it cannot be separated from the legacies of British colonial intervention, pan-Arab nationalism, authoritarianism, the oil boom, the Iran-Iraq War, the 1991 Gulf War and the 1990-2003 UN sanctions–all modern historical phenomena that have little or nothing to do with religion and that Engel hardly mentions. Filkins, meanwhile, damages his credibility as an analyst with a chapter-long paean to “artful dodger” Ahmad Chalabi, who wins him over by listening to Vivaldi and pointing out the Marc Chagall paintings hanging in the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art. The New York Times man gushes: “When I looked into Chalabi’s eyes and saw the doors and mirrors opening and closing, I knew that I was seeing not just the essence of the man but of the country to which he’d returned. L’état c’est lui. Chalabi was Iraq.” Filkins has since stated in interviews that he does not believe that Chalabi, who before the invasion had not been to Baghdad since 1958, is the man to unify Iraq. These lines therefore serve to anthropomorphize the qualities of Iraq and the Muslim world that Filkins finds inscrutable–and here, in classic Orientalist fashion, he is creating mystery where there need be none.

It is not difficult to understand why most Iraqis resent Chalabi, a scion of the pre-1958 monarchical order whose fabrications greased the skids for the deadliest and most disruptive of Iraq’s three major wars since 1980, just as most Iraqis distrust the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, whose members fought for Iran in the 1980s and sat out the sanctions era in relative comfort abroad. As Fassihi, in a chapter about the Iraq of 2002, puts it, “Almost unanimously Iraqis tell me that America will initially win the military war but will face a fierce resistance for establishing peace. The exiled opposition, with its varying agenda, will pull Iraq further apart.” Popular dislike for America’s Iraqi allies, plus the ordeal of Iraq under Saddam and sanctions, plus the emptiness of the casus belli, plus the incompetence of the Coalition Provisional Authority, plus the inevitable irritations of military occupation, together made the US enterprise in Iraq an exceedingly dubious proposition. In these easily assembled historical facts, and not in some undefined “essence,” Filkins (and Engel, who far too readily lectures his readers about “how to deal with Arabs”) might have looked for answers.

Though she is much better in this regard, Fassihi also occasionally slips into portraying Iraq as harder to understand than it is. Of the growing clout of Islamist women vis-à-vis their secular sisters, for instance, she notes that Iraq is unique because “the fight over women’s rights is working in reverse.” Fassihi’s frame of reference is the Islamic Republic of Iran, where women activists, including self-described Islamic feminists, are indeed pushing to bring laws governing women’s rights into greater conformity with liberal Western norms. But across the Arab world, and in state-secularist Turkey, Islamist women of the rising pious middle class are asserting themselves forcefully, the key difference with Iran being that in Iran, Islam is associated with the unpopular repressive state, whereas elsewhere the state is nominally secular and Islam is coded as oppositional. So it was, for the most part, in Saddam’s Iraq. Iraq is unique for conditions that are, as it were, secular: to name a few, the tremendous stresses on families of brutal dictatorship and constant war, the implosion or flight under sanctions of the old professional middle class, the catastrophic slide in women’s literacy in the 1990s and the ascendance of the devout middle class in the Shiite shrine cities after the fall of Saddam reopened them to mass pilgrimage.

In Falluja, known in Iraq as the city of mosques, gunfire and arena-rock anthems no longer mask the call to prayer resounding from the rebuilt minarets. Far fewer US servicemen and -women are dying than in 2005 and 2006, the years that soured the public on the war, and fewer Iraqis–if still appallingly many–are dying as well. In general, the presidential campaign and the Wall Street meltdown keep the Iraq story out of the headlines. The assumption in Washington, and in newsrooms as well, is that the next president, whoever he may be, will see to it that US involvement in the war does not last forever. The relative calm is deceptive, however, as long as Iraq’s deepest fissures remain unhealed. Quite independent of the surge and the number of troops the president decides to withdraw, trouble lurks on several fronts: the attempt of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to play strongman despite his narrow political and social base; the intensified armament of both Maliki’s security forces and the former Sunni Arab guerrillas he refuses to enlist; the move by the Shiite religious parties in power to roll back the political gains and move back the gendarmes of their Kurdish allies; the disputed status of Kirkuk; and the ongoing struggles among Shiite Islamists over oil and land in the south.

If any of these matters explode, and Americans again find themselves seeking answers about why the fury in Iraq returned to their living rooms, what might they glean from these books about the only aspect of Iraq’s agony over which they have some degree of control–the US role therein? Certainly, they will absorb the message–so compellingly conveyed by Filkins–that war is hell. Possibly, and worryingly, they will learn that America cannot hope to change, and so owes nothing to, this dusty land riven by antique, immutable animosities, where the troops are unappreciated and disputes are settled with a band saw to the neck. But as to whether this war was just, or its continuation justified, in light of the well-documented wreckage, what will they learn?

Here one cannot help but recall Swofford’s warning that unflinching depictions of America’s wars, even controversial ones, are not always regarded as antiwar. That is not because of blood lust or because many believe, in the case of Iraq, that “the surge is working.” Rather, it is because another country has suffered the bulk of the war’s human costs and because, with the exception of the soldiers and military families who have borne the stress and pain on America’s behalf, Americans have the luxury of abstraction in asking whether the war was “worth it.” Even Filkins, asked by hawkish radio host Hugh Hewitt if Iraqis are “better off” today than before the invasion, hemmed and hawed before declaring the jury out: “And so I think the best way to answer that question is say, Let’s ask it again in five years, and see how it’s gone.” In the struggle for interpretive ground, if not on the battlefield, Iraq may indeed be the forever war.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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