This morning’s New York Times contains a jolting piece by a Times reporter who apparently found classified documents that include interviews conducted by officers investigating a 2005 massacre of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines. The documents were found in a Baghdad junkyard that specializes in trailers and office supplies left over from American military base closings. The interviews of the Marines involved in the massacre at Haditha offer first-hand accounts of the scope of atrocities committed by U.S. military personnel against Iraqi civilians during the U.S. occupation.
In 2008, Nation Books published Collateral Damage: America’s War on Iraqi Civilians, the result of a two-year investigation into the slaughter of innocent civilians that resulted from the American military presence in Iraq. Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Chris Hedges and his co-author, Al-Jazeera English producer Laila Al-Arian, conducted interviews with fifty soldiers returning from Iraq, and many months were subsequently devoted to substantiating the soldiers’ harrowing testimony.
The book is divided into three main sections—checkpoints, house searches, and convoys—and includes photographs by the award-winning Magnum photographer Eugene Richards of several of the witnesses. The soldiers, many of them suffering from the severe emotional and psychological toll of combat duty, told of the carnage of Iraqi civilians that occurred as a result of the conduct of U.S. troops in contested areas of the country. Excerpts were published in British newspapers and elsewhere in Europe, but despite the extraordinary lengths taken to bolster the bona fides of the courageous reporting in the book—and the courageous contributions of the interviewees—Collateral Damage was ignored by The New York Times and the balance of mainstream American media.
Were it not for The Nation magazine, which excerpted a large portion of the book in a special issue; Democracy Now!, which invited the authors onto the air for a lengthy interview about their findings; and a smattering of online coverage (including an enthusiastic review in the Huffington Post of that time), the book would not have received even the modest exposure that accompanied its release.
There are so many layers to this story. The documents offer a near-linear corroboration of the findings in Collateral Damage, which given the nature of the subject is not in the least gratifying. Moreover, the article and the circumstances of its origin pose unsettling questions for wartime journalism. It would appear that in order for the press to report the truth of what was happening on the ground in Iraq, American forces would first have to withdraw from the country. Then a curious reporter in post-apocalyptic Iraq would have to poke around a junkyard, and bureaucratic incompetence and serendipity would have to conspire to drop a bombshell of historic proportions into the reporter’s lap. Even the hapless and compromised mainstream press could have read Hedges’ and Al-Arian’s carefully constructed reporting almost four years ago, and perhaps they did. It just didn’t fit the narrative at the time.