New York City
“The Other War” by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian [July 30/Aug. 6], 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 our organization, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), and many of the service members interviewed. Reporters told our members that the focus of this article would be their experience in Iraq generally, not civilian casualties specifically. Many of the veterans 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 the authors’ preconceived conclusion about the patterns and frequency of civilian deaths. Critical facts were obscured or omitted entirely.
The reporting tactics employed by Ms. Al-Arian were questionable and even nefarious. One of our members wrote, “I did a two-hour interview with Laila 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 were 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 article’s tactics and low standards. The men and women bravely spoke out because they were concerned about the war and its effects on all people in Iraq–military and civilian. They put themselves and their families at tremendous risk by choosing to participate in this article. The veterans quoted trusted The Nation, and that trust was betrayed. The Nation now has a sensational story that is sure to gain significant attention and sell numerous copies.
After this experience, it is unlikely that IAVA 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
HEDGES AND AL-ARIAN REPLY
New York City
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 that each incident we described 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 fact-checkers and authors made follow-up calls to interviewees to reconfirm incidents and the context of those incidents.
Laila Al-Arian does not recall being asked to clarify who a “civilian” is for any interviewee. However, if the term was confusing for a member of the armed forces in Iraq, that bolsters the premise of our piece. Those interviewed described broad patterns of abuse that are the result of a mismanaged war 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 our article: “The problem is not a few ‘bad apples’…but the occupation itself.”
“The Other War” presents the unvarnished testimony of veterans. It does not lay blame on individuals. The killings and abuse of Iraqi civilians, nearly all veterans said, were perpetrated by a minority. The problem is that the culture of the occupation has allowed this minority to act with impunity and without constraint.
CHRIS HEDGES AND LAILA AL-ARIAN
OUR READERS WEIGH IN
I am the father of one of the veterans interviewed, Spc. Philip Chrystal, and I couldn’t be prouder of him and all the other interviewees who have taken a risk by talking outside the military culture to tell an unknowing public the truth about what they saw in Iraq.
In almost daily contact with Phil when he was overseas, I can tell you that he was deeply affected by the experiences related in the article and by other events. While serving there, he was also fully aware that I was burying young men killed in Iraq–to date I have conducted three funerals for Iraq KIAs, and I’ve worked with the families of two Nevada Army National Guardsmen who were killed in Afghanistan (one of whom was Sgt. Patrick Stewart, a Wiccan who was denied a memorial plaque bearing the symbol of his faith until his wife, Roberta, sued in federal district court and the Veterans Administration settled).
Because of my activities on the home front, I echo what is being said by the veterans in the article and add that this country isn’t taking adequate care of many of the families of those who are killed. Thanks for this marvelous piece. May it help to wake up our sleeping nation!
MAJ. (CHAPLAIN) WILLIAM G. CHRYSTAL
US Army (retired)
The sobering facts presented by Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian are ordinary features of war. If we are shocked and surprised by such incidents, it is only because we deceive ourselves about what war is all about. Civilians always suffer the brunt of war. They suffer most of the casualties, both through direct hits and through the disease and hunger that accompany massive displacement and the collapse of social infrastructures, and they are routinely terrorized, raped, abused and dehumanized. Even “just” wars are hideously unjust to the men, women and children caught in their path. Whatever their political persuasion, anyone who advocates the use of military force is morally obliged to consider, and should be held accountable for, the inevitably tragic human consequences.
DAVID LIVINGSTONE SMITH
Author, The Most Dangerous Animal: Human Nature and the Origins of War
Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
I have no doubt that when the United States puts young men and women in impossible situations for extended periods, bad things will happen. These kids are just trying to stay alive. What is happening in Iraq is not their fault. It is our fault for putting them there in the first place. Lest we forget, we are in Iraq because the American people were lied to again and again and again by the Bush Administration in the months leading up to this war. And our so-called “free” press went along for the ride. The war in Iraq was and is a sham. These kids and the Iraqi people are paying the price. It is a horrible tragedy.
While this is an important aspect of the war and needs to be confronted, I fear it will be used by those who wish to demonize the military.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that a draft dodger led us into this quagmire of senseless violence. General Sherman could have told him that war is hell, and this story is a precise illustration of that maxim. War puts people in contexts that lead them, indeed often force them, to commit atrocious deeds. Even the most just war, World War II, is full of atrocity–even on the side of the good guys. That is what makes war hell.
Kurt Vonnegut knew this when he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five. War is an unlikely means of bringing democracy to a country. An attempt to do so by a morally bankrupt Administration too busy violating its nation’s Constitution to properly plan a war, incompetent to the core as a result of rampant cronyism, unable to admit mistakes or listen to its own military advisers is bound to fail.
It saddens me to read about this hellish situation. This war has devastated our military–morally, emotionally, in every way. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be over there and feel that random shooting is the only way you are going to return home. We don’t honor the troops when we put them in impossible situations.
War is hell. I’m reminded of the crimes committed by Americans in World War II. Our troops used derogatory terms for Iraqi citizens–not much different from what we called the Germans and Japanese. We shot unarmed civilians for not following rules then as well. I hate hearing stories like these told by our returning troops, but I can’t fault them. War is truly hell. Just ask someone who’s seen it.
IN THE DARK THEY ARE ALL THE SAME
In Patricia Williams’s column in the last issue, Justice Antonin Scalia was appointed by President Reagan, not Bush Senior.