Unlike most U.S. journalists who went to Iraq to cover a war, Dahr Jamail went to try to stop it.
In his new book, Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq, Jamail writes of volunteering as a rescue ranger at Denali National Park in Alaska while news of the invasion and occupation of Iraq played on the radio.
He had to get out of Anchorage, and in November 2003, Jamail got on a plane to Amman, Jordan, and then, a few days later, shared a taxi across Iraq’s western desert to Baghdad.
"My going to Iraq was an act of desperation," he wrote. "I was tormented by the fact that the government of my country illegally invaded and then occupied a country that it had bombed in 1991."
Once in Iraq, Jamail set about reporting the stories of regular Iraqi people. He spent months in Iraq’s hospitals, morgues, and mosques. His journalism covers some of the most mundane, but important, aspects of the U.S. occupation like gas lines, checkpoints, and bombed out telephone switching stations. His stories appeared in numerous outlets around the world, including IPS.
Most significantly, Dahr Jamail is perhaps the only U.S. journalist to document firsthand the human costs of both U.S. sieges of Fallujah, in April and November 2004.
In covering those sieges, Jamail reported numerous violations of the Geneva Conventions, from the use of cluster bombs and white phosphorus (which is similar to napalm) on densely populated civilian areas, to the blocking of relief supplies from reaching the city, to U.S. military raids into hospitals and shots fired at ambulances. So many Iraqi people were killed in the assault on Fallujah, he notes, that the municipal football stadium had to be turned into a graveyard for the dead.
Visiting the site, he wrote: "I tried hard to imagine a soccer field back in the United States being turned into a graveyard headstones above ground and buried, shrapnel-shredded bodies underneath, populating a dry field where children once laughed, ran, and kicked soccer balls but my imagination failed me."
For Jamail, the sieges represent unpunished war crimes and his book is, in part, an effort to push the perpetrators a little bit closer to justice. The sieges also represent the climax of his book, which essentially ends when he leaves Iraq for the final time in February 2005.
"You don’t need current events to know what is going on," he told IPS. "You need to know what set the conditions for all this."
Since February 2005, there have been numerous developments in Iraq, including an election, a new prime minister, and perhaps most importantly, a much trumpeted "troop surge" which the George W. Bush administration maintains is leading to "progress" in Iraq, especially in western Anbar Province, home to Fallujah.
Jamail sees these current developments through the prism of the U.S. military’s previous efforts there.
"What I see in Anbar province is a macro version of what they did in Fallujah after the failed April siege," he said. "They got their asses kicked. They couldn’t take the city so they fund, arm, and back the militias in the city and leave. So troop deaths go down, they get to pretend that they’ve turned over control to the Iraqis and things are getting better. The reality is now in Anbar they’ve gone back to funding and backing Sunni militias on a huge scale, and it’s a ticking time bomb."
Beyond the Green Zone is the latest entry in a crowded field of books by U.S. journalists attempting to present the Iraqi side of the war. While the stories that Jamail tells still rarely make the nightly news or the front pages of U.S. newspapers, they have been related in a series of books, the most well-known being Night Draws Near by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Anthony Shadid.
A number of independent journalists, including this reporter, have also published books on the topic and several scathing documentary films have been released.
This combination of silence from the mainstream media and excellent reportage by the independent press has created a paradox. On one hand, most of the events that Jamail chronicles in Beyond the Green Zone have already been well-documented. On the other hand, most U.S. citizens remain oblivious to them.
"The media is not even beginning to show what’s really going on in Iraq," Jamail told IPS, "and so most people here have no idea what’s happening."
"People get that the war is not going well," he said, "but that doesn’t show any of the gravity of the fact that today half the country of Iraq is either a refugee, in desperate need of emergency care, wounded, or dead. What would the reporting look like if that was the situation here? It would be off the charts: ‘Just look at this catastrophe! People are suffering. Look what happened to this family’s children!’ But instead we have this type of reporting that just kind of touches on the fact that things are not going so well, but it doesn’t really show how bad it really is."
Reading as a journalist who has spent significant time reporting from Iraq under U.S. occupation, two aspects of Beyond the Green Zone particularly hit home. The first are the book’s photos, one of which appears before each chapter: from a cover image showing a young Iraqi boy standing nervously near a U.S. tank, to photos of dead bodies in a morgue, to anti-U.S. fighters holding a rocket launcher, Jamail’s photographs ring truer than any other images this reporter has seen of the Iraq war.
Jamail jokes that his photos are "amateurish" because they lack the compositional complexity of more experienced war photographers. But the fact is that the truth of the Iraq war is not all that complex. The main truth of the war is death. Jamail’s pictures provide that truth simply, showing how the occupation appears through the eyes of a normal person.
Jamail’s section on his return home is also particularly insightful. After witnessing the second siege of Fallujah, Jamail returned to the United States in the winter of 2004.
"The differences thrust in my face on returning home to America were glaring," he wrote. "There were no checkpoints in the United States. People didn’t have to stop their cars, have guns aimed at them and their children, get out to be searched, and have their vehicles searched. No military vehicles roamed the streets, carrying soldiers who aimed their weapons at powerless civilians who watched them pass. There was mail service and the phones worked on the first try. You could order take-out and have it delivered to your door. There were employees of the city who cleaned the streets, watered the trees and grass, and kept the parks clean."
This disconnect between the destruction in Iraq and peace on the home front is universal. You can hear it from nearly every journalist and soldier who has been to the war zone. Jamail goes a step further and links U.S. apathy about the war to its continuation.
"The front lines of American imperialism were frightening," he wrote. "In Iraq, there was no hiding the raw, ugly face of corporations profiting from the blood and suffering caused by the brutal occupation of Iraq. Yet, back in the United States the country that launched the invasion and now supported the occupation people were going about their daily lives, to my amazement. If news got too intense, people were able to simply turn it off and take a walk, or go to a movie, or call a friend."
Beyond the Green Zone is an effort to break through that apathy.
"As journalists, it’s our moral obligation to talk about what’s actually going on," he told IPS, "and if people see that and decide to turn off the TV that’s their call, but I’ve got to do my job. I want to tell people ‘Sorry, your government just invaded another country and totally eviscerated it. Deal with it.’"
(Inter Press Service)