People Vanishing from Iraq War History

Ten years and the scripted media narrative of the Iraq War — now receding into the rear-view of our embarrassingly short American memory — is about as satisfying as the obligatory drum solo at your standard 1980’s rock concert.

In other words, a milquetoast, factory-wrapped history of the war is hardening like a stale taffy chew, especially now that the big retrospective is over. It’s not exactly the kind of triumphant chronology that architects and cheerleaders of the war, like Dick Cheney or say the staff of The Weekly Standard, would have, but nor should they expect it: the war has been largely been declared “a waste” by Americans and veterans alike. But the conventional story emerging is at once predictable and pedestrian: shock-n-awe, toppling statues, looting, insurgency, Abu Ghraib, counterinsurgency, withdrawal. We’re guessing that if the neoconservatives who concocted this war failed so miserably to see it through as promised couldn’t completely revise the history, the next best thing would be to dull the pointy edges until we didn’t feel anything, anymore.

To accomplish that, they need to blot out a lot of characters, if not entire events, that threaten the simplicity of the sanitized narrative. Some of these “characters,” like neoconservative Dan Senor for instance, who as chief flak for the Coalition Provisional Authority from 2003 to 2004, simply lied to reporters’ faces about how swimmingly the war was going from the ground in Baghdad, are hiding in plain sight, fully rehabilitated. But others are slowly being wiped out of our collective memory because, frankly, they don’t fit, and they won’t/can’t be retooled for political or historical purposes.

Let’s take a look at four such people who the neoconservatives rather we forgot:

Ahmad Chalabi — 2003

American Prospect writer Richard Dreyfuss, in a nearly 4,000-word article that should have gotten more attention, but like everything else in that golden neoconservative Age of Nefarious, was completely ignored by the mainstream, wrote this about Ahmad Chalabi, Our Man in Baghdad:

Ahmad Chalabi
Ahmad Chalabi

If T.E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) had been a 21st-century neoconservative operative instead of a British imperial spy, he’d be Ahmed Chalabi’s best friend.

We can pose with much confidence now that if Chalabi never existed as the neoconservatives’ “best friend” at all, then we would have never gone to war in Iraq after 9/11, and millions of Iraqis, Americans, Brits and other multinationals would be alive and whole today.

To say that Chalabi is a stain, is understating the embarrassment he brings upon several U.S government institutions, as well as neoconservative leaders in and out of the Bush Administration (Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pearl, Donald Rumsfeld, Douglas Feith — the whole of the American Enterprise Institute and the Fourth Estate – to name just a few).

For that alone, Chalabi must be blotted out.

In his prime, Chalabi managed to convince the highest members of congress, who in turn persuaded then-President Bill Clinton to sign the Iraq Liberation Act, which lay the groundwork for regime change in 1998. He worked those members of congress to give him $100 million over ten years to pull together an opposition government in Iraq to move in when Saddam Hussein fell. He snookered the intelligence community (not all) about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction, and enjoyed the fruits of an elaborate propaganda campaign, paid for by the State Department with taxpayer dollars and orchestrated by notorious Republican lobbyists/spinmeisters Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey (BKSH), which has the reputation of representing anybody for a fee, including murderous dictators. This honorable crew craftily positioned Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress as a viable Iraqi government-in-waiting, endearing Chalabi to the media, pro-war think tanks and lawmakers who held the coin and the votes to make the war happen.

All this, despite the fact the Iraqi National Congress had no discernible public support in Iraq, whatsoever. “The idea of parachuting Chalabi into Iraq protected by a bunch of Special Forces to become the new ruler was beyond pathetic,” said (Ret.) Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who worked in the Pentagon during those heady early days of the war and has since become an arch critic of the neoconservative influence on the war policy.

“He was no more than a cynical schemer, but knowing exactly what American right-wing buttons to press. Reminded me a bit of the sleek operators who served the Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s.”

It really didn’t matter, since he was the man the Bush Administration and allies like Israel wanted to lead in a post-Saddam Iraq. It was never about the people, but about our interests. That blind eye led to the ultimate failure of the war, with Chalabi, in his fine suits and thick, charming accent, leading the way to the pit of history.

“One very important outcome of the Iraq War is our explicit knowledge that the media has abandoned any pretense of ‘reporting’ in favor of simply pushing out the easiest version of a story. Such practice eased America’s way into the Iraq War,” shared Peter Van Buren, author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.

“We would do well to note this new reality as the media drums up support for more war in Iran, North Korea, Syria, wherever,” he added. “Don’t believe everything you read.”

After an aborted stint as Iraqi oil minister (oh, the ironies), Chalabi finally fell into disfavor, having been declared too cozy with the Iranians (more ironies). No one talks about Chalabi anymore, for obvious reasons. He was spotted once in 2007, riding an Army helicopter with none other than Gen. David Petraeus, who despite his own propaganda at the time, turned out to be a lousy “Lawrence of Arabia,” with or without, a best friend.

Jessica Lynch — 2003

With Chalabi, we know how eager the Bush Administration wanted to go to war. Through Jessica Lynch – a young and pretty Army private serving in Iraq as a supply specialist in 2003 — we see how the Pentagon was determined to wage an additional, parallel war — the one for the hearts and minds of the American public, with complete control over the story, the message, images, everything.

Jessica Lynch today
Jessica Lynch today

While this can be written off as a direct if not misguided reaction to the less restricted media coverage of the Vietnam War, the U.S military, in coordination with neoconservative civilian planners, took it to the Next-Next-Gen level. “Embeds” were not only tightly managed and subjugated, but then co-opted as patriotic emissaries. Once brought in with the proper military gear, enjoying the camaraderie and perceived trust with the soldiers and the power of being on the edge of history, they were the perfect interlocutors.

Or so it was thought. When the military attempted to pass poor Lynch off as the war’s female Rambo, concocting a story in which she fell to her Iraqi captors after a fierce exchange of gunfire, the media gobbled it up and reported accordingly. Lynch became an instant hero, a symbol: she was a woman, young and working class. Her allegedly daring rescue by broad-shouldered Navy Seals, popped all the right corn in our movie theater imaginations. This thrilling war vignette not only stoked our pride, but it distracted from the real story: that an Army convoy had been ambushed during our “cakewalk” invasion of Iraq, leaving 11 soldiers killed — including Lynch’s best friend Lori Piestewa, a Native American mother with two toddlers at home — and several others taken captive.

But when reporters started doing their jobs outside the briefing room, the narrative unraveled. And Jessica, to her credit, eventually called the Pentagon out on their lies. She started telling her story in November 2003: she had not gone down in a blaze in glory but a haze of pain, for she had been badly injured in a Humvee wreck during the ambush. She did not want to be hero. She did not want to be the remedy for everyone’s misgivings about the war or a symbol of the Army’s integration of women into combat, or of poor West Virginians trying to make a better life.

Conveniently for the Pentagon, it also came out in November that creepy Hustler editor Larry Flynt had pictures of Lynch cavorting topless among fellow soldiers. He refused to publish them, but the feeling that Lynch had been all used up and discarded was unmistakable. She’s since dropped off into near-obscurity, only (thankfully) to resurface in 2007 to testify to congress about the Pentagon’s mythmaking at her expense.

“Nobody likes to believe our military would mislead people—but they wanted a war hero so badly that they portrayed me as one. They didn’t get their facts straight before talking about what happened, and neither did the media,” Lynch wrote for Glamour magazine in June 2007, the same month she testified to about her story.

If left alone, Lynch would’ve become a hero in her own way. But the military used her to keep the public behind the war effort and ended up only drawing attention to its own desperation. The media was left similarly exposed. As a result, she is hardly mentioned in mainstream retrospectives of Iraq — she serves no one’s higher purposes now. For us, however, Lynch will be remembered as the first time – but not the last (think Pat Tillman in Afghanistan) –- a soldier was (ab)used as agitprop, backfiring horribly.

Marla Ruzicka –2005

For a very short time – a nanosecond in the chronology of the eight-year war – the world knew of another pixie-like blond hero, Californian Marla Ruzicka, who was 28-years-old when she was killed in a suicide blast as she was making her way in a car near Baghdad on April 16, 2005. She was a humanitarian aid advocate who the year before had embarked on an ambitious effort to identify civilian casualties in Iraq and then match them with U.S aid and assistance.

Marla Ruzicka
Marla Ruzicka

Her killing made headlines around the world, but mostly in Washington and foreign press circles where the embedded media recalled an earnest, “irrepressible” spark plug who spent a great deal of time getting help for Afghan victims of Operation Enduring Freedom, before turning her sights on Iraq. Within two years she managed to secure the support of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT)., and millions of dollars in U.S aid for Iraqi victims. From writer and friend David Corn shortly after her death: “Marla wanted to chronicle the truth and aid the afflicted. She was brave. She was concerned. She was a hero.”

For 12 days before the Abu Ghraib scandal broke and overcame her story, Ruzicka was memorialized by journalists and lawmakers alike. Janet Reitman of Rolling Stone wrote in 2005, “Ruzicka is perhaps the most famous American aid worker to die in any conflict of the past ten or twenty years… her death resonated far beyond the tightly knit group of war junkies and policymakers who knew her.”

Sadly, she never regained this posthumous status after Abu Ghraib. While her NGO (non-governmental organization) lives on in the Center for Civilians in Conflict, with more than $65 million appropriated to date through the Marla Ruzicka Iraqi War Victims Fund, she is far from the crystallizing history of the invasion and its aftermath. All of the journalists who knew her from their embed times in Baghdad (she apparently threw outrageous parties beside the rooftop pool at the Hamra Hotel), never mention her today. She should be an enduring symbol of American pride; her role in the war’s narrative shouldn’t have had a shelf life.

What happened?

There are a couple of possible explanations. One, she was not military. She didn’t “join up” and in fact was a strident critic of the Bush war policies (though she reportedly toned down her politics considerably to do her work in Iraq). Second, she was a sunny young girl from California who was blown up at a time the violence was supposedly retreating. Her story would have likely been airbrushed from the scene in 2005 if she hadn’t made so many friends with the media and on Capitol Hill. Unfortunately for Ruzicka’s longer-term legacy, they are all suffering from an attention deficit now.

But why? Herein lies the key: right before she died she was able to get her hands on official civilian death counts in Baghdad from an unnamed military source. She would have added this to the running tally she was assiduously collecting on her own. But we didn’t “do body counts,” remember? Ruzicka, who merely wanted them so she could return to Capitol Hill to ask for more resources, was about to prove the U.S military very wrong. No one could responsibility assert she was murdered for her knowledge, though some have suggested her work was very troublesome to the military leadership. The fact remains that it wasn’t until Wikileaks released the Iraq War Logs in 2010, that we knew for sure the military was counting civilian deaths the entire time, and that there were many, many more than they had ever let on. She knew this, but died, taking whatever knowledge she had to an early grave.

Bottom line: her work threatened the battle of perceptions, and if there are forces still fighting to revise the truth, Marla Ruzicka continues to be a threat, because in her death she proves they were lying all along. She doesn’t have to go quietly, though – it’s time for all her pals in the media to remember what she’s done, and to set the record straight.

Janice Karpinski –2005

When I first interviewed Janis Karpinski in 2009 for a lengthy article about what I call the “shock integration” of women into combat during the wars, she had been squeezed out, torn up and discarded by the military to which she had given her entire professional career.

Janis Karpinski - Credit: Sony
Janis Karpinski – Credit: Sony

We know her as Brigadier General Karpinski, but she was demoted to colonel in 2005 after the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. She knew she was a scapegoat – the military didn’t even have the guts to outright blame her for the abuses at Abu Ghraib, they tied her demotion to an alleged shoplifting incident at MacDill Air Force Base in 2002, before she was promoted to a one-star, and before she was even sent to Iraq to command the 800th Military Police Brigade.

Imagine any other a (male) full bird colonel being accused of – and demoted for — taking a bottle of moisturizer? A can of shaving cream? We’ve got four stars who insulted the president and are directly tied to the illegal abuse of Iraqi prisoners who were able to retire with grace and their stars intact. Give us a break.

Eleven lower ranking soldiers were disciplined for their role in the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Janis Karpinksi was one of only two senior officers disciplined – she was relieved of command and forced into retirement. The other, Col. Thomas M. Pappas, who had operational control of the wing of the prison where all the abuse occurred (Karpinksi oversaw 15 detention facilities and three prisons, of which Abu Ghraib was one), was given a letter of reprimand in 2005. His deputy, Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, was actually tried in military court on abuse charges, convicted and then acquitted in 2009.

Karpinski has always alleged that she was taking the fall for senior officers and civilian contractors who sanctioned and/or carried out the abuse. She never minced words, and fully believes the orders for torture came with the blessings of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Office of the Vice President. She denied accusations by the Taguba Report that she had been neglectful of her oversight responsibilities, and should have followed up on abuse claims earlier.

The bottom line: Karpinski has been all but fully vindicated by a series of revelations since, including the damning “torture memos” drafted in part by then Deputy Assistant Attorney General John Yoo, which laid out permissible “enhanced interrogation techniques” including mental and physical torment and waterboarding in 2003. Karpinski has been adamant, too, that Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who was under scrutiny for creating an atmosphere of abuse at Guantanamo Bay earlier in the war, brought his techniques, including the use of dogs, to Abu Ghraib when he was re-assigned there by Rumsfeld in 2003. To this end, a 2008 Senate committee report pretty much backs up her claims.

Wikileaks published a trove of documents last year that include actual torture manuals originating at Guantanamo Bay, proving that what happened at Abu Ghraib had nothing to do with a few “bad apples” or lax oversight by Karpinksi. And now, thanks to a recent investigation by The Guardian newspaper, we know the torture was not only sanctioned by Washington, but went far beyond Abu Ghraib in Iraq.

Karpinski was the “fall gal,” and for that she has been virtually wiped from the conventional history of this war. Abu Ghraib is a stain that can’t be ignored, but it is in the revisionists’ best interest to make it as isolated from the rest of the story as possible. Mounting evidence proves otherwise, but let’s face it, as long as Karpinski is forgotten that’s one less individual who can contradict the “official” version of events.

“It’s really hard to rewrite history when you have a female Brigadier General who witnessed what went on, and who refused to do what the old boy network demanded she do,” wrote (Ret.) Lt. Col. Kwiatkowski, in an email to

Her story could have been that of a hero – the first female general with a command in Iraq – but not unlike many characters since lost to history, she’s been blighted because she told the truth.

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.