Editors Note: The following is an excerpt from the introduction to Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq (Haymarket Books, 2007).
In 2002, while winter began to settle across the United States, the drumbeat for war became deafening. Living in Anchorage, Alaska, I spent much of my free time reading the news from abroad or getting it via alternative online outlets such as Media Lens, Democracy Now!, and Media Channel. The cheerleading for war feebly disguised as “journalism” that corporate media television stations and newspapers in the United States spewed was intolerable. The overwhelming evidence was already available. There were not and had not been “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq for years. The make-believe link between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 was a chimera. The excuse given later, that of “liberating” the people of Iraq, held even less truth.
Nevertheless, illusions were maintained by a media in the United States that had sunk to being little more than state stenographers giddily scribbling and announcing the diktats of George W. Bush and his administration. Thousands of years of Iraq’s rich history were cursorily omitted from the media and replaced by the graphic of a U.S.-installed dictator with a bull’s-eye on his forehead.
The worldwide protests of February 15, 2003–the largest in human history–Bush brushed aside as a “focus group.” Watching this occur enraged me, particularly since after 9/11 the one paper in Anchorage, Alaska, which I had been freelancing for, fired its editor because our content had become “too political.” My mind was a pressure cooker. I wondered, what could be done to stop an illegal war of aggression against a country that had been suffering more than twelve years of economic sanctions that had already killed over one million people?
The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003.Coverage by most of the mainstream media worsened. Rather than showing the true face of war, television coverage more closely resembled a weapons manufacturer’s show, complete with brilliant graphics of fighter jets, missiles, attack helicopters, and interactive maps of Iraq that could have been taken straight from a video game.
The news I followed from the media of other countries, such as the Independent and the Guardian newspapers in the U.K., Le monde diplomatique in France, Al-Jazeera in Qatar, and outlets in Greece and Italy, portrayed a different reality. While shown for the propaganda stunt it was in many foreign media outlets, the stage-managed toppling of one of Saddam Hussein’s statues in central Baghdad captivated uninformed Americans watching news, which by then closely resembled the state-controlled media of an authoritarian regime. The disparity in reportage between many foreign outlets and those in the United States was nothing less than news reporting on the one hand and flag-waving on the other. The occupation began and quickly lurched toward chaos, violence, and suffering.
Rather than being explored and explained by most media in the United States, the mayhem of war was portrayed as one dimensional, and described with slogans like “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and other rhetoric so familiar to the peoples of the Third World. Formerly repressed currents of Iraqi religious, political, and social strata emerged and began to breathe life back into the complex patterns of the social fabric of Iraq after the dictator was removed. The multilayered quilt of tribal and religious societies resurfaced.
I spent the summer of 2003 volunteering as a rescue ranger for the National Park Service on the highest mountain in Alaska, Denali, climbing, pondering, and listening to radio reports at night in my tent. I listened as Iraqis were quickly pulled into the undertow of a violent upheaval against an occupation they had not sought.
While climbing on icy slopes during the day, I wondered what I might do to bring the information I found reported in other countries back to the uninformed, horribly misled population of my own country.
I would like to say that I decided to go to Iraq for philosophical reasons, because I believe that an informed citizenry is the bedrock of any healthy democracy. But I went to Iraq for personal reasons. 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. Because the government of my country had asphyxiated Iraq with more than a decade’s worth of “genocidal” sanctions (in the words of former United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq Denis Halliday). The government of my country then told lies, which were obediently repeated by an unquestioning media in order to justify the invasion and occupation. I felt that I had blood on my hands because the government had been left unchecked.
My going to Iraq was an act of desperation that has since transformed itself into a bond to that country and so many of her people. There were stories there that begged to be heard and told again. We are defined by story. Our history, our memory, our perceptions of the future, are all built and held within stories. As a U.S. citizen complicit in the devastation of Iraq, I was already bound up in the story of that country. I decided to go to learn what that story really was.
While the vast majority of the reporting of Iraq was provided by journalists availing themselves of the Pentagon-sponsored “embed” program, I chose to look for stories of real life and “embed” myself with the Iraqi people. The U.S. military side of the occupation is overly represented by most mainstream outlets. I consciously decided to focus on the Iraqi side of the story.
The story of the many oppressed peoples of the world is rarely recorded by the few who oppress. We are taught that the truth is objective fact as written down by the conquerors.
Truth is more than fact. Before his testimony against the flooding of his traditional life and homeland in James Bay by Hydro-Quebec (for power shipped to the United States), FranÃ§ois Mainscum, a Mistassini Cree hunter, was asked to place his hand on the Bible. He had left his bush camp only a few days before he appeared in court. “When I was told to touch the book, my first reaction was to wonder what this book is for,” he said, “Until I was told to touch it, the book, so that I could speak the ‘truth.’”
He spoke with his translator at length, and finally the translator looked up at the judge. “He does not know whether he can tell the truth. He says he can tell only what he knows.”
There are roughly 27 million people in Iraq. Each of them has his or her own story about what has happened in Iraq during the U.S. occupation. Their stories define them, and us. They belong in our history, our memory, our perceptions of the future.
This book contains some of those stories.