In the past weeks and months, Islamic State, abetted by other armed groups, has made stunning advances across Iraq as US-built, trained, and funded Iraqi forces evaporate. Islamic State “exposed the utter rot in the Iraqi army earlier this summer,” wrote analysts at the Soufan Group. This sent me back to my journals from my 2004 embed. The seeds of today’s tragedies were germinating then, in the tragically improvised U.S. occupation and the deep sectarian divide dug by Saddam Hussein that existed before American troops rolled into Baghdad.
Then as now, a boots-on-the-ground perspective of Iraqi forces’ readiness, professionalism, and tactical skill — shaky and poor across the board— was at odds with absurdly glowing reports from top-level US commanders.
Which is why those who truly wanted to know what was happening on the street ignored them and tried to convince grunts, NCOs, and line officers to talk. Not an easy task. “It’s like I told my guys,” a naval gunfire liaison officer told me on August 14, 2004, “we came into someone else’s neighborhood and are trying to tell them how to run it.” I asked a Master Gunnery Sergeant I bunked with whether the U.S. lit the fuse that blew up Iraq. It’s “like the coyote in the cartoon . . . and now we’re fucked.” Both asked me not to use their names.
After a dismounted patrol through Iskandariyah on August 4, I wrote in my journal:
“What are the salient facts and issues stuck inside me this week? Pork is served in the chow hall, in spite of the dozen plus Muslim translators. Translators get cast-off flaks. This entire enterprise is absurd, I feel, contradictory to its core. Democracy as represented by heavily armed, non-Arabic speaking men (and boys) wearing Wylie X sunglasses. Their allies are, in some sense, desperate men or opportunists. They do not give the impression of being the bedrock of the community. The cops are scared. The Iraqi National Guard posture like thugs and petty criminals. They’re scared too. That’s why they wear masks.”
Moments before I hit “publish,” President Obama announced that he had authorized airstrikes on Islamic State military forces in Iraq. The U.S. military is also air dropping humanitarian aid to people of the Yezidi community who are being attacked and killed by IS, he said.
“I know that many of you are rightly concerned about any American military action in Iraq,” the president said, “even limited strikes like these. I understand that. I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done. As Commander-in-Chief, I will not allow the United States to be dragged into fighting another war in Iraq. And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq. The only lasting solution is reconciliation among Iraqi communities and stronger Iraqi security forces.
“However, we can and should support moderate forces who can bring stability to Iraq. So even as we carry out these two missions, we will continue to pursue a broader strategy that empowers Iraqis to confront this crisis. Iraqi leaders need to come together and forge a new government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis, and that can fight back against the threats like [Islamic State].”
I’m holding my breath.
Naming the Dead is a project of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit that monitors drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (NTD focuses on people killed in CIA drone strikes Pakistan.)
This from its mission statement:
“In most cases, there is little information available about who the drones are really killing. Most of the dead – an estimated four-fifths of those killed – are believed to be militants. But their deaths are typically reported as a number – their names, origins and livelihoods remain a mystery.
For so many people to die in obscurity, unnamed and unacknowledged, is a tragedy. But it is a further tragedy that the public, and even policy makers, are unable to properly test whether drones are ‘highly precise weapons’ when so little is known about who is actually dying.
Through Naming the Dead, the Bureau aims to increase the transparency around this conflict and inform the public debate. Initially this project will record all names published in open-source material – in credible reports by journalists, in legal documents presented in court, in academic studies and in field investigations carried out by human rights groups.”
This is, in my view, is essential journalism that’s both hard-nosed and human-centered.
I’m posting via Vimeo a series more favorite scenes I wasn’t able to fit into my 2008 documentary, Full Disclosure.
These scenes are from 2005 and 2006. (I didn’t shoot video in Iraq in 2004, only stills.) The first scenes focus on activities in Babil province during the run-up to the first post-Saddam election, January 31, 2005. The second chunk is from 1/2’s time in Hit, Anbar province, in early 2006.
There’s no graphic violence, but the video is still NSFW because of expletive-heavy gruntspeak and a flash of a porn magazine.
After my last trip to Iraq in 2006, I told myself I would return. I’d go to the places I patrolled with the marines and to the homes I stomped into and out of as an appendage of their squads. As an embedded journalist, I learned little about Iraqi people’s lives, other than what these lives looked like when instantly disrupted and upended. Next time, I would go without bulletproof vest or Kevlar helmet — and without the retinue of troops. I would listen and learn. I figured I’d be able to make this trip in five, maybe six years, once the the conflict ended or at least ebbed. But there is no end or ebb on the horizon.
A decade ago to this day I was rattling around the belly of an assault amphibious vehicle just a few miles into Iraq. I had overnighted with a U.S. Marine section at Camp Scania, a giant way station for military and contractor convoys heading north from Kuwait. Minutes before folding myself into the AAV, a gunnery sergeant briefed his men. “Ninety-nine percent of the people want us here,” the gunny said as I hovered with my cameras. “The other one percent, we’re going to fucking kill… Stay sharp the rest of the fucking way. Trust your training and trust your fucking senior marines.”
I remember rumbling past a family of salt harvesters, a young boy and girl begging, a plot of sunflowers, then a group of men washing cars along the roadside. “We pass through the first real city — buildings with stores and homes; folks on the street. I hear birds singing,” I wrote in my journal that night. ” I had prepared myself for pure desolation. This town was beat up and dusty, but still alive.
Minutes later, we pulled into Forward Operating Base Iskandariyah. It was 1430 hours, July 21, 2004.
On my second full day at FOB Iskan, mortars dropped from the air onto the far end of the base, where I was staying with the battalion’s weapons company. Grunts hustled me into the bottom of a packed bomb shelter. I heard shouting and bellowing from the entrance 30 feet away and above me.
Later, I learned that Vincent Sullivan, a marine sniper, had been killed. Others, among them a sergeant named DeBoy, had been hit by shrapnel. I asked myself then, if I had moved just one second faster, would Sullivan be alive, DeBoy unscathed?
I spent several weeks on base and off in surrounding towns—Musayyib, Haswah, and Iskandariyah. Each day, I observed the troops with Iraqis. I watched these young American men struggle and improvise without guidance, on the fly. I watched Iraqis, men and women, shrink and submit, stand up to and challenge the marines. A good day was when no one got hurt or killed, even if nothing got fixed or solved.
I made two more trips to Iraq to cover the unit, 1st Battalion/2d Marines, in 2005 and 2006, and the impact of the occupation on Iraq.
After coming home, I scoured the Department of Defense list of troops killed in action for familiar names once a day, and I would find some. I Googled “Iskandariyah” and the other towns every few hours. And I kept Iraq war-related sites open on my desktop, from boot-up in the morning to shutdown at night.
A year later, I checked the casualty list once a day, Iraq news three or four times.
Five years later, I surfed my way to Iraq news and the DoD list once a week, maybe.
Now, ten years on, I peek at Iraq news only when it finds me through the throbbing headlines.
I Google my old places. “Iskandariyah,” the city I spent the summer of 2004 with 1st Battalion/2d Marines: June 2, a car bomb killed at least two people and injured 10. May 12: “Two police officers were killed while trying to defuse a bomb in Jurf al-Sakhar, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Baghdad.” March 18: “A bombing in Haswa killed one person. Two other people were wounded in a separate blast.”
I don’t know what to say or to do as the always-simmering violence explodes and our policymakers and pundits debate taking the same well-worn and deadly paths once again, but I would at least like to know the names of these people we call “casualties.”
On a run last week, Erin had noticed that Oakland Cemetery, which we’d never visited, had sprouted Confederate flags. We went back to look today, figuring we’d find another memorial to the mythical Southern Way of Life and the Lost Cause.
Instead, we found a 65-year-old white woman named Marquita talking to a younger black woman and a black man amid the headstones. The black woman, angry and crying, was struggling to find her father’s burial site. The man was there to put flowers on his daughter’s grave, now an overgrown patch of weeds, and to find another family member.
Marquita, who recently joined the Daughters of the Confederacy at her brothers’ behest, also has relatives buried at Oakland. Black and white buried together, something we haven’t seen in old, post–Civil War and segregation-era cemeteries around here.
We walked up to the group as Marquita explained to the woman why she couldn’t find her dad’s grave. The cemetery’s owner, Allen Simmons, had buried people every which way—casket atop casket, pointing this way and that, under walkways—with or without permits. Over the years, Simmons and his company, Oakland Estates & Grounds LLC, got hauled into Hampton court and dinged for misdemeanors like “improper upkeep of cemetery.” Found guilty more than a few times, Simmons was fined—$2,500, $1,000, $500—didn’t pay, and kept on disrespecting the dead.
In 2005, Simmons told a reporter from the Daily Press, the local paper, exactly where he stood: “I kind of agree with the city. They have something to complain about,’” he said. ‘But our plan is to abandon the cemetery because we have no funds.’” And abandon it he did; and then he died.
The Commonwealth of Virginia doesn’t want to take responsibility for Oakland, nor does the city of Hampton. There are, however, plots at Oakland that are picture perfect—headstones upright, grass manicured. Families with means take care of these, but only these.
So, like the city’s primarily African American cemeteries, this rare integrated burial ground would be totally consumed by nature if not for a band of volunteers.
Marquita is a voluble woman, today wearing a cowboy hat glittered in blue with white stars to match the stripeless corner of Old Glory. I hope she won’t mind me calling her eccentric, because she is. She’s adopted Oakland, along with a group of people she calls family—Tim, a Son of the Confederacy, who was cutting the grass on his new riding mower; Sarah (I think that was her name), who was doing the same on the old one; and others. When Erin and I arrived, they had all been trying to help the crying woman find her dad’s grave. They stuck a thin metal probe into the earth, hoping to hit stone or anything hard; then they dug a small hole. Nothing.
Marquita peeled off from the group to show me something at the far end of the cemetery, a heap of six headstones—all of them official Veterans Affairs, government–issued ones. African American service members, she told me. She and her comrades had pulled them from the woods but didn’t have the equipment to set them upright. She’d called the VA, she told me, and the local black chapter of the American Legion. More nothing.
As I stood there, this Daughter of the Confederacy—as in an actual member of that national organization—added a few more American flags to the ones she’d planted before we arrived.
Erin overheard Tim talking to the man who came to visit his daughter and find his relative’s grave marker. They didn’t find it—so Tim, the Confederate Son (this according to Marquita), dug a small hole in a spot where the grave might be, just the right size for the African American man to fit a vase of flowers. Tim asked where the daughter was buried and then piloted his mower over to the plot and cleaned it up. The man (he left before I got his name) then planted his second tribute, a bouquet of white flowers.
As we pedaled away, Erin waved goodbye to Tim. He returned the gesture with the flag he was holding, the Confederate stars and bars.
The University of Alabama’s student government may have flip-flopped its way into the 21st century. In mid-April, UA’s senate voted to adopt a resolution supporting the racial integration of the school’s nearly all-white fraternities and sororities after killing a similar measure just a few weeks earlier.
On its face, this is a historic move. To alumna Jessica Patrick, it may very well be “a step in the right direction” toward greater diversity. Patrick—Jessica Thomas while at UA and now a an attorney in Nashville—was the subject of Bama Girl, a documentary that chronicled her 2005 campaign to become UA’s first African American homecoming queen. (Along with other candidates of color, she lost.)
History, however, gives us ample reason for skepticism. Former governor George Wallace made his notorious stand in 1963 on the steps of the school’s auditorium for the “southern way of life,” known nowadays as “state-sanctioned racial discrimination,” and against the enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood. More recently, UA has made national news for eruptions of old-school Dixie racism in the social sphere. The Crimson White, the school newspaper, ran an exposé in 2013 of the systematic exclusion of African Americans from prominent and powerful white fraternities and sororities.)
The recent resolution is a symbolic statement by students, not a plan of action that commits anyone to do anything, including the school’s administration. But it is something, one might say. “It’s only a step forward, but it is a step forward, and it should be encouraged,” University of Alabama law professor Paul Horwitz said in an email.
The Root requested comment from the University President’s office about the measure but received only a general statement asserting the university’s commitment “to a welcoming and inclusive campus.” University President Judy Bonner did speak out against the segregation of and discrimination by white Greeks last year after the Crimson White’s 2013 investigation, which revealed that two high-achieving African American women had been rejected by 16 sororities. (The U.S. Justice Department found that situation so serious it assigned a U.S. Attorney to monitor the situation.)
Nathan James, a Crimson White columnist, sees the yes vote as a straight-up PR move. “It’s clear from the previous vote where our senators’ loyalties lie, and that hasn’t changed because media pressure forced them to backpedal,” he wrote in an email to The Root. The “pressure” James describes built up after national and international news media hammered student government’s March 2014 decision to kill the first “diversity resolution.”
Terence Lonam, a progressive activist on campus from the class of 2017, is similarly skeptical. “When the last SGA senate voted to kill the original integration resolution, which I think honestly represented the state of race relations in Greek life at Alabama, I was horrified but not shocked – the powers that control a large segment of my campus, namely the Machine, are stuck to traditions that have kept them in power with relative ease.”
The Machine? Yes, “the Machine,” a secret society with deep roots in the muck of Jim Crow whose members are chosen from 28 of the school’s white Greek societies. The Machine has fought the move to integrate the Greeks through the immense—and stealthy—political power it wields in student government. A chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon, an umbrella organization of historically white Greeks founded in 1870, the Machine has operated and schemed at UA for a century. No surprise that it’s kissing cousin to Yale’s Skull & Bones.
So how does the Machine run? “UA’s Greeks vote in a bloc,” explains James, “they always elect representatives from a specific set of Greek organizations; these representatives, once elected, fight to preserve a segregated Greek system; students who run against Machine-backed candidates are frequently the targets of harassment and death threats; and elections featuring Greek candidates are frequently affected by voter fraud.”
“Death threats” leaps off the page. So we asked James to substantiate that charge. He provided links to news stories, including one from CNN, in which students made credible claims of such threats and other forms of nefarious Machination. Some, like the CNN.com piece, are more than a decade old. Others are quite recent.
“The Machine shouldn’t be overestimated, but the simple fact of its continued secretive status should be recognized as an obstacle to everything else the University of Alabama, its students and administration, want to achieve,” said Horwitz.
He writes with some authority. His wife, Kelly, was defeated in a Tuscaloosa city—not UA campus—election for Board of Education by Cason Kirby, a 26-year-old recent UA law school grad and former SGA president, under dodgy circumstances. AL.com ’s reporter on the UA beat, Melissa Brown, and others reported on emails sent to voting-age students by Machine-connected Greeks, pledging free booze and limo rides to the polls. (Kirby, a former member of Kappa Sigma, a frat identified in the Crimson White investigation as Machine-connected, did not return a phone call from The Root.)
Horwitz notes that grassroots opposition to Machine politics cannot be ignored. “Some of the most important moments on campus this year—complaints and marches about continued segregation, resistance against adults who were involved, disgust with corrupt voting-bloc tactics that spilled off campus this year and into the local school board elections—came about because of undergraduates, mostly in the sororities, who were disturbed by what they saw and heard and willing to put themselves on the line to do something about it.”
So where does that leave us? With a student organization that has Alabama influence and national ties and clings tenaciously to inherited privilege and power. It may not be able intimidate and machinate with impunity as it did when it still had Jim Crow muscle, but it remains an influential and clandestine political bloc —members do not acknowledge the group’s existence—at a public university with a long history of racial discrimination.
The Machine’s power endures in large part because the UA’s leaders, the adults in the administration, have chosen to remain silent about the group for decades upon decades. Their silence equals tacit approval. That tacit approval amounts to active support for a secret clan of hyperempowered and historically privileged youth to discriminate.
“The Machine is not all-powerful or all-important,” Professor Horwitz wrote in a recent Crimson White op-ed. “But as long as it’s around, every other problem will be that much more intractable. It needs to become a public, accountable group. Or it must be killed, forcefully and publicly.”
Charles Byrd drove his front-end loader to the end of the gravel road. He cut the engine, hopped out of the cab, and nodded at me. “That’s Maggie Walker’s grave,” Mr. Byrd said. I had just photographed the curved headstone without noticing who it honored, Maggie Lena Walker: savings bank founder, newspaper publisher, civic leader, Jim Crow battler, daughter of an enslaved woman.
Under my feet.
Mr. Byrd, a contractor, said he was heading to the mausoleum that Mr. Harris, who was working in another part of Evergreen Cemetery, had told him about. He took a narrow, grass footpath that looked promising into the trees.
Mr. Byrd shouted for me in barely a minute.
As you approach from the side, the crypt looks more stately than spooky. The part of the building that isn’t obscured by leaves and branches appears solid. Tendrils of ivy creep down the walls from its roof. But as you swing around to the front, down a slight hill, you see tragedy head on—a huge, ragged hole has been punched through the cinderblock façade. I gather that the ugly gray bricks had been laid to cover an earlier desecration of the original door. The name carved into the stone at the top of the structure is “Braxton.”
We stared into the hole at the exposed coffins.
“Why would somebody do something like this,” Mr. Byrd said, not asking me, just saying.
I feel this whenever I document human ugliness: a surge of adrenalin and my news reporter’s predatory hunger mashed up with disgust and anger. Sadness, too.
Rust had destroyed the finish of the casket directly in front of us. The fixtures were busted. The lid had been wrenched off. The two caskets to the right had been dragged off their shelves as far as they would come. The floor was heaped with shattered headstones, trash, a woman’s wig. It seemed that the people who did this had plenty of time to destroy and despoil. We didn’t know how awful the story was—the dead had been pulled from their caskets—until afterward, when we Googled our way to video a by KIDA Productions. (Scroll down to “Evergreen Cemetery: History in Ruins.”)
Evergreen Cemetery is enormous. It’s part of a patchwork of African American graveyards that covers acres of Richmond’s east side, East End Cemetery among them. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of graves have been absorbed by the forest. They are invisible beneath the green and brown tangle. Volunteers from the Virginia Roots Cemetery Restoration Project, local colleges, professional landscapers, even the army’s Fort Lee do regular cleanup operations. A local chapter of black fraternity Omega Psi Phi minds the plot where Walker and John Mitchell, Jr., editor of the Richmond Planet, are buried. But nature is very aggressive here, hard to fight with limited resources; the cemetery’s owners made no provision for perpetual care, which led to its current state. And then there are the vandals. (Volunteer wrangler John Shuck tells us that “an issue” with the owners of Evergreen has ended cleanup efforts there. Volunteers are now working at East End. Here’s a link to their Work Calendar for folks who want to pitch in.)
In red marker, someone has written on the center coffin, “God Sees All”; and at the rim of the hole, “Smile. Your [sic] On Camera.” Perhaps a deterrent to further outrages. Perhaps not.