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On Full Disclosure

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Usually, I begin my explanation of why and how I made my documentary, Full Disclosure, with my first trip to Iraq as an “embedded journalist” in 2004.

Occasionally, when I have an especially enthusiastic audience, I’ll start earlier, in 2002, when I left my job as a CNN correspondent. But beginning so far back feels like indulging in nostalgia. Given the dire situation in Iraq today, the generally superficial and timid coverage in corporate media, and the apparent lack of attention and concern among Americans—and many Europeans—this is no time for nostalgia. So I will start in the present.

There are roughly two million Iraqi refugees, the majority of them living in Syria and Jordan. “Iraqi authorities estimate that an additional 2.7 million people have been internally displaced, most of them since the US-led invasion of 2003,” says the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq. These numbers haven’t changed significantly in years.

The UN’s Inter-Agency Information and Analysis Unit reports that Iraq’s food prices doubled between 2004 and 2008. That’s a greater increase than the shockingly high global rate of 73 percent. The rise in food prices “has contributed to the increase in the Iraqi poverty rate,” IAU says.

And it continues: “Only half the Iraqi population has access to safe water regularly…. Fifty percent of Iraq’s untreated wastewater is discharged into rivers and canals.”

“Almost one-third of the 1,809 Public Health Centers are reported to have ‘deteriorated’ due to lack of maintenance, lack of supplies, reduced or unskilled health workers.”

On the political front, Iraqis themselves are working toward creating a post-occupation system of governance, sometimes in concert, often at cross-purposes along sectarian lines. Parliament passed important revisions to the election law which, among other things, will allow “open lists,” meaning citizens can vote for individual candidates rather than a party’s full slate, as was the case in the January 2005 national elections.

Violence has decreased—though sporadic and horrific bombings occur periodically—but the tension, deep divisions, and anger that caused it remain.

The United States has roughly 128,000 troops in Iraq. There are more than 126,000 civilian contract employees working for US agencies. As of the end of the thrid quarter of Fiscal Year 2009, 13,232 of these were private security contractors—mercenaries, in plain English—according to the Government Accountability Office. In fact, during this quarter of FY 2009, the number of mercenaries/PSCs increased by 23 percent.

“Let me say this as plainly as I can: By August 31, 2010, our combat mission in Iraq will end,” President Barack Obama told the world in February. Attached to this promise was a little bit of not-so-fine print: 50,000 troops will remain for at least another year. Moreover, such a drawdown may cause the US to rely even more heavily on mercenary forces—some of which have been implicated in various crimes and abuses during the US occupation—to protect its enterprises and personnel.

The Financial Times reported recently that senior officials from the Bush administration who played a role in the occupation are now leading a commercial charge into Iraq. Zalmay Khalilzad, former US ambassador, has formed a company to advise corporations planning to do business in Iraq. Jay Garner, the former US Army general who served as the first American pro consul in Iraq, is an adviser to Vast Exploration, a Canadian oil company doing business in Kurdistan.

This is the situation in November 2009, nearly seven years after the US invaded Iraq. A young Marine who has become a friend spoke of the “liberation” of Iraq at a CUNY Journalism Graduate School panel discussion in which we both participated. I disagreed with him, respectfully. After the administration of President George W. Bush mounted a calculated, coordinated, and fundamentally deceitful plan to take the nation to war, the US destroyed Saddam’s tyrannical regime by force of arms. But in that plan there was no consideration of the potential impact on Iraqis, no understanding of the nation or its people, no outline for the future of the already-broken nation we invaded, and, after the fact, very little interest in remediating the damage we had done. What type of liberation is this? Leaving aside the throbbing moral questions, creating instability in Iraq didn’t advance our national security interests, though it has been, and promises to be, a boon for those who’d hitched their wagon to President Bush and Co. Foreign policy “realists” point out that there has been no appreciable national security benefit. In fact, we are less safe for having launched a “preventive war,” a war of choice.

And now national ADHD kicks in and we turn our attention to “AfPak”—refining our counterinsurgency strategy, launching drone strikes and Special Forces and CIA operations in both countries, propping up the inept and corruption-riddled regime of Hamid Karzai, whom I interviewed in 2002 for CNN. (Not an inspiring figure, to put it kindly.) We seem to have smarter policy makers this time around, but it’s essentially the same policy.

–––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––

In 2004, Iraq, not Afghanistan, was the war, the one that garnered American attention. I wanted to cover it.

I thought reporting from Iraq would be difficult, possibly dangerous, but that it would be relatively straightforward—observe, document, publish.

My reasons for going were mixed. I didn’t believe the Bush administration’s case for war. “News” coverage by most mainstream media, including my former employer CNN, was little more than cheerleading for the invasion and occupation. I could do better job, I told myself. Also, I felt responsible to witness and report on actions taken by my government, ostensibly in my name.

But I had other reasons that I didn’t mention aloud. Ever.

Ego. While covering the US military as a photojournalist in the 1990s, I discovered that I had a surprisingly large reservoir of repressed machismo inside me. As much as I mistrusted state power and was often critical of America’s use of military force, I was attracted viscerally to the brotherhood of the armed forces—the sense of purpose, duty, and honor. Moreover, my dad had served in the Army. As much as he said he hated his experience—he was a black man serving in the 1950s, when racial discrimination defined American society—he still proudly told tales of his service. And I remembered them.

Vanity. I was on the verge of 40 and I’d never covered a real war. This is a rite of passage for “serious” journalists, at least according to conventional wisdom. I simply couldn’t stay on the sidelines.

As a political progressive—and as a black American who identifies strongly with the ordinary people who wind up on the business end of the war machine, not the decision makers—I found these feelings odd, embarrassing, but nonetheless powerful. With these and my other more noble impulses, I went to war.

I decided to embed with the US military for cold, hard reasons: I spoke no Arabic; I didn’t have enough money to pay for translators, transport, and protection; and I had no major news organization supporting me. (I shot still photos on a freelance basis for Sipa Press and wrote dispatches for the website PixelPress.org.)

I reasoned that my identity—progressive, minority, student of history, mature in comparison to 20-something US Marines—would allow me to maintain critical, professional distance from the men I lived with and covered.

It didn’t work out that way.

Fundamentally, to “embed” with the military means becoming a member of a unit, a kind of nonfunctioning, dependent addition to a squad or platoon, to be sure, but still a part of it. One lives, eats, and sleeps with the troops, men—and in this case the unit was all men, because women aren’t allowed to serve in direct combat roles—who keep one alive.

Over the weeks I was with the unit, First Battalion/Second Marine Regiment, I felt myself becoming closer to the men, in spite of myself. There were times when I didn’t ask hard questions I should have, that I put my camera down when I should have shot. Later, I recognized it as a subconscious desire to protect the young men I was with. Proximity and dependence breed affinity. That’s the genius of the Pentagon’s embedding system.

After coming home from Iraq, I realized I had fallen short of the goal I set for myself: to tell clear and uncensored stories of what I witnessed. No one censored me, but there were times I censored myself. I served no one by doing this, certainly not the Iraqis I met while on Marine patrols; not the Marines, who were put in harm’s way to kill and be killed under a veil of half-truths and lies; and not myself.

It was easy to see the Marines as unique individuals—nice guys with wives and kids back home in the States. But I needed to remember that each time they ventured into the streets of Iraqi cities, into the living rooms and kitchens of Iraqi families, they served as powerful, sometimes deadly, instruments of America’s government.

So I went back twice more, in 2005 and 2006, to try to get it right, to tell a fuller, less mediated story. Full Disclosure is the result of that process.

The documentary consists largely of vérité footage and interviews I shot in Iraq. It offers a view of the US occupation of Iraq from my vantage point, first in Babil province, and then in Anbar, Iraq, from 2004 to 2006. In 2007 and 2008 in the US, I follow one Marine I patrolled with in Iraq, Staff Sergeant David Marino. Over the course of several interviews, he reveals the damage two Iraq tours did to him, while also confronting the damage he inflicted in Iraq.

Full Disclosure is not a war movie that emphasizes “bang-bang.” Life in Iraq during the times I visited was cyclical, with long periods of tedium punctuated by blasts of terror. The terror was dramatic and terribly significant, but the tedium was just as important.

I concentrate on the seemingly ordinary stretches of time during which US troops—young men trained to fight and destroy and who speak no Arabic—move among Iraqi civilians, conducting house searches, running routine foot patrols, pulling checkpoint duty, and escorting civil-affairs missions.

They didn’t know the culture or history of Iraq. They were not equipped to do the things that Iraqis needed most: mediation, negotiation, construction—in a word, healing. They often operated without the support of experienced advisers, and frequently without capable translators. And yet our political leaders ordered them to undertake a bewildering array of tasks, among them finding an enemy they could not see and winning the “hearts and minds” of the rest of the population. This put a heavy burden on US troops. But the greatest burden was—and still is—borne by Iraqis.

Full Disclosure doesn’t end in Iraq. It follows Staff Sergeant Marino at home as he battles post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. It also includes essential information about incidents shown on screen gleaned from official US military documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

As we approach the seventh anniversary of the invasion and the Obama administration speaks of a drawdown of the U.S. “combat” presence, we as a nation have not addressed the consequences of our actions in Iraq. And we have not yet bothered to examine how the record of our policies and practices in Iraq might affect future civil-military endeavors in countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond. I want Full Disclosure to serve as such an examination—and as a cautionary tale for future US military enterprises.

A version of this story will appear in the new Stockholm-based magazine Independent World Report.

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Written by bxpnyc

2009/11/14 at 20:14

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