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There’s No Going Back: Iraq Ten Years Later

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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.

U.S. Marine convoy north from Kuwait to Iraq, July 18, 2004

U.S. Marine convoy north from Kuwait to Iraq, July 18, 2004

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.”

 

Marines from during north to Iraq from Kuwait, July 20, 2004

Marines from 1/2 AAV section during convoy north to Iraq from Kuwait, July 20, 2004

Iraqis harvest salt just across the border from Kuwait, July 21, 2004

Iraqis harvest salt just across the border from Kuwait, July 21, 2004

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.

1st Battalion/2d Marines AAV section arrives in Iskandariyah, July 21, 2004

1st Battalion/2d Marines AAV section arrives in Iskandariyah, 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.

Boy on construction team building birthing center funded and then defunded  by U.S. Army. Marines promised to resume support — if local leaders cooperated with them. Jurf-al-Sakhar, Iraq, August 8, 2004

Boy on construction team building birthing center funded and then defunded by U.S. Army. Marines promised to resume support — if local leaders cooperated with them. Jurf-al-Sakhar, Iraq, August 8, 2004

Marines from 1/2 Bravo Co., 2nd Platoon, checking for IEDs during a routine patrol, Babil Province, Iraq, August 20, 2004

Marines from 1/2 Bravo Co., 2nd Platoon, checking for IEDs during a routine patrol, Babil Province, Iraq, August 20, 2004

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.

July 19: “Baghdad bombings kill dozens.” “Obama’s Iraq dilemma: Fighting the ISIL puts US and Iran on the same side.” “Concern and Support for Iraqi Christians Forced by Militants to Flee Mosul.”

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.”

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Update from the Producer/Directors of Make the Ground Talk

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A few Saturdays ago, we led an audience at William and Mary’s Lemon Project Symposium on an audiovisual tour of the research we’ve done for our documentary, Make the Ground Talk. Our show started where we began our actual journey: Camp Peary, the military base that seventy years ago swallowed Magruder, the town where Brian’s father and his parents were born, and where the grave of his great-grandfather, Mat Palmer, still lies.

One of the most important things we’ve learned during our months of reading, talking, and filming—other than that Mat was a Union Army vet who had been a slave—is that many other historic black Tidewater communities were uprooted and displaced, usually by Uncle Sam, in the 20th century. Land was seized both by the government through eminent domain and by “market forces,” often large institutions that applied the tremendous economic and political power they wielded in pre–Civil Rights America.

We shared with folks at W&M—many Palmers as well as academics and others who have guided us this far—a realization we had a few months into our work. To do justice to the small story, that of Magruder and Brian’s family, we needed to tackle the much larger one: the series of evictions that erased a constellation of communities connected by family, church, and other fundamental bonds.

After the talk—we think it went well—we spent another week in Virginia, using Hampton as our base once again, to explore new places and meet people with stories about communities like Magruder, Uniontown, and Acretown. Najla Kurani told us how her grandparents, white folks who moved to Magruder from Indiana (by way of Panama!), found their property, coaxed food out of the poor soil, and then lost it to the Navy when everyone else did. With his wife, Louise, Brian’s cousin Horace Smith led us through Bible study, our first, and vividly described life in Grove, the place where many black Magruderites like the Palmers resettled. The club at Grove’s Log Cabin Beach on the James River was a stop on the Chitlin’ Circuit, the network of nightclubs across the South where black entertainers—Fats Domino, Little Richard, B.B. King, and many others—performed for black folks, who were banned from white clubs. The club’s DJ had a slogan, which Rev. Horace bellowed for us at his kitchen table: “Everybody’s gabbin’ about Log Cabin!”

But the archives were calling us, too. Family historians, women like Brian’s late Aunt Ethelyn and late cousin Jean who laid the foundation for our work, have said that the Palmers originated in Amelia County. Knowledge passed verbally from forbears tells us this. But there’s also some documentary evidence: A marriage register from York County lists Brian’s great-grandfather Mat’s parents, Winnie and Lewis, and his place of birth, Amelia. Other documents, though—actual affidavits attached to Mat’s Union Army pension application—point to Goochland County (which we visited in November). So we headed west to the Amelia County Clerk’s office to hunt for answers.

We’d been told this was the red (as in Romney, not Lenin, red) part of the state, so we’d braced ourselves for a tepid reception in both Amelia and neighboring Nottoway County, where we stayed. While hardly Kumbaya country, the small town of Blackstone is almost exactly half African American, half white. Cars in the Grey Swan Inn’s gravel lot sported Obama-Biden bumper stickers. Turns out these cars belonged to our lovely innkeepers, Jim and Christine Hasbrouck. (Even better, Jim roasts his own coffee. Need we say more?)

Amelia has a slightly different feel. Perhaps it’s the monument to the “Confederate Dead” smack in the middle of town, in front of the courthouse. At the antiques shop across the street, we came face to face with a man-size Sambo-esque statue to which someone—perhaps the shoppe’s frosty owner—has affixed a handwritten note in “dialect” talkin’ ’bout “massa.” The rotund figure is merely the largest in a collection of Jim Crow–era curios.

That said, our guide to the clerk’s archives, Juanita Booker, was African American, as were Leroy and Sylvia Hatcher, the proprietors of our lunch spot, Hatcher’s Dining and Catering—which is separated from Mammy Land by a tiny parking lot. We haven’t gotten used to these juxtapositions.

At the clerk’s office, we dug into ancient deed books, marriage registers, and volumes of wills in search of Mat Palmer’s parents. Since slaves were property and recorded as such in documents, we searched the names of potential owners, beginning with the Hobsons, the Goochland family that owned Mat. Dig, dig, dig. Sigh, sigh, sigh. Harrumph. Then, a familiar name: Maben, a family with multiple connections to the Hobsons. Erin found the names “Winney” and “Lewis No. 2”—one of three Lewises— and “child William,” in the will of one David Maben. We levitated and beamed for a few seconds, despite the shock of seeing these names listed among feather beds and farm animals. These may or may not be our Winnie—Winney?—and Lewis, but we’ve found one more thread to follow on our journey.

Detail from will of David Maben, Amelia County Circuit Court Clerk's office, Amelia Courthouse, Va., March 21, 2013

Detail from will of David Maben, Amelia County Circuit Court Clerk’s office, Amelia Courthouse, Va., March 21, 2013

Our next tasks: create a reel with segments of our strongest interviews and other video imagery, and—wait for it—our first fund-raising push. We’ll be setting up on either Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Stay tuned.

From the BXP photo archives: White House beat, 1995; Million Man March, 1995

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Counter Sniper Unit, US Secret Service Uniformed Division, California, May 21, 1995

Counter Sniper Support Unit, US Secret Service Uniformed Division, California, May 21, 1995

I spent a lot of time documenting political theater during my nearly three years as a Washington, DC-based photographer for US News & World Report—on Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, at the White House, and on the road with POTUS Bill Clinton.

I didn’t realize how extensively the national media colluded with those in power to produce photo ops and events until being a colluder myself. The apex was a trip to Hawaii with a White House advance team and other members of the national press corps. Our job: visit the venues for presidential speeches and other for-camera events and work with WH staffers to make the set look as good—as presidential—as possible.

For one outdoor address, official event planners had positioned the president’s podium with the sun behind it, which meant that the cameras collected on the press riser would be pointed directly into the glare. We got that taken care of, thank you very much.

Like many of the other thinking journalists on the beat, I enjoyed photographing the moments where the man behind the curtain was revealed. I shot the above photo of members of the Secret Service’s Counter Sniper Support Unit  on a rooftop behind Air Force One just before Clinton (and the press corps) left California after a series of events.

But US News provided me with many other amazing, even life-defining opportunities. Being posted to China was one of these. Of the domestic moments, though, one of the most important was covering the Million Man March. Although it was organized by the separatist Nation of Islam—which scared some people away and incited critics to tar the event before it occurred—the day was a rare and unprecedented celebration among black men. It was an opportunity to connect on their (our) own terms rather than ones carved out for us.

Traffic sign with enhancements, Washington, DC, September 23, 1995

Traffic sign with enhancements, Washington, DC, September 23, 1995

Million Man March, October 16, 1995

Million Man March, October 16, 1995

Fruit of Islam member at the end of the Million Man March, October 16, 1995

Fruit of Islam at the end of the Million Man March, October 16, 1995

From the BXP photo archives: Development and Finishing Institute, 2004

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I began my project on DFI, the Harlem finishing school, in April 2004 while debating the pros and cons of making my first trip to Iraq. Iraq essentially swallowed the next five years of my life, until I finished Full Disclosure.

That experience separated me from the more joyful side of photography and from my gentler, earlier work. Conflict images rose to the top of my selects pile; more life-affirming pictures usually sunk.

I’m revisiting work from before my travels, and I’m reconnecting with the issues and people that animated these images—and my life. (See below.)

Virginia Wrap, Feb. 5, 2013

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I’ve spent the last two-plus weeks in Virginia researching and interviewing for Make the Ground Talk, the documentary I’m making with Erin. We did the Richmond-Petersburg leg of the trip together, and she was here for a chunk of the current phase, Hampton-Williamsburg.

We’ve been hosted by my cousins Leon and Lois, and Joyce and Lankford Blair at the Magnolia House Inn. We have two homes away from home in Hampton.

Fortress Monroe, Hampton, Virginia, January 27, 2013

Fortress Monroe, Hampton, Virginia, January 27, 2013

Petersburg National Battlefield (Eastern Front), Virginia, January 19, 2013

Petersburg National Battlefield (Eastern Front), Virginia, January 19, 2013

We spent one Saturday at an oral history collection seminar at the College of William & Mary for the Lemon Project, an initiative undertaken by the school to unearth its unacknowledged roots in slavery. Brown University’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, spearheaded by former university president Ruth Simmons, provided a model for Lemon. (For history heads, the Committee’s final report is here.)

We must have done something right, because we’ve been invited to present our work at a Lemon Project symposium next month.

We’ve broadened—and deepened—the scope of the doc to include other African American towns, villages, and settlements that were uprooted in Virginia’s Tidewater, not just my great-grandfather and the vanished community of Magruder, where he lived. Turns out that many African American communities were wiped off the map to make way for a variety of installations and activities, and there are plenty of people interested in talking about them, including former residents and their descendants.

We’ve gathered a lot of material on this trip—documents, photos, audio and video interviews, broll—and plan to weave it into a new trailer during the coming weeks. We’ll shout when we have something to show.

BP

A Tree Grows in Hampton

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Emancipation Oak, Hampton University campus, January 1, 2013

Emancipation Oak, Hampton University campus, January 1, 2013, Erin Hollaway Palmer photo

We spent much of our last day in Virginia under the Emancipation Oak on the Hampton University campus. The weather was borderline miserable—wet, cold, gray—but it was the right place to be. It was also the right time to be there: 150 years from the day the Emancipation Proclamation became law.

People gathered beneath this tree in January 1863 to hear the Proclamation read for the first time in the South. Among the listeners were men and women who had escaped from bondage and sought freedom behind Union Army lines, in places like Hampton’s Ft. Monroe, a Union stronghold in secessionist Virginia. By the end of the Civil War, tens of thousands of African Americans had fled to the safety of the fort and its environs.

Ft. Monroe map by E. Sachse & Co., 1862

Ft. Monroe map by E. Sachse & Co., 1862

Long before the Proclamation, in May 1861, Union General Benjamin Butler had refused to return the escaped men and women to slaveholders. He shrewdly claimed these people as “contraband of war.” Wartime law allowed Butler to seize the “property” of those rebelling against the United States, and that’s precisely what Confederates considered their slaves to be.

"Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of "contrabands" at Foller's house," May 14, 1862, Photo by James F. Gibson, from the Library of Congress

“Cumberland Landing, Va. Group of ‘contrabands’ at Foller’s house,” May 14, 1862, Photo by James F. Gibson, from Library of Congress

While the strength and dignity of self-liberated black folks is made plain by photos such as the one above, it’s clear from cartoons that even “enlightened” journalists clung to patronizing and racist stereotypes—though you gotta love the bare-chested brother blowing a raspberry at Rhett Butler (no relation to Benjamin).

Political cartoon, circa 1861, from Library of Congress

Political cartoon, circa 1861, from Library of Congress

Harpers Weekly cartoon, June 29, 1861

Harper’s Weekly cartoon, June 29, 1861

Those gathered beneath the Oak had freed themselves, but they’d only stay free if the Union won the war. Historian Eric Foner reminds us in his op-ed in the New Year’s day issue of the New York Times that the Proclamation “could not even be enforced in most of the areas where it applied, which were under Confederate control.” But the document signaled Abraham Lincoln’s commitment to eradicating slavery and was a giant step toward the 13th Amendment, ratified at the end of 1865.

People started calling Ft. Monroe “Freedom’s Fortress,” and waves of so-called “contrabands” converged, and then dispersed across the area. They founded several communities radiating from Hampton; some, like the one that grew around the fort, were dubbed “Slabtown” for the ersatz materials freedmen used to build their shelters. More than a few of my ancestors undoubtedly settled in these encampments, which grew into towns. We visited the site of Yorktown’s Slabtown on our trip.

A path through what was once Slabtown, Yorktown, VA, December 31, 2012

A path through what was once Slabtown, Yorktown, VA, December 31, 2012

On our drive home north on Route 13, we passed through New Church, Virginia, on the border with Maryland. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this store, but each time the glowing sign reminds us of the durability and insidiousness of the Rebel myth.

Dixieland minmart/gas station, New Church, VA, January 1, 2013

Dixieland minimart/gas station, New Church, VA, January 1, 2013, Erin Hollaway Palmer photo

Dateline: Hampton, VA, December 29, 2012

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After coffee at Lamplighter Roasting Company—go if you’re within 50 miles of South Addison Street in Richmond—we found our way to Chop Suey Books (thanks, Toby!), where we seized the opportunity to feed our bulging Civil War library. The rest of the morning we spent rooting through dirt and tangled ivy for the grave of A. Maben Hobson, Brian’s great-grandfather’s probable owner.

BP @ Lamplighter Roasting Co., Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012 (Beverage: Black Eye)

BP @ Lamplighter Roasting Co., Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012 (Beverage: Black Eye)

Erin at Chop Suey Books, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

Erin at Chop Suey Books, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

FindAGrave.com told us Hobson is buried at Hollywood Cemetery, eternal home to thousands of dead Confederate soldiers and their president, Jefferson Davis. Ah, the Internet!

“Major Alexander Maben Hobson” appears in the cemetery’s records, complete with the location of his grave, but he is not in the ledger of interments kept at the main office. The assistant general manager pointed us toward Hobson’s probable plot and wished us luck.

Members of interlocking families—Hobsons, Mabens, Pembertons, Cullens—are packed into a small parcel of land in Section P. Many of the headstones are remarkably well preserved, including those of AMH’s parents, John Cannon (born in 1791 in Cumberland Co., VA; died 1873) and Mary Shaw Maben (“born at Dumfries, Scotland, April 10, 1795,” died 1871). Two of AMH’s children, both of whom died as infants, are there, too.

Hobson grave, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

John C. Hobson grave, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

We hunted, we pecked, but we saw no headstone for AMH. Erin felt a hard spot beneath the thick ground cover through her boots. Tugging back the ivy, we found the headstone of John Maben Cullen, son of James and Jane. Still no AMH. So close… (“The exact location of the grave is unknown,” the cemetery’s historian writes, “although it is possible he lies in an unmarked grave in the Hobson family plot.”)

On our way back to the main office, we spotted Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart’s grave—the bright red battle flags flapping in the winter pallor kind of gave it away. Moving to some white Southerners, perhaps, deeply saddening and kind of grotesque to us. Wounded at the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthourse in 1864, Stuart reportedly told his men, “I’d rather die than be whipped.” He got his wish.

Grave of James Ewell Brown Stuart, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

Grave of James Ewell Brown Stuart, Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA, December 28, 2012

Joyce and Lankford Blair welcomed us to the Magnolia House, their lovely Hampton inn (no, not the Hampton Inn, though we did stay at one in Richmond), with big hugs and half a dozen warm chocolate chip cookies. And here we are.

—BP. Additional reporting by EHP.