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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.”

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.

Jingo(ism) Unchained: Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty may turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year. For some.

The film, now in limited release (and opening for real January 11), delivers a bounty of bangs and booms, and swaggering American heroes torturing swarthy bad guys—with no consequences—packaged in a ripping yarn.

The yarn: A waifish and improbably fragile CIA operative, played by Jessica Chastain, spends 12 years doggedly tracking Osama bin Laden, countenancing and supervising torture of detainees—beatings, waterboarding—along the way. As ZDT has it, her work led us to bin Laden’s fortress hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Navy SEALs dropped in and killed him and several members of his family. As she flies home alone in the belly of a military cargo plane after the deed is done, she sheds a tear. Roll credits.

Only the last part of the story line, the SEALs bit, resembles the most authoritative versions of what actually happened (much information about the operation and the intel that led to it is classified). The rest is a brutal Hollywood fantasy, a kind of jingo(ism) unchained, that stretches deep into the movie and corrupts it.

Several critics have taken a lighten up, it’s just a movie tack. Makers of fictional films have dramatic license to pump up a story, after all. Screenwriters and directors composite dreary real-life humans into a single, sexy dynamo, like Chastain’s Agent Maya, all the time. They add a boom here and a boom there, where no booms should be. No harm in that.

Problem one: The film itself asserts that ZDT is based on facts and firsthand testimony. But this is the least important flaw. The real concern for me is, there is a bar for fidelity to history— particularly such recent and raw history—that must be vaulted in a film that begins as Zero Dark Thirty does: with 911 audio from doomed callers trapped in the Towers on 9-11, which implicitly justifies what comes next. ZDT’s makers appear to have crawled under that bar without ever glancing up.

(Jane Mayer, who’s been writing about torture for the New Yorker for years, and Glenn Greenwald unravel the film’s fabric of distortion, seemingly stitch by stitch.)

Arabic-speaking FBI agent Ali Soufan, among other truly dogged investigators, blazed the path to bin Laden by extracting information from al Qaeda enablers and operatives like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He did it by talking to them.

“Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present,” Soufan wrote in a 2009 New York Times op-ed, “I questioned [Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.”

Soufan continues: “There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.” Soufan also notes that many Americans assigned to investigations and detainee interrogation, including CIA agents, objected to the torture that was being carried out.

A long line of men and women who are in a position to know what happened have stepped up to challenge ZDT’s adaptation of real-life events, including some of our elected officials.

Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and raging liberal John McCain have taken on ZDT directly in a letter to the director: “Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.” They’re not denying that torture took place. The senators are saying, unequivocally, that the true road to bin Laden did not begin, as it does in the film, with the violent extraction of vital information by a charming and strategically cruel CIA agent through beatings and waterboarding. “Everyone breaks in the end,” the interrogator tells his captive. “It’s biology.” This is, of course, untrue. Not everybody breaks. Most people lie. And some people die.

All three senators serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which recently completed a 6,000-page report, approved by a nine-to-six vote, that also states torture did not play a role in the mission to kill bin Laden.

Journalist Mark Bowden, however, writes in his recent book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden that two detainees, Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Mohammed al-Qahtani, did in fact provide actionable intelligence when tortured that aided the bin Laden hunt. “It should […] be noted this effort did involve torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation methods.”

Assuming that Bowden is correct and that some information was beaten or boarded out of Qahtani and Slahi, others in the know like Soufan tell us that using brain, not brawn—or dogs or Metallica cranked to 11—elicits better information more reliably.

Ultimately, torture boomerangs on the nation that authorizes it—us—by inciting others to retributive violence and fouling bona fide efforts to root out terrorism, not just kill terrorists (or those suspected of being terrorists).

We tortured Qahtani,” Susan Crawford, the Bush administration official who oversaw military commissions for Guantanamo detainees, told the Washington Post. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case for prosecution.”

“War crimes charges against Mr. al Qahtani have been dismissed but may be refiled,” the NY Times reported recently.

“Of the cases I had seen, he was the one with the most blood on his hands,” Stuart Couch, the Marine lieutenant colonel assigned to prosecute Mohamedou Ould Slahi (also rendered Salahi), told the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

But: “Col. Couch would uncover evidence [that] the prisoner had been beaten and exposed to psychological torture, including death threats and intimations that his mother would be raped in custody unless he cooperated,” reporter Jesse Bravin wrote. Couch told his commander he was “morally opposed” to the methods used on Slahi, and declined to the take the case.

“I’m hoping there’s some non-tainted evidence out there that can put the guy in the hole,” Couch said. Both Qatani and Slahi have been held in limbo at Guantanamo for more than 10 years.

The Senate Select Committee’s report is classified, but may be released one day. That said, we will never know the whole story. The CIA’s former deputy director of operations, Jose Rodriguez, who has asserted for the record (and in his own book, Hard Measures) that torture works, destroyed videotapes documenting “coercive interrogation.” Ninety-two tapes, he told Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes.

Zero Dark Thirty does terrible violence to the story on which it is based, the real story of the hunt for bin Laden. It popularizes a narrative that justifies inhumane and self-defeating practices. Fundamentally, in my view, it does a disservice to those who died trying to track down bin Laden the right way, and it dishonors those who lost their lives to the terrorist himself.

Making the ground talk

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Snowden, Goochland VA, November, 2012

Snowden, Goochland VA, November 2012

The backyard of Snowden, a pre–Civil War brick plantation home in Goochland County, Virginia, is the James River Valley. The yellow-brown fields, bare except for remnants of cornhusks and stalks, dip and rise into a stand of trees where a few cows nibble whatever cows nibble in late November. The landscape is beautiful but austere. I know it’ll look very different in the spring, reassuringly green, but still I marvel that men like my great-grandfather Mathew Palmer were able to coax pounds of tobacco and bushels of corn, wheat, and oats from this folding, sloping terrain. But I’m not a farmer, like Mat, his children, and my father, when he was a very young man.

View of the valley from rear of Snowden, Photo by Erin, November 2012

View of the valley from rear of Snowden, Photo by Erin, November 2012

It’s quiet, and I’m alone for the moment. My wife, Erin, explores the grounds, tended only by a flock of mildly curious sheep. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to imagine Mat and this place as it was in 1860. He would have been just shy of 20 years old, if the scant records kept of his life are accurate. I have a tough time visualizing. Scenes from the melodramatic 1970s miniseries Roots muddy my efforts.

Snowden from the rear, Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer, November 2012

Snowden from the rear, Photo by Erin Hollaway Palmer, November 2012

Almost a year after first standing at my great-grandfather’s grave, I have gathered only a few fragments of his life. But they are telling, a promising beginning.

Finding a single photograph of Mat took months—plus luck, and the kindness and generosity of distant relatives. They assured me a portrait of Mathew hung on the wall of their church, directly across from the pastor’s office. I asked how I might go about getting permission to see it. Permission? Just come to church on Sunday, they said.

The photo itself appears to be a copy of a copy of a copy—it’s grainy and a mushy gray—circa 1910, which would put him in his late 60s. But I see the man. Long, gaunt face. High cheekbones. I read his expression as something between grim and determined. In him I see my grandfather Lewis, of whom there are several crystal clear photos. And I see my dad just before he died last year, when the fat of relative prosperity had disappeared from his face. All of these men were extraordinary ordinary people, men who faced discrimination and poverty stoically, at least in public, bore their burdens, and moved forward.

Mat Palmer, circa 1900, Williamsburg, VA

Mat Palmer, circa 1900, Williamsburg, VA

It’s easier to visualize what life might have been like for my great-grandfather’s likely owner, who lived at Snowden. The white, slave-owning gentry, of which Alexander Maben Hobson was a member, gathered their own stories and fashioned them into “history”; their comings, goings, and doings were deemed important enough to record.

Erin and I also happen to be staying at a marvelously appointed bed and breakfast, Clover Forest Plantation, the former home of Hobson’s in-laws, the Pembertons. The families were as close as their plantations, which are next door to each other. This morning, we breakfasted with the Pemberton family patriarch, Thomas, a Revolutionary War veteran. The captain surveys the green landscape from horseback in the portrait above the fireplace. If Pemberton, a planter with 55 enslaved people in 1810, could look down from his perch, he’d spy an interracial couple eating omelets and just-fried beignets on heirloom china in what used to be his bedroom.

Maben Hobson served during the Civil War with the 4th Virginia Cavalry. Company muster rolls, “regimental returns,” and a host of other documents I got from Richmond’s  Museum of the Confederacy show that he was absent from duty because of illness about as much as he was present. Whatever ailed him, killed him. “He lay ill for six weeks, and then died a struggling painful death without uttering one word to give us hope that he made peace with God!” his sister-in-law Annie wrote in her wartime diary.

“God grant that I may not stand again by such deathbed,” she wrote in December 1863, two months after Hobson passed. “He was raving in delirium all the time, his death throes were like a woman’s in travail, his deep sephulcral voice—articulation and modulation almost gone—sound in my ears now.”

Frame grab from Mat Palmer's Union pension application

Frame grab from Mat Palmer’s Union pension application

Mat Palmer also served during the Civil War. This is where his trail begins. Somehow—I’m trying to determine this now—he traveled from Goochland to Richmond, where he enlisted in 1865 with the United States Colored Troops, the Union Army’s 180,000-strong African American arm. After the war, he married a woman from Gloucester County named Julia, about whom we know next to nothing, because black women mattered even less than black men to those compiling records.

They settled near the banks of the York River, not far from Williamsburg, carved a farm from the swampy land, and raised 12 children, including Lewis, my grandfather. Julia died in 1910, Mat in 1927, outliving Hobson by a good 64 years. They deeded their property to their children—and a decade and a half later, the government took it away.

Using eminent domain under the Second War Powers Act, the Navy condemned and seized my family’s property—and that of hundreds of other families, black and white—to expand a training base for “Seabees,” navy construction battalions, during World War II. Compensation was meager, and for blacks, many of whom lived at the subsistence level, not nearly enough to establish themselves elsewhere. My father, Eddie, recalled the eviction vividly. “They ordered some families in Magruder to leave their homes and they gave them 60 days or so to prepare to leave, abandon their property completely because it’s going to be bulldozed,” my dad told me. “The Seabees were marching in the back of our home, our homes, before we left, before they settled with my father. My father refused to leave until he was paid his money. When he saw a check, that’s when we moved,” my dad recalled. That was Lewis Palmer—tough, dogged, unafraid—whose settlement with the government, more than $1,700, was several times what many black families received.

If he had any innocence at age 14, and I suspect he did, much of it was stomped out of him after the dislocation and relocation. He died last year still embittered about the land seizure and how it decimated his—our—family’s fortunes.

Grave of Mathew Palmer, Mouquin's/Finger Road Cemetery, Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity–Camp Peary, VA, July 2012

Grave of Mathew Palmer, Mouquin’s/Finger Road Cemetery, Armed Forces Experimental Training Activity–Camp Peary, VA, July 2012

Mat’s grave is in a cemetery within the confines of Camp Peary, a Defense Department and CIA facility. What happens on base is classified, so visitors must always be escorted. I needed permission from the base commander to visit, which was granted.

I visited his grave in early 2012. I was so overwhelmed that Erin had to do much of my thinking for me. She framed the enormity of the paradox: Mat Palmer had been property before winning the right to own property. Land was the measure of citizenship, even the circumscribed and dangerously provisional form lived by black folk.

Mat is a piece of a past I did not know I had, an unrecognized piece of me that I’m working to reclaim.

Facing Race 2012, Baltimore MD

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Facing Race, the Applied Research Center‘s biannual conference on racial justice, culture, politics, and so many other things, wrapped Saturday night.

I struggled to keep my ears peeled as I photographed—so much knowledge, heart and soul filled the venue, the lovely Baltimore Hilton.

Folks talked honestly and intelligently about race and its intersections with gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, immigration status. Attendees discussed the massive obstacles to dragging these issues into the mainstream but mostly explored how to make progress toward social and racial justice both on that level and among ourselves.

Check out: #facingrace. ARC will be posting some of the sessions online.

Now: photos…

Keynote speaker Junot Diaz, November 16, 2012

Amirah Sackett, Khadijah Sifterlah-Griffin and her sister Iman perform “We’re Muslim, Don’t Panic,” November 17, 2012

Preconference session, November 15, 2012

Hosts comedian W. Kamau Bell and media technologist Deanna Zandt, November 16, 2012

Closing performance by kids in the conference’s childcare program, November 17, 2012