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Bacon in the chowhall and other images from Iskandariyah, Iraq, August 3-15, 2004

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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.

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Shouting Truth to Power at NDU

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I immediately recognized the top of Medea Benjamin’s blond head on my computer screen as she was being dragged out of President Barack Obama’s May 23rd address at the National Defense University. Benjamin is well known on Capitol Hill for her activism with Code Pink, specifically their antiwar protests and pickets that disrupt hearings and other official goings-on.

I had interviewed Benjamin in the late 1990s for a Fortune magazine piece about corporate social responsibility. Then, she was working with another social justice group she helped create, Global Exchange. The day after the president’s NDU speech, though, Benjamin was “The Heckler.”

Let’s be clear about our terms. Heckling is spewing insults at a stand-up comic under cover of darkness after six scotch and sodas too many. Benjamin, a veteran human rights campaigner and an antiwar activist—and the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control—was protesting. (USA Today called her a “protester” who “heckles.”) She was practicing the venerable and always controversial art of nonviolent civil disobedience to bring attention to—and intervene in—an issue of great importance to society. Such actions are, by definition, disruptive of business as usual—in this case a presidential address to the American public about national security to which the American public had not been invited.

Before making an appearance on Arise News to talk about the president’s speech, I called Benjamin to find out why she did what she did. [Here’s the link to the Arise segment, and to the entire show.]

“I was waiting until the very end,” Benjamin told me. She was waiting for him to say something “significant,” for specifics, not just the “standard blaming of Congress.” But she didn’t hear that.

So Benjamin interrupted our president: “There are 102 people on a hunger strike, these desperate people. Eighty-six are cleared for release. You are commander in chief. You can close Guantánamo today, and you can release those 86 prisoners!”

Who are the 86 Benjamin refers to? Ask Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, as the Voice of America did. “Of the 166 [prisoners] that are still there, there are 86 that have been cleared for transfer, which means that a joint task force made up of the CIA, Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Defense unanimously agreed that these 86 men didn’t commit a crime, we don’t intend to charge them, they don’t pose an imminent threat and we don’t want to keep them,” Davis told VOA.

The president doesn’t need to wait for Congress, nor does he need to issue an executive order to transfer the remaining prisoners from Guantánamo, where more than 100 prisoners are on a hunger strike. Thirty are being force-fed. Obama could issue a national security waiver to override restrictions Congress has placed on transfers,  Benjamin said. That’s what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the president—in a confidential memo leaked to the press, described in a Daily Beast article by Daniel Klaidman.

“Can you tell the Muslims that their lives are as precious as our lives?” Benjamin shouted at Obama. “Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activity? Will you compensate the families of innocent victims you have killed?”

These are questions of life and death, particularly for those on the business end of U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan, Yemen, and anywhere the administration chooses to exercise its still-classified policy of targeted killing. Questions to which the president provided no definitive answers.

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.

Invasion of Iraq, +10 years, Part 2

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U.S. Marine searches Iraqi visitors to the Forward Operation Base Iskandariya, which surrounded Musayyib power plant, August 7, 2004

U.S. Marine searches Iraqi visitors to Forward Operating Base Iskandariya, which surrounded Musayyib city’s power plant, August 7, 2004

Iraqis, nongovernmental organizations, and others are working to rebuild Iraq and end the sectarian strife. One can’t ignore their labor and sacrifice. Recent events, including today’s bombings, remind us that they face a terrible task. Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaeda offshoot, took credit for the murders. Al Qaeda followed the United States into Iraq, we should remember, not the other way around. (See pages 64 through 66 of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s September 8, 2006 report.)

Ken Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote a measured 10th-anniversary piece for CNN that also appears on HRW’s website. The title: U.S. Has Self to Blame for Iraq Failures.

HRW’s E.D. for the Middle East, Sarah Leah Whitson, has an even tougher assessment:

The U.S. legacy in Iraq reflects abuses committed with impunity by American and Iraqi forces throughout the U.S.-led occupation. The abuses set in motion over 10 years ago by the Bush administration’s ‘torture memos,’ and the brutal detention policies that followed, facilitated Iraq’s creation of a system that is today either unwilling or incapable of delivering justice to its citizens.

The recent investigation by BBC Arabic and the Guardian of the U.S. role in training murderous special police commando units give these charges teeth. The head of the effort, retired U.S. Army officer Jim Steele, played a similar role in El Salvador’s U.S.-sponsored “dirty war” against leftist guerrillas.

The Wall Street Journal reported recently that CIA paramilitary units are ramping up their support for Iraq’s Counterterrorism Service (CTS) as a hedge against violence spilling over the border from Syria. This is a force that reports directly to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has used elite units to mete out violence against his opponents and run secret prisons. The CTS, which has been “accused of committing serious abuses against detainees, worked closely with U.S. Special Forces before the U.S. troop withdrawal in 2011,” Whitson writes.

WSJ‘s writers fail to raise (or their editors failed to publish) the question of oversight of the CIA effort. Given that such initiatives have gone off the human-rights rails in the past, it’s kind of an essential question. That said, they may not have bothered because the answer is obvious: There will be no substantive checks or balances.

“[O]ur power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint,” President Barack Obama said in his first inaugural address. The record shows that humility and restraint do not blossom in the darkness of extralegal policy. Obama seems to have forgotten his own words and he will sacrifice lives as a result.

Invasion of Iraq, +10 years, Part 1

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I’m traveling through Virginia working on Make the Ground Talk, my second doc. I’m pausing with Erin at our favorite Hampton coffee shop, Blend, to note the anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War.

Marine with 24th MEU, hours before crossing the  border into Iraq from Kuwait, July 2004

Marine with 24 MEU, hours before crossing the border into Iraq from Kuwait, July 2004

Demonstration, Union Square, New York City

Demonstration, Union Square, New York City

U.S. forces crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq ten years ago today. The invasion toppled a dictator—and unleashed a sectarian war that continues. Our focus—the American focus—has been on the cost to us, particularly the service members killed and injured.

But the cost has been far greater for Iraqis. More to follow…

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

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