when the dust clears

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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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Naming the Dead…

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Naming the Dead is a project of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based nonprofit that monitors drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (NTD focuses on people killed in CIA drone strikes Pakistan.)

This from its mission statement: 

“In most cases, there is little information available about who the drones are really killing. Most of the dead – an estimated four-fifths of those killed – are believed to be militants. But their deaths are typically reported as a number – their names, origins and livelihoods remain a mystery.

For so many people to die in obscurity, unnamed and unacknowledged, is a tragedy. But it is a further tragedy that the public, and even policy makers, are unable to properly test whether drones are ‘highly precise weapons’ when so little is known about who is actually dying.

Through Naming the Dead, the Bureau aims to increase the transparency around this conflict and inform the public debate. Initially this project will record all names published in open-source material – in credible reports by journalists, in legal documents presented in court, in academic studies and in field investigations carried out by human rights groups.”

This is, in my view, is essential journalism that’s both hard-nosed and human-centered. 

Full Disclosure outtakes: Babil (2005) and Anbar (2006)

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I’m posting via Vimeo a series more favorite scenes I wasn’t able to fit into my 2008 documentary, Full Disclosure.

These scenes are from 2005 and 2006. (I didn’t shoot video in Iraq in 2004, only stills.) The first scenes focus on activities in Babil province during the run-up to the first post-Saddam election, January 31, 2005. The second chunk is from 1/2’s time in Hit, Anbar province, in early 2006.

There’s no graphic violence, but the video is still NSFW because of expletive-heavy gruntspeak and a flash of a porn magazine.

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.”