The Tahoma Activist

"Changing the Media, One Story at a Time"

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A heartfelt look at the costs of war

Dahr Jamail isn't your typical war correspondent. He didn't study journalism at an ivy-league school. He didn't come from a wealthy family or spend six years interning at the Washington Post. Dahr Jamail was an ordinary guy with an ordinary life who dropped everything to go to Iraq and tell the real story of what it's like to live in the middle of a violent occupation. Dahr Jamail is my hero.

[If you'd like to read an interview I did with him a year or so ago, check it out at my book website - www.americanpopulists.blogspot.com]


So who is this guy, who gave up a great life guiding climbing expeditions up Mt. McKinley to brave the bullets and car bombs of Baghdad and points "East, west, south and north somewhat"?*

Dahr was born in Texas to a conservative Republican family. His great-grandfather, a Lebanese Christian, emigrated to the US from Beirut in 1904. He was a volunteer mountain-rescue ranger in Alaska when the invasion of Iraq took place, and he was all alone when he made his way to Jordan to book passage into the heart of a clamoring warzone.

Dahr believed, as many progressive thinkers believe, that mankind is essentially good. That the people of Iraq, despite what we had been told about them, were largely not violent extremists bent on destroying the United States. He was sure that there was more to the story, and he wanted to see it for himself.

In Jordan, Dahr met James Longley, an independent filmmaker who gave him the name of a translator, a guy named Akeel, who was big enough to provide security as well as provide translation. After Akeel, he met Hussein, an energetic Iraqi with very little skills in English. Upon meeting them, Hussein shook their hands and boasted "I am driver!"

The drive was chaotic. Hussein drove very aggressively, responding to stop-and-go traffic by alternately stomping the gas and brake pedals. Three hours after reaching the border, they were in Iraq. Oddly, they didn't meet a single US soldier at the border, which seems strange, considering that so much of the insurgency has been described as "foreign fighters".

After this unexpectedly quiet trip into Iraq, Dahr's journey became as intense as you might have imagined. Bombs went off near his hotel. Innocent Iraqis were fired on by US soldiers. Earlier in the year, a US tank had shelled the Palestine Hotel, killing two journalists. Dahr continues:


"On that same day, the Al-Jazeera office and Abu Dubai television bureau had been attacked by U.S. forces, killing Al-Jazeera correspondent Tareq Ayoub. The tone had been set from the beginning by the invaders: Iraq was no place for independent journalists who opted not to "embed" with the U.S. military."


The warzone in Iraq had become one of the most dangerous places in the world for an independent journalist. In 2003, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 19 journalists had been killed in Iraq, 14 during the war, 5 in the aftermath and 2 missing and presumed dead. This was the world that Dahr Jamail had stumbled into, armed only with a digital camera, a laptop, a little money and a mission to expose the daily torment of civilian life in occupied Iraq.

Dahr's trips to Iraq, totalling eight months of time in country, are detailed extensively in his first book, "Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Iraq". Just by reading the blurbs in the first two pages you can tell that Dahr is a very well respected journalist. When Howard Zinn calls you a "superb journalist", you must be doing something right. Dahr does a tremendous job detailing precisely how it feels to live in a country where nothing is as it should be, where car bombs are a daily occurence, where children are born with malformed limbs from contaminant exposure and even then they are a blessing, where Iraqis slog ever onward with only the holy Arabic words "Inshallah" (God willing) on their lips for comfort. It is this world that Dahr shows us through his work, and it is a world that we desperately need to see. As American citizens, we are in many ways directly responsible for the horrors of this occupation. Though we may not have murdered the Iraqis' political leaders or outlawed their labor unions, most of us have sat idly by while their once-proud nation burns, and the suffering of their people inevitably results.

Dahr has been honored by Project Censored for his work describing the siege of Fallujah and his efforts to expose the military's killing of journalists in Iraq. He has consistently produced top-quality reports for several different news outlets, seeking to share the daily experience of Iraqi civilians with the American people. He has produced an outstanding work of journalism in this book, but it is in the simple human stories that he tells where his work really takes hold. He has a gift for capturing the most painful essence of a situation, and delivering it in words that impart a sense of deep understanding and a feeling for his subject.

Dahr Jamail is no polemicist. He isn't seeking to bring down the US military by focusing on a few occasional screw-ups and hyping them out of all proportion. He goes to a place where an event has taken place, meets the people affected, and tells their story. And after reading their stories, you are left with the understanding that the US has engaged in acts of impossible brutality in Iraq. According to Jamail's reporting, which has been corroborated extensively in the world press, American soldiers fired on unarmed men, women and children during the siege of Fallujah. His book includes a picture of an ambulance whose driver was shot by American snipers, only one of several similar attacks. He tells the story of Sadiq Zoman, sezied from his home in Kirkuk, held for one month and then dropped off in Tikrit by U.S. soldiers, comatose and suffering, with burn marks on his feet and genitals, a deep wound in the back of his head and multiple bruises on his legs, chest, and back. Zoman's family received no explanation and no compensation for their loss. Zoman's wife, Hashmiya asked the question:


"Is it fair for any man's family to be made to suffer like this? Is it right that his daughters must see him like this? Our lives will never be the same again."


Zoman's story is not an isolated one. The people of Iraq have become like Zoman's wife, wondering and waiting when their national nightmare will be over. Jamail went to Iraq to find this story and others like it, and to share them with America, but sadly, most of America isn't listening.

Jamail won those Project Censored awards because the mainstream corporate media refused to print his work. They refused to send their own "embedded" reporters to corroborate his allegations and put forward their interpretation of events. Instead they ignored the suffering of the citizens of Fallujah and covered up the murder of unembedded journalists. And they continue to twist and distort the truth about what's going on in Iraq, serving not the interests of peace and justice in that country but rather the interests of their own corporate financial bottom lines.

I heard Dahr speak for the first time on mainstream radio this last month, on our local NPR radio station KUOW. He was inspiring. He shared with the host the true depth of the horrors currently taking place in Iraq, and the host did his part to ask the right questions. But I couldn't help thinking how sad it was that Dahr was on a local daytime radio show speaking to a mostly white audience with advanced educations, most of whom are probably already opposed to this war.

Where is Dahr's appearance on Lou Dobbs Tonight, to discuss the free market ideology that has driven the collapse of Iraq's economy? Where is Dahr's visit with Wolf Blitzer, to expose the nightmare that was the siege of Fallujah? Where is Dahr's conversation with Oprah Winfrey, about the terrible crisis for children in Iraq as a consequence of our disastrous occupation? For the rest of the corporate media, Dahr Jamail is a ghost, a mere figment of our imagination. And while part of me enjoys the thought of Dahr being underground, of being tough, of being strong enough to do this work without mainstream approval, I weep for the people of a nation that our Congress has literally spent hundreds of billions of dollars destroying. Dahr has the truth, and the heart, to tell the real Iraqi story. But are the powers that made this war possible finally prepared to listen?

God willing, I hope that they are. This is a terrific book, one that ought to be read into the record on the Senate floor. Send a copy to your Congressman today. Let's end this occupation and restore our moral compass. The people of Iraq are waiting for us to do just that.

Dahr Jamail dropped everything to tell the story of a nation under siege. He survived that decision and succeeded in his mission, and now his colleagues in Iraq continue to help him tell that story. Read his book, and follow their stories online, and I promise you that at least one more person will know the awful truth about the disastrous occupation of Iraq.

Dahr Jamail is definitely my hero. I figure he wrote the book, so I might as well let him have the last word:


"If the people of the United States had the real story about what their government has done in Iraq, the occupation would already have ended. As a journalist, I continue to hold out hope that if people have knowledge of what is happening, they will act accordingly. If people in my country could hear the stories of life under occupation and put themselves into the Iraqis' stories, they would understand. I hold that hope because the stories of Iraq are our story now. Whether we accept that or not, it is the truth. The water from the Euphrates runs through all our veins."


*Donald Rumsfeld, speaking to George Stephanopoulos about the whereabouts of the "missing" WMD


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