Home from Iraq
e spent 10 months in Iraq, working on a story, understanding who the people are who are fighting, why they fight, what their fundamental beliefs are, when they started, what kinds of backgrounds they come from, what education, jobs they have. Were they former military, are they Iraqi or foreign? Are they part of al-Qaida? What we came up with is a story in itself, and one that Vanity Fair ran in July 2004 with my text and pictures. [My colleague Steve Connors] shot a documentary film that is still waiting to find a home. But the basic point for this discussion is that we both thought it was really journalistically important to understand who it was who was resisting the presence of the foreign troops. If you didn't understand that, how could you report what was clearly becoming an "ongoing conflict?" And if you were reading the news in America, or Europe, how could you understand the full context of what was unfolding if what motivates the "other side" of the conflict is not understood, or even discussed?
Just the process of working on that story has revealed many things to me about my own country. I'd like to share some of them with you:
Lesson One: Many journalists in Iraq could not, or would not, check their nationality or their own perspective at the door.
One of the hardest things about working on this story for me personally, and as a journalist, was to set my "American self" and perspective aside. It was an ongoing challenge to listen open-mindedly to a group of people whose foundation of belief is significantly different from mine, and one I found I often strongly disagreed with.
But going in to report a story with a pile of prejudices is no way to do a story justice, or to do it fairly, and that constant necessity to bite my tongue, wipe the smirk off my face or continue to listen through a racial or religious diatribe that I found appalling was a skill I had to practice. We would never walk in to cover a union problem or political event without seeking to understand the perspective from both, or the many sides of the story that exist. Why should we as journalists do it in Iraq?
Lesson Two: Our behavior as journalists has taught us very little. Just as in the lead up to the war in Iraq, questioning our government's decisions and claims and what it seeks to achieve is criticized as unpatriotic.
Along these lines, the other thing I found difficult was the realization that, while I was out doing what I believe is solid journalism, there were many (journalists and normal folks alike) who would question my patriotism, or wonder how I could even think hearing and relating the perspective "from the other side" was important.
Certainly, over the last three years I've had to acquire the discipline of overriding my emotional attachment to my country, and remember my sense of human values that transcend frontiers and ethnicity. And with a sense of duty to history, I needed to just get on with reporting the story. My value of human life and rights don't fluctuate depending on which country I'm in. I don't see one individual as more deserving of fair treatment than another. . . .
Now, I realize I'm in Kentucky, a state with many military connections, and there are many of you here who may have served, or have family members who serve, and let me take this moment to say that I have the utmost respect and sympathy for the American soldiers overseas right now, particularly in Iraq. They have been sent on a most difficult mission, to quell a population that will not be quelled, in a land awash with weapons. The American military is being used to find a solution to what is essentially a political problem, an equation that rarely adds up well. As if that were not enough, our soldiers have been sent with insufficient resources to protect themselves. In my mind, that is all inexcusable.
Lesson Three: To seek to understand and represent to an American audience the reasons behind the Iraqi opposition is practically treasonous.
Every one of the people involved in the resistance that we spoke to held us individually responsible for their security. If something happened to them -- never mind that they were legitimate targets for the U.S. military -- they would blame us. And kill us. We soon learned that they had the U.S. bases so well watched that we had to abandon our idea of working on the U.S. side of the story -- that is, discovering what the soldiers really thought about who might be attacking them. There were so many journalists working with the American soldiers that we believed that that story would be well told. More practically, if we were seen by the Iraqis going in and out of the American bases, we would be tagged immediately as spies, informants and most likely be killed.
As terrifying as that was to manage and work through, there was another fear that was just as bad. What if the American military or intelligence found out what we were working on? Would they tail us and round up the people we met? Would they kick down our door late one night, rifle through all our stuff and arrest us for "collaborating with the enemy?" Bear in mind that there are no real laws in Iraq. At the time that we were working, the American military was the law, and it seemed to me that they were pretty much making it up as they went along. I was pretty sure that if they wanted to "disappear" us, rough us up or even send us for an all expenses paid vacation in GuantÃ¡namo for suspected al-Qaida connections, they could do so with very little, or even no recourse on our part.
I could go into a long litany of the ways in which the American military has treated journalists in Iraq. Recent actions indicate that the U.S. military will detain and/or kill any journalist who happens to be caught covering the Iraqi side of the militant resistance, and indeed a number of journalists have been killed by U.S. troops while working in Iraq. This behavior at the moment seems to be limited to journalists who also happen to be Arabs, or Arab-looking, but that is only a tangential story to what I'm telling you about here.
The intimidation to not work on this story was evident. Dexter Filkins, who writes for The New York Times, related a conversation he had in Iraq with an American military commander just before we left. Dexter and the commander had gotten quite friendly, meeting up sporadically for a beer and a chat. Towards the end of one of their conversations, Dexter declined an invitation for the next day by explaining that he'd lined up a meeting with a "resistance guy." The commander's face went stony cold and he said, "We have a position on that." For Dexter the message was clear. He cancelled the appointment. And, again, this is not meant as any criticism of the military; they have a war to win, and dominating the "message," or the news is an integral part of that war. The military has a name for it, "information operations," and the aim is to achieve information superiority in the same way they would seek to achieve air superiority. If you look closely, you will notice there is very little, maybe even no direct reporting on the resistance in Iraq. We do, however, as journalists report what the Americans say about the resistance. Is this really anything more than stenography?
And many American journalists often refer to those attacking Americans or Iraqi troops and policemen as "terrorists." Some are indeed using terrorist tactics, but calling them "terrorists" simply shuts down any sense of need or interest to look beyond that word, to understand why indeed human beings might be willing to die in a violent struggle to achieve their goal. Pushing them off as simply "insane, wild Arabs" or "extremist Muslims" does them no service, but even more, it does the U.S. no service. If we as Americans fail to understand who attacks us and why, we will simply continue on this same path, and continue watching from afar as a war we don't understand boils over.
Lesson Four: The gatekeepers -- by which I mean the editors, publishers and business sides of the media -- don't want their paper or their outlet to reveal that compelling narrative of why anyone would oppose the presence of American troops on their soil.
Why would anyone refuse democracy? Why would anyone not want the helping hand of America in overthrowing their terrible dictator? It's amazing to me how expeditiously we turn away from our own history. Think of our revolution. Think of our Founding Fathers. Think of what they stood for and hoped for. Think of how, over time, we have learned to improve on our own Constitution and governance. But think, mostly, about the words I just used: It was our decision and our determination that brought us where we are now.
Recall Patrick Henry's famous speech encouraging the Second Virginia Convention, gathered on March 20, 1775, to fight the British, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Why is it that we, as Americans, presume that any Iraqi would feel any differently? If the roles were reversed, do you think for a moment that our men wouldn't be stockpiling arms and attacking any foreign invader with the temerity to set foot on our soil, occupy our buildings of government and write us a new constitution?
Wouldn't we as women be joining with them in any way we could? Wouldn't the divisions between us -- how we feel about President Bush, whether we're Republican or Democrat -- be put aside as we resisted a common enemy?
Then why is it that this story of human effort for self-determination by violent means cannot be told in America? Are we so small, so confused by our own values that we cannot recognize when someone emulates our own struggle? Even if it is the U.S. that they are struggling against? I want to be careful to explain that I am not saying that the Iraqis fighting against us are necessarily fighting for democracy, but they are fighting for their right to decide for themselves what their nation looks like politically.
Lesson Five: What it's like to be afraid of your own country.
Once the story was finished and set to come out on the street, I was rushing back to the States -- mostly because we could no longer work once the story was published -- and I found I was scared returning to my own country. And that was an amazingly strange and awful feeling to have. Again, you could call me paranoid, but the questions about what might happen to me once in America -- where at least I would have more rights -- kept racing through my brain. I'm still here, so you could say that my frantic mental gymnastics about what could happen to me in my own country were paranoid anxieties.
But I would turn that question around:
How many other American journalists, perhaps not as secure in their position as I, have thought to do a story and decided that it's too close to the bone, too questioning of the American government or its actions? How many times was the risk that our own government might come in and rifle through our apartment, our homes or take us away for questioning in front of our children a factor in our decision not to do a story? How many times did we as journalists decide not to do a story because we thought it might get us into trouble? Or, as likely, how often did the editor above us kill the story for the same reasons? Lots of column inches have been spent in the discussion of how our rights as Americans are being surreptitiously confiscated, but what about our complicity, as journalists, in that? It seems to me that the assault on free speech, while the fear and intimidation is in the air, comes as much from us -- as individuals and networks of journalists who censor ourselves -- as it does from any other source.
We need to wake up as individuals and as a community of journalists and start asking the hard and scary questions. Questions we may not really want to know the answers to about ourselves, about our government, about what is being done in our name, and hold the responsible individuals accountable through due process in our legal or electoral system.
We need to begin to be able to look again at our government, our leadership and ourselves critically. That is what the Fourth Estate is all about. That's what American journalism can do at its zenith. I also happen to believe that, in fact, that is the highest form of patriotism -- expecting our country to live up to the promises it makes and the values it purports to hold. The role of the media in assisting the public to ensure those values are reflected in reality is undeniably failing today.
Go ahead, take a hard look in the mirror, ask the questions -- if there is something in our nation that needs repair or change, that is how it will get done, by asking those questions, getting answers and reporting them.
We still have the freedom in this country as individuals and as journalists to defend the rights enshrined in the Constitution, to defend the values that we as individuals still hold dear -- so why aren't we doing it? Are we scared? If we're scared, then who will be there to defend those rights and values when it is proposed that they be taken away?
I still believe in that country that I love so dearly, the place I think of when the words "freedom," "opportunity," "liberty," "justice" and "equality" are spoken on lips, but I want it to be a country I see, hear and feel every day, not one that lives in my imagination.
It's time we looked in the mirror and began to take responsibility for what our country looks like, what our country is and how it behaves, rather than acting like victims before we actually are.
Or do I need to start facing the reality that all I love and believe in is simply self-delusion?
Molly Bingham Courier Journal May 9, 2005