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Andrew Olmsted Killed In Iraq

Andrew Olmsted — active duty soldier, blogger, and writer for the Rocky Mountain News — was killed in Diyala Province, Iraq.

I didn’t know Andrew personally, but I was familiar with his writing, and I feel like a hole has been punched into the world.

His friend and blogosphere colleague Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings has published “his final dispatch from beyond”:http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2008/01/andy-olmsted.html. Leave some kind comments for his friends and family.

A Plan to Kill Everyone

“War, children, it’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away” — The Rolling Stones, from “Gimme Shelter”

Girl in Doorway Fallujah.jpg

FALLUJAH — A sign on the door leading out of India Company’s Combat Operations Center says “Have a Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet.” For a fraction of second I thought it might be some kind of joke. But I was with the Marine Corps in Fallujah, and it wasn’t a joke.

I asked Captain Stewart Glenn if he could explain and perhaps elaborate a bit on what, exactly, that sign is about. “It’s pretty straightforward,” he said rather bluntly. “It means exactly what it says.”

A Plan to Kill Everyone You Meet.jpg

Welcome to counterinsurgency.

A sign outside Lieutenant Nathan Bibler’s Joint Security Station in the slums of Fallujah makes the point a little more clearly, and delicately. “Look at everyone as though they are trying to kill you, but you cannot treat them that way.”

“The threat’s always there,” Sergeant Chuck Balley told me as he looked blankly at nothing in particular. “Everybody is sketchy.”

Maybe they are. But very few people in Fallujah try to kill Americans — or other Iraqis — anymore. It has been months since a single Marine in Fallujah has been even wounded, let alone killed. But at least a handful of disorganized insurgents still lurk in the city. Once a week or so somebody takes a shot at the Americans.

Lima Company Sign.jpg

“Do you have plates in that Kevlar?” one Marine sergeant said to me as I donned my body armor on our way into the city. He was referring to steel SAPI plates that fit inside Kevlar vests that can stop even a sniper round.

“No,” I said, and I didn’t care. The odds that I, personally, would be the first person shot in Fallujah for months were microscopic.

“Look,” he said. “You are not gonna get shot. But you should still carry some plates.”

One lieutenant forced me to wear Marine-issue body armor — which weighs almost 80 pounds — before he would let me go out on patrol with him. I felt like Godzilla lumbering around with all the extra bulk and weight, and I didn’t really feel safer. Running while carrying those extra pounds all of a sudden wasn’t much of an option. Sacrificing most of my speed and agility to make myself a little more bullet-proof might not be worth it. But perhaps that’s just what I told myself so I could justify wearing lighter and more comfortable armor. It’s hard to say. What I do know for certain is that Fallujah at the end of 2007 was neither scary nor stressful. No one can go there right now without feeling what is perhaps a dangerous sense of complacency.

But complacency kills. The Marines are reminded of this fact every day, as was I when I traveled and worked with them.

The day I arrived at India Company’s Forward Operating Base, which had been converted from an old train station, all the Marines had to attend readiness training classes designed to offset complacency.

“Too many Marines are getting complacent and lax,” Captain Glenn said. “Complacency is as potentially deadly as an IED at this point.”

Complacency Kills.jpg

The Marines couldn’t help it, and neither could I. Combat operations in Fallujah are over. It wasn’t possible to work myself up into feeling nervous in that city. I just knew I wouldn’t be shot. Of course, I could have been wrong, and I knew that, too.

*

“Are you a strict non-combatant?” Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot said to me as we stepped out of the joint security station in Jolan, Northern Fallujah, and began a patrol.

“What do you mean?” I said. Of course I am a non-combatant. Was he asking if I’m a pacifist?

“Do you fight?” he said.

I narrowed my eyes at him slightly, still not quite sure what he was getting at.

“If we get in a fire fight,” he said, “and I give you my pistol, will you take it?”

Mike Barefoot.jpg

Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot

He put his hand on his sidearm and fingered the thumb break. He wasn’t kidding. All I had to do was say so and he would hand me that pistol.

“I’m not allowed to carry a weapon,” I said.

He rolled his eyes, not at me but at the policy.

“No embedded journalists are allowed to pick up a weapon,” I continued. “They’ll throw me out of Iraq if I do. It’s a good policy. Most of us aren’t trained to fight in a war. If reporters were armed, eventually one of us would shoot a kid or an old woman.”

It is a sound policy. He nodded and seemed to understand that. Still, he repeated the question. “If I give you my pistol, will you take it?”

“If it gets bad enough out here that either I shoot it or die, then yes,” I said. “I’d rather be thrown of Iraq then be killed. But that is not going to happen, so I can’t take your pistol.”

We walked a few steps.

Mike Barefoot on Patrol.jpg

Second Lieutenant Mike Barefoot on patrol

“Thanks, though,” I said, and I meant it.

Several Marines were shocked that I was willing to walk around the streets of Fallujah without a gun, but I didn’t feel the slightest bit nervous. Complacency kills, and I get that. But I had Marines as bodyguards and I wasn’t allowed to defend myself anyway. So I figured I might as well relax.

“Anyway,” I always said to Marines who thought I should carry a weapon, “if it gets bad enough out here that you’re relying on me in a fight, you’re really screwed.”

Having a plan to kill everyone I met wasn’t an option. I tried it out for a few minutes, though, to get a tiny idea of what it might be like inside the mind of a non-complacent counterinsurgent. I imagined carrying an M-16 on a sling and holding it at the deck with both hands, index finger off but near the trigger. How quickly could I raise a rifle and shoot a man who takes the initiative and fires an AK-47 at me or at somebody else? What if the friendly young man who just smiled at me pulls a knife? Was I supposed to look at women and children as potential combatants? Once in a while insurgents are able to pressure children into throwing hand grenades at Americans.

We walked past houses and buildings riddled with bullet holes. Raw sewage slowly ran in rivulets through the streets. Only the smallest of businesses were open — it will be a long time before any international corporate chains arrive in Fallujah. A young bearded man wearing baggy white pants and a filthy blue shirt sold black market fuel in jerry cans to motorists.

Black Market Fuel Fallujah.jpg

Contrary to popular belief, there are motorists in Fallujah. There is a so-called vehicle ban, but it has been misreported and misunderstood. It is true that Fallujah neighborhoods are segmented by barriers, but residents can walk and drive their vehicles from one neighborhood to the other after passing through Iraqi Police checkpoints. They can also leave and enter the city whenever they like as long as they have a Fallujah resident sticker on the windshield of their car. Fallujah’s vehicle ban only applies to cars from outside the city. Non-residents are welcome in Fallujah, but they have to leave their vehicle at the outskirts. The city is very small. It is easily walkable, and taxi service is cheap and available. The non-resident vehicle ban is enforced by the Iraqi Police, not the Marines. Iraqi Police Colonel Faisal will decide when the non-resident vehicle ban will be lifted.

Kid with Backpack Fallujah.jpg

I did not realized that I had dropped my pen after jotting down a few observations in my notebook while I walked. A young Iraqi boy ran up behind me, picked up my pen, and handed it over. Every day at least one Iraqi kid will ask me to give him my pen, but this one wanted to make sure I didn’t lose it. Another young boy came up and gave me a high-five. They often do this to the Marines. Whatever the adults in Fallujah might think of Americans, the kids really do seem to like us. Eight year olds do not have politics.

Almost every house in the city is ringed with a high wall for privacy. The residents didn’t have siege warfare in mind when they designed their homes, but the walls are strong, made of concrete, and they can serve that function. Any number of insurgents could, in theory, be crouching behind them and we wouldn’t know it until they opened fire on us.

Street Tilted Angle Fallujah.jpg

One of the Marines found a cassette tape stashed in the bushes and eyed it suspiciously as he pulled it out. Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Iraq sometimes distributes propaganda on audio tapes just as Ayatollah Khomeini did in Iran before the Islamic Revolution.

“Can I see it?” our interpreter said. The Marine handed over the tape. “It’s just music,” he said as he read the label. “Nothing to worry about.”

It has been months since the jihadists have been able to murder anyone in Fallujah. Only a few weeks before, however, a handful showed up on a street corner and handed out anti-American snuff films on DVD. Apparently they thought the local civilians would be impressed. They were not. They called the Iraqi Police, and the propagandists were taken away to the jail.

The main Jolan market was up ahead, but first we passed through a neighborhood that, unlike almost anywhere else in Iraq, received 24 hours a day of electricity.

Lieutenant Barefoot pointed up toward the sky. “See the electricity poles?” he said. I did, and I was amazed.

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The neighborhood was wired properly as though it were part of a modern First World country. Gone all of a sudden were the hideously tangled rat’s nest of wires and cables that make up most of Iraq’s electrical grid.

Typical Electrical Poles Fallujah.jpg

“Why is the wiring so much better here?” I said. “And is that really enough by itself to give people 24 hours a day of electricity? Is this a politically favored neighborhood or what?”

“No,” said the lieutenant. “They just have better local leadership in this neighborhood.”

Political corruption is unspeakably bad in Iraq, in Kurdistan as well as in the Arabic parts of the country. If Lieutenant Barefoot is right about this section of Jolan, the insurgency is by no means solely to blame for Iraq’s shattered infrastructure.

We arrived at Jolan’s market district. It was not what I expected. Jolan is the oldest part of Fallujah. It was built on the banks of the Euphrates River where it swings in closest to Baghdad. I thought perhaps we would walk through one of the covered souks that are so ubiquitous in the Middle East. But few buildings in even this part of the city looked more than fifty years old, and many of the shops were in outdoor booths.

Jolan Market Area Fallujah.jpg

The Marines found the market impressive because it had only reopened recently. Objectively, though, it is not very impressive. Everything is relative in a place like Fallujah. The market is an ugly ramshackle mess where only the most basic goods and necessities are for sale. It smelled of piss. Trash burned in oil barrels. There were hardly any women out and about, even though the market areas of conservative Muslim cities are where you are most likely to see them. All women older than teenagers wore black abayas that enveloped them from head to toe. Only their faces were visible. A man carrying a stick led goats through the area who managed to find nourishment from piles of garbage.

Goat Eating Garbage Fallujah.jpg

Amid this drabness, though, was a surprising little oasis. A local man was selling flowers and plants at a pleasant little store. He contentedly watered his flora with a hose and smiled at us as we walked past.

Watering Plants Fallujah.jpg

I had a hard time imagining that the Marines I walked with had a quiet and secretive plan to kill this guy if all of a sudden he raised up an AK-47 from behind the bushes. He was not going to do that. I just knew it. It is very nearly impossible to tell what most Iraqis are thinking when you briefly pass them on the street. Theoretically any one of them could be an insurgent. But there are some I felt safe writing off as potential threats. You can just tell with some people. At least I have the luxury of thinking so when it isn’t my job to return hostile fire.

On our way back to the station we stopped by a volleyball game.

Volleyball Fallujah.jpg

An Iraqi Police captain recently started a Fallujah-wide volleyball tournament. He purchased uniforms for the players and trophies that will go to the winners when the tournament ends. Most of the Marines I spoke to were stunned by this development, especially those who had previously served in Fallujah when it was still the catastrophically violent city most Americans think it still is.

I wasn’t personally all that impressed with the fact that Iraqis play volleyball now. That is not because I don’t “get it,” but because it’s hard to imagine just how bad a place Fallujah recently was. It’s not a nice place today, but it is almost normal for a rough-around-the-edges city in the Third World. And it’s a paradise compared with, say, a shantytown-packed Mexican border town like Juarez or Tijuana.

Our patrol came upon a wedding party being put together in the street. A shiny black Mercedes decorated with purple, red, and white flowers pulled up beside us.

Car with Flowers Fallujah.jpg

Sharply dressed Iraqi men and children got out and walked up to meet us. They were so friendly. An older man in a keffiyeh greeted us so warmly and sincerely it was obvious his affection was real. “Thank you, thank you,” he said. We all knew what he meant. Thank you for being here. Thank you for the security.

Men at Wedding Fallujah.jpg

Some Iraqis only pretend to be friendly, but it’s obvious when you meet someone who isn’t pretending. Human emotion and its expression is the same across cultures. This man could not have been a combatant. I was certain the odds of him trying to kill us were zero. I couldn’t help wondering: was it really necessary to have a plan to kill everyone? But complacency kills. You never know who might attack you in Iraq. I imagined bashing his head into the sidewalk.

*

I shared a room that night at the Joint Security Station with Lieutenant Barefoot and his roommate and station commanding officer Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin. Joint Security Stations are shared by American Marines and Iraqi Police. Our room was on the Arab side of the house. The wall opposite my bed was riddled with shrapnel holes, as if a mortar round had exploded right in our bedroom.

“It used to be a lot less friendly here,” Lieutenant Laughlin said and laughed.

He led me out to the back porch where we could sit and enjoy the moderately warm afternoon sunshine.

All the Marines I spoke to were amazed at the progress made in Fallujah. It was safer than even they had expected. I asked Lieutenant Laughlin what, specifically, surprised him most about the current state of the city.

LT Laughlin Fallujah.jpg

Second Lieutenant Gary Laughlin

“The most surprising thing,” he said, “is how friendly people are. I expected people here to just hate us after Al-Fajr. You kind of have to take it with a grain of salt, though. Some of them really just want the Iraqi Police to take over, and they only smile at us to be polite.”

That has to be right. Some unknown percentage of Fallujahns are still disgruntled with the American presence. But there is almost no surface-level evidence that this is true. Very nearly 100 percent of the people who live there are friendly.

“Have you run into any civilians who are hostile toward you?” I said.

“Not really,” he said. “Some of them are scared of us, though. We can look pretty intimidating.”

Lieutenant Laughlin had only been in Fallujah for a couple of months. First Lieutenant Barry Edwards has been around longer, so he could compare and contrast the present and past.

“Have you seen a shift in the way Iraqis treat you in the year you’ve been here?” I said.

Schoolboys Fallujah.jpg

“Oh yeah,” he said. “This summer I ate dinner just about every week out there. I couldn’t have done that back in January. They would have lit my tail up. You couldn’t go 100 feet down the road that runs along the river without getting hit by an IED. Now we can sit there with our flak jackets and helmets off like we’re sitting right here. We can do that outside in the open. We go out there and eat chow with the guys who were shooting at us a year ago.”

While Lieutenant Laughlin and I basked in Iraq’s winter sunlight, we heard a weather report that might be slightly disturbing under different circumstances: there was absolutely no wind. That meant it was an ideal time, from the point of view of insurgents, to launch a chemical weapons attack. Because the air was perfectly still, poison gas wouldn’t float away on the wind. Marines, therefore, were required to carry gas masks on their person at all times, even though the odds of a chemical weapons attack were very near zero. Not quite zero, though. Chlorine gas has been used by Fallujah insurgents before. The Marines seems hyper-prepared almost to the point of paranoia. But they were not paranoid. They were just ready for anything. “Make Yourself Hard to Kill” is one of their catchphrases.

Checking a Hole Fallujah.jpg

Checking a Taxi Fallujah.jpg

“Marines are more focused than soldiers,” Sergeant Balley told me. “If we get in a fire fight, you will see.”

But I could see it, a little, even though we weren’t being shot at. They do seem to make themselves a little bit harder to injure or kill than Army soldiers. The differences aren’t huge, but they are there. One of the reasons I felt relaxed in Fallujah was that they seemed so over-prepared for everything.

Man Behind Marine Fallujah.jpg

One of the peculiar things about Fallujah now is that, for some people at least, it’s less dangerous than some other places in the Middle East, even some that are full of tourists.

“Our interpreter is from Jordan,” said Lieutenant Laughlin. “He’s been with us for four years. He doesn’t go home. There have been threats against his life from former Iraqi insurgents who live there. He is actually safer here in Iraq because we protect him.”

*

I walked the streets of Fallujah at night with a platoon of Marines looking for intelligence tips from local civilians. They weren’t fishing for information about anything in particular. They just wanted to ask around the neighborhood in case anyone was up to something suspicious.

We passed through a reeking garbage dump on a empty lot as wild dogs barked. I ducked beneath dangling wires and almost ran straight into a group of young Neighborhood Watch men carrying AK-47s and lurking like dark wraiths in the night. Plastic bags snarled in razor wire billowed in the soft breeze sighing in from the desert beyond the city’s walls.

Local civilians grumbled about the price of gasoline and the lack of electricity, as they often do, but no one said they had seen anything suspicious. The one thing they were actually happy about was the dramatic and apparently stable restoration of calm.

Later, though, we came across something suspicious ourselves.

I rode along in the first truck in a convoy of Humvees on the way back to India Company’s Forward Operating Base. Our driver slammed on his brakes and said something to the sergeant in the passenger seat. The sergeant stepped out of the vehicle and walked in front of the headlights.

“What’s going on?” I said to the driver.

“There’s a mound of dirt in the road that was not there this morning,” the driver said.

I found it amazing that such a small detail was noticed.

“Why is that a problem exactly?” I said.

“It’s in the shape of a speed bump,” he said.

I stood up as much as I could in the back seat. Sure enough, dirt had been carefully piled up on the road in the exact shape of a speed bump. Someone had done this on purpose.

“It could be a pressure-plate IED,” he said, but he did not need to say so. Those IEDs are notorious, and they do look exactly like speed bumps. The explosives are triggered by the weight of a Humvee or Bradley.

The sergeant gingerly pushed dirt aside with his boot. He had better hope there wasn’t an insurgent lurking somewhere who could manually set it off. I was safe in the back of an up-armored vehicle, but there’s no way he could survive an explosion from right underneath him.

But there was nothing under the dirt, and no one triggered anything manually.

“It’s fine,” the sergeant said as he climbed back in.

“Why on earth would someone push dirt into the street like that?” I said, unconvinced that everything was actually fine. It was obviously formed by hand for a specific purpose. What on earth for?

“I don’t know, sir,” the sergeant said. “Iraqis are weird.”

Perhaps someone wants Marines to become complacent about piles of dirt in the shape of a speed bump so they’ll slowly learn to just drive over the top of them. But it’s also true that some Iraqis really are weird.

“We’ve had kids out here build fake IEDs on the side of the road,” Lieutenant Laughlin said. “Last time it happened was right out in from of the station. We saw what looked like an IED so we got out of our Humvees all concerned. Then some kids jumped out and yelled Mister! Mister! Chocolate! Chocolate! They know they can get us to stop with fake IED, but we won’t give them candy when they do. Our psy-ops guys put out fliers telling kids not to do this. It’s dangerous. But they don’t understand, or they don’t care.”

*

The next day we heard gunfire, and we heard a lot of it.

I walked the perimeter of Fallujah with a platoon from the Khaderi station. Corporal Hayes was in charge of my security. The desert was on our left, houses on our right.

Northern Edge of Fallujah.jpg

“Route Kathy was hit with a Katyusha rocket in early October,” he said. Route Kathy was one of the main streets through the neighborhood which we would shortly be walking along. “It was fired from six miles away.”

There is nothing you can do if a Katyusha rocket explodes next to you. You’re just dead.

Iraqi Police officers joined us on the patrol. They walked in front so it would appear to the locals that they were leading. But they were not really leading.

“They’re too bunched up!” one of the Marines said. “Tell them to spread out.”

Our interpreter told the Iraqi Police to spread out. Too many people too close together are more likely to be shot at.

The Marines carried their regular rifles, and a few brought grenade launchers, too. One Marine fingered a smoke grenade — they’re useful if you come under fire from snipers. Some carried signal flares to be fired in the air if we made contact with the enemy. Overwatch at the station will see the flares and send reinforcements. I carried a high-tech signal device that Lieutenant Mike Barefoot had given me in case I got separated from the platoon.

Several unemployed Iraqi men loitered and waved hello as we passed.

“There’s movement on the roof of that house,” one Marine said and pointed to a house just outside the city on our left. I could barely make out the figure of a person on top.

House Outside Fallujah.jpg

“There’s two people up there now,” said another.

They were too far away to accurately shoot at us with anything but a sniper rifle. But they could give away our position to somebody closer if that’s what they wanted to do. It didn’t seem like a big deal to me. But complacency kills, so I stopped walking in a straight line and started to zig zag at random to make myself harder to shoot at. It was not because I was paranoid. I never felt nervous in Fallujah, not even after what happened next. I’ve just learned to do a few things that soldiers and Marines do to make myself a harder target. I do it casually now, often times without even thinking about it.

We walked a few moments in silence and kept our eyes on the roof of that house. Suddenly we heard automatic gunfire behind us.

“Shit,” I said. “That sounds close.”

“It sounds bad,” I heard a Marine say.

More gun shots.

“It sounds like it’s coming from that checkpoint we just passed,” Corporal Hayes said.

Then there were more shots, also automatic, and they sounded different. More than one kind of weapon was being fired.

“That’s intense,” I said. And it was. It sounded like a full-blown fire fight had just broken out.

“That’s worse than anything we’ve seen since we got here,” said another Marine.

Two Bullet Holes Fallujah.jpg

We crossed the street and leaned up against the outer walls of the houses.

“We have to get you back,” Corporal Hayes said to me.

“Back to Khaderi?” I said.

He nodded.

“I don’t want to go back,” I said.

I was slightly surprised to hear myself say this. I probably should have been scared. A fire fight in Fallujah is nothing to shrug at. But I wanted to see what would happen. And of course I would stay in the rear where I wouldn’t be personally shot at.

Several Marines sized me up in ways they hadn’t before. They were obviously trying to determine if I would be a liability for them in a fight, if I would need to be babysat while they were being shot at. No one objected when I said I didn’t want to go back, but I have no idea what they were thinking.

Crouching Marine and Small Boy Falllujah.jpg

“Is that coming from the train station?” someone said.

Oh, I thought. Yeah. The Forward Operating Base that had been converted from a train station was only a few hundred meters away.

“Maybe they’re test firing at the station?”

As soon as somebody said it, I was sure that’s what it was. The shots were probably on the practice range. Fallujah is no longer a war zone.

But we didn’t know. The Marines are supposed to be warned in advance when the range goes live so they don’t overreact and think there’s a war on. Every single one of them first thought what we were hearing was combat.

“Khaderi isn’t answering.”

“That has to be the range, right?”

“The shots are too consistent. It isn’t a fight.”

“Somebody should have told us.”

We still weren’t sure, though. No one at Khaderi answered the call. But everyone was slowly convinced that the gun shots were practice rounds on the range.

The platoon’s radio squawked. It was Khaderi. Twenty minutes from now, we were told, they will be gun shots at the train station.

“Nice of them to tell us,” Corporal Hayes said.

Clouds and City Fallujah.jpg

It was only then that I noticed that none of the Iraqis on the street reacted in any noticeable way to what had just happened. They didn’t take cover when we did. We were all briefly certain that war had returned to Fallujah. But the Iraqi kids still played in the street. They did not run and hide. Their parents did not yank them inside. Try to imagine that in an American city.

One of the Marines later told me that military dogs, while they’re being trained, are put into rooms with loud speakers. The first half hour of Stephen Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan — that terrifying scene where hundreds of soldiers are shot and blown to pieces while storming the beach at Normandy — are played over and over again until the dogs no longer fear the sounds of war.

Iraqis who live in Fallujah have heard more shots fired in anger than I ever will. Machine gun fire has been the sound track in that city for a long time. War is just a shot away, but even the children of Fallujah won’t flinch if it breaks out again.

Post-script: Please support independent journalism. Traveling to and working in Iraq is expensive. I can’t publish dispatches on this Web site for free without substantial reader donations, so I’ll appreciate it if you pitch in what you can. Blog Patron allows you to make recurring monthly payments, and even small donations will be extraordinarily helpful so I can continue this project.

Blog Patron Button.gif

If you prefer to use Pay Pal, that is still an option.

If you would like to donate for travel and equipment expenses and you don’t want to send money over the Internet, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten

P.O. Box 312

Portland, OR 97207-0312

Many thanks in advance.

Happy New Year

The surge sure worked, didn’t it?

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Something tells me 2008 will be even better than 2007.

Blog Software Upgrade

My blogging software is — finally — being upgraded this weekend. If you see any strange behavior around here, or if the site becomes temporarily unavailable, everything should be back to normal shortly.

The biggest advantage after the upgrade will be vastly improved anti-spam and anti-troll blocking measures in the comments section. The cretins who like to impersonate me in the comments and publish links to World of Warcraft Gold will soon be banished forever from this Web site.

Comments need to be closed until the upgrade is finished. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Iraq in Fragments

COMMENTARY’s online editor Sam Munson asked if I’d like to write a short piece about what I think are the top five movies of 2007 from and about the Middle East. Sure, I said. But once I got started I found I couldn’t write about five. I started with a two-paragraph blurb about James Longley’s masterful Iraq in Fragments, but I exceeded the word limit before I could even get to the second film on the list. Iraq in Fragments is too good for a blurb. So here, instead, is a piece about the top single film from the Middle East, or at least Iraq. One caveat: Iraq in Fragments actually dates from 2005, but it was released on DVD only a few months ago, and it’s such a powerful and important film that it should make the cut.

Most recent documentaries filmed in Iraq can be fairly categorized as liberal or conservative. All are about the war, and most are cinematic equivalents of op-eds. James Longley’s lush and intimate Iraq in Fragments is different. While the director appears to be some kind of liberal or leftist, his film is refreshingly none of the above. Iraq in Fragments is about the war only insomuch as it was shot in Iraq during the war. This film is a collection of portraits of Iraqis, not Americans or the American military. And unlike almost any other documentary out there, Longley’s includes the Kurds.

The director is invisible. We never see him or hear him, and he uses his camera as though he were shooting a fictional film. This is emphatically not the kind of documentary you’re accustomed to seeing. Longley’s camera and editing work are so stylish and deft that the end result is perhaps the most artful documentary ever made on any subject. (Watch the high-definition trailer here for a powerful preview.)

The title refers to Iraq as it is now—a geographic abstraction made up of fragments. But it also refers to the film’s structure. The first third is a story of Sunni Arabs in Baghdad, the middle chapter covers Moqtada al-Sadr’s radical Shia Mahdi Army militia, and the final third is about the Kurdish Spring in the northern autonomous region.

A Sunni Arab boy named Muhammad anchors the film’s opening segment. He works for his cruel and abusive uncle in a machine shop, and his ability to lie to himself and the camera is a painful revelation.

“He loves me, he loves me,” the boy says about his tyrannical guardian as we see him smacked in the head and called a dog. “He’s nice to me. He doesn’t swear at me or beat me.” What are we then to make of Muhammad’s uncle when he says he wishes Saddam Hussein were still in charge? “So what if he oppressed us and was hard on us,” he says.

Muhammad knows cruelty and loss, as do all Iraqis. His father was a police officer. “Then he started talking about Saddam,” he tells us. “They put him in prison.” We never find out what happened to his father, but he appears to have vanished forever. Contrary to what some naïve Westerners seem to believe, Iraqis, even children, know very well that they live in a hard and tragic country even if they have never known anything else.

“It’s not safe here,” Muhammad says. “It’s scary. There is no security. I want to go abroad. When you are abroad, nothing will happen to you. My teacher told me I could be a pilot. I want to fly the plane, to see a place that’s beautiful and nice. Not Iraq, but a beautiful place. I imagine . . . I imagine . . . I’m high in the sky. I can see the doves, the sky. I can see the birds. I am in the plane and seeing countries beautiful and nice. I fly down to those countries. I’ll go to that country. The beautiful one.”

Read the rest at Commentary Magazine.

Ali Eteraz on Pakistan

I’m not sure I agree with my friend Ali Eteraz’s policy recommendations at Pajamas Media for the United States and Pakistan, but he knows a lot more about that country than I do (he’s from there, and lives now in Las Vegas) and his piece is informative and well worth reading regardless.

Grandpa Simpson Speaks

I don’t usually link to off-topic stuff like this. But David Harsanyi did such a great job demolishing Andrew Keen’s dumb new book in Reason Magazine that I’m doing more than just posting an excerpt. I ordered Harsanyi’s book Nanny State: How Food Fascists, Teetotaling Do-Gooders, Priggish Moralists, and other Boneheaded Bureaucrats are Turning America into a Nation of Children.

Andrew Keen’s website claims, without a hint of humility, that he’s “the leading contemporary critic of the Internet.” No kidding? The entire Internet? A curious reader might wonder whether such an all-inclusive battle is similar to taking on, say, “music” or “radio waves.” It is.

More specifically, Keen’s depressing book, The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture, laments techno-utopianism, free content, and the rise of citizen journalists, filmmakers, musicians, and critics as cultural arbiters. It is a book, in other words, of spectacular elitism.

Keen, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur turned full-time critic of user-generated Internet content, argues that our most “valued cultural institutions” are under attack from the hordes of lay hacks, undermining quality content with garbage. His central argument is—to pinch a word he loves to use—seductive. He’s right that the Internet is littered with inane, vulgar, dimwitted, unedited, and unreadable content, much of it fueling outrageous conspiracy theories, odious partisan debates, mindless celebrity worship, and worse. And then there’s the stuff that’s not even entertaining.

Keen refuses to confess that there’s even a smattering of intellectually and culturally worthy user-driven content online. If you do find something decent in the “digital forest of mediocrity,” he attributes it to the infinite monkey theorem: Even simians, if permitted to indiscriminately hit a keyboard for an infinite amount of time, will one day bang out Beowulf or Don Quixote. (Silly me, I was under the impression that monkeys had hatched the idea for VH1’s Scott Baio Is 45…and Single.) Apparently, these monkeys are discharging so much free content into the cyber-strata that they threaten to bury culturally significant work, dilute good craftsmanship, and cost me, a journalist and “cultural gatekeeper,” my job. So I guess I’d better take Keen’s thesis seriously.

You can read the rest at Reason Magazine. And you can order Harsanyi’s book (which just has to be better than Keen’s) at Amazon.com.

A Fresh Look at Hezbollah

I haven’t written much about Lebanon lately, partly because I’ve been working in Iraq, but also because Lebanon has been in a holding pattern for the past year. There isn’t much new to say about the same-old same-old.

But Andrew Exum published a perceptive piece about Hezbollah and makes a point made very rarely, if ever, in the West:

There are several reasons making the fantasy that Hezbollah will ever give up its arms unlikely. The first—and the most understandable—is that the Shia who make up Hezbollah’s constituency think giving up their arms means giving up the hard-won seat at Beirut’s political table earned over the past three decades. The Shia of Lebanon are the country’s historical underclass, and the Shia fear a return to the days when their concerns were largely forgotten by the central government. Without the arms of Hezbollah, they argue, no one in Beirut will care about the concerns of the Shia living in the south, the Bekaa Valley, and the suburbs of Beirut.

The second reason why Hezbollah cannot give up its arms, though, is because so many of the young men who join the organization join to fight. These young men are lured by the promise of fighting Israel, and Hezbollah must worry that if they were to abandon their military campaign against Israel, these young men would simply split from the organization in the same way that so many of the Amal militia’s gunmen left for Hezbollah in the early 1980s. Thus, in order to keep these young men of arms under the same big tent as the rest of the organization, it is necessary to continue some form of armed conflict against Israel. In this way, Hezbollah’s cross-border raids and rocket attacks against Israel after the 2000 withdrawal—while necessary from an internal perspective—ultimately worked against Hezbollah’s overall strategy of deterrence.

Normally keen observers of Israeli politics, Hezbollah misread the dynamics in Jerusalem following the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit in 2006 and attempted their own kidnappings just over the border near Ayta ash-Shab on July 12th. The kidnappings—unlike an attempt a few months earlier in the disputed city of Ghajjar—were successful, but the Israeli response was brutal and unexpected. (The ways in which Israel’s decision-makers similarly misread the dynamics at work within Lebanon in 2006 will have to be the subject of a different post.) The very thing Hezbollah was trying to deter—a massive Israeli assault on Hezbollah and their Shia constituents—was provoked by an act of foolishness along the border. [Emphasis added.]

Westerners, including Israelis, rarely think of Hezbollah as a deterrent force. They think of Hezbollah as an aggressor. Hezbollah’s supporters think of it as both. Some support Hezbollah because they want to fight. Others support Hezbollah because they don’t want to fight.

That last point is counter-intuitive, I know, and possibly hard to believe. But I’ve met dozens of Lebanese Shias who think exactly like a man who left the following comment on an old blog post of mine a few days ago:

Michael,

I enjoyed this piece. I’ve been reading your blogs as of late, and have quite enjoyed them. However, I think you need to get a sense of who or what Hezbollah is from a Lebanese Shi’a, such as myself. Maybe you’ve talked to many Shi’is about Hezbollah and you know everything there is to know, but I nonetheless would like to make a few comments.

I think it’s very clear that if you and I were sitting in a room drafting the constitution of a country, we would both agree that military power should be in the hands of the state exclusively. However, we know that what “should” be the case is not always that simple in Lebanon. The problem is, Hezbollah is still deemed necessary to many people (the military arm of Hezbollah, that is). My mother comes from Bint Jbeil in the South and she gives me numerous accounts of the Resistance and how necessary it was for the people of South Lebanon.

I think the end goal of all Lebanese is to see Hezbollah disarmed. We all need that. But what we need even more is the opportunity for that to happen. What happens if Israel trots through the South again? Are you going to tell me they wouldn’t do it? Of course they would. Israeli troops were in Lebanon in the late 70s, years before Lebanon was “officially” occupied. Usually when you hear about Lebanese occupation, you hear about 1982 when the Israelis took Beirut. No one gives a damn about the South. And before we bring up 1559, we should also know that selective morality of this kind has no place in Middle Eastern politics, when Israel itself has defied over 60 U.N. resolutions. Bring up 1559 would be ridiculous under such terms.

That’s what Hezbollah is, essentially. They are people from the South who armed themselves against Israel. That’s why they exist. Hezbollah is a product of Israeli occupation, and we all need to recognize that. Insinuating that Hezbollah should simply disarm is one thing, but it is only one thing. The Lebanese army cannot defend Lebanon against Israel. As has been seen with strategic wars of South Lebanon, weaponry is important, but so is knowing the territory and knowing how to fight. That’s the only explanation for a handful of Hezbollahis effectively resisting Israel last summer.

But who knows, Michael? What happens if America and Iran settle their disputes? Of course, by “settle” I mean Iran bowing down to American pressure. You know as well as I do that America has been the enemy of Iran ever since it had a hand in overthrowing the parliamentary government in 1953 in favour of a dictator… then following that up with military and financial support for Saddam Hussein in his quest to make war with Persia. Since then the United States has been crippling Iran with sanctions.

You can call me crazy, but I’m more likely to believe that there won’t be another major war in Lebanon. I don’t think Hezbollah can risk it. I don’t think we as Lebanese can handle any more. Muslim/Christian really isn’t a problem in the streets. When we fled Lebanon for Canada our next door neighbours were Christians – the same Christians that our Muslims were fighting back home. We were best friends for years. In the street, we really have no problems. But for some reason, the schism becomes manifest at the political level. And we all know that the religions themselves have nothing to do with the disagreements; it’s more or less people aligning themselves along sectarian lines because that is how they identify themselves.

Anyway, I have rambled. I only ask of you to please consider the Hezbollah question from a different angle, and see that they are part of Lebanon (hopefully their part will be more political and less military in the future). As a Lebanese Shi’a returning to Lebanon in the next year or so, I cannot say I hate Hezbollah. Do I want them disarmed? Yes, in principle. Am I frightened at the concept of Hezbollah being disarmed? Yes. I am frightened because I know what they have done for the South, and fear that losing them will give us nothing to defend ourselves with in the future. Am I pro-Syrian? No. Am I anti-Syrian? No. I think that anyone who makes one of these their political pillars is unhealthy. Those men you spoke to are very smart. We need neutral relations with Syria. We don’t need anti-Syrian parties, or pro-Syrian parties.

I’m not publishing this comment because I agree with it. Among other things, he is wrong about the Israelis. Hezbollah is a magnet for the Israeli military because it’s violent and provacative. Perhaps he understands that at some level– he did say Hezbollah cannot risk another war. Israel is no more likely to invade a theoretically peaceful and quiet Lebanon than peaceful and quiet Jordan. But it would be a stretch, to say the least, to lump this man in ideologically with the hardliners.

Hezbollah will be defeated, marginalized, or integrated into the mainstream when reasonable people like him split from the jihad wing of the party.

POSTSCRIPT: Here is some old-fashioned American Jew-hatred uglier than anything I heard in Lebanon from a supporter of Hezbollah. (Yes, really.) Hatred, like decency, knows no nationality. (Via Callimachus.)

UPDATE: A Daily Kos diarist is appalled at what I just linked to, and is highly recommended reading.

A Nice Iraq Story for Christmas

I am not going to post a war story for Christmas, so here’s a genuinely touching story from Iraq for a change.

MAUSTON, Wis. – Capt. Scott Southworth knew he’d face violence, political strife and blistering heat when he was deployed to one of Baghdad’s most dangerous areas. But he didn’t expect Ala’a Eddeen.

Ala’a was 9 years old, strong of will but weak of body — he suffered from cerebral palsy and weighed just 55 pounds. He lived among about 20 kids with physical or mental disabilities at the Mother Teresa orphanage, under the care of nuns who preserved this small oasis in a dangerous place.

On Sept. 6, 2003, halfway through his 13-month deployment, Southworth and his military police unit paid a visit to the orphanage. They played and chatted with the children; Southworth was talking with one little girl when Ala’a dragged his body to the soldier’s side.

Black haired and brown eyed, Ala’a spoke to the 31-year-old American in the limited English he had learned from the sisters. He recalled the bombs that struck government buildings across the Tigris River.

“Bomb-Bing! Bomb-Bing!” Ala’a said, raising and lowering his fist.

“I’m here now. You’re fine,” the captain said.

Over the next 10 months, the unit returned to the orphanage again and again. The soldiers would race kids in their wheelchairs, sit them in Humvees and help the sisters feed them.

To Southworth, Ala’a was like a little brother. But Ala’a — who had longed for a soldier to rescue him — secretly began referring to Southworth as “Baba,” Arabic for “Daddy.”

Then, around Christmas, a sister told Southworth that Ala’a was getting too big. He would have to move to a government-run facility within a year.

“Best case scenario was that he would stare at a blank wall for the rest of his life,” Southworth said.

To this day, he recalls the moment when he resolved that that would not happen.

“I’ll adopt him,” he said.

Read the whole thing. It is much longer, and worth it. It isn’t legal for foreigners to adopt Iraqi children, but this man found a way.

Merry Almost-Christmas

It’s that time of year again. The holidays really seemed to come quickly for me this year because I spent most of the run-up time in Iraq.

I have a long dispatch more than half-finished, but Internet traffic is crashing now because of the upcoming holidays. It happens every year, and I had forgotten about it until just now. So I think I’ll hold off on publishing my 5,000-word essays on the blog until my audience comes back. It seems a waste to go all the way to Iraq and spend the better part of a week writing one of these things if half my readers won’t even see it.

So. Between now and New Years Day I will try to publish shorter and more frequent blog posts here and at Commentary, and I’ll save the big pieces until everybody returns to the Internet world. None of these articles are time-sensitive, so I don’t see a downside.

I have around ten long essays to write about what’s going on in Fallujah. We’ll knock them out after the holidays. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you all.

Iraq is Not a Model

By Jordan W.

Editor’s note: Reader and regular correspondent Jordan W. asked for my opinion on an anti-war essay he wrote. I think it is much more valuable and worth taking seriously than most — though I should note that my overall view is agnostic at this point, despite my initial support and my current approval of General Petraeus’s surge strategy. Jordan gave me permission to publish this, so I’ll let him tide you over while I work on my next long piece about Fallujah. If you don’t agree with the author, please be polite in the comments. Let’s see if a civil and educational discussion about this topic is possible. —MJT

The debate about the Iraq War is not internally consistent: there is no agreement on the proper parameters of judgment. Overlapping debates rage about momentum (whether we’re “winning”), the shape of our ultimate goals, “victory”, the importance of any current success or failure, and the accuracy and/or significance of various costs and benefits for Iraq’s inhabitants. Beneath this superficial confusion lies a deeper confusion, stemming from Iraq’s dual role as both its own war, and as a leading aspect of the Global War On Terror (GWOT). While a victory in the Iraq war can be judged by its final score, we can only judge the Iraq War as a GWOT victory by tallying its consequences from beginning to end. The GWOT’s ultimate metric is the prevention of terrorism, so an end state of decreased terrorism may not be a victory if it is preceded by an avoidable ten decades of increased terrorism.

General inability to separate these two dynamics leads to the confusion of a possible victory in the Iraq war with the vindication of Iraq as a model for the GWOT, perhaps along the lines of the National Security Strategy of “pre-emption.” While something that at least feels like victory in Iraq – to Americans, anyway – may be possible, it will not turn the Iraq War as a whole into an effective GWOT strategy. (The 2007 counterinsurgency doctrine may be extracted as a useful set of tactics, however).

Leave the WMD debate aside – Iraq was not a successful pre-emption of terrorism. Depending on your assessment of Iraq prior to 2003, the war serves as either a failed pre-emption that magnified the problems it wanted to solve, or else as the ex nihilo creation of a terrorism outbreak. Either way, the danger of terrorism from Iraq will be greater than before we started for the foreseeable future. A good metaphor for Iraq’s role in the GWOT is Hurricane Katrina’s role in the urban renewal of New Orleans. Decades later, the cause may be advanced, but that doesn’t make it a recommended way to get the job done. The metaphor has its limits – Iraq is worse. Hurricanes are not the human byproduct of bad decisions, and hurricanes do not self-replicate.

It doesn’t take a long look at the evidence to judge the Iraq Invasion’s effect on terrorism. Terrorism in Iraq began to rise as soon as we arrived. Iraq suffered zero suicide bombings in January 2003, four in April-June 2003, 20 in January-March 2004, 78 in January-March 2005. (“Suicide Terrorism in Iraq: A Preliminary Assessment of the Quantitative Data and Documentary Evidence”. Hafez, Mohammed. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 29, Issue 6. Figure 2.)

Two years later, we have killed some of the terrorists our invasion activated, bribed others into acquiescence, and appear to be slowly driving the remainder into hiding. A less violent Iraq is a victory for our soldiers over the alternative of a more violent Iraq. Eleven suicide bombings in October 2007 is a victory over seventy-eight in Q1, 2005 – but not a victory over zero suicide bombings in January 2003. And even if the number returned to zero and stayed there, we would not then break even; we have paid opportunity costs of unnecessary exposure and unnecessary risk.

The best reason that Iraq is no way to run a GWOT is as simple as asymmetry itself. We can’t effectively fight as many internal wars in Muslim countries as Al-Qaeda may start, and therefore every ‘optional’ internal war – like Iraq – is a bad risk. Some quick calculation suggests that Iraq represents 3% of the land surface of Muslim-majority nations, and less than 2% of their population. Yet the number of troops and duration of high-intensity combat required to suppress this one Al-Qaeda “base area” in Iraq has led the US Army to the edge of “breaking”, according to some experts. In combination with other overseas commitments, the percentage of total US ground forces deployed overseas in any year has edged towards 50%. The percentage of available deployed ground forces is much higher. And there’s still the other 98% of the world left for Al-Qaeda to fight from within.

How could we replicate the Iraq model – even the successful 2007 one – if Al-Qaeda had seeded three or four full-blown anti-government insurgencies at the same time? Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia – clearly we can’t. Instead we’ve done our best at containing conflicts that we have failed to control. No one from these conflicts has blown up an American shopping mall, so we don’t feel our attention to them is inadequate. But there’s no reason to assume Al-Qaeda elements in any of these “secondary” conflicts are less of a threat to directly attack the West then the ones we’re so flustered about in Iraq. Each of these conflicts constitutes a threat to U.S. citizens for every minute it continues to burn – and probably well beyond any cease-fire or de-escalation.

Some hawks suggest that “we’re fighting them in Iraq so we don’t have to fight them over here.” This appealing phrase is contradicted by evidence. In 2006, Al Qaeda fought in the slow-burning insurgency in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier and simultaneously planned from the same place to blow up as many as ten US airplanes. Nor did Al-Qaeda’s investment in growing Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) prevent major terrorist attacks in several countries between 2003 and 2005. On the contrary, Peter Nasser has documented the prominent role the invasion of Iraq played in motivating the Madrid bombers. (“Jihadism in Western Europe After the Invasion of Iraq: Tracing Motivational Influences from the Iraq War on Jihadist Terrorism in Western Europe”. Nesser, Peter. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Volume 29, Issue 4, July 2006. Page 323-342. )

AQI has not attacked in America or Europe. However, the Radisson Hotel bombing conducted by AQI in Amman, Jordan was the highest-profile terrorist attack plotted from Iraqi soil in two decades. Neither the presence nor the anti-terrorism operations of US soldiers in a country eliminates the possibility of international terrorism plots from within. Even if the presence of US soldiers can help intercept a greater percentage of attacks, it may also prompt a higher number of those attacks. It’s far from clear that the overall result is enhanced safety.

The bottom line is that unfinished insurgencies in Muslim countries make terrorism incidents more likely, not less. Victory in a local conflagration may reduce the threat of terrorism from locals – but not below the risk level we would find, in some cases, if the war had never occurred. Terrorist groups are born of mass violence and revolutionary change. Nasser’s violent police state of Egypt fathered Al-Jihad, which fathered Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The USSR’s violent invasion of Afghanistan fathered Al-Qaeda. The violent split of India and Pakistan fathered Jaish-e-Mohammed. Israel’s Operation Peace of Galilee fathered Hizballah. Even when these organizations lose, even when they disband, they are not erased. Skills, equipment, veterans, and followers often survive – and some of them go on to lead the next bombing in America. The moral of the story is that mass violence, as the ‘gateway drug’ of terrorism, needs to be avoided. In many cases, this is not an easy objective to reconcile with our genuine need to deny Al-Qaeda freedom of action – such as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also hard to reconcile with an aggressive strategy to break down other terrorism indicators, such as dictatorship. Nevertheless Iraq, circa 2003, is an easy case: avoid optional wars and save capacity for unavoidable ones.

Why I Moderate the Comments Section

The reason I moderate the comments section (when I can and don’t have to outsource it to others while traveling) is so it doesn’t turn into a sewer like the one here. (You have to click the comments link over there before you can read them. And if you leave a comment of your own, please be nice to those who live there even though they do not deserve it.)

The Other Fallujah Reporter (UPDATED THREE TIMES)

“The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.” — Thomas Jefferson

I just returned home from a trip to Fallujah, where I was the only reporter embedded with the United States military. There was, however, an unembedded reporter in the city at the same time. Normally it would be useful to compare what I saw and heard while traveling and working with the Marines with what a colleague saw and heard while working solo. Unfortunately, the other Fallujah reporter was Ali al-Fadhily from Inter Press Services.

Mr. al-Fadhily is unhappy with the way things are going in the city right now. It means little to him that the only shots fired by the Marines anymore are practice rounds on the range, and that there hasn’t been a single fire fight or combat casualty for months. That’s fair enough, as far as it goes, and perhaps to be expected from a reporter who isn’t embedded with the military and who focuses his attention on Iraqi civilians. The trouble is that Mr. Al-Fadhily’s hysterical exaggerations, refusal to provide crucial context, and outright fabrications amount to a serious case of journalistic malpractice.

Read the rest at Commentary Magazine.

UPDATE: Glenn Greenwald thinks that because I was embedded with the U.S. military and al-Fadhily wasn’t that my work is less credible. Specifically he insists that al-Fadhily’s claim that 70 percent of Fallujah is destroyed is more credible than my claim to the contrary.

If the city were 70 percent destroyed it would look much like Dresden did after the fire-bombing. I could not possibly spend a month there without noticing, especially since I moved to a new location inside the city every day. You can believe that I would publish pictures of vast destruction in Fallujah if it existed because that’s exactly what I did when I recently went to Ramadi and Lebanon. I do have a track record of that sort of thing. I have no reason, good or bad, to treat Fallujah any differently.

It would be truly amazing — if not impossible — if I could spend so much time in Fallujah and not notice that 70 percent of it was destroyed.

I recently (sincerely and politely) offered to help Glenn Greenwald get to Iraq safely since he’s a journalist who writes about it so much. So far he hasn’t responded. By his own logic, both al-Fadhily and myself are more credible on the subject than he is. I wouldn’t normally pull rank on a colleague like this, but since Glenn pulled rank over me on al-Fadhily’s behalf, he gets the same in return.

I’ll still help Glenn get to Iraq if he wants so we won’t have to talk to each other like this.

UPDATE #2: Glenn Greenwald says I mischaracterized what he wrote in the following paragraph:

Writing at The Podhoretz Family’s Commentary Magazine, right-wing blog favorite Michael Totten — who says he has been the only reporter other than al-Fadhily in Fallujah — takes issue with some of al-Fadhily’s claims about the extent to which Fallujah was destroyed by our 2004 military assualt. In doing so, Totten revealingly points out that he, Totten, is always with the U.S. military, while the independent al-Falahdy “isn’t embedded with the military and [] focuses his attention on Iraqi civilians,” as though that makes Totten’s assertions more credible, rather than less credible, than al-Fadhily’s.

He wrote in an email that he did not say my “reporting was less credible with regard to whether 70% of Fallujah had been destroyed.” It looked that way from my first reading of his paragraph, but I suppose it could be read both ways and the misunderstanding can be chalked up to sloppy writing on his part, sloppy reading on my part, or both.

In any case, I have no interest in mischaracterizing what he or anyone else writes. And I’m glad to hear he did not mean to say what I thought he said.

He says, in email, that he thinks al-Fadhily is more credible than me “SOLELY WITH RESPECT to the point about whether Falljuah residents had been harrassed or arrested after speaking with journalists.”

I think he’s wrong about that, but feel free to click on over and read his argument.

One point he makes is fair enough, at least. I did not back up my assertion with evidence. He’s right. I didn’t. I exceeded my word limit and tried to keep it short, so here is some evidence now:

Arresting citizens for talking to journalists is a strict violation of the human rights rules being handed down from the Americans to the Iraqis. And the Iraqi Police are very closely supervised by the Marines. They live together in the same stations and go on joint patrols with each other.

I personally sat in on a class where two Marine officers instructed Iraqi Police officers in the human rights ethics expected of them. United Nations documents, rather than American documents, were the source material for the course, but the Iraqi Police are being trained to act like professional police officers in a liberal democracy, not a dictatorship.

Not everything sticks. It’s possible that the Iraqi Police would round someone up for no reason other than talking to journalists, but the Marines would be furious and would instantly undo the problem as soon as they found out about it.

No one can disprove a negative, but this one does not pass the smell test. Iraq is a paranoid place. I can’t prove that the Americans didn’t put a shark in a Euphrates River canal to scare people, either, but I shouldn’t have to.

UPDATE #3: Here is a worthwhile comment posted over at Commentary:

# Richard F. Says:

December 17th, 2007 at 5:12 pm

Michael: I am writing as a 3-time embedded reporter including one stint with the 3/8 Marines in Fallujah just two months after the conclusion Al-Fajr. I was on Humvee patrols in and out of the city, and the claim of “70%” destruction is bogus. Moreover, it is a claim that has steadily grown since the conclusion of that battle. Particularly from war opponents, an assertion of 1/3 destruction was the first “percentage” I heard; next it was 50%; about one year ago, I read that 75% was the actual number. It’s good to know that there has been some “decline” however marginal—must be the result of the Surge!

Seriously, between these claims (which I found bogus and which may be investigated by a close viewing of satellite photos) and the (usually) allied assertion that the destruction was attributable to the indiscriminate use of WP, I had first-time experience with the famous comment (of uncertain parentage) that truth is the first casualty of war.

The claim that embed equals “in-bed” is usually raised in direct proportion to how well the subject reporting comports with the political views of those making the comment. For example, when Kevin Sites took his famous footage inside a Fallujah mosque, that purported to show a US Marine executing a wounded insurgent (the Marine was later cleared) no one claimed that Sites was “in bed” with his PAO. Unfortunately, for honest reporters, their work is evaluated by how useful it is to the media’s, politician’s or blogger’s agenda. Just remember, in a hyper-partisan world, there is always room for more agreement!

Stay Tuned

My next dispatch will be ready shortly, and should be published either Sunday night or Monday morning at the latest.

I have hardly slept in the same place for two nights in a row for almost a month. Every day I’ve had to pack up my things and shove off to another location in or around Fallujah, often to places off the edge of the world with no Internet access. A few nights ago I slept on a cot in a shipping container. Writing while embedding with the military is possible, but difficult and slow. Thank you for understanding and being patient.

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