Seven years ago, angered over the mainstream media’s flawed portrayal of the Iraq war, independent journalist Dahr Jamail took it upon himself to report from the front lines of the conflict. As one of the very few unembedded journalists dispatching from Iraq, Jamail cruised the streets of cities and villages with a local interpreter, a beat-up car and a penchant for depicting the conflict for what it really was: an illegal and brutal occupation, advanced by the US Empire and its corporate collaborators.
Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Dahr Jamail pulled a degree in speech communications from Texas A&M University. Before his stretch in Iraq, Jamail’s post-college travels brought him around the world, from Chile to Pakistan, Mexico to Nepal, to climbing Denali in 1996 where he decided to be a mountain guide shortly thereafter.
Right away, Jamail’s worldly excursions gave him insight into the adverse effects of US foreign policy, and how the luxuries enjoyed by those in the US come at the expense and to the misfortune of others elsewhere. Writing as a freelance journalist out of Anchorage, Alaska, he became fed up with the deficit of honest reporting that was becoming a hallmark of US corporate media. After the Iraq war was set in motion in 2003, Jamail said he “took it personally” and, as a US citizen wanting to act responsibly to do something to better the situation, he packed his bags, took whatever money he had saved and left for Iraq to report on the stories that “weren’t getting the coverage they deserved in the mainstream media.”
Now, nearly a decade later, recipient of the 2008 Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, Dahr Jamail is reporting on the recent BP oil disaster in the Gulf. It’s the same war, he says, just a different front. In this interview, Jamail expounds upon the relationship among the US Empire, its thirst for oil and the ecological and cultural degradation taking place the world over in the wake of the US Empire project.
Frank Joseph Smecker: You began reporting from the front lines of Iraq in November of 2003. What brought you there?
Dahr Jamail: Basically frustration and outrage with the “mainstream” media and their almost complete failure to report honestly about the illegal and brutal invasion and occupation. I mean, we clearly had all the facts from the UN on the table from the beginning, it was a no-brainer: It was a sell-job by the Bush administration at the time to get into Iraq. And for some reason I took it personally, and I really wanted to be responsible, as a person living in the US, for what all this meant. I’ve described in the past how my going over there was almost for my own mental health: I wanted to see it, write about it, share it with folks – it was something I could do to help the situation.
FJS: What was it like being one of the few unembedded reporters investigating the Iraq war?
DJ: Wow – well it was my first experience in a war zone. It was really amazing to be on the ground over there watching, writing, and still reading the media via the Internet and being able to see how the war was portrayed back in the US versus how I was seeing it first hand. The mainstream media was really misleading the American public, spewing out propaganda, cutting and pasting info for articles, like, for example, Judith Miller of the New York Times and her ilk who had a penchant for putting out unverified facts – if not blatant lies – about what was happening.
FJS: For a while, journalists in Iraq were being detained, harassed, threatened – by the US-installed interim government … Can you talk about this? And what sort of daily routine did you maintain to stay safe?
DJ: You know, I didn’t encounter much of that myself, thank goodness – didn’t really experience any repression while I was over there. Safety was a huge concern, and I was pretty lucky. I was pretty removed from where US troops were stationed and steered clear of other official sites that made for the usual targets. I had minimized my time spent on the streets, stayed in cheap motels. I worked with one interpreter, who had a beat-up car – he was my driver, my interpreter and fixer all in one. He was great, excellent. He would pick me up every morning and we’d head out to interview folks; half the time I’d head out the door with a particular story in mind, but, oftentimes, entirely different stories would come about. That’s just the way it was. Aside from that I had no security, just “fitting in” with the locals was my security, and it worked.
FJS: You had written once that the Iraqi resistance refers to themselves as “patriots.” Explain. Are we seeing this same phenomenon transpire in Afghanistan?
DJ: OK, with Iraq first: In the initial couple years, the general local perception was that people involved in the resistance to the occupation were patriots. Simply put, these are people who are simply resisting the occupation of their country by a foreign power. They have had family members brutally killed, detained, tortured, and humiliated by the illegal occupying forces.
Early on, it was pretty clear who was pro- or anti-occupation, but as the years went on, the US bought off much of the resistance, brought in death squads – did the whole divide and conquer racket, and attitudes quickly changed toward the resistance. And still today, the resistance has been bought off – for example there’s the Awakening. And of course there’s still a resistance in Iraq, but not like it was the first few years, before the guns went from being pointed at the occupiers to each other.
As for Afghanistan, I haven’t reported there, but I do have friends there who are reporting, and there are indeed parallels. In some areas of Afghanistan the people actually prefer the Taliban to the occupation forces, they’re just less brutal … But Afghanistan is a lot more complex than Iraq; I mean, Iraq is complex too, but because I haven’t reported there, and the fact that the country is as complex as it is, it’s harder to make generalizations about Afghanistan.
FJS: Iraq has now, for the most part, disappeared from the mainstream news. Why is this?
DJ: Last time I was in Iraq was in Jan/Feb of 2009. I still have friends over there, and I still follow what’s happening in Iraq – it’s what I’ve been doing for the last seven years. The country is still a mess: Forty percent of all Iraqis have no clean drinking water; unemployment is ridiculously high; people are still being killed – even today something like 40 people were killed. And on top of all this, virtually no reconstruction is underway: What was that latest headline? something like $8.7 billion of reconstruction funds, missing (!) … this is the second or third time this has happened – the occupation has been nothing short of a train wreck. The US has gone in there, raped, raided, and pillaged for corporate profit, and will continue to do so as long as it takes to continue to get Western companies in there, and, you know – in that regard, it’s been a success, and so there’s no need for the media to report on Iraq like it had been doing. The US has a permanent beachhead there; the oil companies are in; and all of this is being dutifully followed by the complicit Obama administration – and sadly, that’s the norm.
The media says “mission accomplished,” but they don’t talk about Obama’s officials – his security advisors before he was even elected, who had decided that they’ll be keeping at least 50,000 to70,000 troops in Iraq until the end of Obama’s first term (Jan 2013) and, you know, they’re right on track for that. They’re reclassifying troops as noncombat troops to keep them there on small-scale air-force bases called lily pads, to keep a strong military presence there for – ahem – Iran, and, to monitor and control access to Iraqi oil.
In Afghanistan, it’s just as bad there now as it was in Iraq the first few years: three-Americans-a-day being killed. Now Afghanistan, from a media perspective, is like Iraq in 2003 through 2005, and that’s where we’re at with Afghanistan.
FJS: Journalism is an institution that’s supposed to monitor the Establishment, but the irony is that the journalism the majority of people experience these days is often propaganda spun by the very corporate and financial interests that have an overwhelming influence on the Establishment. As an independent journalist, can you talk about this conundrum, and, what sort of problems arise around corporate media regarding honest reporting?
DJ: Well, OK, when someone is being paid well, and that someone has a job with a big network like say e.g. NBC, the reporting will be limited. I bring up NBC for a specific reason – they’re owned by GE, and GE specializes in weapons manufacturing, has ties with the military, Big Oil, etc. It doesn’t suit GE if you portray the war for what it is: an illegal and brutal occupation.
Also, in most journalism schools throughout the country, the myth of objectivity is a whole new thing: you’re supposed to report both sides without personal feelings, to have no personal perspective, and that is bullshit. The second we decide to cover one story and not another, there goes objectivity. Let’s be honest here: as journalists we give a damn about what we’re reporting – we care about the people and the places we are reporting about, or at least we should, and that makes for honest reporting. And so, there goes “objectivity. “
The myth of objectivity that is propagated so heavily in journalism school, coupled with such strong corporate influence and control over the media has crippled honest reporting. I mean, remember two or three years ago when NBC aired Karl Rove and his cohorts dancing on stage –
FJS: Right, I remember that, what a fool –
DJ: Right – is that an example of journalism?
FJS: What do you make of the recent switcheroo from McChrystal to Petraeus?
DJ: Well I think Petraeus is another media-created phenom. If you look at what he did in Iraq, he was in charge of the area around Mosul, he wanted to make Mosul a modern city, use it as a model for how we’ll transform Iraq. To date, right now, Mosul is one of the most violent areas of the country, yet he, Petraeus, keeps getting promoted up the chain in the military. He’s credited with bringing about the surge, but all he really did was buy off the resistance and use death squads and, in turn, get the guns turned from the occupiers to each other.
And really, replacing McChrystal with Petraeus is irrelevant – it doesn’t matter who’s in charge. Petraeus will surely continue buying people off. And you know, like I said, Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, look at the history: Khan, the Brits, Russia – all have failed in their attempts to occupy that region. The US is trying to occupy a country that has never been occupied, and we think we can do it because of our hubris and technology alone, and at the end of the day, those two things won’t get the job done.
FJS: Many of us are starting to realize that much of the reconstruction funds for Iraq and Afghanistan end up unaccounted for (like the recent $8.7 billion in Iraqi reconstruction funds that, well, are, lost …) and/or finds its way into the pockets of private contractors, military operations and local counterparts to both. Do you want to expand on this?
DJ: Well first off, does anybody actually believe that this country [the US] would spend hundreds-of-billions-of-dollars to invade and occupy simply to help people? If you think so, then you need to go through puberty again, grow up, and look at the world more clearly: governments and corporations don’t operate that way. We’re there because of US economic interests. In the case of Afghanistan, there’s a big fat oil and natural gas pipeline from the Caspian Sea running through Afghanistan and part of Pakistan to the coast. If you look at where four of the main US bases in Afghanistan are, they’re right along the pipeline route. The major corporations in Afghanistan are the same that were in Iraq: DynCorp, Blackwater [now known as Xe], Halliburton, etc. etc. The occupation is about making money, maximizing profits, and it’s also – if you look at the geographic placement of the US military bases – part of the strategy of isolating and surrounding Iran. And again – the Russians, the Brits … they were bled in Afghanistan, and the same will happen to the US. The US is not going to win this.
FJS: The US invasion and occupation of the Middle East extends far beyond just Iraq and Afghanistan, doesn’t it?
DJ: Yes. If you look at the national security strategy for the US, it’s all about using the military to protect what the US views as “national security interests,” which includes other countries’ oil and natural gas sources and reserves, and the shipping lanes for those resources. You can read the Quadrennial Defense Review report in which it explains having a military capable of annihilating any and all adversaries that refuse to toe-the-line regarding US interests, i.e., anyone “hostile” to US interests-security, like, e.g., Iran, Syria – really anyone not bought-off becomes a target.
When we talk about the Middle East, then Iran and further into Asia – Pakistan, Afghanistan, India – all these areas possess vital resources and routes for shipping and transport, and in a time of peaking resources, the war machine is enhanced because the US economy and military machine cannot exist without oil. The US in Iraq is a great example; Russia now, or China, India or the EU will not and cannot access that oil without going through the US. It’s the US Empire project.
FJS: What sort of ecological and cultural damage has the war caused thus far?
DJ: Iraq has been devastated. In a report earlier this week, scientists showed us that the depleted uranium and other weapons deployed in Fallujah have created a cancer rate higher than what exists in Hiroshima.
If you look at what was done during the first Gulf War in Basra, all the way up to Baghdad recently, it’s been total devastation. And now look at Fallujah. It’s a town that’s unlivable. If I were living there and had a family and had the means to leave there, I would have left, no hesitation. And that can be said about much of Iraq.
Iraqis have been complaining about toxic waste being left by the US military as they pack up and leave smaller bases and move into larger bases. The place is trashed. And historically, from the beginning, when there was looting of cultural centers allowed, on up to things like the ancient city of Babylon being destroyed and becoming Camp Babyl (a US base) … these places have suffered severe damage, looting by US soldiers, and much more. The US has allowed archives to be destroyed; much of the world’s cultural heritage has suffered extreme damage related to the occupation.
FJS: It’s been said that the money used to deploy 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan ($59 billion the House O.K.’d recently …) is enough to invest in agricultural reconstruction, something that would do better for their economy than militarization and minerals exploitation … what gives?
DJ: Again, when we look at massive amounts of money being dumped into the occupation, one of the reasons it’s so expensive is due to privatization, which accords with the influx of corporate interests in the region. Private mercenaries are being paid over $1000 per day – of taxpayer’s money mind you – and that’s much more expensive than using the military. Combat pay is maybe 100-bucks-a-day, maybe that. But that’s the whole point: to maximize the profits of companies that make money on war. With regard to the Iraq War, Halliburton, in the first 2-3 years, was posting records of profits regularly. And still right now, there are at least 600 Western companies with contracts allowed to operate in Iraq, and that’s what it’s all about – the corporate bottom line. And that’s how it is with the war in Afghanistan. To paraphrase what someone once said: As long as these companies are profiting from war the way that they are, we’ll always have war. The reality of this makes Heller’s Catch 22 look like kids stuff.
FJS: O.K., let’s switch tracks here; you’ve been reporting on the BP oil spill as of late. Oil disaster response workers are facing some damningly harsh conditions. Care to explain?
DJ: In the context of everything we’ve discussed so far, this is the same war, just a different front. Big corporations are being allowed to do whatever the fuck they want to do; regulations, safety-measures, emergency response plans – all have been given a pass by the government because it’s so clear now who’s running the whole show – not the government, but the corporations comprised of the same people running and influencing the government.
The first thing that survivors were asked to do when they were helicoptered out from the BP disaster-site was to sign a release form saying they don’t know what happened and that they don’t hold BP liable. BP could care less about the environment and citizens; all they care about is maximizing profits. And that should not come as a surprise. Corporations have personhood, and their charters hold them down to producing profits for their shareholders, which means minimizing all liability, paying out as little as they can and assuring business-as-usual operations. As a result, the Gulf of Mexico, assuming these relief wells are successful – and that’s a huge assumption – right now, we’re looking at 2-3 decades to get the Gulf back to where it was before this spill happened – which wasn’t really all that good in the first place. The Gulf was trashed even before the spill. There’s something like 20,000 abandoned wells, deteriorating, leaking oil, and at least three other well accidents in that region have occurred since the BP accident –
DJ: Oh yeah, really. Just recently, a tugboat hit a well in Barataria Bay. It sent a 20-100-foot plume of oil into the air, created an oil slick more than a mile long; in a bay that is already one of the most heavily affected bays from the BP oil disaster …
FJS: At mandatory HAZWOPER (hazardous waste operations and emergency response) classes, required by OSHA, disaster response workers are being told the work to be done is “harmless” – we all know that’s as far from the truth as Neptune is from the Andromeda galaxy … right?
DJ: Right. People in those classes are being told that nothing is harmful. But it makes sense if we understand the logic of corporate charters: they’re legally obliged to operate that way; it makes no sense for a corporation with corporate personhood to operate in any other way other than to maximize profit. It’s never about doing what’s good for the people, for the environment – never about the moral thing. Period.
The other problem is that we have a government so bought-off, so corrupted, a government that is nothing more than a fucking sock puppet for corporations, and that is why the Gulf is being demolished and why there’s no intellectual honesty about real change in the future.
FJS: We’re led to believe that all these seemingly discrete current events i.e. the Iraq war, the war in Afghanistan, the BP oil spill etc, etc. are all separate – not interconnected – no matter how tenuously. Would you like to take a crack at connecting these dots? What is the relationship among the culture of Empire, oil and the ethnic destruction and ecological degradation happening the world over?
DJ: It just so happens that across the world, the areas rich in resources are populated by indigenous cultures. When the US Empire wants those resources, the people will either be bought-off or eliminated. The same can be said about the natural environment.
Just look at the logic behind the BP oil spill. Here was this endeavor entailing the drilling of an oil well-head 5,000 feet beneath the water and, I believe another 19,000 feet below that … The drilling of this well, and other wells like it, is just another facet of natural resources being in a place where Empire is going to get them no matter what. Here was this giant oil reservoir; it was extremely dangerous to drill there, with a high likelihood for disaster, and, you know, the attitude was: “Well that’s too bad, we’re gonna drill anyway, cause look at all the money we’ll make …” And for the record, I think all this talk is horribly depressing, but we have to look at all this clearly if we’re going to behave accordingly, and that means understanding that writing a letter to a senator, if we think that’s gonna change things, well, we don’t have all the facts.
FJS: What will work, what will change things?
DJ: I don’t really have an answer for that. But we all have to realize that we’re all complicit in this. We all have to start looking at what we can do to withdraw our support for this economy. Buying less crap, driving less, growing our own food – and, of course, more radical direct action targeting corporations and the officials who represent them. A message needs to be sent to these people expressing that they will pay a price if they keep behaving the way they are. I’ll leave the rest to people’s imagination.