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Life in the US Has the Hallmarks of a “Low-Grade War Zone”

Journalist Dahr Jamail says what’s happening in the US is frighteningly similar to what he saw while reporting in Iraq.

A mailman makes a delivery on September 9, 2020, in San Francisco, California.

Countless red flags have sprung up in recent months indicating a creeping authoritarianism coming into full form. Vigilante forms of far right “justice” have become commonplace, as in the high-profile case of 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the numerous cases of far right violence and intimidation directed at Black Lives Matter activists since nationwide protests erupted in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd in May. The president dog-whistles to his white supremacist base regularly, and may not even accept the election results this November if he loses. This is what it looks like, feels like, when a nation’s social fabric frays, when a society eats itself alive, and the center can no longer hold.

Dahr Jamail has seen this before, although not here. As one of the few unembedded journalists reporting from Iraq, Jamail was able to get an on-the-ground perspective of the criminal and wholly unjustified U.S. military invasion in 2003, including all the apparent horrors that were visited on the civilian population of that nation. In this interview, Jamail says that what he is witnessing in the United States is frighteningly reminiscent of what he reported on and saw during his time in Iraq.

Patrick Farnsworth: You got your start in journalism covering the war in Iraq, and it’s a pretty incredible story. How did you get into journalism? What compelled you to be a journalist in the first place?

Dahr Jamail: I went to Iraq about six months after the invasion was launched in 2003. I was not a journalist. I went because I was watching the propaganda domestically of the selling of the war, which we all know was based on non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and all of this nonsense and just gross, blatant, baseless propaganda. I went because I was seeing the corporate media selling this while I read international media, which was telling the truth about what the UN weapons inspectors were finding, which was nothing. I was flabbergasted and outraged. I decided to deploy myself; it was something that I could do responsibly as a citizen of empire to go and report on how this disaster was going to impact the Iraqi people. So, I threw myself into the fray.

You were one of the very few unembedded journalists covering that war in Iraq. Could you explain what that means to be embedded and what it means to be unembedded as a journalist?

Right. It is a very important thing and it applies not just for war, but specifically to Iraq. It’s always been possible to embed with the military in their previous excursions around the world, at least in modern times, but the Pentagon decided: Well, we can use this as a means of information control.

So, they grossly expanded the embed program for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, to the point where it’s very easy to find video of this, where most corporate reporters decided to embed with the military, which means you go and kind of run through a little indoctrination process that they set up. They put a flak jacket on you and give you a helmet, and you kind of learn their way of doing things. Then you’re completely reliant upon them for your security, but also you give them total control over what you’re going to see, when you’re going to see it, how you’re going to see it, and if you’re going to see it, and that is how most of the war was covered by the corporate media in the United States.

Hence, it was so easy for the Bush administration to sell the occupation. And remember, the early days of the occupation, Bush’s little stage landing on the aircraft carrier, anchored off the coast of San Diego in May of 2003, declaring “Mission Accomplished” when things hadn’t even really started yet.

That’s how effective the embed program was, where for those first few months, people back here were thinking, Oh, this was a cake walk, we’ve brought freedom to the Iraqi people, versus an unembedded journalist, which is someone who just went out with an Iraqi interpreter (if you didn’t speak Arabic such as myself) and went out on the streets and just talked directly to Iraqis. I was going into the hospitals and the morgues in Fallujah and places like this, where if you’re embedded, you’re usually not going to go to those places, or if you do, it’s going to be in a completely controlled manner. You’re going to get a completely different reality reading what I wrote from Iraq versus someone riding in a Humvee with soldiers. That’s the key difference.

Bottom line is: If embedded, those folks were essentially working as journalists for the U.S. military, and if unembedded, then most of those folks were writing about reality.

You wanted to hear what they had to say, versus this sort of filtered message coming from embedded journalists, right?

Because protests weren’t doing the job. I was going to protests in Anchorage. I was doing civil disobedience. I was writing letters to senators. I was doing all these things that the dominant culture tells us that we are supposed to do if we want to affect change in a so-called democracy. And, of course, it was early on in my politicization process, so I naively still thought that that stuff was going to make a difference. Of course, it did nothing.

It was also naive because I believed that if enough people had that information, that it would make a difference. And I say naive because I underestimated the effects of what we’re living in now, which is the end stage of a multi-decade deliberate [pacification] of the population. With the corporatization of the media, the cutting of education, and the ensuing lack of moral and civic responsibility in the average person in the United States, not to talk about morality or spiritual obligation. Our population closely resembles that of Orwell’s 1984, rather than a civically engaged population that understands that democracy rests upon each of our shoulders and that we do not abdicate that responsibility to said elected officials.

Leading up to the Iraq War, I remember that feeling in the air — that there needed to be retribution. I don’t know if it ever fully dissipated in this country. Let’s compare how you felt when you were in Iraq with how you’re feeling in the United States right now.

History has always shown us that what empires do abroad when they invade other countries and try to establish other colonies — as the U.S. did in Iraq and in so many other places — will eventually come back home. The chickens always come back home to roost.

In Iraq, for example, divide-and-conquer tactics meant giving a lot of arms and money to one group more than the other, causing internecine fighting within groups and then between the groups. We saw this happen and be exploited all through the occupation, where they created sectarian war amongst the Iraqi people, very effectively, within just a couple of years of the occupation. So, divide and conquer works.

Keep the population at each other’s throats. We are seeing that play out in real time in the most blatant, obvious way with a so-called president, who’s daily stoking racial fires, going after people for their sexual orientation or their gender or the color of their skin. Every emotional hot-button issue in society is being stoked, because it keeps us fighting against each other while what is left of this country is being looted blatantly right in front of us. Except, now, it’s in the form of these trillion-dollar bailouts to corporate powers and already rich individuals, while the rest of us are basically fighting against each other for various issues. So, divide and conquer is obvious.

Another thing is that working in Iraq as a journalist, in essentially what was a low grade to a very hot war zone, is you get post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There’s certain behaviors and feelings that come with that. I want to talk about that because I think we live in a country where anybody that’s even halfway paying attention to what’s happening is suffering from PTSD. Robert Jay Lifton, the great psychologist, has written extensively about this (especially in the wake of 9/11) — that we live in a deeply traumatized country. This goes all the way back from the original genocide and the unhealed trauma, from both the perpetrator and those who were impacted by the actions (i.e. the Native Americans). Then bring in slavery and everything that’s happened since then. We live in a country that’s steeped in untreated PTSD.

This has come to the fore, more recently with the barbarism in the streets — police vehicles or vehicles of white nationalists run through crowds of demonstrators. Now they’re being shot in broad daylight sometimes, or at night in these demonstrations, as we’ve seen in recent days.

I was operating in a war zone, which I chose to go into and could leave when I wanted to — and that’s an important distinction, because Iraqi people could not, did not have that choice. Most of them, and most Americans now, don’t have that choice, especially with COVID-19. Try going into the border of Canada right now and see how far you get. We can’t leave, and that’s an important thing to understand. That’s not being talked about. When you’re living in a war zone, you have a kind of anxiety riding shotgun with you every day. You’re not going to sleep as well. Your diet, your health gets affected. I remember having eyes in the back of my head. You have this hypervigilance.

In Albuquerque, these guys show up, they look just like U.S. military, but they’re white nationalist militia men, and they’re there to threaten to kill people. And it was just like that in Iraq. There would be demonstrations in Iraq, of one group protesting a certain part of the government, and then a different militia would show up and start sniping them, or maybe run a car bomb through them, or have someone just go attack them.

We’re seeing that kind of thing happen here in the United States. Working in a war zone and getting PTSD — which, part of that is survival, means you need eyes in the back of your head. You need to live with a certain amount of anxiety. You need to be sharp. You need to be paying attention to what’s happening and waiting for the next thing to go down so that you can react to it as a means of survival.

Who here feels that way, where it takes nerves of steel just to read the news on a daily basis? We are now living in a low-grade war zone in this country. If you go to any of these Black Lives Matter protests on any given day, at least subconsciously, you know you could die. A white nationalist could show up and drive a car through that demonstration or show up with an AR-15 and go off. You could get COVID-19. I mean, there are multiple threats to our health right now.

Understand the psychic trauma and the psychic stress that we’re all living under in this country, at this time; meanwhile the empire is essentially in its last stage. This is where it eats itself and starts attacking its own citizens.

These protests are more than just people yelling at you. People are brandishing guns and might shoot you for even participating. Going out in public, seeing people driving around with Trump flags. There’s this feeling in the air that, We are in a war zone, we have factions of our society that are willing to engage in armed conflict with whole segments of the population. And then you have the Trump campaign posting ads on Facebook, for instance, dog-whistling to white nationalists and white supremacists.

Usually there’s a pickup truck, either grossly oversized or rather beat up, flying an oversized American flag in the back of it. Oftentimes there’s been some adaptation, there’s either no muffler or a louder muffler installed, and sometimes you can even see their weapon in the back of it, or not, maybe it’s concealed. It’s an intentional show of force.

In Iraq, this was a common tactic, just as the U.S. military would run patrols all around Baghdad and other cities, letting people be aware that you are under occupation and we are the ones in control now. That’s a tactic with the U.S. military, and it’s a tactic adopted by these militias. There’s been a dramatic increase of the number of these people driving around on the roads, especially in the small town where I live, which is largely progressive politically. That’s not by accident, that’s by design.

I saw a lot of the same stuff in Iraq. Certain militias were aligned with the government over there. For example, when the U.S. did away with Saddam and his minority Sunni support in the government. Within about a year-and-a-half, [Prime Minister Nouri] Al Maliki was installed into power, Shia aligned with Shia militias. In the aftermath of the November 2004 siege of Fallujah, the Iraqi government came with an Iranian-backed Shia militia in the Iraqi military, into Fallujah, a staunchly Sunni, very conservative city. They brought them in to do the dirty cleanup work and subjugate the Sunni population there.

This was kind of akin to here, where we see far-right, white nationalist militias, responding to these Trump dog-whistles, doing things like driving vehicles through Black Lives Matter demonstrations and protests, or sometimes just blatantly opening fire on them. We’re seeing, just within the last week, an increase in these incidences. This was happening abroad. The U.S. was supporting it directly and indirectly, within the Iraqi government, in their use of various militias to put down parts of the population that were not in alignment and supportive of the government.

Now we see Trump employ — or not him, but his administration — the same tactics here. Let’s blow the dog-whistle. Let’s tweet out another white power tweet as Trump did this past Sunday, and then of course take it down. It doesn’t matter that he takes it down. The message is sent; he just keeps showing his staunch core supporters of his base, I’m with you, I’ve got your back, keep supporting me, and they are, and keep showing this by going out into the demonstrations and disrupting them, causing them to be more dangerous for anybody engaged in them.

What all of this boils down to is that it’s critical that people in this country understand where we are and what we’re seeing — that the veil has completely dropped at this point, that this never really has been a democracy, but now less so than ever. We have to accept that even the illusion of a democracy, or that there’s real opportunity in this country for it, is absolutely gone. It’s never really been there, but the illusion of it now is gone.

Are we going to see clearly that we live in an autocratic state? Are we going to accept that there’s not going to be a legitimate election in November? Even if there’s a farce of an illegitimate election, maybe that won’t even happen, but are we going to accept that elections are done in this country, and behave accordingly? Are we going to accept that we have a government that is out to get us? Are we going to accept that their response to a global pandemic is that they want people to die? They want people of color to die. They want people that are not rich to die. Don’t go by what they’re saying, just look at what they’re doing. Illusions made it comfortable for a lot of us to live in this country and think that there was opportunity and freedom.

This is a time of endings. Not just in this country, but globally also, when we expand out and look at the climate crisis, the global pandemic, and the end of this runaway capitalist economy as we’ve known it, all these things are ending. There are some silver linings to some of this, but it also means that we are entering in an extremely darkening age, where whatever stress and chaos and loss that we see today, this is really just a prelude of what’s coming.

Note: This interview was originally released on the podcast “Last Born In The Wilderness” on July 2, 2020. The transcription above has been edited for length and clarity. Read the full transcript and listen to the episode here.

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