Beyond the Green Zone

My following book review appears in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:

Author: Dahr Jamail

Publisher: Haymarket Books

Pages: 313

Price: $39.95

Nearly five years since the start of the Iraq war, we still know remarkably little about the conflict and its effect on the Iraqi people. A recent study by British polling agency ORB found that more than 1 million Iraqis had been killed since 2003 and the UN reports that more than 4 million internal and external refugees now struggle for safety.

The Middle East hasn’t experienced anything like it since the 1948 establishment of Israel and the expulsion of Palestinians from their land. Yet despite these appalling facts, Western media has been largely inept in reporting the day-to-day lives of Iraqis living under US occupation, preferring to focus on the level of troops to “pacify” the country, the role of “radical” clerics and the “destabilising” role of Iran. Insightful journalism is never about taking embedded tours with generals in stage-managed set pieces; it gives voice to the seemingly expendable victims of Western-led wars.

Dahr Jamail, an independent American journalist, was a mountain guide in Alaska before the 2003 invasion. He had no formal journalism training and was simply a concerned citizen who found himself increasingly frustrated with the corporate media’s enabling of the Bush Administration’s war. He took a laptop and small digital camera and headed to Iraq, initially just reporting his observations via email to a small group of friends.

Soon his work was picked up by independent news services and his brutally honest dispatches revealed American torture, home raids across the country and the use of white phosphorous in Fallujah. His compelling book dispenses with the false concept of journalistic objectivity and focuses on the ways in which the Iraqi victims of “our” war have been forgotten.

Beyond The Green Zone compiles Jamail’s writings and paints a grim picture of young American soldiers acting violently and out of control against an often-invisible threat. Leading investigative reporter Seymour Hersh commented a few years ago that US soldiers were committing war crimes in Iraq on a daily basis and Jamail witnesses foreign forces using Iraqi civilians as human shields, firing indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed children and withholding medical treatment in cities.

As in Vietnam, many mainstream journalists don’t tell their audiences what is going on, haven’t seen it because they’re embedded and attached to the military or label such actions the work of a few “bad apples”. Jamail reveals the delusion of this position. He is honest about his contempt for the Western mission in Iraq but remains shocked at the lack of care for the citizens being “liberated”.

Jamail’s reporting from inside Fallujah during the infamous 2004 siege is most revealing. He arrived in the ravaged town with a group of activists and human rights workers, determined to distribute much-needed medicine to dilapidated hospitals. He sees countless men, women and children shot by American snipers, dying without adequate care and family members railing against a policy that deems it legitimate to shoot ambulances ferrying the injured.

When Jamail returns to Baghdad, he’s astounded to see CNN and The New York Times reporting that a ceasefire in the city is “holding”. “Their reporters [were] happily embedded with troops”, he observes, “obediently regurgitating the military press releases for US audiences.”

War boosters constantly talk about the presence of al-Qaeda in Iraq but Jamail explains the majority of the resistance to foreign occupation comes from ordinary Iraqis with no extremist links, determined to see their nation truly liberated. He meets many of them and acknowledges that although some initially welcomed the Americans they soon realised that Washington’s true aims were subjugation of the country’s people and resources.

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