"There are 10^11 stars in the galaxy. That used to be a huge number. But it's only a hundred billion. It's less than the national deficit! We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers." ~ Richard Feynman
Dispatches of War: A Dozen Questions for Dahr Jamail
Recently Dahr Jamail returned from Iraq. A working journalist with an uncanny knack for allowing the average Iraqi to speak and be heard, for putting his reporter's ear to the ground and his finger on the pulse of that country, Dahr agreed to answer a dozen questions for STR.
First of all, thanks and welcome safely home. I noticed from your website that you're back in the Northwest now, speaking to groups in the Seattle area. What a culture/weather shock that must be: the gentle rains, the snow-capped mountains, the lush greens and refreshing blues . . . .
STR: Anyway, as an Alaskan and a mountain climber, Dahr, a guy who scaled the highest peak in North America, Mount McKinley (Denali), you probably know a thing or two about fear. Were the daily dangers you faced in Iraq more terrifying than, say, crossing a glacier or scaling a windswept 20,000-foot peak?
DJ: By far. The human element is always more unpredictable than nature. The stress and anxiety from working in Iraq is ongoing--it is every second of every day. When mountaineering, I have some control over when I choose to put myself in harm's way . . . and when to take a break. In Iraq, the only power over that is choosing whether to go into the country or not.
STR: You write compellingly about the average Iraqi, with far more sympathy than most news reporters, and you take pictures. This seems to be war without pictures, even though most US soldiers in the Persian Gulf seem to have a digital camera. Has the mainstream media conspired to avoid putting a human face on the tragedy of this war?
DJ: I think they have. We see many examples of this--such as the big controversy over showing the flag-draped coffins of fallen US soldiers. In fact, the mainstream media has even referred to coffins as "transfer tubes" at the request of the Pentagon. We have seen next to no coverage of humanizing Iraqis, or even soldiers for that matter. When we look at how pervasive and consistent this pattern is, it seems hard to believe it is not deliberate.
STR: Six months ago, Naomi Klein drove around Baghdad. She said she saw almost no evidence of rebuilding. After the capture of Baghdad, nearly two years ago, reporter Robert Fisk stated in an interview, 'We claim that we want to preserve the national heritage of the Iraqi people, and yet my own count of government buildings burning in Baghdad before I left was 158, of which the only buildings protected by the United States Army and the Marines were the Ministry of Interior . . . and the Ministry of Oil." Dahr, have you seen any major rebuilding efforts that American taxpayers have been billed for? You see any derricks, bulldozers and cranes--or at least maybe some Iraqis in hardhats? DJ: No. None.
STR: You travel about in Mufti, much as Lawrence of Arabia did. Have you ever been accused of being a spy, had guns drawn on you? What was your most terrifying encounter--when the back of your mind said you might be moments away from losing your head? DJ: There have been several. Ironically, the only two times I've been fired upon have both been by US soldiers. But the closest I think I've come to death was when I was exiting Fallujah after my visit there last April during the siege. Our bus began to travel down a road that was guarded by a different group of mujahideen than those guarding the particular road we were on, and we were immediately surrounded by angry fighters with cocked guns aimed at us. Our bus was searched, and only because we had some doctors from Fallujah with us were we allowed to go on our way.
STR: Iraqi girl blogger and Baghdad resident Riverbend writes that the water and power in Baghdad seems to be cut off for long periods, (photo) as a sort of collective punishment by the US or their Iraqi leaders, which is a war crime, according to the Geneva Convention, by the way. Is there any truth to what she writes?
DJ: Definitely true. I have a friend who lives in a very pro-resistance area of Baghdad, and every time there is fighting there, his power and water are cut. If you need any photographic proof of Israeli military-style collective punishments, visit the photo images on my website. They've been ongoing since nearly the beginning of the occupation.
STR: If you could give American administrators in Iraq five suggestions--or even three--to facilitate smoother relations, what would you suggest they do, barring any suggestion to withdraw? DJ: Re-open all reconstruction contracts to re-bidding . . . giving all Iraqi companies first rights to all jobs. Pull all US forces onto their bases and out of the cities, and shift their focus towards patrolling the borders of the country. Set a definite timetable for withdrawal.
STR: The average young American GI, often thousands of miles from home for the first time: Is he fit for a role as a heavily armed, cop-on-the-beat in a land where he can neither understand the language nor the customs? Have you spoken to many US soldiers, and overall, what is their perspective, since they are closest to the daily emotional and physical grind?
DJ: I have spoken to quite a few soldiers, and morale is low. Most are in survival mode, saying, "Well, I signed the dotted line, so I'm just doing my job and trying to get the fuck out of here." Others are high and abusing Iraqis and each other. They are put in the middle of a horrible situation that is completely out of their control.
STR: General Abizad said recently on PBS, The Newshour, that the US wants to build "an Iraq for Iraqis." Was he being naive, and can this be done without a timetable for complete US withdrawal? DJ: He is being racist. Iraq will build its own Iraq and doesn't want nor does it need US help. The best analogy is the reconstruction--after the '91 Gulf War. Iraqis had their electricity back up after just a few months. Here we are, nearly two years into the occupation, billions of US taxpayer dollars have been allocated to contracts, and electricity remains far below pre-war levels. Iraqis can take care of themselves, if they are allowed to and given the chance. Iraq today is a military dictatorship.
STR: You drive around a lot in Iraq and most Americans can identify with that. And you pass gas lines snaking for miles (something we Americans have a tough time identifying with). Do you think the average Iraqi would prefer normalization of water, power, gas, and police state type security--as before the war--for perpetual US occupation? Is that what American policymakers hope to induce there? DJ: Right now Iraqis want security, jobs, electricity and the basics in life. Those are first priority. Is this a design by American policy makers? Good question.
STR: As a much-admired war correspondent, one mostly unknown in the mainstream media but renowned worldwide on the internet, would you suggest that others take up the role you've assumed as an intrepid journalist? Care to elaborate on the pros and cons for those who might hope to emulate you? DJ: The time for independent media is upon us. The mainstream media in the US has proven itself to be the propaganda machine that it is. I believe it's worth the risk to get the information out. Imagine if there were hundreds of indy journos running around Iraq . . . how would the military/government respond to that? They would simply be unable to do so . . . repress it, that is. Of course any journalist would have to have legitimate press credentials, and ample funding, it isn't cheap to work in Iraq.
STR: Rumors of war--Scot Ritter says an Israeli or US air strike on Iran is due in June. Care to comment? DJ: Mr. Ritter is an extremely credible source. Most of what he's said about Iraq has been true to this point. If we look at the propaganda spewing from the White House regarding Iran--we seem to be on a similar track we were for Iraq--the ratcheting up of the propaganda to justify an attack.
STR: What do you miss most while over there in Iraq? Simple pleasures of any sort? Please elaborate. DJ: Peace of mind. Being able to truly relax. The need to check out from time to time is never fulfilled. I miss being able to go to a movie and just forget about the world for a little while. I miss being able to walk freely down the street and not worry about kidnappings or bombings.
Dahr Jamail's website is at Dahr Jamail's Iraq Dispatches. If you are interested in scheduling a speaking engagement with him in your community, please email the Dahr Jamail presentation and scheduling contact.
Photos courtesy Dahr Jamail.