I Had No Choice

Original Essay for Powell’s Books

“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”
—George Orwell

I never intended to be a revolutionary.

In March 2003 when the U.S-led invasion of Iraq was launched I was in the midst of another full mountaineering season in Alaska. However, unlike earlier seasons, I was unable to devote myself wholeheartedly to my time in the mountains, which I consider my sanctuary. I retained my links with the less divine through radio and phone and other channels because I felt obliged to know what my country was doing elsewhere.

Like millions of other U.S. citizens, with a little online reading of relevant news and reports I knew already that the reasons being given by my government for the invasion were fabricated lies. There had been no WMDs in Iraq for years, and the allegation that Saddam Hussein was implicated in the events of 9/11/01 in the United States was laughable, more so because the secular dictator was known to be a sworn enemy of groups like al-Qaeda and had violently repressed all religious fundamentalism in his country.

There were glaring signs that something was amiss. On September 6, 2002, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card said about the P.R. campaign for the Iraq war, “From a marketing point of view, you don’t introduce new products in August.” I did not hear any questions being raised by the mainstream media about a White House Chief of Staff talking about marketing and war in the same breath.

Deafening war drums the very next day shed light on Card’s utterance. On September 7, 2002, George W. Bush and Tony Blair stood together at Camp David and declared that evidence from a report published by the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) showed that Iraq was “six months away” from building nuclear weapons. It was an outrageous declaration because no IAEA report backing their claim existed.

This was followed by a piece in the New York Times coauthored by Judith Miller of WMD notoriety and Michael Gordon, in which they proudly quoted an anonymous “Bush administration official” as saying, “Iraq has stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and has embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb.”

I looked on aghast at the way the media helped sell the war to the buyer who happened to be my fellow citizen in the United States. During a July 13, 2006, interview with PBS Frontline Judith Miller had claimed to be an “obsessive” and “relentless journalist.” It did not take long to discover that she was not alone in her relentless obsession. Many of her ilk demonstrated a compulsive penchant for putting out unverified facts if not blatant lies for public consumption during the countdown to the invasion, and later while “covering the war.” The cherry on top was their arrogance.

As cruise missiles and bombs rained down on Baghdad, killing innocent civilians by the scores, a triumphant Tom Brokaw announced on NBC Nightly News on March 19, 2003, “One of the things we don’t want to do…is to destroy the infrastructure of Iraq because in a few days we’re going to own that country.”

John Pilger, the Australian born, U.K.-based journalist/author/documentary filmmaker believes a journalist ought to be a guardian of the public memory and quotes Milan Kundera: “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”

But my fellow Americans need have no fear of forgetting things they were never told to begin with.

Soon after the invasion the media watch-dog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found in a three week study of 1,617 on-camera sources on six television networks and news channels that “official voices have dominated U.S. network newscasts, while opponents of the war have been notably underrepresented…Nearly two thirds of all sources, 64 percent, were pro-war, while 71 percent of U.S. guests favored the war. Anti-war voices were 10 percent of all sources, but just 6 percent of non-Iraqi sources and 3 percent of U.S. sources. Thus viewers were more than six times as likely to see a pro-war source as one who was anti-war; with U.S. guests alone, the ratio increases to 25 to 1.”

My pocket-sized short-wave world band radio brought me the media coverage of the war while I was on various mountaineering trips around Alaska that summer. Despite being in my haven of glacier-clad peaks, my mind was tormented by what I heard about Iraq.

In trying to deal with my rage and frustration at the state of things, I realized that I was left with no option but to go to Iraq. To rationalize that decision in retrospect would be futile. There was no plan in my mind. All I knew then and recollect today is that I had to be there to be able to tell the truth about what was happening, to whoever was willing to listen.

I had traveled earlier in Asia but never with a public purpose. Communication for me had been more of an inner process till then. Miraculously, however, during four trips over a staggered eight months in Iraq, I gradually managed to reach millions through hundreds of news articles for various media outlets around the globe, scores of blog pages, and thousands of photos. For myself, I amassed experiences that will remain with me forever.

It wasn’t until after my last departure from Iraq in February 2005, when the security situation made further trips impossible, that I felt the need to chronicle my Iraq experience as part catharsis and part exorcism, if nothing else. I realized too that my account of reality would remain incomplete unless I juxtaposed it against the “reality” being presented and projected back home.

Beyond the Green Zone is therefore a first person narrative which dares to take an unblinking critical look at the short-falls of mainstream media in the U.S. and at the antics of an administration brazenly claiming victory while engineering disaster after inexcusable disaster in the course of its continuing misadventure in Iraq.

May 2007 was the most violent month in Iraq in nearly three years. There were 6,039 attacks on US and Iraqi government forces, 1,348 improvised explosive devices exploded under their vehicles and there were 286 “complex ambushes” involving roadside bombs and coordinated teams of attackers, 102 car bombs, 126 American soldiers killed, and 652 wounded.

In July, Oxfam International released a report, according to which eight million Iraqis are in dire need of emergency aid. Nearly one half of the country is living on less than $1 per day. Twenty-eight percent of Iraqi children are malnourished, which is nine percent more than the figure during the sanctions when over 500,000 Iraqi children died from malnourishment, disease, and lack of medical aid. In addition, the report showed that 92 percent of Iraqi children now suffer from learning “impediments.”

The most recent scientific study conducted almost a year back by John’s Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health and published in the British medical journal the Lancet estimated that 655,000 Iraqis had died as a direct result of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation.

The dead will not come back… but at an emotional level my work in Iraq, this book, and the columns I continue to write are my protest against those unnecessary deaths and my prayer for the dead.

This book is about Iraq, so I mention the Iraqi dead. My grief is no less about my fellow Americans who have given their lives because they believed in their government.

At the rational level this work has sprung from my faith in the democratic values that this proud nation once represented. It is my belief that an informed citizenry is the bedrock of any healthy democracy, and I remain willing to do whatever is necessary to expose and counter government and corporate media disinformation.

If telling the truth is revolutionary, through my book I hope to connect with many revolutionaries in the coming days. I am hopeful that from among my readers and my audience will emerge many who value democracy enough to find their own ways of restoring and strengthening it at home and abroad without causing shock, awe, and devastation.

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Dahr Jamail makes frequent visits to Iraq and has published his accounts in newspapers and magazines worldwide. He has regularly appeared on Democracy Now!, as well as the BBC, Pacifica Radio, and numerous other networks.

Praise for Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq:

“An urgent, in-the-trenches report….[T]he author provides many significant, eye-opening observations….[A]n important eyewitness testimony.” Kirkus Reviews

“From the earliest days of the war, Dahr Jamail has been a human conduit for the voices of Iraqis living under U.S. occupation. In the face of tremendous personal risk, his commitment to the crucial, principled task of bearing witness has never wavered, and this extraordinary book is the result.” Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine