Back to Iraq, In A Way

Tonight, “Only the Dead,” a documentary by my old Baghdad bureau chief Michael Ware premiers on HBO. I am both anticipating and dreading this documentary.

Ware was already well established as the guy with the sources in the insurgency by the time I started my second Iraq journey in early 2004. I met him in a hotel room in Baghdad and he struck me as someone deeply in love with the adrenaline of reporting on the insurgency, combat reporting, at continually cheating death. I was … not entranced, but deeply admiring. He’s a big guy, over six feet, with a build that reflects his days as a rugby player. His nose looks like he ran into a wall, picked himself up and did it again just to teach the wall a lesson. He was funny, profane, frightening and always ready with a good story. (It’s a shame I only have pictures of him at parties. I won’t post them, though. He’s been through enough.)

But he was also, by that time, deeply wounded. I didn’t realize how much, but he had gone from his native Australia to Afghanistan and then to Iraq. In three years of conflict, he had picked up an addiction to war that I would come to know as well. My friend Phil Zabriskie writes in TIME how damaged Ware would eventually become:

Ware’s camera catches a dazed, baleful expression across the Marine’s face. “I could see good men here losing their grip, losing themselves,” Ware narrates. He knows whereof he speaks, because the same thing, of course, was happening to him.

This became even more harder to ignore after Ware moved from TIME to CNN in mid-2006. Always high energy, he became increasingly manic and erratic. Friends and colleagues worried for his health and safety, concerned that the persona of Mick Ware, the madman Aussie war correspondent who’d take risks others wouldn’t, was starting to obscure the excellent, often prescient work done by Michael Ware, the journalist.

After he left Baghdad, he was a mess, Phil writes. “He could barely function away from war. He couldn’t sleep. He self-medicated. He saw roadside bombs when he drove and the faces of the dead when he closed his eyes.” He was suffering from serious PTSD. For a while, I had mild symptoms and likewise did reckless things. But Ware saw worlds worse than anything I encountered. “For a long time, Ware wanted to die,” Phil writes.

But thankfully, he found help. And now he’s telling the story of the war as only can, using the (initially) haphazardly filmed conflict. We haven’t spoken in years, but I hope that changes. If he can come back, there’s hope for everyone.

So I’m eager to see the film tonight (old addictions never really go away), but I’m also dreading the memories it will serve up. We had car bombsfriends kidnapped, and yes, killed. I almost took a bullet in Najaf. Iraq was unimaginably dangerous for reporters from 2004-2008 (and more so for Iraqis), a fact that our stateside audience just never seemed to grasp, no matter how many journalists were killed.

Anyway, Ware is right: Only the dead see the end of war. It never leaves you. And I don’t know if you can ever make peace with it. Maybe there are only cease-fires.

Crossposted to truly, nomadly, deeply

Craziness on Display

One of the things writing the U.S. media roundup on IraqSlogger allows me to do is get a high dudgeon up over the crap that passes for analysis on op-ed pages … or sloppy writing in the middle of reporting. (Michael Gordon of the New York Times has been raked over the coals for his indiscriminate use of “al Qaeda” to describe most Iraqis with a Kalashnikov, but thankfully that seems to have been reined in.)

Others have been less careful. On Friday, Leslie Sabbagh of the Christian Science Monitor writes that Petraeus warned of “greatly increased sectarian violence” if the U.S. pulls out too soon. It’s a fairly run-of-the mill story, with stats showing a drop in attacks against civilians and an increase against U.S. troops. Pretty much what you’d expect, but there is some sloppy language in here. Sabbagh writes of a “quick withdrawal,” but few people in Washington are talking about anything hasty. They’re talking about the start of a withdrawal sooner rather than later — one that might take six months, a year, whatever — not a pell-mell rush to the border.

Sabbagh does it again, writing, “The prospect of any hasty removal of US troops has (Petraeus) concerned.” But the general actually said, “If we pull out there will be greatly increased sectarian violence, humanitarian concerns….” Petraeus makes no mention of the speed of the pullout; he questions the wisdom of a pullout altogether. The military command and the Bush White House seem to be envisioning a long-term presence in Iraq that will last years, but reporters are thinking of a evacuation, Saigon style. Those are two very different ideas. Reporters need to let the readers know when Petraeus, Bush, et al. are trying to reframe the debate as a choice between a hasty, unplanned retreat and an indefinite presence. What’s actually being talked about is either an indefinite presence or an orderly withdrawal with proper force-protection over a period of time, but which begins sooner rather than never.

But for an egregious example of high weirdness, check out the Monitor‘s publication of an op-ed by Andrew Roberts, author of “A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900.” In this extraordinary op-ed, Roberts argues that “the English-speaking peoples” (ESPs) of the world are the ones best able to stand up to radical, totalitarian Islam because Anglophones have never been invaded or fallen under the sway of fascism or communism. “Countries in which English is the primary language are culturally, politically, and militarily different” — read, “better” — “from the rest of ‘the West,'” he writes. “They stand for modernity, religious and sexual toleration, capitalism, diversity, women’s rights, representative institutions — in a word, the future.” Yeah! Suck it, Germany, Spain and Italy! (Who have all committed troops and suffered casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere since 9/11.)

Seriously, this offensively nativist tract must come as a surprise to the those non-English-speaking peoples of the world (poor sods), but maybe they’ll be content to bask in the warm protectorate of the US-Canadian-British-ANZ imperium. There is just so much wrong with this op-ed — such as saying the invasion of South Korea by North Korea was a “surprise” attack for the world’s ESPs when it sounds like it was more a surprise to the South Koreans. And his repetition of the whole ESP phrase is grating. Finally, he just up and ignores the contributions of German soldiers in Afghanistan and the French Navy in patrolling the vital sea lanes throughout the Arabian and Indian oceans. And he trots out the old, “Al Qaeda can’t be appeased because the French would have already done so” trope. WTF? Is this a joke?

There’s much more — so much more. I’m leaving out the pablum from such luminaries as Bill Kristol — “the Bush presidency will be seen as a sucess” — and the Wall Street Journal editorial page. I mean, we all know what’s the score with those guys. But I expected a bit more from the Monitor.

Finally, my latest column for Spot-on.com is available. In it, I take up — what else? — the 1st anniversary of the Israel-Hezbollah war. (Some people call it the July War, but since half of it happened in August, I’ll stick with my appellation, thanks.)

That’s all. More to come!

Latest IraqSlogger: Chalabi’s back

My latest for IraqSlogger is up, and there’s a howler of an op-ed in today’s _Wall Street Journal_. As I wrote for the Slogger:

Melik Kaylan writes a fawning piece on Ahmad Chalabi for the _Wall Street Journal_’s op-ed page, calling him the “nearest thing Iraqis currently possess to a genuine walk-and-talk democratic politician.” For many Americans, that may be hard to stomach, as the guy has been roundly criticized for peddling false WMD information to eager listeners at the Pentagon. (He once said, “As far as we’re concerned we’ve been entirely successful. That tyrant Saddam is gone and the Americans are in Baghdad. What was said before is not important. … We are heroes in error.”) In Chalabi’s views, everything would have been hunky-dory in Baghdad if the Americans had just let the Iraqis run the show, presumably with him in charge. (Which was pretty much the plan until those meddlin’ State Department kids showed up.) Furthermore, without once mentioning that Chalabi is Shi’ite himself, Kaylan says Chalabi recognizes the realities of Iraq and its ethnic makeup, admitting that Shi’ites will be dominant. Well, other than Sunni insurgents, does anyone really dispute that? Kaylan seems to have been snookered by Chalabi, who thrills Iraqis by wandering amongst the people. Admirable yes, but Chalabi has almost zero support in Iraq and perhaps the reason he’s able to walk and talk relatively safely in public is because no one takes him seriously anymore.

The quote from Chalabi that I reference can be found here, way back from February 2004.

Escape from Iraq

A story I wrote appeared Monday in the Newark Star-Ledger, a great smaller paper that cares about foreign news. The story dealt with the plight of the Iraqi refugees in Jordan.

Lives suspended by war
AMMAN, Jordan — Rana crosses her legs on the threadbare carpet in her living room in this poor Palestinian section of town and watches as her three children light a candle. The kids are having a pretend birthday party without a cake or presents, but their faces are painted a magnificent shade of gold by the candlelight.

Across town, Hasa and his family sit in their richly-appointed apartment, with all the modern conveniences and bedrooms for everyone. The kitchen is especially bright and clean.

Rana and Hasa live in separate worlds, but have much in common.

Both families are Iraqi refugees facing an uncertain future in a foreign country. Both want to return to their shattered country. And both agreed to be interviewed and photographed for this story only if their real names would not be used because they fear deportation from Jordan and retribution in Iraq.
Driven from their homes by violence and threats of death, Rana and Hasa also provide rare portraits of the refugee life facing many Iraqis. The two families are among the 750,000 Iraqi refugees estimated to be living in Jordan, a country about the size of Pennsylvania and choking on the staggering burden of its new population. (The Iraqis account for about 15 percent of the people living in Jordan.)

Rana’s family is struggling to fit in and faces discrimination from other Iraqis, Jordanians and Palestinians. Jordanians, Rana says, complain to her that “you’re not wearing a hijab, you’re wearing tight jeans, you’re leaving the house.” Palestinians, meanwhile, say, “You killed Saddam.”
Hasa’s family, while well off, faces difficult circumstances as well. From their plush perch overlooking the local mosque, they made a comfortable life here after arriving in 2003.

Things have changed, though.

Hasa now complains government regulations make it impossible for him to run his businesses here or in Iraq, and his life savings is being bled dry.
At the same time, he rages at the U.S. government.

“We are in such a state that we who welcomed America now hate it, and hate the people as much as we hate the politics,” he says. “This isn’t the freedom we expected. This isn’t what we wanted.”

Two families in a country where they don’t want to be.

Two families in a country that really doesn’t want them.

“Please read the whole thing”:http://www.nj.com/starledger/stories/index.ssf?/base/news-11/1180932323248120.xml&coll=1. It should be noted that two days after the story appeared, the UNHCR raised the number of Iraqis who are displaced or refugees to 4.4 million — almost twice the numbers that were available to me at the time of my reporting. That’s 16 percent of the entire Iraqi population, making it the largest human catastrophe to hit the Middle East in recorded history. It dwarfs the Palestinian displacements in 1948 and 1967. If something isn’t done about this, it will further destabilize an already volatile region.

By the way, can someone recommend a good server host? Yahoo! is terrible and I keep getting 500 Server Errors preventing me from getting into the blog, rebuilding it, etc.