Monday, June 30, 2008

Former War Correspondent Chris Hedges Speaks in San Diego

New Book “Collateral Damage” Documents U.S. War Atrocities in Iraq


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“I spent most of my adult life covering armed conflicts,” former New York Times war correspondent Chris Hedges told a capacity crowd at the First Church of the Brethren in City Heights June 25. After witnessing and writing about the civil war in El Salvador from 1983 to 1988, he “took a sabbatical to study Arabic” — guessing correctly which part of the world the next big wars were likely to take place in — “and then covered Gaza, the West Bank, Yemen, Somalia, southern Sudan, the Punjab in 1989 and the Shi’ite uprising in Basra during the first Gulf War in 1991.” During the rest of the 1990’s he covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia “and, in 1995, went to Sarajevo when the city was under siege with 2,000 shells per day.”

That was Hedges’ last venture into a war zone — “those were enough traumatic experiences to mess up a lifetime,” he rather ruefully commented — but he took his life as a battlefield journalist and turned it into a book, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, which sought not only to denounce the evil of war but to explain its romantic appeal. Writing the book was, for Hedges, part of his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which he admits didn’t affect him as seriously as it does soldiers who actually participate in combat and kill other humans, but nonetheless led him to heavy drinking, a disinterest in his family and loved ones, and other classic PTSD symptoms.

As luck would have it, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning came out in the fall of 2002, just as the U.S. was preparing to attack Iraq, and during his promotional appearances, “inevitably I would be asked about the impending war in Iraq. I was consistent in my denunciations of the war, including being booed off the stage at a commencement address.” He was ordered by his employers at the New York Times to stop talking about the war in public — in fact, he was given a written reprimand which listed the things he could and couldn’t do as a Times reporter in terms of openly taking political stands about anything — and as a result he quit the paper after 20 years’ employment.

“One part of my life’s work is to understand what propels people into Utopian projects, especially those involving violence,” Hedges explained. “The war in Iraq is a Utopian project. Of all the 10,000 or so Arabists in the U.S., I don’t think more than 12 thought it would be a good thing. We thought we could invade Iraq, we’d be greeted as liberators and Iraq’s oil revenues would pay for it.”

Hedges spent the next few years researching America’s radical Christian Right for a book called American Fascism, then doing debates with atheist authors Sam H. Harris and Christopher Hitchens — and finding the radical Christians and the radical atheists equally loathsome in their addiction to utopian dreams and violence as a way to fulfill them. Harris’s book The End of Faith famously denounced radical Islam and endorsed the Bush administration’s “war on terror” as the only way to defend worldwide freedom of religion, and according to Hedges, Harris “calls for a first-strike nuclear attack against the Arab world.” As for Hitchens, he enthusiastically endorsed the attack on Iraq and quit his job at The Nation over the magazine’s anti-war editorial stance — though he didn’t suffer because he already had a far more lucrative gig with Vanity Fair.

“When I got back from these debates, I told my agent I was going to write a book called I Don’t Believe in Atheists,” Hedges said. “This is a belief that massive acts of violence can be used to purge the world of evil. It’s something all of us who care about a world of plurality, tolerance and understanding must do everything in the world to fight.” Hedges also went to The Nation and asked if they’d be interested in “a piece about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been killed and maimed in the war, and whose voices have not been heard, especially in the U.S.”

That proved to be one assignment too big for even Hedges to take on — especially since it’s impossible simply to walk around Iraq seeking out war victims to talk to unless you want to become a war victim yourself. So he narrowed his focus and decided to seek out U.S. veterans who’d served in the current war and interview them about their experiences — particularly those involving civilian casualties and the blurring of the lines between combatants and civilians that, Hedges said, affects any army occupying a foreign country where enough people don’t want them there that an ongoing insurgency can sustain itself.

“My model,” Hedges explained, “was the 1971 documentary film Winter Soldier, filmed at a conference in Detroit in which Viet Nam war veterans got up and told, in excruciating pain, the reality of the war. The challenge was finding a critical mass of veterans willing to talk.” He ultimately found his “critical mass,” 50 veterans, some of them well-known war resisters like Camilo Mejía and Aidan Delgado, but most of them little-known figures who just happened to have fought in the war and done things to the civilian population of Iraq of which they were less than proud.

Of the three types of war — civil wars, the “classic clashes of conventional forces” most people think of when they hear the word “war,” and wars of occupation — occupations are the most brutal and lend themselves to the most war crimes, Hedges argued, because the occupiers know almost nothing about the country they’re occupying, usually they can’t even speak its language, and “the only language a foreign occupier can speak is the language of force.”

Hedges explained that in sharp contrast to the war in El Salvador in the 1980’s — a civil war in which both sides share the same national and cultural background — a war of occupation lends itself to war crimes because “you never see the people attacking you. You have no ‘enemy’ to strike back at. You can surround and level a city, like the U.S. did to Falloujah in 2004, but the day-to-day reality is that soldiers and Marines take fire every day and have no one to direct their anger against.”

He cited psychologist Robert Jay Lifton’s description of occupations as “atrocity-producing” wars because, “once you’re outside your base, you are in real danger, you’re among a population that’s hostile, and so you identify everyone out there as the ‘enemy’ and as a legitimate target, especially once your unit takes casualties.” Hedges drew a distinction between killing, “taking the life of someone who can harm you,” and murder, “taking the life of someone who can’t” — and said that once you’ve served in a war of occupation long enough, the distinction between the two blurs and soldiers on the ground are willing to shoot at anything.

According to Hedges, both the sheer power of the weapons issued to Americans in Iraq and the “rules of engagement,” their standing orders as to whom they can fire at and when, create a fertile environment for war crimes. He said that once an improvised explosive device (IED) is used against an American unit, the policy is to fight back with so-called “suppressive fire” — the use of light machine guns in a wide, sweeping pattern that almost guarantees that innocent civilians will be murdered. This tactic is so brutal, Hedges said, that even the British — virtually America’s only remaining partner in the so-called “coalition of the willing” that launched the war against Iraq — “have complained, because these weapons were never supposed to be used in highly populated areas.”

Hedges sold Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel on the idea for an article on U.S. war crimes in Iraq, and enlisted a co-author with an unusual background: Laila al-Arian, daughter of Palestinian activist Dr. Sami al-Arian, a Palestinian professor and activist who has been imprisoned in the U.S. since 2003. Sami al-Arian, to whom the book his daughter and Hedges co-authored has been dedicated, was tried in Florida in 2005 on charges of helping the Palestinian Islamic Jihad organization and, though acquitted of all charges involving terrorism, made the mistake of accepting a plea bargain on lesser charges to avoid a retrial. Hoping to be set free and leave the U.S. voluntarily, he was instead kept in prison, repeatedly subpoenaed to testify before grand juries, and on the very night Hedges was speaking in San Diego was indicted once again.

“It was difficult to find people willing to speak,” Hedges acknowledged. “Almost everyone we spoke to was referred by someone else. The interviews would last four to five hours, and then often they would call a friend.” Hedges’ and al-Arian’s ground rules included that every interview would be recorded and transcribed — they wanted to be able to prove later that they hadn’t taken any statements out of context by preserving the complete interviews on both paper and tape — and that everyone they interviewed had to agree to allow their name to be used. “I didn’t want anonymous sources,” he explained.

Hedges also worried about how U.S. combat veterans from Iraq would react to his co-author, an observant Muslim who wears the head scarf. As things turned out, he said, “There was a confessional quality about the veterans telling these stories to a Muslim. When the veterans broke down, we turned the tape recorder off because we didn’t want emotional porn. This is a book about fact.”

The book, Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians, was expanded from the original article Hedges and al-Arian published in The Nation in July 2007. It’s divided into five sections, representing the principal abuses of the U.S. occupation of Iraq: convoys, checkpoints, raids, detentions and so-called “hearts and minds” programs, aimed at winning Iraqi support for the occupation but often, Hedges argues, outrageously counterproductive. According to Hedges, U.S. military personnel routinely run over Iraqi pedestrians and drivers in the streets of Baghdad and other cities, set up checkpoints at constantly shifting locations, stage raids in Iraqi homes between 12 and 4 a.m. and detain civilians, often holding them incommunicado and not letting even their family members know where they are.

What’s more, Americans do all that with no interest in communicating with Iraqis and no ability to do so even if they wanted to. Not only is there a yawning language barriers — almost no Iraqis speak English, almost no U.S. servicemembers speak Arabic, and interpreters are few, far between and often “slant” their translations to serve an agenda of their own, Hedges reported — but destined for service in Iraq are put through training that reinforces racist prejudices against Iraqis and Arabs in general. Hedges notes that the term “haji” — which within a Muslim culture is a term of respect (it literally means one who has been on the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca all Muslims are required to take at least once in their lives if they can afford it) — has become an all-purpose racist slur used by U.S. servicemembers in Iraq the way “gook” was used in Viet Nam and “raghead” in Afghanistan.

Hedges, whose previous books and public statements have already made him a target of the radical-Right media, said that he had “no illusions” about the reception his book would get in the U.S. “I ‘get’ nationalism, which is a disease,” he said. “The flip side of nationalism is always racism.” He recalled that immediately after 9/11 he covered al-Qaeda in Paris and clearly thought the French had the right idea; rather than launching a “war on terror” and trashing their constitution in order to fight it, they went after al-Qaeda as they would after any criminal conspiracy, building evidence, developing “human assets” inside it and ultimately prosecuting al-Qaeda members who lived under French jurisdiction. What’s more, he said, the French learned that lesson the hard way from their failed attempt to keep control over Algeria in the 1950’s.

Like many critics of America’s “war on terror,” Hedges lamented the road not taken — the opportunity to build a truly international coalition against al-Qaeda in the wake of 9/11 and the outpouring of sympathy for the U.S. throughout the world (including the Muslim world) in the first days after the attacks. “If we had built on that empathy, we would be far safer and more secure than we are today,” Hedges said. “Instead, we were whipped into this frenzy.”

What’s more, Hedges added, he doesn’t expect improvement after Bush leaves office, no matter which major-party candidate replaces him. Admitting his statement was going to shock some members of his audience, he said, “I’m not going to vote for McCain or Obama because neither talk about complete withdrawal. We have no right to be in Iraq. Anything is better than Bush, even McCain, but the forces that have been unleashed under Bush may not be capped by a new administration. We live in a corporate state, and for the corporations war is good for business There are segments of the American corporate state for whom this war is a blessing.”

When Hedges made his remarks against Obama — and revealed a deep-seated hostility towards the Democratic party which came out even more strongly after the event was over, when he was signing copies of his book and told one couple that an economic collapse in the U.S. would push its politics even farther Right because “the progressives sold out the working class to support Bill Clinton on NAFTA” — the audience response was revealing. About one-third of the crowd cheered loudly; the rest sat in stunned silence.