Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges talks about his landmark article in The Nation magazine, “The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness,” the result of seven months of interviews with troops about their experiences in Iraq.
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James Harris: Thank you for joining us here on Truthdig. This is James Harris along with Josh Scheer. On the phone we have Truthdig contributor Chris Hedges. And we’re here to talk about his new article that he’s written along with Laila Al-Arian titled “The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness.” What these are are firsthand accounts of soldiers’ return from the war in Iraq, and some of the things you read will be emotionally disturbing. They will give you an image of this war that I think more Americans need to see on a much more regular basis. Because if we saw and heard the things that these soldiers are sharing, we might be a bit more active about making a change in Iraq. One soldier that Chris and Laila interviewed said that every good cop carries a throw-away. If you keep someone and they’re unarmed, you just drop one on them. Chris, how telling are these confessions about troop behavior in previous wars, like, you know, Vietnam and World War II?
Chris Hedges: Well, I think we have to be clear that there are different types of war. Many of which I’ve covered. I covered the civil wars in Central America, for example, in the early 1980s. I covered the first Gulf War, which was a conflict between conventional armies in a depopulated area, if we exclude the bombing of southern Iraq, which did inflict civilian casualties before the war; the actual fighting took place in the open desert, and a war like Iraq. Which is, bears all the hallmarks of traditional colonial occupations. And by that I mean it’s where you have foreign forces that are culturally, historically and linguistically illiterate. Who come in from the outside, speak exclusively to the people they are colonizing, through the language of force. You end up fighting an elusive, shadowy enemy—an insurgency that is homegrown that has broad popular support. And these kinds of wars are perhaps the most pernicious, because you get a situation where American soldiers and Marines will spend an entire tour in Iraq and never see the people who are killing them. And yet the attacks on the occupation forces are of a tremendous potency. I mean, these improvised explosive devices or these vehicle-borne explosive devices are massive. I mean, leaving huge craters in the street, destroying humvees. And you have a situation where every time the soldiers and marines leave the perimeter of their heavily fortified compound, they are in tremendous danger and yet they can’t see or make contacts with the very people who are carrying out the attacks. And this leads to a kind of indiscriminate use of violence, a kind of identification of all Iraqis as the enemy. And we sought to give not only snapshots of the war through convoys or how checkpoints are run, or how suppressing fire is laid down after an IED goes off, but ultimately to get a critical mass. Which is why we spent seven months interviewing 50 Iraqi veterans all on the record; all of these records were taped, thousands of pages of transcripts to explain the patterns of the war. And I think one walks away from reading this 15,000-word piece realizing that the war in Iraq, like the war in Vietnam, like most colonial occupations, one would think of the French war in the war of independence in Algeria, had just become one huge atrocity.
Harris: Did you find any ray of hope, any thing that the soldiers said to you or your partner that was encouraging about their presence in Iraq?
Hedges: The ray of hope is that they have the courage to speak out. This was, let’s not venomize what it took for these people to talk on the record. Some of them are still in the military, but even those who are not, you know, they’re going to take a lot of heat for this. They are going to alienate and anger friends and former military colleagues. So I think the ray of hope is that from within their own ranks of the American military that there were enough people of conscience and integrity to stand up and chronicle, and many of this is not only an indictment of the forces, but many of these people were indicting themselves for their own behavior. You know, the fact that they can get out and speak the truth, that’s the ray of hope.
Josh Scheer: I want to know was this also an emotional release for the soldiers to speak their minds?
Hedges: Yeah. Very much so, Josh. In many of these interviews they broke down. And it was extremely difficult; this was not an easy task on the part of these veterans. Laila, interestingly enough, is an observant Muslim; wears a headscarf. And we wondered at the beginning how they would react. And what was fascinating is that the fact that she was an observant Muslim who wore a headscarf was an asset. Because there was a deep desire on the part of many of these veterans to not only confess, but, I think, seek a kind of forgiveness or understanding and they, I would say, most of them found it moving to reach out to an observant Muslim. So, yeah, these were emotionally laden, you know, these interviews—you listen to the tapes and it’s quite moving. You know, long pauses while we wait for these people to compose themselves; you know, these people had real guts.
Harris: Let’s move the conversation over to George Bush. Given the growing frequency of tragedy in Iraq, what precedence do you think it says that Congress has been unable to affect George Bush’s policy and his war in Iraq at all?
Hedges: Well, it’s a product of the imperial presidency. It’s what Bob Scheer wrote about the other day. You know, the Congress has essentially reneged, or walked away from the powers invested in them by the Constitution, that is to oversee foreign policy and to declare and manage wars: That the president should be the administrator of conflicts, not the policymaker. And that is the problem that we do have an imperial presidency, and Bob captured that very well in his column.
Scheer: Now what do you think about the soldiers? I mean, what do you think their solution to the problems there are, and the people you’ve talked to, the Iraqis, what do you think the future holds for these kind of people? Is there any kind of way to bridge the gap, make this country [Iraq] successful again?
Hedges: Having spent two decades in pretty hopeless situations, I’d love to buy into that American method of everything can be made better. Sometimes it can’t be made better, and sometimes you do things that only make them worse. I think that an American withdrawal is pretty clear would unleash a kind of bloodbath between competing factions: Sunni, Shiite, and Kurd. I don’t see much good that’s going to come out of this. I mean the repercussions within the region, because of our blunders, are going to be immense. And counterproductive to American interests. And very possibly leading to a kind of regional conflict, especially if the Bush administration, or the neocons in the Bush administrations, decide they want to start dropping cruise missiles on Iran. You know, the tragedy of the war in Iraq is that the policy that was instituted after the first Gulf War, which was a policy of containment, was working. The Iraqi military was a shadow of what it has been in 1991. The regime was isolated and reviled. Uday, the heir apparent, Saddam’s eldest son, was crippled and nearly killed in an assassination attempt. Saddam was sitting in one of his many palaces writing bizarre romance novels. ... That’s what so sad. And the weapons inspectors, by the way, did their job. I mean, there were no biological or chemical agents left after they destroyed all these artillery dumps which had shells that did have biological and chemical agents in them in the aftermath of the Gulf War. So, we took a policy that was working and substituted for [it] a policy that doesn’t work. And we’re all going to pay the consequences.
Scheer: Well, my point wasn’t that we could fix it in a week or two. I just want to know if it’s a fixable problem in the next 50 years, 20 years, 100 years?
Hedges: The short term doesn’t look good. It depends on so much. There’s going to be a scramble for resources, especially for oil resources. There’s huge water disputes between Syria and Turkey. There’s a lot that could go wrong. And unless we can get some astute management in there pretty soon, both in terms of the United States, the industrialized countries, and the United Nations, things don’t look so good.
Scheer: Now I want to ask another question. You were the bureau chief for quite some time from The New York Times. Do you think they would have printed this if you had given it to them? What would their reaction have been?
Hedges: I think the story they would have printed. Remember, there are no anonymous sources; these are all on the record. Everything was taped. That’s why it took seven months to complete. Yeah, I think they, I mean, what we wanted was something that was just so transparent and so carefully done and so bulletproof that it just, you know, the sheer—the accuracy of it and the sheer weight of it would be impossible to refute. So I’m certain the Times, you know, would have run; they might not have run it in quite this configuration. ... And they certainly wouldn’t have given me 15,000 words. But I could see them running this. I mean, the power of the piece is that it’s all on the record.
Harris: How about the soldiers? Did they have any recommendations for what’s next? Did they give you any indication about what they thought about the war in general now that they were home?
Hedges: Well, I would say the vast majority not only oppose the war, but would want the troops to come home. And that was the motivation for speaking with us. In terms of policy recommendations, beyond that, that really wasn’t, they may have some, we didn’t ask them that; that really wasn’t our focus. Our focus was really tightly controlled. I mean, we wanted to know how convoys were run and checkpoints were set up and how suppressing fire worked, and that was really the focus of the interview. We weren’t writing a policy piece, so those were questions, if they came up, they came up inadvertently.
Harris: “The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness.” When is the book coming out?
Hedges: We are going to do a book. ... I don’t know what percentage [of the material] got in the magazine, but it’s certainly somewhere between 5-10 percent, but there was just so much there and so much of it was so powerful that we do want to put it together for a book. And we’ll bring it out hopefully at the beginning of next year.
Harris: Well, thank you, Chris, for joining us. For Josh Scheer and for Truthdig contributor Chris Hedges, this is James Harris, and this is Truthdig.
Camilo Mejía was one of 50 combat veterans interviewed for the article.