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Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian on “Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians”

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In their new book, journalists Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian bring us the voices of fifty American combat veterans of the Iraq War and their understanding of the US occupation and why Iraqis are so opposed to it. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.


Thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets of Baghdad to protest a proposed deal that would keep US troops in Iraq for years to come. More than five years after the US invasion, the Bush administration is seeking to complete a deal with the Iraqi government that would allow US forces to remain in Iraq past the UN mandate, which expires this July.

Well, a new book by journalists Chris Hedges and Laila Al-Arian brings us the voices of the fifty American combat vets of the Iraq War and their understanding of the US occupation and why Iraqis are so opposed to it. The book is called Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians.

Last July, I interviewed some of the veterans whose stories appear in this book. Staff Sergeant Timothy John Westphal served in Iraq for one year. He recalled a house raid he led in 2004 on the outskirts of Tikrit.

    STAFF SGT. TIMOTHY JOHN WESTPHAL: I basically just kicked the clump of people there to wake them up, turned on my flashlight, and all my guys did the same thing. And my light happened to shine right on the face of an old man in his mid-sixties. I found out later he was the patriarch of that family. And as we scanned the cluster of people laying there, we saw two younger military age men, probably in their early twenties. Everybody else — I’d say there were about eight to ten other individuals — were women and children. We come to find out this was just a family. They were sleeping outside.

    The terror that I saw on the patriarch’s face, like I said, that really was the turning point for me. I imagined in my mind what he must have been thinking, understanding that he had lived under Saddam’s brutal regime for many years, worried about — you know, hearing stories about Iraqis being carried away in the middle of the night by the Iraqi secret service and so forth, to see all those lights, all those soldiers with guns, all the uniform things that we wear, as far as the helmet, the night vision goggles, very intimidating, very terrifying for the man. He screamed a very guttural cry that I can still hear it every day. You know, it was just the most awful, horrible sound I’ve ever heard in my life. He was so terrified and so afraid for his family. And I thought of my family at that time, and I thought to myself, boy, if I was the patriarch of a family, if soldiers came from another country, came in and did this to my family, I would be an insurgent, too.


Sergeant Bruhns also served in Baghdad and Abu Ghraib for one year beginning in April of 2003.

    SGT. JOHN BRUHNS: If you’re on a patrol in a market and somebody opens fire on you and the US military, I mean, if we respond — if we return fire in that direction with overwhelming firepower and, let’s say, a thirteen-year-old girl gets killed, you’re just going to have to assume right then and there that her father and her brother and her uncles — they’re not going to say, you know, Saddam was a bad guy and thank the United States for coming in here and liberating us. They’re going to say, “If the United States never came here, my daughter would still be alive.” And that’s going to cause them to join the resistance. And when they do join the resistance, President Bush says, “They’re al-Qaeda. They’re al-Qaeda.” But they’re not. They’re just regular Iraqi people who feel occupied, and they’re reacting to an occupation.


I’m joined right now by the two journalists who first spoke to Westphal, Bruhns and forty-eight other Iraq War vets. Their stories are documented in the new book Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians. Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, senior fellow at the Nation Institute, author of a number of books, including War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning and American Fascists, he joins us here in New York. Co-author Laila Al-Arian is a freelance journalist who has written for USA Today, as well as The Nation magazine, and the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, joining us from Washington, D.C.

We welcome you both. Laila Al-Arian, how unpopular, among Iraqis, is the occupation and the war? What are the numbers?

LAILA AL-ARIAN: Well, Amy, the numbers are that less than one percent of the Iraqis actually support a US presence in Iraq, and this has been demonstrated time and time again in polls and also in the result when troops do withdraw from the region. For example, last December, British troops withdrew from Basra, and we saw a calm in the area and a rapid decrease in violence. Some estimates are that it was a 99 percent decrease in violence. So we do see that the results are very clear once troops do withdraw and that there is some stability in this certain region.


Chris Hedges, you divide the book Collateral Damage into convoys, checkpoints, raids, detentions, then hearts and minds. Explain.


These are the pillars of the occupation, and we wanted to give readers a kind of lens or view into the gritty details of how these mechanisms works, such as convoys. I mean, these are just freight trains of death. You have to remain moving once you leave what they call the wire, once you leave the safe perimeter of a base. And so, these heavily armored convoys will drive at breakneck speeds, fifty, sixty miles an hour down the middle of roads, smashing into Iraqi cars, shoving Iraqi vehicles to the side, running over Iraqi civilians, and then, of course, any time an IED goes off, unleashing withering what they call suppressing fire with belt-fed weapons — these are light machine guns like SAWs, .50-caliber machine guns — into a densely populated areas. And so, I think that rather than sort of do a Studs Terkel kind of memoir, we wanted to focus specifically on sort of key mechanisms that make the occupation work, how these mechanisms function, and the effect that these mechanisms have on Iraqi civilians.


For example, Haditha. That was —




— this tank going through.




Gets hit.


That’s exactly right.




Well, checkpoints are deadly for Iraqi civilians, in part because checkpoints are often put up very quickly, so that you can turn a corner in Baghdad, Fallujah or any other city, and there could never have been a checkpoint there, and there suddenly is a checkpoint there. Also, you know, as a kind of security measure, American forces will often put Iraqi forces before their checkpoints. So there’s actually two checkpoints. So you’ll go through the Iraqi forces, and many Iraqi civilians, by the way, are terrified, because they don’t know who those Iraqis are in the uniform. So sometimes they’ll just try and gun it, which will mean that their cars — American forces or Iraqi forces or both will open fire on their car, or they’ll get through the Iraqi checkpoint not expecting another checkpoint, or it’s night, or their breaks don’t work. And in Iraq, the situation is so volatile and so deadly for the occupation forces that the response is to open fire repeatedly. Checkpoints are a very common form of death for Iraqi civilians, and these, you know, incidents where cars are fired upon and whole families are killed are rarely investigated or documented.


Laila Al-Arian, talk about the raids and then the detentions.

LAILA AL-ARIAN: Well, Amy we did interview, like you said, fifty soldiers and Marines, and every single one of them that we interviewed had some kind of experience with raids. You would be hard-pressed to find one single Iraqi family who hasn’t experienced the terrifying experience of a raid. And basically, as John Bruhns described on your show a year ago, they storm into a house, they turn the entire house upside-down, making it look like a hurricane hit it. They usually separate the men from the women and children. Most of the time, the vast majority of the time, they actually arrest the men. They zipcuff them, and they take them to a detention facility or a prison, which leaves the family looking for them for days.

And time and time again, the soldiers we interviewed told us that if someone did that in their own country, they would — you know, a lot of times I was very surprised to hear that they themselves said that they would join the resistance, that they would react in a way and that it would have an effect on them, a very lasting effect.

And as far as the detentions goes, what we discovered is that Iraqi men oftentimes, especially, are detained for weeks and sometimes months at a time without their families even knowing where they are. I even interviewed an Iraqi who told me the same thing happened to him. So even though in this book we hear voices of the soldiers, the true stories are those of the Iraqis. And I think that’s what makes this book unique.


Tell us the story of the Iraqis, Laila Al-Arian.

LAILA AL-ARIAN: Well, the Iraqis in this story live a pretty unbearable life. They have — as Chris described, they can’t even drive in their own streets without being confronted with checkpoints. Oftentimes if they don’t follow the rules — sometimes they don’t even know what these rules are — they can get shot and killed. And the vast majority of the people we interviewed told the same stories. And when they would tell these stories, they would say this is not a common incident. They would say that this is something that’s standard operating procedure, that the convoys that race down the streets, they jump over medians in the middle of the street, they drive on the wrong side of the road. They — again, men get arrested for months, sometimes years, at a time, with their families not even knowing where they are. And this just shows that an occupation not only destroys the people that are under occupation, but the soldiers and Marines who are asked to carry out the occupation, because when these troops return from their service, they’re haunted by what they’ve seen and they’re haunted by what they’ve done.


Hearts and minds, Chris Hedges?


Well, you know, this is sort of perhaps the great irony of the occupation itself. There is an understanding — and Petraeus wrote the counterinsurgency manual, the new one that’s used by the occupation forces — that you can’t win an insurgency unless you win the support of the civilian population. And yet, I think as this book points out, every single mechanism used to enforce the occupation alienates and enrages the average Iraqi. It is not only a form of collective humiliation of great indignity, but violence and danger and terror is the right word. And that is the experience of these Iraqis.

I think that, you know, I’ve covered many conflicts, and you cannot understand a war or conflict unless finally you see it through the eyes of the victims, because in wartime, there is a great disparity of power, there is the all-powerful and the all-powerless. Unfortunately, the security situation in Iraq makes it now extremely difficult for a Western reporter to go in and get these kinds of stories. And so, we did it through the testimony of these courageous veterans who spoke out about atrocities that not only many of them had witnessed, but even taken part in. And so, I think if there’s a kind of summation of the book, it is that we are not a force for stability. We are not a force that in any way dampens or inhibits or minimizes violence. But we are another mix in the cauldron of horror and violence and terror, along with militias and criminal gangs and warlords that go into making Iraqi society essentially a kind of Hobbesian nightmare.


Finally, the book is dedicated, Laila, to your dad, to Dr. Sami Al-Arian, who’s been jailed in this country for more than five years, has been on two extended hunger strikes. Can you give us an update on his situation?

LAILA AL-ARIAN: Well, Amy, the update on my father’s case is that we’re still waiting to see where the government will proceed in his case. His time that he served has technically run out. He should have been deported, released and allowed to rejoin his family months ago, back in April, should have been the final date. We now fear that the government is getting ready to charge him with criminal contempt for — after trying to force him to testify in a completely separate case. So what we fear is that they’re going to try to exact revenge and retribution for his acquittal more than two-and-a-half years ago by keeping him in jail for God knows how long. And we’re just hoping and praying that they’ll do the right thing and release him now, months after he was supposed to have been released.


Where is he now?

LAILA AL-ARIAN: He’s now in Portsmouth, Virginia, near Virginia Beach. And again —


And what is it that gives you hope at this point?

LAILA AL-ARIAN: Honestly, just looking at the facts rationally and past precedent. What they’ve done to him for the past two-and-a-half years, it’s hard to keep hope. But our hope and faith is in God and all the support that we’ve received, not just all over the country, but all over the world.


I want to thank you both for being with us, Laila Al-Arian in Washington, Chris Hedges here in New York. Their new book together, Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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