On-the-ground Reality TV

On November 22, 2003, the 16th paragraph of an Associated Press story filed from Baghdad reported that troops from the U.S. Army's Fourth Infantry Division had arrested former Iraqi lieutenant general "Taha Hassan" "for alleged involvement in mortar attacks on police stations" in his hometown of Baquoba. One day later, Agence France-Presse noted the arrest of "Taha Hassan Abbas," as he was correctly identified, in a report that included additional dramatic details. A Fourth Infantry Division spokesman quoted by AFP provided the official account of the arrest: Abbas had "resisted when an assault force approached his house," and "engaged [in] fire," which was returned by U.S. troops who "captured" Abbas and two others.

Far more important than the AP's errant reporting -- itself a reflection of the story's low priority -- is that these two dispatches moved over the wires but went unpublished by any newspaper. Instead, in what has become par for the course, readers were treated to brief depictions of beleaguered U.S. troops engaging in the challenge of bringing law and order to a country beset by Ba'athist insurrectionists. But as disturbing details and images continue to flow from investigations into the horror show that was Abu Ghraib, an increasingly outraged American public is trying to fathom why U.S. forces seem so obviously out of control in their sweeping arrests and torturous interrogations of Iraqis. Just as important, they're also wondering whether the American media have failed -- by design or default -- to convey the ground-level truth of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, minimizing the causes of Iraqi alienation and resentment.

In a soon-to-be-released documentary, a top international investigative reporter offers a tentative explanation for both forms of derailment. On March 14 -- almost six weeks before 60 Minutes II aired its Abu Ghraib story -- the Australian NineNetwork's Sunday newsmagazine program aired a scaled-down version of Iraq -- On the Brink," reported by Ross Coulthart, a journalist whose award-winning investigations have spanned rough-and-tumble assignments in East Timor and Afghanistan to seminal intelligence and public-corruption investigations in the U.S. and Australia. Indirectly, Coulthart raises serious questions about American media self-censorship -- something journalists have been wrestling with since the first Gulf War. The film also raises the possibility that, then as now, such self-censorship may have helped the military cover up Iraqi wartime deaths. (A 15-minute trailer for "Iraq -- On the Brink" can be seen at the Journeyman Pictures website Latest RealPlayer required. American audiences may get to see snippets of the documentary in Michael Moore's award-winning Fahrenheit 9/11, depending on how it's released.)

Indeed, what began at Abu Ghraib as a probe into torture has now forced the Army to reveal that at least 32 Iraqi deaths may qualify as homicides. Whether Taha Hassan Abbas was one of the victims is difficult to say; extensive official and unofficial inquiries by the Phoenix into the former general's status yielded no answers. Yet as film footage shot by the NineNet crew shows, the Fourth Infantry Division's official account of Abbas's arrest was disingenuous at best.

Beyond the sometimes-shocking documentary content of "Iraq -- On the Brink," the film bears witness to the yawning gap between what on-the-scene journalists see and what the rest of the world sees. The Hassan-arrest footage was not recorded or guarded or classified by the U.S. Army. It was shot and marketed by a major news organization, the Associated Press Television News (APTN). So why doesn't footage like this make it into U.S. news coverage? TV news services send out teasers for potential stories, and clients buy footage based on what they see in the teasers. The trouble is, either teasers don't include the most damning material or, even if such material is included, news producers, for whatever reasons, decide not to buy the whole piece. However, it happened, the footage that made it into Coulthart's documentary, as well as that which was left out, was as available to American TV networks as, say, footage of George W. Bush carrying a turkey platter to troops on Thanksgiving Day. Yet no one chose to run it.

Coulthart goes out of his way to present a nuanced view of the occupation. He notes that under the command of Colonel David Teeples, soldiers of the Third Armored Cavalry Regiment, which was charged with enforcing a 9:00 p.m. curfew in the Iraqi-Syrian border town of Qusabah, were exceptionally careful. Coulthart's camera crew captured images of Teeples's resolute but respectful soldiers questioning Iraqis through translators, and in one case, quickly entering and exiting a house in pursuit of a suspected curfew violator. In other encounters, U.S. troops make a point of explaining why they're doing what they're doing, and ask for the Iraqis' help in the future. Heavy weaponry aside, the footage plays like a domestic-dispute encounter from Fox TV's Cops.

These scenes stand in stark contrast to what comes next. "The Americans need to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis," Coulthart says in his voiceover. "But that's not helped by aggressive raids like this one carried out by troops not under the command of Colonel Teeples." Though the troops are not identified, patches on their uniforms peg them as soldiers from the 588th Engineering Battalion of the Fourth Infantry Division. "It's the dead of night outside the house of a senior former Iraqi officer," Coulthart continues, referring to Taha Hassan Abbas, "who's suspected of helping the insurgents."

The soldiers don't exactly approach with stealth. They kick open a gate to the house's yard. What happens next, as Coulthart explained in an interview with the Phoenix, illustrates a perilous gap in American and Iraqi cultural understanding. "First, you have to understand that guns are ubiquitous in Iraq -- most people have them, and it's very common for them to shoot them in the air all the time for any number of reasons -- from celebrations to anger to whatever," he says. "Burglary has become very common in the past year, and oftentimes, if people hear something outside their homes at night, they'll fire a shot or two into the air to scare burglars away. Now, you could just go up to a house, like other soldiers do, and just knock on the door. But some treat these missions like full-fledged combat operations and start kicking things in with guns drawn, and then you get what happens next."

Coulthart's voiceover continues: "The officer's son -- thinking the soldiers are thieves -- goes to the roof of the house and fires into the air to scare them away." The response from U.S. soldiers: "We've got a shooter on the roof!" followed by a hail of bullets loosed at the house.

The next shot -- of film, that is -- shows Abbas, a clearly unarmed, middle-aged, balding man in pajamas, hands above his head, trembling as he stands across from at least a half-dozen U.S. soldiers whose M-16s are trained on him. "Inside the house, the officer surrenders, but he doesn't understand what the Americans are saying -- and they don't have a translator," Coulthart explains. Abbas repeats the only English he appears to know -- "Welcome! Welcome!" -- over and over again, keeping his hands far above his head as the Fourth Infantry Division soldiers handle the situation in a way almost exactly the opposite of how the Third Cav troops acted in similar circumstances. The Fourth Infantry soldiers' manner foreshadows the images at Abu Ghraib that the world would see months later.

"Want me to shoot him in the leg?" one soldier yells. "I might shoot you!" another growls at Abbas. As Abbas stands motionless in the doorway between his kitchen and the next room, one soldier shouts, "He's trying to draw us in there!" Another solider half mutters, half yells, "I don't give a shit, I'm gonna shoot, I'm gonna shoot, I'm gonna shoot!" while another hollers, "I can shoot him in the leg!"

"Get the fuck over here, get the fuck over here," shouts another, while the previous soldier repeats his desire to shoot Abbas in the leg, adding that someone should also "shoot him in the foot."

Abbas steps away from the doorway and moves his back to the wall. "The Iraqi officer, thinking he's about to die," Coulthart's voiceover resumes, "can now be heard praying." The American response is far from ecumenical, with one soldier yelling, "Who the fuck are you talking to? Who the fuck are you talking to? Shut the fuck up! Shut the fuck up!" The soldier then grabs the man's pajama top and hurls him across the room into the hands of another soldier, who in turn hurls him into a chair that goes flying as the Iraqi sprawls onto the floor. One soldier begins to kick Abbas, who, though on his back, has his hands in the air again, repeating, "Welcome! Welcome!" Three soldiers put their gun barrels in his face, with one solider yelling repeatedly, "Shoot him!" Another asks, "Who's shooting?" when he hears gunfire from the roof, and then yells, "Bullshit" at the prone Abbas, who continues to repeat, "Welcome!"

The next sequence shows the capture of Abbas's adult son, who had shot the gun off on the roof; as he's being restrained, a soldier's voice barks menacingly, "Take the camera off him." The film then resumes with a shot of two women -- apparently Abbas's wife and daughter -- kneeling on the ground at gunpoint, their hands on their heads, their faces pictures of anger and humiliation.

The final shot shows the former general. Though fleeting, it is, perhaps, the most disturbing sequence of the film, given that in his previous appearance Abbas was terrified but physically unharmed. Now, his arms are restrained behind his back. His face is battered and bruised. His left eye is beginning to swell shut. The front of his shirt is stained with blood, and a stream of snot and blood dangles from his left nostril.

"No one here was killed," Coulthart's voice resumes. "But it's raids like this that can only fuel the resentment against Coalition forces."

Speaking from Australia, Coulthart doesn't entirely fault the soldiers for their initial reaction to gunfire from the roof: "One could reasonably, though incorrectly, conclude that one was being fired on, and it makes perfect sense to fire back if that's what you think." But, he says, it again raises the question of who gave the order for the squad to apprehend the general in the way it did -- especially without a translator -- given the obvious potential for creating an unnecessarily inflammatory situation. "People don't seem to realize the incalculable damage something like this causes," he says. "You can see on the face of the young woman that her heart and mind are gone forever to the Americans. When we first saw this footage, the first reaction of our Iraqi fixers was absolute anger -- I can only begin to guess what the reaction is to the scenes from Abu Ghraib."

Coulthart says he's not sure what's more troubling: that the arrest of a former Iraqi lieutenant general apparently merited no coverage; that footage showing an arrest almost completely at odds with the official account was not distributed in its entirety by Associated Press Television News; or that what was distributed wasn't of interest to any APTN clients.

"We had a hunch that there was probably some very disturbing footage cameramen had shot that American network producers had consciously chosen not to air, or that broadcast-news-service editors had edited teasers in a way that didn't prominently feature footage like this," he says. "I think the problem is more with the clients for TV news services than the services themselves. In this case, the edited version sent out was just a shortened version that didn't show the drama that we realized when we viewed the entire sequence. When we saw it, we couldn't believe no one had used it. Because the clients should have realized first off that the version was an indication of something more sinister worth investigation."

At the same time, he says, it may be asking too much of news organizations to air such footage. "This is part of the irony of how modern news systems actually work to keep stuff like this off the air. Places like APTN and Reuters TV generate so much, squirting out images 24 hours a day on permanent satellite-feed channels, that there just isn't time to monitor it and watch it all. Which is too bad, because it's the wire services like APTN and Reuters that are doing most of the really ballsy shooting."

Coulthart is similarly vexed by the lack of attention U.S. media paid to the American use of cluster bombs last year -- and how the damage they've done has engendered extreme ill will towards the American occupiers, particularly in the Doura section of Baghdad. Condemned by most international humanitarian organizations, cluster bombs explode and then spray smaller explosive bomblets over a vast area; all too often some of the bomblets don't immediately explode, causing civilian casualties later on. Featured prominently in "Iraq -- On the Brink" is Aida al-Ansari, an English-speaking Doura resident whose son and 25 others were killed when a U.S. warplane cluster-bombed her neighborhood as American forces were fighting their way into Baghdad last spring. While a handful of stories mentioned the Doura bombing last year, there's been no follow-up since -- another missed opportunity, as the Sunday crew discovered, to understand the roots of growing Iraqi anger at the occupation.

When Coulthart visited the Doura neighborhood this year, he discovered al-Ansari, who still has the shrapnel-torn, bloodstained jeans her 16-year-old son, Fahad, was wearing when he died on the operating table at a local hospital, bereft of any anesthetic to ease the pain. Almost a year later, Coulthart reports, "grief among Fahad's family and friends has now hardened to anger" directed at the U.S. government. "They hate them," al-Ansari tells him of the Americans, explaining that "they don't hate the people, but they hate Bush and the Army."

"Did they hate the United States before this war?" Coulthart asks.

"No," she responds. "They were -- everybody used to dream to go to United States to work or to do something."

"Has anyone from the Coalition ever come to you or to this community and apologized for what happened?" he asks.

"No. No one."

The documentary also includes another type of footage rarely seen on American television. Though ABC originally aired it briefly (and though a handful of Web sites have shown it at various lengths), "Iraq -- On the Brink" includes the full night-vision footage taken from the gun cameras of a U.S. Army AH-64 Apache helicopter that shows the killing of three men, one of whom appeared to be hiding a rocket-propelled grenade. Though it's impossible to verify just what the man has, the crew is nonetheless instructed by radio to "Smoke 'em," and then coolly fires through the dark at each suspected insurgent in turn. In this sort of video-game-style footage, we're used to seeing the destruction of bunkers and buildings, not human figures.

However shocking it is to watch, the action is actually permissible under the U.S. Army's rules of engagement; indeed, it was likely that reliable intelligence led the helicopter to stake out the scene in the first place, and as helicopters are notoriously vulnerable to rocket-propelled-grenade and other shoulder-fired-missile attacks, it's not entirely surprising that the Apache fired away. Rather, says Coulthart, the importance of the footage is that it reflects what many non-American Coalition military units said to his crew: that they've grown increasingly concerned about the political ramifications of the Americans' take no-prisoners/show-no-mercy approach. "When it came up in conversation with one Coalition officer," says Coulthart, "he shook his head and said, 'The Americans have gone feral and no good will come of it.'"

"Iraq -- On the Brink" also captures the brusque aloofness of CPA administrator J. Paul Bremer, the shiftiness of Ahmad Chalabi, the still-being-uncovered hidden horrors of Saddam's regime, and the bravery of the Baghdad Police Department's bomb squad in defusing scores of bombs each day. (The Americans use remote-controlled robots to neutralized explosives threatening U.S. troops; the Iraqis display what Coulthart calls a "splendid madness in heroism" as they are left to defuse bombs by hand, with no protective gear.)

While Coulthart thinks the documentary makes for an accurate and timely snapshot of post-Saddam Iraq, he exhales a rueful sigh at the mention of Abu Ghraib -- a sigh that reflects a sense of both self-recrimination and angst born of the economics of foreign correspondence. When his crew was en route to meet Teeples and his Third Armored Cavalry soldiers in Iraq's western desert, their route took them past Abu Ghraib. As Coulthart recalls, no discussion was required to stop the van; the scene they beheld "was like something out of Dante's Inferno." "We all knew what it was and what it stood for, this thing with mythological status in Iraq where all this death and misery took place," he says. "Part of what was striking was that, frankly, it wasn't looking much different now -- barbed wire, troops with menacing gun emplacements, lines of people trying to get in to see relatives.

"While we're filming overlays, up walks this mother, who tells us this horror story about her sons essentially being abducted from their home in Um Qasr by the Americans in the middle of the night. I did the interview, of course, but didn't run it in our story because it seemed a little off our focus. You're so focused on the story you tell yourself is the story -- in part because the cost is so high and the budget is so tight. It cost us $1500 a week to be there, and unless we deliver results, it's harder in the future to get the support this kind of work requires."

Indeed, Coulthart says, those sorts of cost considerations actually kept the cluster-bomb segment from appearing on Sunday for a year. "Most of that we shot last year, but we had to focus on the story we were supposed to be telling, which was mostly about Chalabi," he says. Determined to advance the dormant story on his latest visit to Baghdad, days of street reporting led the crew to al-Ansari, whose experiences ultimately made for a much more informative and affecting piece of journalism.

Yet the fact remains that a disturbing reality went unreported for a year, essentially due to constraints on time and money. "And with Abu Ghraib, it was the same situation again," Coulthart sighs. "Though we had the luxury of more time and more flexibility than anyone who covers Iraq day in and day out, we felt like we couldn't shift our focus. And the irony was, here was this story of a lifetime right under our noses. There were people standing in queues trying to see their sons, waiting eight hours a day and often being told to come back the next day, and then the next and the next. Looking back on it, I'm not only kicking myself now, but am kind of ashamed. I'm sure that if we had scratched the surface and had taken the time to systematically interview people coming out to Abu Ghraib trying to figure out what had happened to their loved ones, we could have dug something up then."

Coulthart's sentiment is not uncommon among seasoned, independent-minded reporters cognizant of the complexities of most foreign stories. But in some respects, the dice have been loaded against journalists covering Iraq since the beginning of the war. While a handful of journalists has provided a steady stream of exemplary reporting, there are some who feel that whatever good reporting has been done since the end of "major combat operations" has involved an even greater uphill battle for attention than usual. Why? Because the Bush administration's practice of embedding journalists with the troops set the tenor of Iraq-war reporting.

As the Washington Post's Richard Leiby wrote last year, embedding was nothing short of a "propaganda coup" for the Defense Department. By embedding scores of reporters (many with little or no combat or foreign experience) in rapidly advancing frontline units, argued Leiby, the Pentagon ensured that virtually no one who was "cover[ing] the instability and power vacuum left in the invasion's wake" got nearly the play their "embedded" colleagues did -- thus minimizing the disturbing realities of poor post-war planning and lulling Americans into a sense of complacency, not about what was to come, but about what was already happening.

Speaking at an extraordinary-but-unnoticed symposium at the University of Texas last year, award-winning combat photographer Peter Turnley was unsparing in his criticism of the increasingly institutionalized self-censorship he believes began in the first Gulf War, and has only become more insidious since. In Gulf War I, Turnley -- then a top Newsweek photographer -- was so uncomfortable with the Pentagon's control of journalists through its "pool" system that he actually left Saudi Arabia before the war and snuck across the Kuwaiti border by dressing as an Army colonel. While many of his colleagues were being shepherded through the theater of operations by U.S. military minders, Turnley at one point found himself surveying a horrific scene that the Army thought it had successfully quarantined from journalists.

"I witnessed U.S. soldiers forcing Iraqi prisoners at gunpoint to pick up bodies and pile them up and put them in mass graves where bulldozers would come and cover them up," he said. "There were two Iraqi soldiers, they were really very pathetic, in their 40s, didn't have teeth, very tired and fatigued, and at gunpoint being made to pick up dozens of bodies. It seemed rather inhuman to me, how long they were obliged to do this. I remember as they dropped a body next to a stack of bodies, one of the Iraqi soldiers fell to his hands and knees and started sobbing. I got on my knees and started to make a picture -- at that point an American soldier came up and punched me in the chest and said, 'You animal.' And I grabbed him by the shirt and told him I didn't make these guys do this."

Although Turnley took rolls of disturbing and moving images -- some of which he showed to the symposium audience -- almost none saw the light of day, either in Newsweek or through distribution by his photo agency. Yet almost every newspaper reproduced Turnley's photograph of a wounded U.S. soldier in a helicopter, crying as a comrade died in his arms.

During the 2003 Gulf War, Turnley -- this time for the Denver Post -- once again struck out on his own, purposely avoiding U.S. and British soldiers and focusing his attention on the Iraqi people. "For the first three weeks, I would see a convoy, a whole troupe of writers from major media outlets that would come in for a half day's reporting so they could get their dateline and then get out," he recalled. "It took me literally five seconds of entering into Iraq and looking into the eyes of people whose eyes showed mistrust, open hostility at the worst. There were towns that troops had just flown through, not staying to create any law and order. People showed me leaflets the Americans had dropped from the sky saying they should be embraced with joy and welcomed because we were bringing liberation and food and water and power, and they'd scream at me, 'Where's the water? Where are the medical supplies? In the hospital we have nothing.'"

In Turnley's view, the media-government arrangement that effectively produced much of the coverage of Gulf War II and the early occupation conspired to create what he terms a "projected idea of reality" -- which policymakers actually consider tantamount to reality. Yet wrenching situations like the one he witnessed in a Baghdad hospital five days after the city's liberation, he says, are precisely what people need to see to drive home the reality that the invasion was not about American pride, but about America's failure to secure the blessings of liberation for the Iraqi people. "I saw this beautiful little girl on the bed -- yellow socks, white shirt -- and I noticed two doctors were doing cardiac massage on her chest, and that I was watching the life of this little girl evaporating. I thought I saw her chest exhale and I had this leap of joy, I thought she was coming back to life -- and one of the doctors had this look of disgust and put a towel over her face and walked out."

The girl, Turnley found out, had died of pneumonia, for which she could have been treated. But because the Americans had failed to plan for crowds running riot, the girl's father couldn't get her to the hospital before it was too late.

A clip and transcript of "Iraq -- On The Brink" are available on the Journeyman Pictures website. A transcript of the shorter version of the documentary that aired on NineNet's Sunday program is available here; a transcript of Sunday's 2003 piece "The Spoils of War" is available here. You can also read related articles by Ross Coulthart at The Bulletin, an Australian newsweekly.

Jason Vest is a contributing writer for the Boston Phoenix.

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