POSTED: 28 APRIL 2008 - 7:30pm HST

Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From
an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq

image above: cover photo of "Beyond the Green Zone

Book Review: author Dahr Jamail
Beyond the Green Zone
by Jon Letman on 27 April 2008

The thing about writing a first hand account as a journalist in a war zone is that it is going to be ugly. It had better be, if it’s going to give readers any honest sense of what goes on during a war. Reading about killing, torture, rape, death, destruction, subjugation and occupation is not fun, nor should it be, but it takes an enormous amount of skill, understanding and bravery on the part of the writer to willingly step into a raging conflict and risk your own life to get the true story out.

This is exactly what independent journalist Dahr Jamail has done in Beyond the Green Zone: Dispatches From an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq. Jamail, who was working as a mountaineering guide in Alaska during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, was quite simply disgusted to watch the corporate media act as perverse cheerleaders for war.

Jamail believed there were gaping chasms between reality and what was being reported and so he took it upon himself to travel to Iraq where he made four separate trips between 2003 and 2005, reporting as an unembedded independent journalist for numerous media outlets including the Independent, the BBC and Foreign Policy in Focus.

In addition to Jamail’s on going reporting ( on the war in Iraq and greater Middle East, Jamail's book Beyond the Green Zone gives each of us a chance to sit down and read his own experiences, and more importantly those of the Iraqis he met, during this horrific period in history. Jamail first arrives in Baghdad at a time when American helicopters are being shot down by insurgents, city morgues are filling daily with civilians and car bombings and kidnappings are increasing with terrifying frequency.

Unprotected and unfettered by the U.S. military, Jamail works directly with Iraqi fixers, translators, drivers and other independent journalists as he travels between Baghdad and surrounding cities with special attention paid to the effects of the sieges (massacres) of Fallujah in April and November 2004.

Interviewing Iraqi citizens, U.S. military personnel, refugees, doctors and anyone else who managed to get out of Fallujah (or stay alive inside), Jamail recounts ghastly conditions and actions by the U.S. military that would make even supporters of the war bristle at the notion this was being done in the name of freedom, democracy or the United States.

Tying together a complicated and bloody web of war profiteers like Bechtel and KBR (Kellogg Brown and Root) and U.S. military adventures in torture, detention, sniper fire and the use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous, Jamail reports from a country which seems to impossibly exceed itself in raw violence as frustration, anger and pain increase daily while the occupation drags on.

Throughout the book, Jamail focuses on the unspeakable conditions faced by ordinary Iraqis and in particular internally displaced families, hospital workers and patients and the overall breakdown of Iraq into a nightmare scenario that knows no end.

After returning to the U.S. following his first stint in Iraq, Jamail writes of his own stress, finding himself back in a country he can no longer relate to where daily chatter of vacations, pets and ‘watering the lawn’ invoke feelings of guilt, anger and detachment.

Jamail recounts waiting for his plane at JFK at the outset of his second journey to Iraq just as news breaks of four Blackwater security contractors who were killed and hung from a bridge over the Euphrates in Fallujah. A few weeks later Jamail enters Fallujah with an Iraqi friend to report what they find visiting hospitals, mosques and neighborhoods of the decimated city.

The continuous misery the Iraqis suffer manifests itself in Jamail too. At one point he recalls an incident when his own survival instincts fail him and he ceases to care whether he lives or dies.

During his final visit to Iraq in January 2005, Jamail takes readers into a Baghdad city morgue filled beyond capacity with bodies killed by militia and death squads. By the third grim cooler, the stench and the anguish become too much to bear and we are released, but not without a new appreciation for what “Operation Iraqi Freedom” looks like through the unembedded lens of Jamail.

If all this sounds like a downer, well, it should. Jamail draws the connection between the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam war, the sieges of Fallujah, the events of Abu Ghraib prison and “profound ideological distortions” as they manifest themselves during war and occupation.

But Jamail is committed to doing his part (and then some) to bridge the gap between the sugar-coated blips of 24/7 “news” updates on the war in Iraq and the painfully grinding, hard reality of what America’s occupation and war making means to people in a country and region most of us will never visit.

Prior to and following the October 2007 release of Beyond the Green Zone, Jamail has remained active in reporting on the U.S. occupation of Iraq, albeit largely outside of the United States where media is more open to running his reports.

But even in the U.S., a country which Jamail is quick to point out dropped in its World Press Freedom ranking (according to Reporters Without Borders) from 17th place in 2002 to 53rd place in 2006, media outlets like Democracy Now!, Inter Press Service and others run Jamail’s work.

Beyond the Green Zone is not light reading nor does it set one’s spirits soaring. But what it does do is break down a painful and complicated series of stories into lucid, truthful and very human terms. This is the kind of book that should be required reading for everyone who votes, drives, pays taxes, seeks a passport or wishes attend school beyond junior high.

Like it or not, Jamail says, we American tax payers are all complicit in this war but we also have the power to refuse to remain silent or uninformed. The notion that someone had to tell the truth and if the pros couldn’t or wouldn’t do it, Jamail would, is punctuated by his contention that if Americans knew the real story of what their government is doing in Iraq, the occupation would have already ended.

see below for contributions by Dahr Jamail:
Island Breath: Iran War on horizon 4/14/08
Island Breath: Biometric catalog of people 3/14/08

Island Breath: Memorial Day to Me 5/28/07