Dahr Jamail had no intention of becoming a journalist when he first drove into Iraq from Jordan with a fake press pass in November 2003.
Disgusted with mainstream media coverage, the 41-year-old Houston native and Alaskan mountaineer says he wanted to see the war for himself. Without even a blog at first to publish his reports, Jamail simply started off with an email list of 300 people, and stayed in Baghdad for nine weeks. Since then, he has traveled four more times to Iraq for stints as a freelancer for the BBC, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Nation and other major news outlets. And Jamail, who is Lebanese- American, now has a widely read blog, dahrjamailiraq.com.
During his second trip, in April 2004, Jamail was one of the few journalists reporting from inside Fallujah when the U.S. military tried to seize control. The battle was portrayed to most Americans as a military failure. But Jamail found it a moving experience, seeing Iraqis celebrate their liberty "not just from Saddam now, but from the occupier."
WW spoke with Jamail when he was in Portland on April 10 to speak at an awards dinner put on by Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility.
WW: Why did you decide to go to Iraq?
Dahr Jamail: When they started the drumbeat for war in Iraq, I was watching the mainstream media coverage—basically the selling of the war. Rather than acting as journalists, it seemed most folks were acting more like state stenographers. And I was just absolutely outraged. Once the war was actually launched, I just decided, well, at least I can go in and write about what it's like on the ground there.
How'd you get in the country with zero credentials?
I got a plane ticket and made a fake press pass. I found some online. Online, I [also] found this Lebanese guy who spoke really good English. He was in Baghdad blogging right after the invasion. I wrote him and said, "Hey, I want to come over and [do] what you're doing—how do I do it?" And he said go to this hotel in Amman, Jordan, and from there you can find a car and you'll pay $60 to get into Baghdad, and then come to this hotel and you'll find some other foreigners there. I basically just followed his instructions. I went in on my own money. I'd saved up a couple grand and when that ran out, I split.
Then what happened?
I went back. And it was the day they had sealed off Fallujah for the first siege. That's when things started to go crazy journalistically because there were so few independent journalists in there. You know most everybody was embedding and so we were this anomaly. I was getting all these story requests from all over the world. And that's when it got really crazy. That's when beheadings became in vogue.
Were you scared?
Yeah, definitely. My worst nightmare was to be in my hotel and have a couple of armed guys come in and just drag me out. And there would just be nothing you could do about it. I definitely had close calls. A pretty good-sized car bomb went off right by my hotel and chunks of my ceiling came down.
What's the hardest part of war reporting?
It's really hard seeing such suffering on a wide scale on a daily basis. I would leave that environment and go back to Anchorage, and I'm going out to eat salmon and tacos with my climbing buddies. And it's just like, this is not right. This is a total schizophrenic experience. So there was the emotional part. The second real challenge was finding any bigger outlets in the U.S. to run my stuff, which was also a schizophrenic experience because I'd be on BBC talking to 120 million people but my sum total of national media exposure to this day is four minutes on NPR.
So what is the U.S. mainstream media doing wrong?
The war was sold to the American people on the [assumption] that there's a threat of weapons of mass destruction and links to 9/11. Total bullshit.
What is the war about?
It's about oil and new geostrategic positioning of the U.S. military in the heart of the Middle East. And it's that simple. People need to see exactly what's going on on the ground. And when it comes to war, that means they need to see the headless babies, they need to see bodies that look like they've been through a blender, they need to see the suffering, they need to see what U.S. soldiers are doing and they need to see what is happening to U.S. soldiers.
What's the biggest misconception that the U.S. public has?
People think it's over, that we're pulling out and in the state of a drawdown. They don't get that there's an embassy there that's the largest diplomatic compound on the planet, the size of Vatican City. And that they announced in January they're going to double it in size. Another is that actually things are better in Iraq today when the reality is that we have two independent surveys showing more than 1.3 million Iraqis have been killed since 2003. That we still have, according to the U.N., 4.8 million refugees. It's still an unlivable situation.