On a recent trip to Vancouver, American journalist Dahr Jamail recalled witnessing the horror of the war in Iraq that you seldom find in the media.
In April 2004, Jamail was standing in a makeshift clinic in Fallujah. It was crowded, conditions were filthy, and blood was everywhere. The electricity was out, so sleep-deprived doctors worked by flashlight. Amid the flood of wounded that poured in around Jamail, a small boy was being held in the arms of his older sister. He had been shot in the head.
Jamail recalled watching the boy as he was laid on a table and doctors feverishly went to work, "and just watching him die, basically, because they lost him". In an interview with the Georgia Straight, Jamail's anger broke through in the final word of his story.
"It was a baptism of fire for me," he continued. "It was like, well, this is war. It's not about flag-waving and patriotism and honour. War is an ugly, vile, disgusting thing."
From November 2003 to February 2005, Jamail spent eight months in Iraq working as an unembedded reporter. His plan was simple: cover the war through the eyes of Iraqis.
On December 8, Jamail spoke to roughly 200 people at the Vancouver planetarium about his book, Beyond the Green Zone (Haymarket Books, $19.98), a damning account of the U.S. military's actions in Iraq.
At times, the audience was visibly shaken by Jamail's stories. "I want people to hear, see, smell, and taste, what the occupation is really like," he said. "My whole goal was to really give the Iraqis a voice."
This desire to speak out has been echoed by a U.S. army specialist. Ian Combs told the Straight by phone from Fort Richardson, Alaska, that he was the first of his unit to regain consciousness after his Humvee was hit by an explosive. Immediately after the blast, his hearing was "totally screwed" and he remained disoriented. The driver, an old roommate of Combs's, had had a leg blown off. The two had switched seats just 10 minutes earlier.
Combs pulled himself out of the vehicle and ran round to help a medic save his friend's life. "That was the first time something really, really bad happened over there," he said.
Combs, American by birth, grew up on the Sunshine Coast. On December 23, he will travel home to Vancouver to visit his family. When Combs enlisted in the U.S. army, he was "skeptically neutral" about the war, but wanted to see it for himself.
"When it comes down to it, with or without me, the situation is still going to be going on," he said. "So on my small, personal level, I was going to go there and make whatever difference I could for the better."
While posted to Iraq, Combs did his best to learn Arabic. He received a military award for his efforts upon completing his first tour of duty.
In an e-mail home, Combs wrote of an Iraqi translator who was granted an American visa for his services. "He asked if it would be funny to say he was in America for flying lessons," Combs wrote. "After I stopped laughing, I told him it was a bad idea."
Combs later told the Straight: "We're just like them and they're just like us. You've got your cool people and you've got your assholes and everything in between."
In his final e-mail from Iraq, Combs wrote of the security situation in the country: “Things have changed a lot here.”¦It’s only starting to show up as we’re getting on the plane home, but at least we’re here to see the beginnings of it.” He said he believes that progress is finally being made, but he acknowledged the criticism that journalists like Jamail have reported.
U.S. Army specialist Ian Combs (left) with Iraqi Army staff sergeant Daouhd. The two grew close fighting al-Qaeda together, Combs said.
"The world is expected of us, but we're fallible, too; we're human beings," Combs said. "Nobody wants to screw up, and there are a lot of control measures in place to keep it from happening, but no matter what, sometimes something is going to go wrong."
From the other side of the continent, Farah Nosh, a UBC graduate with family in Iraq, told the Straight that she had her first photography class on September 11, 2001. Soon after, she flew to Baghdad.
Speaking from New York, where she was preparing for a trip to Turkey, Nosh said that she was staying with family in Iraq during the U.S.'s "shock and awe" campaign. Originally in the country as a photographer covering weapons inspections, Nosh seized the opportunity to capture the war like few other westerners could.
Today, Nosh questions how much progress has really been made in Iraq. "It's a lull, but how much of a lull and relative to what?" she asked. “It doesn’t mean that all of the explosions have stopped or that the assassinations have stopped.”
Nosh, who was born in Canada and whose parents live in Vancouver, has lost family to the war in Iraq. She described scenes from Iraqi hospitals where morgues had reached capacity, leaving bodies to rot in the sun, and where, in the aftermath of explosions, mothers and fathers would come looking for their children. Upon discovering their lifeless bodies, they would drop to the floor sobbing, she recalled.
Through her photography, Nosh explained, she hopes that people can feel a connection to Iraqis who have suffered through the trauma she has seen.
"I think that we're just removed," she said. "We need to put ourselves with them...to really feel something for what's happening."
Returning from a place like Iraq can be very difficult, Jamail said. "When you're there and you're reporting”¦you're traumatized." In his book, Jamail writes about the "weary numbness" he took from Iraq and the difficulties he faced reconnecting to North American society.
"There were atrocities being carried out on both sides," Jamail said. "Those are the things that, I think, have come back to visit me the most."
Dahr Jamail's MidEast Dispatches
Dahr Jamail's December 8 lecture at the Vancouver Planetarium (Web cast)
Farah Nosh photography