What Kind of Freedom? An Interview with Christian Parenti

After three trips there, a reporter reflects on the “meltdown” and “total destruction” that is Iraq.

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President Bush, fresh off an inaugural address that committed the United States anew to the cause of global freedom, will find his soaring rhetoric put to its latest test in Iraq’s national vote this Sunday. And it’s a tough test. With the country in flames and insurgent attacks seemingly rising to an eletion-timed crescendo, Iraq makes a distinctly uninspiring showcase for the neoconservative foreign policy project.

Just ask Christian Parenti. The author and journalist made three trips to Iraq to see for himself how the newly “liberated” country was faring. As the rare correspondent who has “embedded” on both sides of this war — with the U.S. military and the Iraqi resistance — Parenti brought an immediacy and vividness to his reporting for The Nation, and now in his new book, The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq.

As Akeel, a resident of Baghdad and Parenti’s 26-year-old translator, remarked when asked of life in the newly freed Iraq: “Ah, the freedom. Look, we have the gas-line freedom, the looting freedom, the killing freedom, the rape freedom, the hash-smoking freedom. I don’t know what to do with all this freedom.”

Parenti recently came by the MotherJones.com office to discuss his reporting from Iraq.

MotherJones.com: What made you want to go to Iraq?

Christian Parenti: Well, I wanted to see the situation and I also wanted to have the right to speak about the war. I noticed, perhaps at the level of subtext, that some writers were definitely implying that if you were not there you didn’t have the right to comment. I also knew the war in Iraq was not going to be quick and clean. This war is simply the biggest story of our generation. After my initial trip, I wanted to go back and better understand the situation there. Immediately people suggested that I write a book, which required return trips, so I went back two more times for roughly a total of four months. So that’s why — to weigh in on the largest story of our time.

MJ.com: You got access to both sides of the conflict. How difficult was that to do?

CP: Well, getting access to the U.S. military is not so hard. They have a structure for embedding journalists; it’s just a matter of wading through their bureaucracy. One time I was with the Florida National Guard and on a return trip I ended up in Falluja. The official setting up the embed said, “There’s a long line with everyone here in Baghdad, but if you want to go out to the Wild West there’s nobody really out there.” So I said, “O.K., I’ll go there,” and they sent me to Falluja with the 82nd Airborne.

Meeting the resistance was much more complicated: it involved gaining the trust of Iraqis who in turn were equally trusted by the resistance. Organizing the first meetings took a long time — many visits with former soldiers who claimed not to be in the resistance but who wanted to have long conversations, wanted to look at my books, and wanted me to come back the next day to check me out some more. Now, I would be extremely wary if I went back. I definitely would not meet with the resistance now because the kidnapping, especially in central Iraq, is completely uncontrollable.

MJ.com: How, structurally, would you characterize the insurgency?

CP: I see it as a horizontal network made up of cells, with individual groups and clusters of cells. Within this network there are nodes, which have different levels of organization. The nodes with greater organization pulsate out more resources, ideology, direction, and a program to the rest of the network. Some of these nodes are Jihadist, and some are remnants from the old police state, and these factions may or may not relate to one another. The former police forces have relationships with informants as well as with self-organized cells. They can mobilize them and pull them into actions and create networks of alliances for actions and then disband. They are basically horizontal networks of autonomous groups.

Not all of these groups are equal. Some cells are more powerful and connected than others. For example, former security forces are more powerful than, say, a group of farmers from outside of Baghdad. People want to dismiss the role of former security forces because Donald Rumsfeld blames the resistance on old security forces, but that’s ridiculous. You don’t simply make an army of 400,000 people go away. It just doesn’t happen.

MJ.com: What is your prediction for how insurgents will disrupt the election?

CP: I really have no idea, except that there’s probably going to be a lot of violence, rampant vote fraud, and some spectacular hits on political people. But maybe it’s not Election Day we should be focused on — because it is happening right now. There’s no functioning infrastructure for this election in the central part of Iraq, where roughly half of the population lives. The elections will be a sham and a disaster.

Every single nostrum the administration put forward is a complete deception. Remember Falluja? That was going to be the big showdown with the resistance. So far, U.S. Marines have searched every single house in the entire city and they are now forced to search them again because the resistance is still killing Marines. That’s how intense the resistance is — they can’t even tame this leveled ghost town.

MJ.com: The book reads, at times, as a portrayal of the underbelly of the war. What kind of underworld exists in Iraq?

CP: I think we forget about the other major war going on in Iraq, which is essentially an apolitical Hobbesian war of all against all. Total criminality and a massive crime wave: people constantly being carjacked, people constantly raiding each other’s houses, and countless scores being settled through murder. It is like an extreme version of the Wild West. There is a lot of drug use and prostitution. Drugs, especially Valium and other sedatives, are readily available throughout the urban centers. Prostitution is rampant because women are hungry, women are widowed, and there is a type of lawlessness that encourages it. Most of the prostitution caters to Iraqi men, but it also involves many U.S. soldiers. But much of this so-called underbelly exists in and around Baghdad. When you get into Iraq’s rural environment this form of disorder considerably decreases. As a result of all this, a lot of marriages fall apart in the immediate aftermath of war. It gets overlooked because it is somewhat mundane, but it is a major concern to soldiers because so many relationships fall apart.

MJ.com: You close the book with a trip to Florida where you visit with soldiers back from Iraq. What has it been like for you to be back home?

CP: The situation in Iraq is so grim that I immediately noticed a type of political, intellectual, and emotional lassitude set in when I returned. It left me profoundly depressed. It is difficult to find a silver lining in the current occupation. The meltdown and total destruction of the homeland of 25 million people — the slaughter and the destabilization of the entire region — could potentially force the U.S. to suffer a form of defeat. That could lead to restructured and improved relationships with other countries, except that the U.S. refuses to cooperate on any topic and with any country. Even that scenario is hollow and unsatisfactory because there will be little left in Iraq and there is no guarantee that political and military defeat in Iraq will result in a restructuring of American foreign policy.

On the subject of trauma, Dan Baum wrote an excellent piece in The New Yorker about soldiers and their reactions to killing people. The fact is that soldiers who kill suffer much worse upon their return than those who do not. So, as a journalist you come away depressed and having witnessed first-hand how dire world politics are. But that pales in comparison to the life-long struggle facing soldiers — the ones who’ve killed — when they return home.

MJ.com: You spend a lot of time with soldiers in Iraq. Do you see any signs of anti-war activism taking root among returning soldiers?

CP: It’s hard to say. I did not see a lot of defiance among U.S. soldiers, but there is a growing amount of activism. The discipline in the U.S. military is pretty strong and morale is fairly high. We are not going to see a mass protest of GIs for some time to come. More of what you see is passive resistance from soldiers — where people file administrative complaints to avoid service, or soldiers just desert.

Traditionally, if you went AWOL and deserted they did not want you in the Army. That may be changing with this war given the low troop levels, but the Army still wants a force that is committed — or at least guilt tripped — to serve. The military is, generally, a bunch of regular working-class Americans from all over the country. They work extremely hard and remain serious with whatever their task is: changing tires, getting computers to work, making sure communications are operational, making sure there is enough water and food, etc. You just get this serious, all-business, approach to the operations as a whole.

MJ.com: You wrote the book Lockdown America, which details the rise of the prison industrial complex in the U.S. Talk about your visit to Abu Ghraib.

CP: I did not actually get into the Abu Ghraib prison. They were not offering tours, although I could have attended a briefing in a room without access to any prisoners. Instead, I went with a family of a prisoner and hung out in line. There is always a huge crowd outside of Abu Ghraib, many are former prisoners trying to find relatives still incarcerated, and I visited this mass of people several times to conduct interviews. This space, enclosed by all this wire, is essentially part of Abu Ghraib; you are not actually inside the prison but many ex-prisoners are available. The average person detained at Abu Ghraib was not tortured by Charles Graner or Lynndie England, but snatched up in a raid and dumped in an open-air prison camp.

Abu Ghraib and operations there represent just total chaos. The prison is full of people on a giant backlog who have absolutely no intelligence value whatsoever to the U.S. In the outdoor tent-prison, guards do stuff like throw rocks at them and put sand in their food to harass them, but by and large they just ignore them and prisoners try to survive the freezing cold and the heat. After roughly two months, finally someone would come along and put them in a truck and dump them somewhere. Numerous people told me they were questioned and interrogated when they were arrested but never spoken to again once they got to Abu Ghraib. Then there are people like Salah Hassan, a cameraman with Al Jazeera, who described to me the capture and torture he faced at Abu Ghraib. I give credit to The Nation for publishing the story, which broke two months before the torture scandal became more widely known. Hassan described various types of torture used against him while he was wrongly imprisoned at Abu Ghraib.

More recently, I went to Chicago to interview an interrogator who works with the 10th Mountain, which is stationed at Camp Victory surrounding the Baghdad Airport. The interrogators routinely grill people who are completely innocent of anything and snatched at random and brought to Abu Ghraib. This source wouldn’t tell the entire story to me. He was too scared to tell it because he had to go back to Iraq and continue in this position. But he did describe an intelligence system that was in complete chaos — where all intelligence has equal value and people are indiscriminately imprisoned. He also discussed an operation called “Clean Sweep” in advance of the January 30th election, which basically rounds up every male in the area between 18-40.

This is just pathetic and ridiculous. It represents a blatant admission of defeat — they have no idea how to fight the resistance, so they are just going to round up Iraqis and throw them into Abu Ghraib. That’s not a strategy and this soldier, who is completely pro-war, was extremely worried about that. Imagine if you were pro-war and wanted to invade Iraq, which is what this soldier believed, the way they are doing it is just insane. You grab a bunch of civilians and then throw them into prison camps where there are actually people active in the resistance. You basically allow people who are pissed off to associate with those active in the war and the prison becomes this massive recruiting center.

MJ.com: Why, in your opinion, has the U.S. made such a mess of Iraq?

CP: The clique of wise men around George Bush felt, and still feels, that the U.S. is in a unique position, that this position allows them to solidify a type of global control and reverse the Clinton years, which they see as marked by a failed strategy of humanitarian interventionism and alliance-building. They want decisive, aggressive, and unilateral action that demonstrates, on a global scale, that this is Planet America and this country is in control. They basically took leave of their senses in Iraq because they were completely high off their successes elsewhere. They did not want to listen to anyone who told them otherwise. For example, they didn’t want to read the State Department’s one-year, $5 million study, which stated that invading Iraq would be incredibly difficult. And now they are in serious trouble.

I don’t think we totally understand how bad the situation is in Iraq or that the entire region is primed for instability. The lessons they learned in Vietnam — stay out of guerilla wars and do not engage an enemy with a full-fledged military force — worked well for them in Central America and elsewhere. But they abandoned that strategy and are now lost without any strategy in Iraq.

MJ.com: The opening chapter of The Freedom dissects the cinematic narrative of American imperialism, what you describe as “an exciting drama in which the American national character is being put to the test,” from the initial challenge and first easy victory through the moment of doubt and concluding with the inevitable final victory. How can the Bush administration or subsequent administrations possibly spin the inevitable “final victory” this time around?

CP: That part of the story is endlessly regressing, and we always have to wait a little longer for that ending. There is no understanding of history and there is no accountability to history. So the pundit class never holds leaders accountable. Americans simply do not know what is occurring because television news does not cover the facts.

So Americans are free to think that there is really all of this good work going on and schools are being rebuilt. Basically believing that everything is getting better every day and in every way. A lot of people believe that because they only watch television and they simply have no idea of what’s going on in the region. Then there is an entire segment of the population who are so ideologically committed to a racist, often religious, American nationalism that they do not care what the facts are, and actively don’t want to hear any facts that contradict their worldview of the U.S. as a righteous victim that goes out and helps people. But, by and large, most Americans don’t know, don’t understand, and don’t know how to figure it out.

MJ.com: You got into some trouble last March during an appearance on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, in which you were interviewed by Ray Suarez and stated that Halliburton and Bechtel’s failure to provide “meaningful reconstruction” was contributing to instability in Iraq. What happened next?

CP: I got a call the next morning from producer Dan Sagalyn, who was a nice guy and said he liked my reporting, but I could immediately tell something was wrong. He said “some people high up at The Newshour are really upset and think your segment was unbalanced.” I was completely surprised because my comments were not that controversial, but he said we needed a right-winger to balance my comments. I said I don’t consider myself particularly left wing, and simply reported the reality in Iraq.

The next day he called back and said Jim Lehrer is extremely upset and he’s going to say something at the end of the next broadcast. Sure enough, after interviewing General John Abizaid — and they did not have anyone countering Abizaid’s points on that broadcast — Lehrer apologized for what I’d said two nights earlier. Then, what I find really insane, the Village Voice reported on the story because people at The Nation were upset about the incident and The Newshour admitted to the entire thing. It is ridiculous and pathetic how serious they take themselves because I think their show is completely lopsided and mainstream. Unfortunately, they think they represent this independent voice in the media and that is just completely inaccurate.

MJ.com: How are mainstream American media outlets performing in their Iraq coverage?

CP: They’re failing us, the citizenry, but [they’re] doing a damn fine job of keeping people in a position where they are willing to spend $5 billion a month on this war and tolerate thousands of casualties. They are doing an incredible job of making the Iraq war work for this administration. But how many people have actually been injured in this war? We know that over 10,000 people have been seriously injured, but how many amputees have there been from this war? That should be a standard number from this war. We know that thousands have been wounded, many returned to service, but many horribly maimed. So they’re both failing and succeeding — depending on the perspective you have on their mission.



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Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

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