Jamail's Journey Through War

By Maggie Ziegler | 2010-04-01 01:00:00

One snowy winter day, Dahr Jamail spoke to my Salt Spring Island community about the on-going occupation in Iraq and read from his first book, Beyond The Green Zone. His experience as an unembedded reporter made a compelling presentation.

There was something else. Rather than being overwhelmed by what he had witnessed, we noticed his steady open-heartedness. When a member of the audience asked what she should do about Iraq, Jamail responded that we all must find where our passion lies, and lean our energies for change in that direction. It seemed an act of generosity to invite others to find their own path.

I commented to Jamail on the equanimity he brought to that evening. He laughed and said that when he first began to speak about Iraq he was oozing with such anger that he was surprised anyone stayed in the room. “I became numb, except for the anger,” he told me. “The emotional armor that I donned in Iraq solidified. I did not expect that.”

But Jamail had moved to another emotional place. This led me to a conversation about his journey through war. In it he said that an inner journey to peace must accompany the outer one.

There are other stories

Dahr Jamail had thought little about politics until his thirties, neither embracing nor rejecting his Texan Republican upbringing. A member of an Alaskan mountain rescue team, he tried to save climbers, not war victims.

When he began to take notice of the invasion of Iraq, he soon realized that there were other stories besides those delivered by his government and the mainstream media. Beginning to view the occupation as illegal and immoral, he raised money and then, in late 2003, traveled to occupied Iraq and began emailing to friends, then blogging. His writing began to be picked up by independent media.

Jamail met with families decimated by US raids; in Baghdad he felt the explosion of a suicide bombing. He reported on the siege of Fallujah, writing about wounded and dead victims of military attacks during what the US government and media were calling a ceasefire.

What Jamail did not anticipate was the impact on him. In Beyond the Green Zone he describes the disjunction after returning to Alaska from his first trip. “Normal” conversation was impossible. “Normal” activities were inconceivable. He left his apartment as little as possible. He went back to Iraq.

His heart went on lockdown, permitting only rage towards US soldiers.

“I’d seen the results of their actions in Iraq: torturing Iraqis, raiding, destroying, looting, belittling Iraqis and journalists alike, abusing their power, rampant killings, and so on. I had so much anger about these injustices, and I chose to direct it at US soldiers. Thus, I had come to dehumanize US soldiers in a way not dissimilar from how they dehumanize Iraqis when they are on deployment. I didn’t see them as human. I saw them as part of an unfeeling government apparatus that only followed orders to kill and destroy lives. I saw them as machines, as expendable `things’ rather than as humans trapped in a larger system that they could not see their way out of.”

The Frozen Heart

Jamail did not anticipate that eventually the soldiers themselves would help unlock his own trauma reactions. But that would be later. The first step to confronting himself came with an invitation to tea in Joanna Macy’s Berkeley home.

Macy, who has pioneered a form of group work called The Work That Reconnects, understands the frozen heart. In her groups, people are invited to face their deepest feelings about our troubled planet in order to sense their place in the web of life, a place from which they can bring their best gifts to serve peace and justice.

When Macy asked how Iraq affected him, Jamail said, “I acted like a tough war correspondent. She looked into my eyes, with tears in hers, and said, `You’ve seen so much.’ I just lost it. It was the first time I cried in years—the first time I’d cried about what I’d seen in Iraq.”

Macy invited Jamail to one of her retreats where he began to crack his defenses. Later, at a month-long retreat, he continued the risky work of heart-opening. He found friendship with others who expressed their own fear, despair, sorrow, and rage for the world; people who witnessed Jamail’s pain.

Macy’s retreats, combined with personal therapy, helped him reclaim his humanity. And as he did so, he began to provide witness in a different context.

He began to listen to traumatized US soldiers who had deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan. He wrote in the introduction to his second book, The Will To Resist, “Once I had thrown in my lot with the people of the occupied country and witnessed them being treated inhumanely by my own country-folk in uniform, it was never easy for me to sympathize with the latter, “

Search and Avoid

As he listened to soldiers opposed to the wars, it became harder to slot them into narrow categories. He heard how active-duty soldiers used the internet for messages of resistance. He learned about the practice of “search and avoid”—finding a safe place to rest instead of carrying out a dangerous or unjust assignment. He learned that some soldiers even used computer simulation to convince the officers that they were where they were supposed to be. This blurred matters, “deprived me of a legitimate target for my rage about an unjust war, (but) it has done more to heal me than all the PTSD counselling.”

This loosened the boundary between victim and oppressor. “I began to realize that the soldiers, like the Iraqis, were victims of the same system—that of the corporate/media/military/surveillance system, or in short, the industrial growth society. The soldiers, most of whom now join the military because of a poverty draft, do not want to be in Iraq doing what they are doing, and given the right information and options, would be doing something different.”

A Mirror for Suffering

The suffering and remorse of the soldiers, and the severity of their trauma moved Jamail. One image that stays with him is a haunted vet’s description of how he played deadly highway games, waiting to see if he would hit something, if fate would take him. For men still freighted down by inescapable mental torments, the war is far from over.

The wounded warriors were a mirror in which Jamail saw his own suffering reflected. “The oppressed and the oppressors, Iraqis and Americans, soldiers and war journalists like myself, suffer the dehumanizing effects of military ation.” The self shatters under trauma, resulting in broken relationships, rage, suicide, depression, and addictions. The Will To Resist tells of soldiers supporting each other as they struggle with PTSD without adequate support from the military or Veterans’ Administration.

His recent journalism describes soldiers who have the courage to say no to war, to tell the truth of what they did, and to acknowledge the consequences to the Iraqis and to themselves.

Victor Agosto, for example, publicly refused to deploy to Afghanistan with his unit. When issued a memo detailing actions the military would take against him, he wrote on the form that he would not deploy, that the occupation was immoral and unjust and that it did nothing to make the American people safe. Then he posted it on Facebook.1

Sergeant Travis Bishop, who had served fourteen months in Baghdad, also refused to re-deploy to Afghanistan. Inspired by Agosto and his own understandings of Bible readings, Bishop met other soldiers at a GI resistance café. Discovering a support network and the notion that he had a choice, Bishop applied for CO status.2

Meeting men like Agosto and Bishop was heartening for Jamail. It was “healing to watch these two men put it all on the line because they knew that this sacrifice was worth it. By seeing this happen to them, and how they responded —these acts of redemption if you will—I realized it was possible for any soldier, at any time, in any war, to do the same.”

Empathy and Community

Jamail came to realize that the social justice movement could bring hope to the struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder. He gained an ability to listen to the soldiers, to empathize.

“I am really able to hear/see/feel where they are in their process— whether or not they’ve healed, if they are still in trauma, what help they likely need. I feel a bond with them. I see my own pain and confusion in their eyes. But it is a bond not only of suffering but of truth telling. “

Community emerges when we speak out, deepening our collective awareness. “Every day Iraqis, Afghans, and US soldiers are suffering because of policies of the US government.”

Dahr Jamail wants his readers to attend to the impact on the self of global atrocities, regardless of whether we personally see them. Even reading about atrocity can bring secondary trauma.

Like Jamail, we can all be strengthened by solidarity with those who have chosen to resist. Despite his battle with PTSD, Jamail has no regret.

“It has taught me so much about myself, about other people, about war and peace, about how the world works, and how the world could work better. It’s taught me that I’m not superman; I’m not immune to pain.

“Any time my reporting calls me to go back into a dangerous situation, I will again need the emotional armor. And then I will have to take it off. That’s a big commitment.Taking care doesn’t mean donning a soldier suit. It means opening up to allowing the experience to flow through.”

Dahr Jamail’s stories about the occupation of Iraq and the effects on Iraqis and American soldiers have been published in numerous newspapers and journals and translated into ten languages. See www.dahrjamailiraq.com.

Maggie Ziegler lives on Salt Spring Island.


1 Victor Agosto spent 30 days in a county jail as the result of a military court martial. He has been discharged from the military.

2 Travis Bishop is serving a one-year sentence in a military brig following his court martial. Jamail remains in contact with him, and reports that Bishop is more certain than ever that refusing re-deployment was right. Bishop intends to engage in anti-war activism upon his release, which is scheduled for June.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2010

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2010, page 23. Some rights reserved.

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