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Amy Goodman: Former Marine Returns to Iraq as Embedded Photographer Only to be Ordered Home

James Lee is a former Marine from California who served two tours of duty in Iraq in 2001 to 2004. He’s been back in Iraq more recently, this time as an embedded photographer. Lee is now a journalism student at San Francisco State University and filed reports from Iraq for the college newspaper, the Golden Gate XPress. But earlier this month, Lee was abruptly de-embedded. On April 2nd, just before General Petraeus was due to brief Congress on progress in Iraq, Lee was ordered to leave Basra. [includes rush transcript]

AMY GOODMAN: Just a few days ago, we were in Santa Barbara, celebrating KCSB, the community radio station of the University of California, Santa Barbara. It was there that I met James Lee, a former Marine from California who served two tours of duty in Iraq in 2001 and 2004. In 2004, he was in Fallujah where he got his finger shot off in friendly fire. He has been back in Iraq more recently, this time as an embedded photographer. Lee is now a journalism student at San Francisco State University, filed reports from Iraq for the Golden Gate XPress. But earlier this month, Lee was abruptly de-embedded. On April 2, just before General Petraeus was due to brief Congress on progress in Iraq, Lee was ordered to leave Basra, just a few hours after he had gotten there. I spoke to Lee while on the road in Santa Barbara.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell me your experience.

JAMES LEE: My name is James Lee. I am a photojournalist. I’m also a Marine veteran, served two combat deployments in Iraq. And after my last deployment, I was—in Fallujah back in 2004, I was shot by another Marine unit during a combat operation and ended up being evacuated after being injured during a friendly fire incident. After leaving the Marine Corps, I decided to return to Iraq as a photojournalist.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

JAMES LEE: I was with the military for about five months total. My last assignment was in the city of Basra. I had become aware of a declining security situation in some neighborhoods around Baghdad and in Basra and decided that I wanted to go down and photograph to document the Iraqi army’s ability or inability to conduct independent combat operations in Iraq.

I arrived in Basra after a three-day convoy with Iraqi soldiers from Baghdad down to Basra. I was only in Basra about four hours, when I was notified by the public affairs office assigned to Basra that they didn’t want any Western media in Basra covering the fighting and that an aircraft was been dispatched down to Basra to pick me up to fly me back to Baghdad.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the reason they gave?

JAMES LEE: Originally I was told that an order came directly from the office of General Petraeus, that they didn’t want any Western media covering the events and—


JAMES LEE: Because Petraeus was in Washington at the time, and they were concerned about images coming out from Basra that didn’t support their mission at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Is that what you speculate, or that’s what they said?

JAMES LEE: That’s what I was told by the public affairs officer; that’s what he thought the reason was. I thought that it contradicted some guidelines that General Petraeus had published to his subordinate command directly relating to the media. And I obtained Petraeus’s personal phone number a few weeks earlier from a French reporter who had interviewed him. So I called that number, and he had already left for Washington, but one of his adjutants that answered the phone said that that order didn’t come from Petraeus and that I had every right to remain in Basra.

I notified the unit that I was with about that fact, and they changed their story and said, “Well, you’re now able to stay.” But about two hours later, they reversed their position and said now a new authority was ordering me out of Basra and that it wasn’t Petraeus. I was told that it was a two-star Marine general; they would not identify who he was. And later, once I arrived back in Baghdad after being forced to leave Basra, I was told that the order now came from the Iraqi army themselves. So, they had quite a few reasons why I couldn’t be there doing my job.

AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t they want you to see what—or what was the reality on the ground?

JAMES LEE: The reality on the ground was, more than a thousand Iraqi soldiers refused to fight the Mahdi Army, whether they were afraid that they didn’t have the ability to do it or they didn’t believe that they should be fighting the Mahdi Army. For whatever reason, many of them put down their weapons and refused to go into Basra and fight the Mahdi Army. And I think those images would have been very powerful, and I think it would have created a lot of doubt on the part of the American public about the Iraqis army’s commitment to coalition missions in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: What was Fallujah like when you were there as a soldier?

JAMES LEE: Extremely chaotic. We had surrounded the city of Fallujah—

AMY GOODMAN: What month was this in 2004?


AMY GOODMAN: The first siege.

JAMES LEE: The first siege. The city had basically been evacuated by most people, but there were still pockets of some civilians who decided to remain behind and safeguard their homes and shops.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long were you there then before you were shot?

JAMES LEE: I was only in Fallujah for about a week when I was shot by another Marine unit that was operating in the same area that I was in.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did they shoot you?

JAMES LEE: They misidentified my position as an enemy position, and I was targeted by my own troops. And I ended up—I was shot through the left hand.

AMY GOODMAN: Where you seriously injured? You lost the top of your finger?

JAMES LEE: I’ve lost some use of two fingers. They reattached the middle finger, and it remained attached for about a year. And then they decided that it would be best to remove it, so they amputated it after about a year.

AMY GOODMAN: What was the difference between being a soldier and an embedded journalist?

JAMES LEE: The ability to ask questions and to interact, I think, on a more intimate level with Iraqi civilians. I mean, I had no interaction, really, with Iraqis while I was wearing a uniform. It wasn’t until I returned as a civilian journalist that I had the chance to sit down and speak with Iraqi interpreters and those Iraqis that did speak English.

AMY GOODMAN: Did your view of Iraq change?


AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to Iraqis?

JAMES LEE: I think it did. It was my first opportunity, I think, to meet Iraqis. I mean, I’d been to Iraq twice before, once for the invasion and once for the battle of Fallujah during my second deployment, and never had the chance to interact with an Iraqi. And it wasn’t until the end of 2006, when I returned to Iraq, that I had the chance to sit down and speak with Iraqis for the first time.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did the soldiers treat you as a journalist?

JAMES LEE: You know, I had thought returning back to Iraq as a former Marine veteran and now as a civilian photographer, that I’d have greater access. And I realized that once you take the uniform off and you pick up a camera, they no longer view you as a Marine veteran. You’re now a journalist. And I wasn’t always welcome. I had some problems trying to tell the stories that I wanted to tell.

AMY GOODMAN: Like what?

JAMES LEE: One of my embeds when I was in Afghanistan, I was embedded with an Army unit, and I was forced to remain on a forward operating base for ten days and was never allowed to leave the base with a patrol or to go out into the community where the real stories were. So, my only access to any of the locals was an Iraqi army unit that was housed in the same forward operating base.


JAMES LEE: In Afghanistan.

AMY GOODMAN: An Afghan army unit?

JAMES LEE: An Afghan army unit. So I had the opportunity to speak with them about their feelings about us being in Afghanistan and about the changes in their country, but if it wasn’t for those soldiers being on the same base, I would have basically been locked out of any access with the Afghanis.

AMY GOODMAN: And why were they trying to stop you from meeting them?

JAMES LEE: I was told that earlier in the year they had had some problems with German reporters, and they weren’t happy with the story that was told, and they were no longer going to support media missions. And they were just going to wait me out.

AMY GOODMAN: What did the Afghan soldiers tell you?

JAMES LEE: That there’s really limited opportunities for them in Afghanistan, and by joining the Afghan military, at least it’s an option for some credibility, some income, some stability. But most of them, I thought, would rather be doing other things with their time. They were really separated from their families and from their communities. And they’re pretty isolated when they’re out serving in these forward operating bases.

AMY GOODMAN: Ultimately in Basra, they got a plane to get you?

JAMES LEE: They did. They originally wanted me out that day when I was first notified, but the weather wouldn’t permit them to land. So I had to remain over for about another ten hours before they were able to get a flight the following morning. During that period of time, I was able to go out and take some photographs and interview some of the Iraqi soldiers that were getting ready to move into Basra.

AMY GOODMAN: A thousand refused to fight?

JAMES LEE: Over—I think it was 1,300 was the last report that I heard.

AMY GOODMAN: That is the embedded reporter James Lee, actually a former Marine, before he was injured in Fallujah in 2004. After he was injured, he went back to Camp Pendleton. Then Hurricane Katrina hit, and he and a fellow Marine wanted to go to Katrina, to New Orleans. They were told they couldn’t go, so they took vacation, and they went down to New Orleans anyway. This is what James Lee described happened when he went to New Orleans.

AMY GOODMAN: You were shipped back to the United States. Can you talk about that time period and what you did?

JAMES LEE: Sure. After being injured, I was pulled out of my role as a rifleman, and I was assigned as an instructor running a facility at Camp Pendleton that taught Marines water survival. During that timeframe, Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans, and I contacted my command about letting a group of Marines travel to New Orleans to assist with the rescue operations, and I was told by my command that that’s not possible, that unless we’re requested, we can’t go.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did you do?

JAMES LEE: Myself and one other Marine had put in a request for vacation time, and we both took two weeks off, and without our command knowing, we grabbed some equipment and drove all the way to New Orleans to help out.

AMY GOODMAN: Why did they say you couldn’t go?

JAMES LEE: Because the Marines hadn’t been formally tasked to go down there and assist with recovery operations or rescue operations, we weren’t able to go as small unit. The Marine Corps also identified New Orleans as a no-travel zone, which meant no one in the military was allowed to go there for any reason.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what happened when you got there?

JAMES LEE: As myself and the other Marine drove to New Orleans, we contacted FEMA on our cell phone and coordinated getting a duty assignment with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. And once we arrived in downtown New Orleans, we were paired up with other rescuers, and we began to conduct search and rescue operations in the city.

AMY GOODMAN: And how long did you do that for?

JAMES LEE: We were there for about ten days. And I think on day six or seven, an Associated Press photographer happened to take our photographs, and those photographs ran across the nation.

AMY GOODMAN: What do they show you doing?

JAMES LEE: The photograph showed me talking to a displaced resident from the Lower Ninth Ward. He was trying to argue that he wanted to remain in his neighborhood, and I was explaining to him that we were evacuating everybody out of the area. So it was basically us having some dialogue inside of a boat.

AMY GOODMAN: And were you dressed as a Marine?

JAMES LEE: I was not. We attempted to conceal our identities by just wearing green flight suits. And I think the caption identified me and the other Marine as police officers.

AMY GOODMAN: Which you’re not.

JAMES LEE: Which we’re not.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened when those pictures ran?

JAMES LEE: Those pictures ran nationwide. They were in the New York Times, LA Times. And our command ended up seeing the photograph, and they placed a phone call and ordered us to return back to Camp Pendleton.

AMY GOODMAN: How fast?

JAMES LEE: They wanted us there immediately. I think we drove nonstop, and we got back in about two days.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you punished?

JAMES LEE: We weren’t. We were told as long as we didn’t let people know what we were down there doing, that we would be reimbursed for the days that we took off and that there wouldn’t be any punitive action taken against us.


JAMES LEE: I was told that at that point so many people in the United States were questioning why the military wasn’t there that they thought that it would be inappropriate to punish us for what we should have been doing in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: That is former Marine, James Lee. I met him in Santa Barbara, as we continue to be on the road. James Lee then went on to be an embedded reporter and was pulled out of Basra. He’s at San Francisco State University in California.

* Amy Goodman
* Democracy Now!
* http://www.democracynow.org/2008/4/28/former_marine_returns_to_iraq_as

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Amy Goodman: Body of War

We just passed the grim milestone of 4,000 U.S. military members killed in Iraq since the invasion five years ago. Still, the death toll climbs.

Typically unmentioned alongside the count of U.S. war dead are the tens of thousands of wounded (not to mention the Iraqi dead). The Pentagon doesn’t tout the number of U.S. injured, but the Web site icasualties.org reports an official number of more than 40,000 soldiers requiring medical airlifts out of Iraq, a good indicator of the scale of major injuries. That doesn’t include many others. Dr. Arthur Blank, an expert on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), estimates that 30 percent of Iraq veterans will suffer from PTSD.

Tomas Young was one of those injured, on April 4, 2004, in Sadr City. Young is the subject of a new feature documentary by legendary TV talk-show host Phil Donahue and filmmaker Ellen Spiro, called “Body of War.” In it, Young describes the incident that has left him paralyzed from the chest down:

“I only managed to spend maybe five days in Iraq until I got picked to go on my first mission. There were 25 of us crammed into the back of a two-and-a-half-ton truck with no covering on top or armor on the sides. For the Iraqis on the top of the roof, it just looked like, you know, ducks in a barrel. They didn’t even have to aim.”

The film documents his struggle, coping with severe paralysis and life in a wheelchair, its impact on his psyche, his wrecked marriage, his family and his political development from military enlistee into a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

Donahue has his own personal link to the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. It was just weeks before the invasion that his nightly program, MSNBC’s top-rated show, was canceled. As revealed shortly thereafter in a leaked memo, Donahue presented a “difficult public face for NBC in a time of war. He seems to delight in presenting guests who are anti-war, anti-Bush and skeptical of the administration’s motives … at the same time that our competitors are waving the flag at every opportunity.”

Tomas Young enlisted in the military soon after Sept. 11, 2001. Earlier this week, Vice President Dick Cheney said: “The president carries the biggest burden, obviously. He’s the one who has to make the decision to commit young Americans, but we are fortunate to have a group of men and women, an all-volunteer force, who voluntarily put on the uniform and go in harm’s way for the rest of us.”

Young, speaking to me from Kansas City, Mo., where he lives, responded to Cheney: “From one of those soldiers who volunteered to go to Afghanistan after Sept. 11, which was where the evidence said we needed to go, to [Cheney], the master of the college deferment in Vietnam: Many of us volunteered with patriotic feelings in our heart, only to see them subverted and bastardized by the administration and sent into the wrong country.”

“Body of War” depicts the personal cost of war. In one of the most moving scenes in the film, Young meets Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator, with the most votes cast in Senate history (more than 18,000). Byrd said his “no” vote on the Iraq war resolution was the most important of his life. Young helps him read the names of the 23 senators who voted against the war resolution. Byrd reflects: “The immortal 23. Our founders would be so proud.” Turning to Young, he says: “Thank you for your service. Man, you’ve made a great sacrifice. You served your country well.” Young replies, “As have you, sir.”

Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 650 stations in North America. Her new book, “Standing Up to the Madness: Ordinary Heroes in Extraordinary Times” (co-written with her brother, David Goodman), is out in April.

© 2008 Amy Goodman
* Democracy Now!
* http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20080326_body_of_war/

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Amy Goodman: Musharraf Still Stands

Benazir Bhutto and her supporters who died with her during the suicide attack Dec. 27 are the latest victims of decades of dangerous U.S. support for Pakistan’s military regime. The country’s dictator, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, has held his grip on power despite increasing popular unrest. The Bush administration got nervous, turning to Bhutto to preserve the status quo in Pakistan. There is no doubt the exiled former prime minister was personally brave to return to her country. But Pakistani professor Pervez Hoodbhoy was critical nevertheless: “After returning to Pakistan, she made clear that for a few table scraps, she would have happily teamed up with Musharraf under the hopelessly absurd U.S. plan to give the military government a civilian face.”

While President Bush imposed “regime change” on Iraq, based on fictitious weapons of mass destruction, “regime preservation” is the U.S. policy for Pakistan, despite its role in global nuclear proliferation, the sale of true WMDs.

Adrian Levy is a senior staff correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian and co-author of “Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons.” He describes a “military government repressing human rights, connected tentatively to 9/11, state-sponsored terrorism with radical connections to al-Qaida that was proliferating WMD and of course that was not Iraq, it was Pakistan.” He told me: “The problem facing the Bush administration was their policy post-9/11 was very much to embrace Pakistan as an essential ally in the war on terror in order to allow the narrative over Iraq and the WMD in Iraq to rise. The Pakistanis milked their nuclear program for hard cash, selling to Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, the Axis of Evil powers. We also know there is intelligence to show that they began negotiations very much with Saudi Arabia, Syria and, of course, there are tentative contacts with al-Qaida elements as well.”

The New York Times revealed last week that at least $5 billion in U.S. aid delivered to Pakistan since 9/11 to fight al-Qaida and the Taliban actually went into weapons systems against another U.S. ally, India.

The more nuclear weapons Pakistan has, the more the U.S. has a vested interest in protecting them. As The Washington Post reported last week, even before the Bhutto assassination U.S. Special Forces were planning a vastly increased presence in Pakistan in 2008, “to train and support indigenous counterinsurgency forces and clandestine counterterrorism units.” The Glasgow Herald now reports that U.S. Special Forces “snatch squads” are in Pakistan, prepared to secure the nuclear warheads in the event of the government’s collapse. What Pakistani author Tariq Ali told me recently about Afghanistan equally applies to Pakistan: “The people of Afghanistan … do not like being occupied by foreign powers. They didn’t like being occupied by the Russians, and they don’t like being occupied by the United States and the NATO armies in their country. And as long as this foreign occupation lasts, there will be forms of resistance against it.”

The CIA coined the term blowback. It applies to situations like Afghanistan in the 1970s and ’80s when the U.S. armed and trained the mujahedeen, including Osama bin Laden, to counter the Soviet occupation. When the Soviets were finally forced out, the mujahedeen set their sights on a new target: the U.S. That’s blowback.

While the Bush administration pushes for quick elections in Pakistan, it is important to raise these issues in our elections here at home. The assassination of Bhutto put foreign policy back on the front burner in the U.S. presidential race—though you would think that 2007 being the deadliest year yet in Iraq for U.S. soldiers (at least 900 dead) would have accomplished that. The candidates could use this as a “teachable moment” to talk about the wrongheaded long-term U.S. support—Republican and Democrat—for Pakistan’s corrupt, human-rights-abusing nuclear regime. Did any of the leading Democratic contenders use the moment to demonstrate that they represent a true opposition party? While they each tout themselves as true “change” agents, they have yet to prove it. We are waiting.

Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on 650 stations in North America.

© 2008 Amy Goodman
* http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/20080101_musharraf_still_stands/

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