Resistance in the Battlespace

by Ross Caputi | 06/04/20

Three days ago Trump was heard chastising state governors in a leaked phone call, in which he urged them to not be “weak” and to “dominate,” arrest, and prosecute the protestors, who he called “terrorists” and “anarchists.” Trump’s single-minded determination to “put down” the protests through “total domination” was disturbing enough, both for the word salad of nonsensical military jargon he was throwing around and the seemingly little thought he gave to the possibility that the use of force could inflame or just forestall the rage fueling these protests. But also the comments of Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, describing the protests across the country as a “battlespace,” alarmed many.

Most got the gist—Trump and his aids are thinking about these protests in militarized terms and they’re only seeing military solutions to this crisis. But the deeper significance of the term “battlespace” and what its use tells us about the thinking within the Trump administration has been lost or misunderstood.

Origins of the Battlespace
At some point over the last 30 years a consensus formed within the military that the notion of the “battlefield” was obsolete. With the arrival of the Information Age and the increased presence of the media on the battlefield, there were now additional factors beyond the traditional military considerations of terrain, tactics, and weapons that determine operational success. Now an operation could succeed in destroying the enemy, but ultimately fail if it were portrayed negatively by the media and elicited political backlash. Military thinkers came to see that how people perceived military action now mattered more in this new information environment, and they began conceiving of military actions as tacking place in a battlespace that included the physical space where combat occurred and the more abstract information realm of cyberspace and news media discourse.

These ideas were gaining prominence just as the Global War on Terror began and the way they were put into use in that conflict had a strong impact on our military’s evolving doctrines concerning the symbiotic us of violence and propaganda within the battlespace. In the context of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan—which had complicated missions that included regime change, counterinsurgency, and state building—the role of information soft-power became more pronounced to address the social and political dynamics of the battlespace.

Winning Hearts and Minds
This aspect of the mission was boiled down into the slogan of “winning hearts and minds.” Note, that hearts and minds—the beliefs, wants, and values of a people—are regarded as an object to be won through military means, rather than something to be respected. In other words, if Iraqis and Afghans objected to having their countries invaded by foreign armies and their political systems rebuilt in the image of Western capitalist nations, this (in the view of US policy makers) didn’t mean that the US was imposing anything on them. US propaganda just hadn’t yet succeeded in bringing them along with the mission. Thus, popular resistance wasn’t seen as the expression of the population’s will, but as an “insurgency” that needed to be dealt with through military measures.

But of course, “hearts and minds” also referred to domestic and international audiences. Americans had to be brought to believe as much as Iraqis that the US war was beneficial to all.

Information Operations in Fallujah
The sieges of Fallujah are an instructive example. The city quickly became a hotspot of nationalist resistance after US forces massacred civilian protestors just a few weeks after Baghdad fell. Over the course of the next year, the violence escalated and culminated in the spring of 2004 with the infamous incident of the Blackwater USA mercenaries being killed and hung from a bridge in Fallujah. The US responded with a hastily planned siege of the city—the first siege of Fallujah—which ended with US forces retreating, not because they couldn’t defeat the insurgents militarily, but because they couldn’t do so without destroying entire neighborhoods and killing hundreds of civilians.

US military leaders quickly concluded that they had failed to control the information realm and successfully counter the reports of high civilian deaths in the media, which created the political pressure to end the operation. So they immediately began making preparations for a second siege that would achieve “information dominance.” This time 91 journalists would be embedded with US forces to create a dominant narrative of the operation that privileged the perspective of American soldiers. Extensive US PSYOPS were also conducted to drive the 300,000 inhabitants out of their homes (to avoid civilian casualties (unsuccessfully)), and to convince the world that Fallujah had been taken over by al-Qaeda (not true) and US forces were going in to “liberate” the city.

Even though the second siege of Fallujah in November 2004 was far more destructive than the first, both in terms of property damage and civilian lives lost, the former is still regarded as a great victory against al-Qaeda while the later is remembered as an embarrassing failure. The different outcome is largely due to the efforts taken by the US to control the battlespace. But most importantly, the use of propaganda during the second siege didn’t just influence the way the battle was perceived and remembered, it allowed US forces to complete their mission with minimal interference from political forces and international opinion.

The Battlespace at Home
While some commentators have understood Esper’s remark as signaling that he and others within the Trump administration are just now bringing George W. Bush era thinking to the increasingly authoritarian culture in the White House; the truth is that we have been living in a battlespace for nearly twenty years.

Apart from Trumps tweets and official statements which shift the blame for the riots from the cops to the protestors, liken all protestors to “terrorists” and “anarchists,” and focus on the destruction of property (which naturally cedes the topic of police brutality and systemic racism to the background); its too early to know the full picture of how the White House has tried to manage the battlespace after the murder of George Floyd.

And the White House may not be the only actor in this battlespace. A number of social media posts and eyewitness reports point to unknown sources who are trying to influence the way Americans perceive the protestors:

  • Provocateurs posing as protestors as they try to instigate and escalate protests.
  • Fake BLM social media posts threatening to murder white people.
  • Fake reports about the riots.
  • Exaggerated claims about antifa’s intentions and deeds.

In this confusing and chaotic information environment, it’s hardly surprising that so many give way to conspiracy theories that point to evil puppeteers manipulating us all in unseen ways. But there is a half-truth in many of these conspiracy theories: There is a war going on for our hearts and minds.

The powerful have always tried to pursued the rest of us to accept rather than resist their hegemony. This much isn’t new. What’s new about the battlespace is an understanding that real power requires the synchronized use of force and propaganda. And this is the reality that we now live in. It’s not a “marketplace of ideas,” it’s a battlespace. And it was brought to us by our own militarism, which had to find increasingly coercive measures to maintain the illusion amongst the American public of a benevolent empire.

TRUST WITHOUT CONFIDENCE: Moving Medicine with Dirty Hands

This article was originally published in CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 35, Issue 2, pp. 211-217, ISSN 0886-7356. DOI: 10.14506/ca35.2.03

by Kali Rubaii

What kinds of pragmatic entanglements take place among those living amid armed struggles for geopolitical security? What does it mean to act as if one trusts strangers, enemies, and unreliable allies? Wartime collaboration borne of necessity complicates our understanding of security-making and the line between crisis and continuity, thereby opening a space for theorizing crisis as a route to survival. This account follows a small medication-smuggling network across ISIS-controlled northern Iraq to three hospitals in the besieged city of Mosul. The story echoes Ross Porter (2020), whose interlocutors work from below against the threat of the state, to create new levels of trust.

In September 2014, Mosul was overrun by battles between ISIS, al-Hashd (Shia militias temporarily hired by the Iraqi government), and the Iraqi military. Besieged residents relied on relatives and community networks outside the city, and often outside Iraq, to supply them with food, medication, and toilet paper. Delivery took the form of smuggling, because it required hiding goods from checkpoint operators.

In high demand from militia fighters and civilians alike, hospitals in Iraq’s medical capital, Mosul, became precarious pockets of safety-under-siege, surrounded by impassable chaos. Medication entering the area was consistently seized and distributed on the black market at high prices. Doctors, desperate to treat patients, found themselves going out on the streets and buying medication from the very people (often soldiers, police, or militias) preventing medicine from reaching hospitals in the first place. This was a medical economy in wartime, and just as in Emrah Yıldız’s (2020) piece on Iran’s sanctions economy, the goal was to minimize losses.

I was among a group of people attempting to send medications from a pharmacy in Amman to the pediatric wings of three hospitals calling for supplies in Mosul. The plan involved pooling money from friends and family, filling prescriptions, disguising medication in cereal boxes, and sending them on a fourteen-hour drive to Mosul in a car that would be stopped, searched, and possibly looted along the way by a number of different armed entities.

Too often “trust and social crises are presented as natural enemies” (Jiménez 2011, 177), when in fact ruptures in positive experience or systems of accountability may actually breed trust. By forcing unwilling and even unwitting encounters, crises like the siege of Mosul can in fact generate trust, though in unpredictable forms extraneous to social solidarity, exchange networks, or kinship. Rather, trust becomes enunciatory:1 articulated into being, rather than felt and then acted upon; made real through, rather than in spite of, unintelligibility; and functional because of, rather than despite, traversing divergent interests.

Enunciatory trust is a prevailing way in which insecurity makes material conditions for endurance possible: when trust is not a feeling or a structure, one acts and speaks as if one feels trust, simply because it is necessary. It is “at the margins [that] we face far more opportunities for cooperating . . . with a wider array of people” (Hardin 2006, 38). Indeed, the very friction between actors carrying out their different goals physically propels medication across northern Iraq. We can say that people live in ad hoc multi-motivational presence with others, and when continuity is ruptured (in this case by geopolitical security regimes), these multiplicities can either be shut down or activated. This is a story, then, of activation: enunciatory trust is how people survive security projects like the war on terror or the making of modern-day Iraq.

To move medication across the Jordanian border, then smuggle it past two or three military factions struggling for regional control, one relies heavily on a trust network composed of a disjointed, ephemeral collection of people who neither know nor will ever meet one another. Rather than referring to a group of people who form part of a single project, I mean the term trust network to include both opponents and allies, thereby challenging the traditional notion of trust as a precondition for collaboration. Our trust network shared no common goal, transactional reciprocity, or built-in incentive for promise fulfillment. Such networks are tenuous, dissipate quickly, and at times work to demonstrate life-affirming human connection amid chaotic violence. When trust networks do not rely on common ground or intelligibility to open possibilities,2 people count on both the redeeming and horrifying surprises of human behavior under stress.

Among those involved in this trust network were Dr. Mahmoud and three of his colleagues in Mosul, who reported dwindling supplies and desperate conditions; Dr. Nanoor, a Palestinian pharmacist in Amman, who was willing to use her pharmacy to gather and package medication; me, an American presumed to have the legitimacy to acquire prescriptions for bulk quantities of medication through a Jordanian doctor; an anonymous driver none of us had met; Jafar, a middleman reputed for knowing the right people; four wholesale providers in Jordan; nearly one hundred Americans who pooled money; and somewhere between five and fifty militia fighters who could either interfere with or facilitate the movement of goods. Many people in this trust network acted in good faith, others in desperation, for profit, or for altogether other reasons. If the driver survived and the medication arrived, pediatric surgeons and oncologists would dispense the one-month supply of various goods, which included basic supplies like saline and IV needles, as well as more expensive medications like chemotherapy drugs and anesthesia.

Dr. Nanoor described the nature of our work as “moving medicine with dirty hands,” because many people in the trust network were not only unknown to us but also not motivated by solidarity—some not even by bribes or transactional gain. Imagining synonymy between trust and confidence can obscure how things really work. Vigdis Broch-Due and Margit Ystanes (2016, 1) describe trust as “a social orientation towards the future nurtured by the gradual accumulation of positive experience and sometimes revealed in a leap of faith.” But what does trust look like when the future is neither a cumulative project nor a leap made in good faith? What does it mean to act on trust without confidence, a trust that neither contributes to, nor relies on, solidarity?

In Iraq, decades of military violence have strained relations among diverse communities. Under such circumstances, moving medication among a network of unknown others offers a bumpy terrain of clashing motives and moral rubrics. The militias, doctors, drivers, pharmacists, and anthropologists in this trust network were not seeking a moral reconciliation or an accumulation of confidence; we were not even seeking to end ongoing disruption. We were living in it, together, via diversity otherwise unimaginable.

Thus, what erodes trust networks is an enunciation of distrust. To ask too many questions about anyone’s motives means to fracture a necessary unintelligibility that makes things workable. I learned this lesson when I expressed discomfort to Dr. Nanoor about leaving cash with Jafar, the middleman who found us a driver and for whom there was no system of accountability to disincentivize him from simply running off with the cash. Her response articulated enunciatory trust: “But how will the driver get the money if Jafar doesn’t give it to him?” An unwillingness to leave cash with the mysterious Jafar (to hand off to the even more mysterious driver) would have foiled the “sticky materiality of practical encounters” (Tsing 2005, 1). While transactional, such dealings do not build into reciprocal exchange, an economy, or other systems of accountability.

Between the Amman pharmacy and the Mosul hospitals lay a terrain pocked with shifting security regimes we needed to evade. How could we find a driver willing to risk the route? How could we get medication past possible ISIS checkpoints? An elusive and shifting “we” answered these concerns. For medication to reach the hospital, it would have to pass through roughly twenty official and unofficial checkpoints. The driver had to gamble on whether or not checkpoint guards would let him pass with a bribe, seize the contents, or kill him.

Dr. Nanoor had a theory about checkpoints: “We are really counting on greed, here. The Americans were no different, taking bribes and stealing from people. They all did it. The people change, but the behavior doesn’t!” We laughed at how glad we were to count on bad human behavior. After all, our trust network relied just as much on predictably bad conduct as good.

Dr. Nanoor was developing a theory of moral pragmatism in which she argued that regardless of motive, each person in our trust network would “choose life.” About the banality of evil, Hannah Arendt (1963a, 1963b, 1963c, 1963d, 1963e) argues that good people do bad things for good reasons all the time. But just as often, supposedly bad people do good things for bad reasons. If Dr. Nanoor was right, then the maxim “bad people do good things for bad reasons” clarifies how trust may not only be “the final device for coping with the freedom of others” (Gambetta 2000, 219) but also a device for opening up new freedoms for others. When a checkpoint guard is offered trust, in whatever form of bribe or plea, he is presented with an opportunity to “choose life” by exceeding the boundaries of his given role in formal securitization. Dr. Nanoor was not alone in thinking in terms that exceeded respect for or understanding of the motives of others. Jafar, who stopped by while we packaged medication, mused about the motives of the imagined ISIS members in our trust network: “Some may feel lazy, or they want the cash, or they want to avoid killing. We are all in this for different reasons, but we are here.”

A few days after sending medication from Amman with the driver, it seemed we had trusted too much. Dr. Mahmoud in the pediatric surgery wing of a hospital in Mosul sent me a text message: “I got some boxes of food. Thank you for all you are doing. Is this the quantity you meant to send?” With ordinary Iraqi politeness, he was asking: “All you sent was food?!”

I immediately called Dr. Nanoor, the pharmacist: “Can you ask Jafar to ask the driver what happened?” It seemed confusing that the hospital had received something, but not what we had sent. She got no return calls and felt reluctant to investigate too much. It appeared that while children were dying, some anonymous driver had sold our medication on the black market. I reconsidered Dr. Nanoor’s theory about choosing life: perhaps Arendt’s theory of evil’s banality could not be inverted. Perhaps dirty hands could not do good work. I was horrified that in getting my hands “dirty,” I had contributed to the structural violence of war by supporting its shadow economy.

Then, in the middle of the night, I woke up to a call from Dr. Nanoor, who realized we had outsmarted ourselves. I sent a text message in the dark: “Dr. Mahmoud, open the boxes! It’s not food: it’s medicine!” We had worked so hard to secure the medication from imagined enemy others that we had tricked our primary ally, a doctor who did not know we had disguised it in the first place.

Dr. Mahmoud texted me in English four hours later: “Received message during surgery on 4-year-old female with gunshot to abdomen. No anesthesia left, performed raw surgery. Sent nurse to check boxes, finished surgery with anesthesia. Good timing, you touch patient with your own hands tonight.”

Dirty hands. I was elated by the possibilities for life in the midst of war. My hands had only touched the medication for a moment to mispackage it in cereal boxes, little cardboard shields against anticipated ill will. My fingerprints were joined with varying degrees of incrimination by those of roughly forty other people, some allies, some enemies, and some profiteers. It is the only way our fingertips could ever mingle in a strange, consonant intimacy.

This trust network dissolved long before the siege ended. None of us is sure how many people it included, or why they chose to form part of it. We were bound by no connection at all, except that we acted as if we trusted each other to behave predictably in a world that felt defined by fleeting turns in military strategy. Through enunciatory trust, people who have no confidence in one another’s motives collaborate all the time. As Jafar theorized, we are a we simply because we are here.


As participants in a small trust network smuggle medication across ISIS-controlled northern Iraq to hospitals in the besieged city of Mosul, they theorize their pragmatic entanglements with unknown others. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in 2014 and 2015, as well as the author’s participation in this network, the essay introduces enunciatory trust, or trust without confidence, as an analytical framework for surviving (in)security in Iraq. [Iraq, trust, medicine, ethics and collaboration, siege warfare, smuggling]


1. I borrow the term from Kim Fortun (2001) to describe a space where parties with divergent goals gather—without reconciling their interests—to share in a fleeting chorus, before quickly dissipating.

2. No one actively described “trust networks” as such in my fieldwork: to name something that works by remaining unmarked would have undermined its possibility.


Arendt, Hannah 1963a “Eichmann in Jerusalem: I.” New Yorker, February 16.

1963b “Eichmann in Jerusalem: II.” New Yorker, February 23.

1963c “Eichmann in Jerusalem: III.” New Yorker, March 2.

1963d “Eichmann in Jerusalem: IV.” New Yorker, March 9.

1963e “Eichmann in Jerusalem: V.” New Yorker, March 16.

Broch-Due, Vigdis, and Margit Ystanes, eds. 2016 Trusting and Its Tribulations: Interdisciplinary Engagements with Intimacy, Sociality and Trust. New York: Berghahn.

Fortun, Kim 2001 Advocacy after Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gambetta, Diego 2000 “Can We Trust Trust?” In Trust: Making and Breaking Cooperative Relations, edited by Diego Gambetta, 213–37. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Hardin, Russell 2006 Trust. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Jiménez, Alberto Corsín 2011 “Trust in Anthropology.” Anthropological Theory 11, no. 2: 177–96.

Porter, Ross 2020 “Security against the State in Revolutionary Yemen.” Cultural Anthropology 35, no. 2: 204–10.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt 2005 Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Yıldız, Emrah 2020 “Nested In(securities): Commodity and Currency Circuits in an Iran under Sanctions.” Cultural Anthropology 35, no. 2: 218–24.

CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY, Vol. 35, Issue 2, pp. 211-217, ISSN 0886-7356, online ISSN 1548-1360. © American Anthropological Association 2019. Cultural Anthropology journal content published since 2014 is freely available to download, save, reproduce, and transmit for noncommercial, scholarly, and educational purposes. Reproduction and transmission of journal content for the above purposes should credit the author and original source. Use, reproduction, or distribution of journal content for commercial purposes requires additional permissions from the American Anthropological Association; please contact DOI: 10.14506/ca35.2.03

The Incredible Simplicity of Anti-Imperialism

By Kali Rubaii (Purdue University)

Sometimes a black hat is just a black hat.
–Flannery O’Connor, Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being (1979, 334)

When people ask me about the nuances of the Iraqi grassroots protests against US (and Iranian) imperialism, I find myself repeating the story about Flannery O’Connor, who, when asked to explain the subtext and symbolism behind the black hat worn by a character in her fiction, responded that it was just a hat. The question about nuances of Iraqi politics is fair, but this time, it is a black hat situation: Iraqi people are simply calling for a government that represents them, and they want imperial forces out of their lives.

Upon the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, the US president stated, “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.” His statement tapped into the logic of preemption, a prevailing paradigm by which the war on terror was launched two decades ago. The underlying assumptions embedded in his statement reflect trends in security discourse (Gusterson and Besteman 2019) more broadly: that imperialism is morally defensible, that preemptive aggression prevents rather than provokes violence, and that social and historical layers can be glossed in order to elicit confusion and consent by the American public for “peace” via perpetual war.

The logic of preemption (Masco 2014) replaces historical context with a moralizing, speculative future. In this logic, acts of violence prevent imagined future deaths; these acts then appear morally good and even necessary (Hajjar 2012). However, this logic only works on a narrow audience: when US troops were redeployed to Iraq in early 2020, the Iraqi public declared open dissent against imperialism. If preemptive logics ever work on the imperial metropole, their claims are lost on empire’s peripheral subjects: Iraqis have been resisting occupation for decades. Back in 2003, when George W. Bush declared preemptive war on Iraq, journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi threw a shoe at him, an event echoed in today’s protest signs with cardboard shoes hurled at effigies of the current US president.

Since October 2019, cities across Iraq have witnessed ongoing peaceful, secular, antisectarian, and anti-imperial protests representing a broad cross-section of the Iraqi public; women and men, young and old, Sunni and Shia, of all classes, from all regions of Iraq are chanting, “We want a homeland!” together. Thousands have been injured and hundreds killed, yet they remain unrelenting.

The focal point of their dissent is their government’s failure to serve the interests of its own citizens, in part due to outside imperial influence. Protestors are calling for a new election, new constitution, and new parliament. Since the US assassination of Soleimani and Al-Muhandis, protestors have added to their call a refusal to turn Iraq into a proxy battleground between the United States and Iran. “We want a homeland” denounces all foreign intervention in Iraq.

Iraqis do not enjoy being treated as a colony, so it should be no surprise that the US embassy, the largest in the world, having cost over $750 million, was a site of popular protest. Such an installment, planted in the Iraqi capital without invitation, is an outpost of empire, not a defenseless American homeland. When Shia militias breached the embassy compound, the United States sent military troops in response. The rhetoric of protecting its interests far beyond its own borders may convince some that the United States acts in self-defense, but it has never convinced the Iraqi people.

The Iraqi public is aware of how interimperial struggle (Doyle 2013) for control of their country takes place on their land and their bodies, through a wide range of actors, including their own government. Not only have Iraqis experienced the Iran-Iraq war, but they also lived through two US wars and sanctions. The US-led occupation in 2003 systematically dismantled Iraq’s national structures, from agricultural policies to social arrangements. Based on fieldwork in 2014 and 2015, I have previously outlined (Rubaii 2019) some of these divide-and-rule policies and their resulting sectarian violence. A fragmented Iraq quickly became open ground for geopolitical struggle. Hamad, who has lived for eighty years in Iraq, described this to me in 2015:

The US destroyed all the infrastructure. All the ways of life. And they left it open for the vultures to pluck out the eyes. . . . This is not the right way. I know a worldly Iraq, a hub of life that for thousands of years was a center for trade, for even the Jewish scholars, for even the smallest and oldest tribes, the Yazidi, the Mandaean. . . . This Iraq, this closed Iraq, started with the US sanctions, and the first US war. . . . When the Americans came to Baghdad . . . they cleansed it with the help of militias. . . . Anyway, the Shi’a militias have come from Iran, and the New Iraqi Government, which is loyal to Iran. . . . We are an open book for anyone seeking death. But for anyone seeking life together, like the fig and the grass growing, we are closed.

Sixteen years since the occupation, parts of Iraq still lack basic services like clean water. Civil society protests have taken place repeatedly to confront government corruption and unfair treatment. In fact, the Iraqi government sought to shut down popular resistance in Anbar province in 2011 and 2012 during the Arab Spring. The Shia militias featured in news media today are those the US invited into Iraq from exile in Iran to support US troops fighting Sunni militias and groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. Their presence in Iraq’s militarized landscape is intimately linked with US imperialism, a fact that undermines claims made by the US administration to justify military intervention against Iran, within Iraq.

While protests today do not represent every part of Iraq, they feature a national unity unprecedented since the early 2000s. Iraqis are calling for a changed relationship to global militarism, and thus for their own government to serve them instead of a militia-industrial complex. Meanwhile, the United States consistently divests from its own public by allotting more than half of its tax dollars to military spending.

Perhaps Iraqi protests are best read in the United States as an invitation for the American public to join them. As Aziz Rana argues, “social democracy at home requires anti-imperialism abroad.” Iraqis are standing up against the myriad ways imperial militarism defeats the interests of ordinary people. They, like many subjects of empire, remain unconvinced by government alibis. Whether in Iraq or the United States, anti-imperialism requires that we identify the institutions, policies, and economic engines to abolish, and that we organize popular campaigns to realize those simple ends.

Doyle, Laura. 2013. “Inter-imperiality: Dialectics in Postcolonial World History” Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 16 (2): 159–96.

Gusterson, Hugh, and Catherine Besteman. 2019. “Cultures of Militarism: An Introduction to Supplement 19.” Current Anthropology 60 (S19): S3–15.

Hajjar, Lisa. 2013. Torture: A Sociology of Violence and Human Rights. New York: Routledge

Masco, Joseph. 2014. The Theater of Operations:  National Security Affect from the Cold War to the War on Terror. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

O’Connor, Flannery. 1979. Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being. Edited by Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Rubaii, Kali. 2019. “Tripartheid: How Sectarianism Became ‘Internal to Being’ in Anbar, Iraq.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 42 (1): 125–41.

Remembering Fallujah on Memorial Day

This post was originally published on May 27, 2019.

On Saturday the New York Times published on op-ed by Elliot Ackerman, an award winning author and Marine veteran of the Second Siege of Fallujah. As a lieutenant Ackerman led 1st Platoon 1st Battalion 8th Marines through some of the bloodiest combat of the second siege, earning him a Silver Star. The subtitle of his op-ed states that “official documents can never tell us the whole story or war” so Ackerman goes on to fill in the “gaps” in the Summary of Action that was given to him, adding anecdotes and reflections to the terse narrative of the official document.

Moments of fear, confusion, and the bravery of others is what Ackerman adds, hoping that this too will be remembered along with the perfunctory praise of his leadership in the Summary. This is why I always respected Ackerman, even while I was getting kicked out of the Marine Corps for a laundry list of infractions and misbehavior. These self-effacing addenda are in perfect character with who I always thought Ackerman to be. I was in 3rd Platoon of the same battalion, although by the time we were called into Fallujah I had been moved to Headquarters Platoon for being confrontational with my senior Marines. Despite my disdain for rank and my growing disillusionment with our mission in Iraq, Ackerman had earned my respect as a person.

Although, I would add one thing to Ackerman’s maxim: True, documents never tell the whole story, but stories never tell the whole truth. Stories are necessarily perspectival, subjective, and limited in their scope. There is always something being left out. And the most obvious absence in Ackerman’s account is the Iraqi experience.

This is not an omission by Ackerman, just an absence—an absence that is characteristic of most veteran accounts of war. We really had very limited contact with Iraqis, and never without guns. There was no opportunity for Iraqis to speak to us freely, as equals, to explain to us how our operations impacted them. This is a common dynamic between an occupying army and the local population, and veteran narratives of war are often shaped by these power dynamics and the absences they produce.

Fallujah, however, is a special case. During the Second Siege of Fallujah stories became as important a weapon of war as guns or bombs. But this was not your typical war propaganda and I’ll explain why.

The First Siege of Fallujah was a hastily planned operation in response to the killing of four American mercenaries in Fallujah. On April 4th 2004 US Marines surrounded Fallujah and began laying siege to the city. However, after a month of fighting, the Marines were forced to retreat out of Fallujah because an Al Jazeera broadcast crew had managed to sneak into the city and captured on camera the civilian victims of our operation. These images garnered enough international outrage to pressure the US into negotiating a withdrawal out of Fallujah.

Of course, the US denied the accusation that it had carelessly bombed residential neighborhoods or shot civilians down in the streets. It even accused the Al Jazeera crew of being in full collaboration with the insurgents and of producing false reports. The official Marine Corps history claims that 220 civilians were killed, while an independent report counted—and listed the names of the dead—749 civilian deaths.

Immediately, US forces began planning a second operation to sack Fallujah. However, this time they would launch a campaign of “shaping operations,” accompanied by a propaganda campaign to shape the battlefield and media environment for the coming second siege in November of 2004. While the first siege was hastily planned with little emphasis on controlling the production of information on the battlefield, information operations (one component of which is propaganda) became a central effort of the second siege. This time 91 journalists were embedded with US forces to produce frontline accounts of the operation with the experience of American soldiers in the foreground, whereas in the first siege there was only one embedded journalist.

Also, the US launched a PSYOP (Psychological Operation) exaggerating the role of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—the alleged leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq—and claiming that he had based himself in Fallujah, using the city as a base and a recruiting ground to build his terrorist army. There is, in fact, zero hard evidence that Zarqawi ever even set foot in Fallujah. Yet this lie became the casus belli for the second siege. US forces demanded that Fallujans turn over Zarqawi or else they would lay siege to Fallujah again—an impossible condition for peace.

This was not the only lie told about our so-called enemy in Fallujah. While there is very little English language evidence about the insurgents in Fallujah, most accounts suggest that the vast majority of rebel fighters were Iraqi nationalists, not international jihadists. Al-Qaeda appears to have had a minimal presence in Fallujah, and there were not very well liked by the local population.

Yet the story that was told in the media was that US-led forces had heroically liberated the civilians of Fallujah from al-Qaeda’s oppressive occupation. Within this general narrative were the stories of American soldiers who suffered enormous trauma, injury, and loss to rescue a population they didn’t even know. This story was part of the strategy for sacking Fallujah. It was part of the violence because the experiences of American soldiers eclipsed the experiences of Iraqis, who suffered tremendously from our “liberation,” and legitimized an operation that was ultimately about crushing a popular resistance. Bing West, author of No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle for Fallujah (2005) observes that,

The rationale for stopping the attack in April was a perception that the damage being done was too great. In the month of April, 150 air strikes had destroyed 75 to 100 buildings. In November the damage was vastly greater. There were 540 air strikes and 14,000 artillery and mortar shells fired, as well as 2,500 tank main gun rounds. Eighteen thousand of Fallujah’s 39,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Indeed, the Second Siege of Fallujah was successful in large part because US forces were able to disseminate a salient, highly-sanitized account of the operation, legitimized by lies.

A friend from 3rd platoon told me that ever since Fallujah he has had a reoccurring nightmare. He wakes up in a bed in Fallujah—a typical bed, just a foam mattress lying on the ground, like the ones we saw so often in people’s homes. We cleared hundreds of houses in Fallujah and at the end of each day we would occupy a house as a firm base for the night. There was always a rush to see who could claim the foam mattress first, and the rest of us would have to sleep on the cement floor, or our standard issued iso-mat, if we bothered to pack it. But in my friend’s dream he wakes up in this room alone and there are watermarks half way up the wall, as if there had been a flood.

Now let me tell another story about a Fallujan boy named Sami, who was seven in 2004. Unlike many who fled Fallujah to live as refugees in other parts of Iraq, Sami and his family tried to hide out in their home during the first and second siege. During the second siege, Sami watched his sister, father, and brother be gunned down in the street in front of their house by an American soldier, in that order. Any time one of his surviving family members would attempt to retrieve the bodies, they were met with a volley of gunfire. So Sami and his family were trapped in their home, pinned down by gunfire for days with little food and water, watching the bodies of their loved ones slowly rot and bloat in the street. Eventually they were able to flee the city and take refuge at a relatives house outside of Fallujah.

War stories are inherently political. They are entangled with power and violence, and they reflect and shape the biases of our psyches. But American soldiers are not absent in the Iraqi experience in the same way Iraqis were in ours. My friend had almost no contact with Iraqi civilians, and yet in his dream something is there, a mysterious flood that only leaves a mark on the wall.

Although no Iraqis are present in his story at all, the way Ackerman tells his story is exceptional. He challenges the commendatory account of his actions detailed in the Summary of Action awarded to him along with his Silver Star by humanizing himself and resisting the impeccable figure of war-hero that was being imposed on him. What more could we ask of our veterans on Memorial Day? The absence of Iraqis in his story is not an exclusion nor an omission, it’s a reflection of the reality of military occupation. But the danger of a story like Akerman’s is that when told out of context, we risk perpetuating a violent narrative that suppresses stories like Sami’s and presents an understanding to Americans that the only suffering we should be concerned with is that of American soldiers struggling with PTSD.

I often wonder what the flood symbolized in my friend’s dream, or if there’s anything to dream analysis at all. I can’t help but think that it speaks to a feeling I had in Fallujah, and maybe my friend felt it as well—that maybe we should not be proud of what we were doing in Fallujah, that maybe there was some larger truth we were unaware of, the consequences of which threatened to overwhelm us. The feeling was troubling enough to push me to look for the other side of the story.

And that’s what bother’s me so much about Memorial Day. Because the other side of the story is not just absent, it’s omitted. We content ourselves with just one side of the story, because to remember our war victims would be too difficult, too uncomfortable. We celebrate American militarism without accounting for the misery that our wars have caused abroad. This needs to change. We need to make this change. And we can start by making space for stories like Sami’s along side Ackerman’s.

Ross Caputi is a Marine veteran of the Second Siege of Fallujah and a PhD student of history at UMass. He is also a coauthor of The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History.