Michael Otterman on Erasing Iraq

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews

The tenth Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, from May 12-16, is the highlight of New Zealand’s literary calendar. From Lloyd Jones on rugby, to John Carey on William Golding, via John Freeman’s anti-email polemic, a lively, stimulating line-up is guaranteed. In the following interview, Writers & Readers drawcard Michael Otterman talks to CHRISTINE LINNELL about the human cost of the Iraq war, documented in his second, hard-hitting book, Erasing Iraq. Other writers at the 2010 festival previously featured on The Lumière Reader include Dave Armstrong, Paula Morris, Gaylene Preston, Penny Ashton, Toa Fraser, Charlotte Grimshaw, and Steve Braunias. (For extended coverage of past festivals, visit our Writers & Readers archive.)—Alexander Bisley

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In the lead-up to Iraq’s parliamentary elections in March, much of the Western media was optimistic, even congratulatory. Newsweek magazine went so far as to declare “Victory at Last”, heralding the rise of a new democracy in the Middle East. The cover shot was from President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on board the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, which took place seven years ago this month.

For Michael Otterman, a writer and human rights consultant, the view of Iraq is shockingly different. “There are children in Iraq who were born seven years ago who have known war their entire lives,” he told me over the phone from New York. “It’s been horrendous. By some estimates there have been 600,000 deaths, and displacement which is unparalleled in the Middle East.”

This is the grim focus of his second book, Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage. Co-authored by Richard Hil with input from Paul Wilson, it examines the devastating effects of the war on Iraqi citizens, who have been largely ignored by Western governments and the mainstream press. The book includes first-hand experiences from people of all backgrounds, collected from blogs, diaries, and personal interviews.

The basic question of “What do Iraqis think?” is what moved Otterman to write the book in the first place. “Some people supported the invasion and some people were against it, but I never met an Iraqi who was for this type of prolonged occupation,” he said. “At the very most, people thought Saddam would be overthrown and then Iraqis would be allowed to chart their own path.”

While the disastrous outcome is now common knowledge, it’s rare to see it explained on such a human level. Erasing Iraq unflinchingly describes American bombs hitting residential areas and destroying power plants and other infrastructure. It provides statistics on how the lack of clean water led to a sharp rise in disease and UN sanctions led to chronic malnutrition among children.  And it vividly recounts the feelings of grief, anger and betrayal from the Iraqi people who survived these events.

Salam Pax, Iraq’s first and most famous blogger, is one of the key voices of the book. “Don’t expect me to buy little American flags to welcome the new Colonists,” he wrote angrily on the eve of the invasion. “The civilised world comes to give us, the barbaric nomadic arabs, a lesson in better living and rid us of all evil.”

Another well-known blogger, Riverbend, eventually fled to Syria with her family in 2007. “When Bush ‘brought the war to the terrorists’, he failed to mention he wouldn’t be fighting it in some distant mountains or barren deserts,” she wrote. “[The] frontline is our homes… the ‘collateral damage’ are our friends and families.”

Perhaps the most powerful chapters deal with the 2.4 million people who fled the country after the invasion and the additional 2.7 million who were internally displaced. Otterman spent several weeks in early 2008 travelling through Syria with an Arabic speaking translator, interviewing and photographing the Iraqi refugees he met there.

As he described his experiences in Damascus and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) registration centre in Duma, he emphasised that this refugee crisis doesn’t match the typical idea of people huddling in tents in a field. “There are hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the suburbs, living in crumbling buildings,” he said. “If it was New York, they’d be in the Bronx somewhere, in the hard-scrabble parts of the city.”

Many of these refugees came from comfortable middle-class backgrounds. In one case, locals at a tourist site introduced Otterman to a man with an Iraqi accent. He turned out to be the former minister of hydroelectricity. “These guys are just listlessly wandering through the country. They’re everywhere.”

Throughout his travels, Otterman found that every person had a profound story of loss—a friend killed, a son or daughter kidnapped, a home destroyed. “It was especially hard on my translator,” he said. “I saw the emotional strain it had on her, because she would have to take these stories in and then translate them for me.  It quickly became a very emotional journey.”

Iraq is now struggling to recover from what Otterman calls an attempted sociocide: a coordinated plan to destroy the foundations of Iraqi society, whether through negligence or—as some have argued—through a deliberate strategy to stun the country into submission.

It’s easy to suspect the worst when reading about the widespread looting of museums, libraries and archaeological sites that took place after the invasion, and the failure of the American troops to do anything about it.  Particularly gut-wrenching is the lengthy account of Dr. Eskander and his arduous attempts to restore Iraq’s National Library and Archives after it was ransacked by thieves.

“In the UN Convention on cultural property, there’s a responsibility of the invading army to safeguard these things,” Otterman says. “Especially when we’re dealing with Middle Eastern arts and history. All of mankind traces their roots back to the Tigris and Euphrates—it’s a real cradle of civilisation. The loss of these artefacts and ancient scrolls represents a tremendous loss to humanity, but also to the Iraqi people whose history bound them together.”

Further highlighting the erosion of Iraqi culture, he devotes a chapter to the persecution of women, gays and religious minorities that rose dramatically after the fall of Saddam Hussein. “Saddam was a brutal dictator and I don’t want to minimise his regime. But at least if you were a woman, you could go about your life not wearing a hijab. After the invasion, this very violent strain of fundamentalism blossomed where not just Muslim women but Christian women would have to don a veil or else face horrible things, like getting splashed with acid.”

All of this is in marked contrast with what we see on television, and Erasing Iraq argues that this is by design. It provides convincing evidence of how government officials and military officers have controlled the information coming out of Iraq, from censoring and delaying photographs from the front lines to strategically embedding reporters so they would identify with the soldiers instead of Iraqi civilians.

And thanks to the competitive 24-hour news format that emerged after 9/11, most of the media had little incentive to dig deeper. “Their style of reporting is geared toward market interests, and at the time, patriotism was in vogue,” Otterman says frankly. “You simply had more viewers and it paid the bills better if you appealed to the most base, jingoistic impulses in people. That’s exactly what Fox News—and not just Fox News but most of the mainstream channels—did in the US: unquestioning coverage of press conferences, simply repeating anything the spokesperson or the President would say.”

While media coverage has improved somewhat, Otterman believes that blogs are the most reliable source of information about life on the ground in Iraq—from Salam Pax and Riverbend to the many other voices that have emerged with the development of social media. “These are really rich and revealing narratives, if you want to look for them. In some ways they’ve democratised war coverage. Now we don’t have to rely on an Anderson Cooper jet-setting in, doing a report and going home. We can hear directly from people who are in the midst of all this.”

With President Obama now in charge of the Iraq War, Otterman remains sharply critical. He sees Obama’s role as largely a continuation of the last years of the Bush administration, overseeing the drawdown of American troops. And for the most part, Iraqi perspectives continue to be ignored.

Still, there are some positive signs. “Obama has done some good things within the US in terms of our intake of Iraqi refugees,” he says. “Under Bush the statistics were really depressing; one year something like 68 refugees were resettled in the US. Under Obama, the US has been taking tens of thousands of Iraqis. That’s a commendable thing that Obama has done, but he should expand things further.”

Other Western countries have a role to play as well. While Otterman commends New Zealand for standing up against the war while Australia followed Bush’s lead, he pointed out that only 89 Iraqi refugees were settled here in 2007/2008 and we rank 14th per GDP in contributions to the UNHCR. “Simply by giving more money to the UNHCR and taking more Iraqis in,” he urges, “New Zealand could actually do a lot.”

For Otterman, the refugees are the true indicator of where Iraq stands as a country. The elections and the recent drop in violence are encouraging, but he won’t declare success until the families he met in Syria begin to return home.  “These are the middle-class people, the dentists and the doctors, the technicians and engineers,” he said. “These are the people who are needed in Iraq right now to help rebuild. Once you start to see those returns, that’s when the future will be bright.”

Michael Otterman discusses ‘Erasing Iraq: The Human Costs of Carnage’ at this year’s Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, Friday May 14.