The catalogue of mistakes—whether from ignorance, deliberation, malfeasance, arrogance or circumstance—that has characterized the Bush administration’s war in Iraq has been detailed in the growing number of books on what is now a full-blown sectarian civil war. There are careful examinations of the planning (such as it was) for the war by the administration, its execution, the occupation of Iraq and its manifold failures, the impact of the war on Iraqis and, recently, Iraqi assessments of the war’s consequences for this country of about 25 million people, most notably Ali A. Allawi’s magisterial new book on the catastrophic failure of the occupation and its devastating consequences for Iraqis.
By now the tales of an administration consumed by ideological certainty in its march to war are well known, as are accounts of the willful disregard of experts and scholars both in and outside government who offered advice, warnings and post-occupation scenarios on civil conflict. Arab speakers in the occupation administration were comically, and tragically, few. Bush administration acolytes, young Republicans who knew how to answer a question on their position on Roe v. Wade but could not distinguish a Shiite from a Sunni much less a member of the al-Ddury tribe from the neighboring Dulaim tribe, were the staffers of Paul Bremer’s occupation team. Bathed in the administration’s delusional verities, these staffers sought to implant American ways of doing things on a country that had been brutalized for decades, that was riven by tribal, ethnic and sectarian tensions, that was economically devastated, and was witnessing an exodus of much of its educated elite. But Bremer and his horde of young Republicans did not worry much about this; they remained cocooned in the Green Zone, a little America walled off from the country around them.
This cultural ignorance and dissonance is at the heart of Josh Rushing’s account of his transformation from a U.S. Marine officer to a correspondent for the English-language division of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television news network. There may be more improbable intellectual and vocational reorientations (Augustine of Hippo springs to mind), but Rushing’s awakening, if that is what it is, provides a small insight into the political stubbornness and cultural intransigence that infected both the administration and the military and that far from implanting the seed of democracy and appreciation of the American effort in the Middle East, has arguably fostered greater regional instability and even greater wariness of Washington’s intentions.
Rushing, a Texan born and bred, was so consumed by a desire to serve his country that he eschewed a chance to attend college and joined the Marines as a lowly enlistee. Fate and his intelligence propelled him toward college, however, and he emerged an officer who was then assigned to one of the corps’ public affairs units. As preparations for the Iraq invasion quickened, Rushing was dispatched to Qatar, where the military’s Central Command had established its headquarters for the war. His job was to provide the official military version of events to the horde of news organizations gathering there including, as it turned out, Al Jazeera, the network known to most Americans for being the recipient of video tapes from al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups.
As the buildup to war accelerated, Rushing says, he was a faithful mouthpiece for the military and, he writes, to the highly politicized version of events dictated by a White House official sent to Qatar to keep the correct spin on events. “I didn’t realize at the time that the messages I believed to be true were often more tried than true,” Rushing writes. “They were a paradigm the government had used over and over to sell the war.” But Rushing also says that he eagerly promoted his sense of American values to the Arab journalists, particularly Al Jazeera; so impressed were the Al Jazeera journalists with the young Marine’s reasonableness that they interviewed him at length on tape, tape that ended his military career, as things turned out.
In May 2004 a film called “Control Room,” a documentary on Al Jazeera, hit the art theater circuit, and in it Rushing was portrayed through the magic of editing as a central character, a Marine officer who, he writes, “while never giving up what he believed in, really did want to understand the other side and do the right thing.” But it was one comment in particular that marked the end of Rushing’s career as a Marine: “In America, war isn’t hell, we don’t see blood, we don’t see suffering. All we see is patriotism, and we support the troops. It’s almost like war has some brand marketing here. Al Jazeera shows it all. It turns your stomach, and you remember there’s something wrong with war.”
Soon after, Rushing left the Marine Corps and shortly afterwards was approached by Al Jazeera to join its fledgling English-language service, a network, he writes, that “lays all the facts and opinions on the table.” For Rushing, the refusal to see and listen to “all the facts” pervades American policymaking toward the Middle East and is often apparent in American television news coverage as well.
While Rushing’s fervor and arguments provide much grist for discussion, his relative unfamiliarity with some of print journalism’s best work remains a significant lacuna in his account, whether it was the work by Knight Ridder journalists systematically debunking the administration’s case for war or Seymour Hersh’s exposés of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Indeed, much of “Mission Al Jazeera” reads as an extended blurb for the unique integrity of Al Jazeera, a claim that demands significant leavening, despite the network’s remarkable growth and considerable aura of authority it has acquired in the Arab world. A somewhat plodding writer, Rushing never manages to capture what clearly were enormous emotional highs and lows, preferring a steady, monotonal narrative that barely escapes a Marine’s habit of clipped speech. Still, Rushing has posed questions that do and should trouble journalism’s coverage of this war.
Edward Gargan, a 2005 Nieman Fellow, covered the Iraq War for Newsday and now lives in Beijing where he is working on a book on the nature of borders, borderlands and identity.