Edited by Sam Thielman
CHRIS WAS MAD AT ME for using that headline and, while we shared a meal in Baghdad, he told me so.
It was March 2007. I was a freelance reporter in Baghdad's Green Zone, the fortress neighborhood housing the central nervous system of the U.S. occupation, waiting for an embed to begin. There I linked up with a guy I'll call Chris, a mid-career Army officer I had met and bullshitted with during a reporting trip to Fort Leavenworth the year before. While we caught up over Army cafeteria food, he told me he had been reading my blog and wanted me to know I had offended him.
Back then, soldiers, marines, airmen and sailors were getting killed in Iraq with horrifying regularity. Reporters like me would open our inboxes to see emails from the Defense Department with subject headers reading DOD Identifies Army Casualty. DOD Identifies Marine Casualties. DOD Identifies Air Force Casualty and so on. As I typed that sentence, I ran those keywords through my inbox. 1-50 of many, it reads. An entire Arlington Section 60 remains in many of our email clients.
It was and remains a vertiginous feeling to receive the dry bureaucratic notices of people's deaths. Closing those emails and doing nothing with them felt like dereliction—like, if my job was to bear witness to the human consequences of a war, the easiest aspect of a war, and wasn't I shirking my bare-minimum obligation by reading and then turning back to whatever else I was doing? Back then, there wasn't really an accessible public repository of one of the most basic facts of the war: the names of the dead. (The American dead, that is; the Iraqi dead are unnamed, uncounted and, in the United States, unremembered, names we do not know and need to say.) I felt complicit in an erasure, and it took me uncomfortably back to being an ignorant, 9/11-pilled 22-year old at the messianically pro-war New Republic who had greeted the invasion as a liberation, rather than a crime in progress. I felt myself making the same mistakes, even when I thought I had dug my way out of that moral failure.
And so I posted those notices to my blog. I wrote nothing else around them—no commentary, nothing. Except for a headline I took from the opening lyric to a Stars song called "He Lied About Death" that I listened to often in those days. What Gives You The Right To Fuck With Our Lives? That was what flashed in my mind when I read the death notices. It felt like the only appropriately raw thing to say as the death announcements accumulated, day by day, year by year.
Chris wanted me to know I was fucking with his life.
He was a staff officer dealing with the press, the kind of assignment that combat troops would refer to with the epithet Fobbit, for someone who serves on the big Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs. But his brother, he told me, was one of those who was out beyond the blast walls, fighting the war. If something happened to him, the last thing Chris wanted was to read a death notice under the headline What Gives You The Right To Fuck With Our Lives? And who was I to use a headline like Our Lives? I was someone who could leave whenever I wanted. Whatever physical danger I was in was as elective as it was temporary. Our lives?
I won't pretend to remember Chris' exact words 16 years later, but I remember his points. He But he continued: The Constitution gives them the right to "fuck with our lives." The war was duly authorized by Congress and ordered by the lawful commander-in-chief. I was substituting my condescending judgment for theirs?
Feeling stung, I pushed back, almost as a matter of instinct. The war was the result of deliberate manipulation, removing any legitimacy from it beyond legislative formalism, and one that never had any legitimacy in international law. Chris didn't like that either. Do you see any weapons of mass destruction around here? I continued. He said that was irrelevant to anything that was happening in the war circa 2007. I felt like before Chris was talking to me as a human being, but now he was talking to me as an Army press handler—handling me.
But that didn't make him wrong.
I took a breath. The reality was that if Chris felt that I was disrespecting the dead, there were surely many others I would never interact with who felt the same way. Who might google their loved one's name and encounter my headline among the few results the search retrieved. Was a headline worth inflicting pain? I thought about my own dead friends. It wasn't worth it. How could I have thought it was?
I told Chris I would use a different headline. He had no problem with me posting the death notices—bearing witness was appropriate, we agreed—and we went back to our dinner. As the years passed, I would hear from veterans who appreciated that I kept the repository going, however incomplete it was. But after that, I decided to use a different Stars lyric for the death-notice posts: All The Beating Drums, The Celebration Guns, a reference to the song on Stars' Set Yourself on Fire LP after "He Lied About Death," the mournful "Celebration Guns." That, I thought, put the indictment back on those who conceived, launched and enabled the war. As it turns out, I misheard the relevant lyric. It's actually: Are the beating drums, the celebration guns, the thunder and the laughter, the last thing they'll remember?
Today, the anniversary of the invasion, I use the original headline again, unmoored from the fraught context in which I originally used it. I do so because it's the only appropriate thing to say to the custodians of empire—whether Bush and his many successors in Iraq or Putin in Ukraine. You can read my thoughts on that parallel in my inaugural column for The Nation. You can read my extended meditations on 20 years of U.S.-created horror in Iraq in Rolling Stone. You can hear me talk with greater coherence about the Iraq war with new friends Danny Bessner and Derek Davidson on today's episode of American Prestige; with my old buddy Mark Leon Goldberg on today's episode of Global Dispatches; or with the courageous journalist Josie Duffy Rice on today's episode of What A Day. My exchange with Chris also informs a highly fictionalized dialogue that forms the spine of the first issue of WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #1, out March 28 from DC Comics. My perspective about what all of this means is found in my book REIGN OF TERROR: HOW THE 9/11 ERA DESTABILIZED AMERICA AND PRODUCED TRUMP.
Today I don't have any such coherence, let alone eloquence. The weight of all this needless death is too much. All I have is emotion.
Those who launch and sustain the wars, who see the world as a chessboard, who see the soldier and the civilian condemned to death as equally inconsequential pieces they may move around that board, those who draw their wealth from the world-as-chessboard, those for whom some dominance fantasy instills their small lives with meaning—they have no right to fuck with our lives. And we must see all of those lives impacted as ours, however we encounter that impact, vicariously or immediately. Performing that basic solidarity is the first step toward stopping them from their ongoing efforts at fucking with our lives.
I WANT TO SAY SOMETHING MORE PERSONAL NOW, something this edition feels incomplete without. Whatever I've ever done in journalism and in life exists under a cloud of disgrace. Millions marched to demand the U.S. leave Iraq alone. I wasn't one of them. I was a journalist who came late to the truth about the most hideous of human experiences. I think about that almost every single day, usually in the pre-dawn hours. All I can ever do is try to make my life a villain's redemption arc. There are many reasons I wrote REIGN OF TERROR and why I report what I report the way I report it. The most personal of them is this: to reclaim my soul, if it's possible.
I WANT TO END TODAY ON A NOTE OF HOPE. Thirty-three years ago, Richard Zuley, a Chicago police detective who would go on to torture people in Guantanamo Bay, sent a man named Lee Harris to prison for a murder Lee never committed. I wrote about it for The Guardian in 2015 in a two-part series. That piece had me calling Lee and hearing for myself not only his story but his determination to reclaim his life. It introduced me as well to Robert Chattler, one of Lee's former cellmates, who never gave up on trying to free his friend.
On Thursday, Lee walked out of prison, not only a free man, but an exonerated one. Police never caught whoever actually killed Dana Feitler on June 18, 1989. May her family one day have justice for their loss.
Now to free Benita Johnson and Andre Griggs.