Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Iraq’ Category

Sex and the Wounded Soldier

amps001For Veteran’s Day, I wrote a brief story for the Dart Society Reports on “sex and the wounded soldier.”  It’s about a lot of overlapping themes — my friendship with a wounded soldier (now dead) who worried a lot about war’s impact on his intimate life; an amputee dance troupe from World War II, called “The Amputettes”; the U.S. military’s long-standing awkwardness about matters of sex, heart, and family.  It all seems a bit more timely with the Petraeus love triangle (quadrangle?  pentagon? hexagon?).

The other stories in the issue are well worth reading.  Lee Hancock has an exceptional piece about the ethical minefields that come with reporting on sexual assault within the military, called “The Rape Was Not The Only Problem.” And conflict photojournalist John Moore has a photo essay on veterans recovering from major burns at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.


Image credits: “‘Amps’ Shake a Shapely Leg” and “’Amputees’ Present a ‘Gay 90s’ Review” clippings.  The Canham Collection. Otis Historical Archives.  National Museum of Health and Medicine.


International Law Forum Event, Today, November 8th

Today, I’m speaking on a panel hosted by the International Law Forum to address a major new White House initiative aimed at curbing human trafficking on U.S. government contracts. The initiative — an Executive Order announced back in September, called “Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking In Persons In Federal Contracts” — is rare, and worth knowing about.  It’s among the first genuine government responses to the crisis of fraudulent recruiting and indentured servitude that has plagued U.S. military contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as I wrote about for The New Yorker in “The Invisible Army.”  The question I’m most eager to debate at the forum, which includes some leading experts on combat-zone trafficking: will the current round of lip service translate into meaningful impacts on the ground for some of the world’s poorest workers?

Details are below; please feel free to be in touch if you’re interested.

“Abolishing Human Trafficking in Government Contracts”

Date: Thursday, November 8, 2012
Time: 12:00 to 1:30 p.m.
Place: Vinson & Elkins LLP
Address:  2200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Suite 500 West
Washington, DC 20006

Sponsored by the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia

* Linda Dixon, Program Manager, Department of
Defense Combatting Trafficking In Persons
(CTIP) Program Office
* Laura Letterer, Director, Global Centurion &
Former Senior Advisor on Trafficking in Persons
to Under Secretary for Democracy & Global
Affairs & Former Executive Director of the
Senior Policy Operating Group on Trafficking in
* Sam McCahon, Principal, McCahon Law &
Compliance Consulting Services Pvt Ltd.
* Sarah Stillman, The New Yorker

The Invisible Army

For foreign workers on US bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, war can be hell.  This is the story of foreign workers employed as support staff on American military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This article has been published in the June 6, 2011 edition of The New Yorker.  Read the full article here.  Photos by Peter Van Agtmael.

“Generation Iraq: Journalists Confront America’s War”

On April 4th, I’ll be on a panel at Columbia Journalism School with some colleagues I’ve long admired — Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now; Ashley Gilbertson, with VII Photo Agency; and my good friend Peter Van Agtmael, with Magnum Photos.

The conversation will be focused on Iraq (as you can gather from the title). But we’ll also be turning over some relevant questions about conflict coverage, accountability, and wartime trauma that feel particularly urgent in light of Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales’ apparent massacre of 16 Afghan civilians earlier this month.

I hope a range of people will show up to share their perspectives — students, vets, anyone who wants to talk about the impacts of America’s wars at home and abroad.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012
6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Columbia Journalism School
World Room
116th Street and Broadway


More Attacks on LGBTQ Iraqis?

Earlier this week, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission reported “a wave of targeting killings of individuals who are perceived to be gay or lesbian” in Iraq.  Other sources have come forward with their own stories about brutal attacks on “emo” youth (yes, that’s “emo” like the gothy music scene) — with one local LGBTQ activist writing about the apparent murder of two female victims in Baghdad just two days ago.

I realize attacks on gay Iraqis aren’t anything new.  Just look here or here for chilling reminders of that.  But an Iraqi friend just pointed me to this interview with gay Iraqi activist Ali Hili that I thought was worth sharing, and it seems important to keep paying attention.

Exciting Update: TCN Story Spurs House Amendment on Human Trafficking

Here’s the press release from the office of Congresswoman Karen Bass, who gives some substantive remarks on the House floor referencing “The Invisible Army”:

U.S. Rep. Karen Bass Amendment Prohibiting Defense Department Funds for Human Trafficking, Labor Abuses on Military Bases Clears House of Representatives

Jul 7, 2011 Issues: National Security

Bass’ Bipartisan Amendment Follows Explosive Story in The New Yorker Detailing Gross Abuses by Private Contracting Defense Firms of Foreign Nationals on U.S. Military Bases

Washington, DC – A bipartisan amendment introduced by U.S. Rep. Karen Bass to the Defense Department Appropriations Bill prohibiting Department funds for human trafficking passed the House of Representatives today.

A video of the floor speech delivered by Rep. Bass and a copy of her prepared remarks appear below:

“Mr. Chair, thousands of private contracting defense firms, including some of the industry’s biggest names, such as DynCorp International and Halliburton subsidiary KBR, have been linked to trafficking-related incidents.  Thousands of nationals from impoverished countries are lured by the promise of good jobs, but sometimes end up victims of scams that leave them virtual slaves with no way to return home or seek legal recourse.  Despite this, allegations against federal contractors engaged in illegal labor practices ranging from contract worker smuggling to human trafficking in Iraq and Afghanistancontinue to surface in the media.

“Mr. Chair, a recent New Yorker article illustrates the urgent need for my amendment.  The article tells the story of two women from Fiji who thought they were going to lucrative salon jobs in Dubai but ended up “unwitting recruits for the Pentagon’s invisible army of more than seventy thousand cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast-food clerks, electricians, and beauticians from the world’s poorest countries who service U.S. military logistics contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan,” as the New Yorker author wrote.

“Mr. Chair, these two women were asked to deliver resumes, hand over passports, submit to medical tests and pay $500 to a recruiting firm.  They were lured to Iraq under false pretenses and then they were told that they would only be making $700 a month. They were promised salaries as much as $3,800, ten times the normal salary in their home country. They were contracted to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. They were victims of harassment and sexual assault.

“After complaints, they were sent off the base for “making trouble.” They were sent to another U.S. base in Iraq and held for a month while their passports and identification badges were confiscated by the subcontracting company. When they eventually returned home they tried to seek justice, but their efforts were fruitless. Although the company that hired them was initially reprimanded, the company still operates in Fiji and still has a contract with the U.S. military. Meanwhile, allegations against federal contractors engaged in commercial sex and labor exploitation continue.

“Mr. Chair, U.S. Defense Department inspectors have listed “widespread” abuses among military subcontractors, including the illegal confiscation of passports, “deceptive hiring practices,” excessive recruiting fees and “substandard” living conditions.

“In January, the Department of Defense Office of Inspector General released a report urging DoD contracting officials to do more to combat human trafficking, such as ensuring that contracts contain the required anti-trafficking provisions. This report, the second DoD Inspector General report on trafficking required by law, examined a sample of DoD construction and service contracts valued at $5 million or more awarded in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 for work in Iraq and Afghanistan. The report found that only about half of the contracts contained the required federal regulation for combating trafficking in persons. The report warns that such widespread noncompliance with this requirement means many contractors may be unaware of the government’s “zero tolerance” policy with regard to human trafficking, and contracting officers are unable to apply remedies in the case of violations.   Just last week, the State Department released its latest annual report on combating human trafficking indicating that there have been no prosecutions or contract terminations. We must question why the companies known to have been accused of violating the law repeatedly still have contacts today.

“Mr. Chair, while the Inspectors General at the Departments of State and Defense and USAID continue audits of federal contracts to monitor vulnerability to human trafficking more can and must be done to explicitly prohibit this human rights violation and ensure compliance with the law.  Defense dollars should not be used to perpetuate exploitation and fraud of foreign nationals providing various services on U.S. military bases.

“My amendment will help ensure that these deceptive and illicit activities do not happen on our watch especially as we draw down troops and more foreign nationals are hired to keep military bases operational.  I urge my colleagues to support my amendment.

“I would like also like to thank Representative Chris Smith and Representative Carolyn Maloney and for their co-sponsorship of this amendment.

NYU’s Carter Journalism Institute, too, has issued a press release:

Tea and Politics: Scenes from Our New, Awkward War in Iraq

Since the official ‘end’ of major combat operations in September, what’s become of the 50,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq? Some are ducking the occasional mortar fire that still falls on U.S. bases. Some are running marathons and making music videos to keep themselves from going stir crazy. But many are engaging in an ambitious form of soldiering-turned-diplomacy known as “key-leader engagements” (KLEs), an increasingly central part of the U.S. military’s long-term strategy in Iraq.

(As published in The Atlantic.)

KLEs, as defined by the Military Review, seek to use informal meetings and “friendly, ordinary conversation” with local Iraqi power brokers as a tool for “altering the opinions and attitudes of the [Iraqi] population” and pursuing “information objectives.” Translation: drink a little tea, smoke a little hookah, maybe ride horses or tour a local soap factory. Ostensibly, these new ties can be cashed in for counterinsurgency mojo – the right to swap intel with Sons of Iraq militiamen, say, or to broker the construction of a solar-powered water treatment plant.

I had a chance to witness these kabuki missions up-close several months ago, when I rode along on a key-leader engagement to Tikrit. It was a mundane eight-hour mission with the 2-32 Field Artillery to visit local big shots at the outskirts of Saddam Hussein’s hometown. (Apparently, his legacy dies hard; in the marketplace, Arabic graffiti still reads “Paradise for the hero Saddam,” and watches emblazoned with his face are hot commodities.)

The typical KLE starts with a safety briefing from a sergeant: in our case, what to do if we get hit by a “frickin’ IED” or experience a “frickin’ vehicle rollover.” Then comes a snack load-up. Because these missions often entail waiting around for hours in hot parking lots and palm groves, the guys in my assigned vehicle come prepared with a copy of Maxim and a cooler filled with Rip-Its, plastic-wrapped honey buns, and Jack Link’s Teriyaki Chicken Nugget Jerky.

“It’s the Beverly Hills of our A.O. [area of operations],” explains Major Pat Proctor of our destination, the neighborhood of Al Alam. “They were the first ones in Sunni Iraq to get in on the ground floor of the Coalition presence, and they’re rolling in dough because of it.” But the lobbing of Russian grenades at passing American vehicles remains surprisingly common – even now that U.S. convoys drive with big white signs attached to their bumpers reading: “Iraqi Partnership Provincial Approved Convoy. Thank you for your patience and support.”

Our first tea-and-goat-chops stop is at the home of Mohammed Ibrahim, a skinny, well-dressed Iraqi contractor in his early thirties who’s reaped hundreds of thousands of dollars from the American presence. He’s invited us to a feast on his living room floor with an ornery tribal leader of the local Awakening Council.

As we drive up to Ibrahim’s sprawling concrete home, we pass his lush fields of sunflowers, okra, corn, and melons. But the thick canopy of fruit trees surrounding the compound is too difficult for our Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, which weighs some 26,000 pounds, to navigate. We knock down a few power lines, snap the branches off pear and pomegranate trees, and run roughshod over the pricey new ditch that Ibrahim had been building.

We park and head inside. A Bronx Tale is playing on a giant TV set. Tea is poured. The feast begins, along with the chitchat, which is really why we came here in the first place.

“Hey Mohammed,” says the command sergeant major, “I think we destroyed your ditch.”

“That’s OK.”

“We also took out a few power lines.”

“OK, no problem.”

“But don’t worry,” says Lt. Col. Robert Cain, the unit’s commander. “I’ve got a project for you: how about you raise all of the illegal power lines up five feet?”

Everyone laughs, and I assume it’s a joke, a chummy mea culpa. But when I hear Ibrahim’s back-story, I reconsider. Like so many locals in Al-Alam, he’s desperate to avoid an American withdrawal, since he’s made a fortune playing jack-of-all-trades for U.S. forces – as a power line putter-upper, a latrine cleaner, you name it. He first started working for the Americans as an interpreter in 2003, in his mid twenties. At the time, most Tikritis were rallying around Saddam, or else were too terrified to be counted among the pro-American “collaborators.” On the local U.S. base one day, Ibrahim scored a job emptying soldiers’ Port-A-Potties, and he worked his way up from there to bid on and win a construction contract to help build a local school with Coalition dollars. After that, one contract spawned another, until Ibrahim found himself where he is now: running a veritable reconstruction empire in the neighborhood that handles everything from the desalinization of local farmland to the erection of a mega power line stretching all the way across the surrounding desert to Tuz, not far from Iran. If Al Alam really is the Beverly Hills of Tikrit, Mohammed is the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and it was cooperating with the U.S. that got him there.

The feast arrives on big silver platters: goat, chicken, stuffed grape leaves, cantaloupe. We sit cross-legged on the floor and eat, as they chat some more about the power line project funded jointly by U.S. taxpayers and the Iraqi government. Then we pile back into our vehicles and head out, wreaking more havoc on Ibrahim’s ditch and knocking down some more power lines. Our driver sighs, “Could we have found a route with more wires?” The wire problem gets bad enough that we have to stop to disentangle ourselves. The whole convoy is wrapped up, Medusa-style, in the same power lines that the Americans have been trying desperately to erect since the war began.

Eventually, we move on to the home of the late Lt. Col. Ahmed Subhi Al Fahal, a brash Iraqi counterterrorism officer who was killed by a suicide bomber outside a jewelry store last December. “It’s important that his family know we still care,” explains Maj. Proctor.

It’s not long until Lt. Col. Cain is sitting in a neon lawn chair outside his former ally’s house as the dead man’s tattooed mother, “Mama Ahmed,” cries and berates him about the delayed trial of her son’s killers, then asks for medicine for her headache. The “engagement team” sips tea and tries to convince Mama Ahmed to be patient – “The rule of law has to work its way out.” Meanwhile, a few enlisted guys run around with the widow’s kids, doling out the star-shaped tubes of Hannah Montana nail polish that were sent along in an aid donation package. “No dad,” Col. Ahmed’s young widow says to me in English, pointing at her five-year-old daughter who is now painting my nails. “Dad dead.”

We leave after a few hours to head back to the U.S. base. We’ve eaten some tasty, if stomach-churning, goat. We’ve downed two cans of Rip-It each. We’ve sweated ourselves into Chris Farley territory. Lt. Col. Cain and his command sergeant major have spent the day chatting with an impressive troika – a blinged-out contractor, a former insurgent, and a grieving mother – and can come away with a dose of good will for a range of projects. Mission accomplished; key leaders engaged.

For many of the 50,000-some U.S. service members who remain in Iraq, this is what the conflict has become. It’s often awkward, boring, and slow. But as they sip tea and stroll the palms, U.S. soldiers are still risking their lives, and sometimes losing them.

Sgt. David J. Luff, a 29-year-old from Hamilton, Ohio, was shot late last month by a sniper while on a key leader engagement in the same neighborhood of Tikrit we rolled through for tea and politics. The U.S.-led conflict in Iraq may have entered a “drawdown,” but it’s still a war.