Advance / CrocMedia event
Los Angles, 30 July 2009
I created this transcript from a recording of the event.
Any errors are mine.
[Michael] Thanks for coming, everybody. I have to say I'm just a wee bit overwhelmed. I find it easier walking into an al Qaeda training camp than doing this.
Now if you'll pardon my -- I'm such a Luddite. [prepares to swap out cables so that the audio for the projector can be heard] I just thought to get us all in the mood I'd just play a little piece. This is something we did for CNN. In my years as a print journalist -- I'm actually a print journalist masquerading as a TV journalist, although I have to admit I did sell my soul when I did go to TV, but we all whore ourselves at some point, don't we? -- and in all those years as a print journalist, I picked up a small DVD camera. At first I used it as a notebook, because when the bombs are going off and the stuff's happening you can't remember, now, did that guy take the round in the head before the bomb went off or did it happen after? So you just go back and replay the tape and there it is.
So what I'm going to show you is something that's a little bit special to me. I would have edited it differently, but ... This is my footage. It's just a bit of a taste. Unfortunately the raw footage of what I have is in archives back in Australia, and I think it's best for all of us that that's where they are. But this will just give you a taste. This is film that I shot as a print journalist, and then in one of my very first pieces for CNN, I took the team that I now work with back to the same lads that I was with. And this is set in Ramadi in Iraq, when Ramadi was actually owned by al Qaeda.
- the original piece for TIME magazine - the clip shown on CNN, which was slightly different than the one Michael showed at the event
I think that's almost the first story I did for CNN. Yeah, a lot of me is still in Ramadi. Um... I tell people I never mention the b-word, the book. I'm under a lot of pressure to write a book and I'm having a lot of trouble getting it out. The title of the book comes from one of those boys. That was a small outpost of just one platoon, about 30 guys at any one time, and the job was to sit there and get attacked. We couldn't find al Qaeda so we had to wait for al Qaeda to find us. So that base where we were was being hit every single day, and if that wasn't enough, what we'd do was we'd go out on foot patrols, as you saw, walking in the streets. And I remember in 7 days I was there at one point we got hit 5 times in 5 days. And four lads I know got turned into what we call pink mist, which means they just -- there wasn't enough left...
The title of the book comes from there. There's a Lieutenant in the Marines there, he and I didn't start out too well but we eventually became good friends, bonded in fire, I suppose. And we're talking about the transition home and we're talking about how difficult it was and the stupid things that we feel that people say. And I said to him that apart from several other factors, I said, you know, it's particularly at the pub, the drunken dickhead who will say to you [imitates American accent] "So dude, like, what's the worst thing you've seen?" And I'll tell them, "You have no right to know." And my mate, the Lieutenant, said to me, I get the same thing, he says, "How many people have you killed?" And he goes, "That's between me and the dead."
So that's become the title of my book. Not just because it stands for what happened in Ramadi, but we all live with ghosts, some of us literally. And that's the story of war. Unfortunately there's a universality and a commonality to war that -- just change the date, the time, the place, the spelling of the names, and, you know, it's the same. But then again, there's something that's uniquely different to every moment and every street and every soldier. But I mean, that's another thing about war, it's so intimately personal. I mean, whether it's an American Marine who is trained to simply charge up the beach, or an American infantryman who is trained to then storm through that beachhead, or whether it's an Iraqi enemy soldier in the war or whether it's an al Qaeda fighter, the soldiers on the front lines are just as hungry, just as cold, just as scared, just as lonely, just as tired as each other.
And there's actually a very, very personal connection in war. Not just to the blokes you're with, but there's also a connection firstly to yourself. We all walk the streets every day telling ourselves little lies. We all have little delusions that we like to invest in about ourselves. It helps us get through the day. It helps us get through life. There's moments in combat... you cannot hide from yourself. You really find out who you are. There's no room for bullshit. Anything you pretend to yourself that you are, anything you'd like to think that you are, just is eviscerated and you're left with yourself. And you see that happening to the guy next to you. And sometimes he's curled up in a ball and he's dropped his weapon and he's crying. And then the next day, he's the one who's charging at the gun pit.
But the other personal connection -- and I've had it happen on at least two occasions that I know of -- it's deeply personal, and it might be hard for people to understand. You can be in a firefight and there is lead flying through the air. I mean, the true story of war is not back at the command post, it's not with the generals, it's not in the Pentagon, it's where what the lads on the ground call where the meat meets the metal. So you've got this lead flying through the air randomly, but when you know he's shooting at you. And you know there's a difference from just spraying around to when it clips you, which happened to me in the battle of Samara or in the battle of Tal'Afar. I knew this guy or individuals had beads on me. And you are then intimately connected to them. You'll never meet him, but forever the pair of you are bonded. I mean...
Yeah, it's an extraordinary thing, you see the best of us and you see the worst of us. It leads one to question the true nature of not just life but of good and evil. I've seen good men do great evil. And I've seen evil members of al Qaeda do great good. I mean, I'm very confused.
But none of this explains Brisbane to Baghdad, so we'll have to forget that segue. My point coming out of that was supposed to be that that's a long way from Brisbane. In case any of you don't know, Brisbane is not quite like that. Although at my house I remember I'd had my first Holy Communion, my mother came out and found me jumping up and down on top of the family car like a trampoline. Then it looked a little bit like Brisbane.
It never ceases to amaze me what we can do, you know? I mean, I grew up in western Brisbane, in a place called Keperra. Most of you have never even heard of it. Trust me, most of you don't want to hear about it. A lot of public housing, lots of Army brats because Enoggera Army barracks was nearby. And to think: from knocking about there, barefoot, siphoning petrol out of your mates' father's lawnmowers or cars to put into glass bottles to throw little makeshift Molotov cocktails down the sewer system of the real estate division they never built to ending up here in the United States. I mean, I never saw myself living in the United States. I certainly never saw myself becoming the voice of an American war. That's something that never ceases to humble me. And I have great trouble reconciling that, that for better or for worse, for whatever reason, large parts of America have come to listen to an Australian accent with a nose so broken it would take a team of engineers to begin to reconstruct. And just for the record, it's all from rugby, I stopped counting at about 12 times, I can break it now, it's really easy... I have to be a little bit more drunk first. But it does work!
To be able to say something and express an opinion and then hear the Commander in Chief of the most powerful armed forces in the world have to respond to you from the White House ... you know, not only is that the purest essence of journalism -- we hold these bastards to account; who was it, Don Chipp and the Democrats, "Keep the bastards honest." I mean, if that's not why I'm here then it beats me, it escapes me, my reason for being. Keep the bastards honest. Because everybody's lying to us. Their government, our government, the good guys, the bad guys, which one's which. Even civilians, they're so confused, they're so lost, they're telling you what they think you want to hear.
The truth is the most elusive mistress. She's a hard one to find and she's even harder to hold. So to be able ... just to be some, you know, ratbag* Brizzo** boy who somehow or other through somewhat horrific circumstance and fate that not for one minute do I regret, and in fact I consider it a privilege to have lived through what I have lived through. I mean, it's changed my worldview, it's changed a lot of things, there's no question about that. But I wouldn't trade it for quids. There's a whole different way of seeing the world, folks. And it's not very pretty but I've not yet found anything to dissuade me from the view that that's actually the way this world works and the rest is just theater. But anyway, that's the jaded me; back in the box.
* ratbag: Aussie slang for someone who does not behave properly
** Brizzo: Brisbane
But yeah, from Brisbane to being the center of Senator John McCain's personal hate campaign, oh my god! Didn't we love that? And I didn't even mean it! For those of you who mightn't be familiar, Senator McCain as he was leading up to the primaries to run for president -- I have to be honest, you know, I'm an equal opportunity hater. I don't like Democrats, I don't like Republicans, I don't like politicians, I don't like true believers, I don't like anybody. Which is what makes me a good journalist. Senator McCain, regardless of whatever else he was, there was a point in time where his policies on Iraq were very unpopular but they happened to coincide with mine to a degree in that you either pack up and leave or you fight seriously, you send more troops and you do it right. Now, I'd been a darling of the Left up until that moment and then I confused everybody because the Hawks didn't know whether to hate me, the Left didn't know whether they could keep loving me; but either way, I believe Senator McCain was right on that.
And back in April '07 -- this is the short form -- Senator McCain was preparing to come to Iraq and he went on TV with Wolf Blitzer on CNN and said, "Wolf, listen, you're three months out of date, mate, you gotta catch up." He said, "Baghdad now is so safe that two Americans like you and me can take a stroll in the streets of Baghdad." Remember that? Oh, Christ, I do. [drains glass of wine, signals for another] Barman!
Wolf, in his infinite wisdom -- or stupidity -- fifty minutes later organized a last-minute live shot for me from Baghdad. So there I am on our dust-blown roof, standing at a thing not dissimilar to this [indicates podium] except it's just made of pine and it's got lots of rude graffiti written on it and ... [someone brings him a bottle of water] That's not what I was asking for.
Anyway, so Wolf gets me up and says, "Michael, Senator McCain's just been on and this is what he's had to say." And I literally had to listen really hard because I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Now, it was totally unscripted, straight off the cuff -- [someone brings him a glass of wine, audience applauds] So I wasn't thinking straight, like I rarely ever am, and I said, look, with all due respect, Senator McCain's policies on Iraq have been some of the strongest on Capitol Hill, but I have to say I invite Senator McCain to come here to Baghdad and show me in which parts of Neverland these areas of Baghdad exist where we can go strolling.
- the start of Ware vs McCain
Which then prompted Steve Colbert -- the son of a bitch, I still have to get him -- to do a segment that ran McCain's comments, my comments, and goes, "And what the media fatcat Michael Ware, lounging in Baghdad, fails to tell you is --" and then he brings up a map of Baghdad and says -- "Neverland is actually just east of Sadr City." And imposes a map of Neverland. He goes, "I believe a very nice Kurdish family has moved into the Lost Boys' cave..."
- Colbert's Neverland Report
So a week later, poor old Senator McCain, wanting to run for president, shows up in Baghdad. If he doesn't take a stroll through that war-torn city, he is a dead duck in the water. So off he goes, just outside the Green Zone, a little stroll, goes to a market, haggles over a carpet, comes back. Him and Senator Lindsey Graham hold a press conference. I thought, "I might actually go to this one. I don't go to these often, I might show up."
Fifteen minute press conference, they talk about how great it was to talk to the Iraqis, blah-blah-blah. I didn't have to do any of the heavy lifting. [raises hand] "So-and-so, New York Times. Senator McCain, how many US soldiers were with you?" "Oh, 200-300." [raises hand] "Reuters. Senator McCain, how many Apache attack helicopters?" "Three." [raises hand] "Senator McCain --" Boom-boom-boom-boom, and it all fell apart. So I'm sitting there at the back -- for once, behaving myself; I am renowned for not behaving myself at press conferences, ask anyone. Ask anyone from General Petraeus on down. Anyway, so I'm sitting there behaving myself and finally I thought, "I'll ask a question." [raises hand] At that point, minute eleven of a fifteen minute press conference, Senator McCain says, "Press conference over," walks out.
By the time we got back to our Baghdad compound, The Drudge Report already had exclusive report, "Drunken CNN Activist Heckles McCain in Baghdad." I found that kind of humorous. I behaved myself for once! Anyway, to cut a long story short, there was many meetings at CNN, as you can guess. There was a big power tele-conference with me and all the execs and the producer I work with, my blood brother, and they go, "Michael, did you do it?" And I went, "I swear on a stack of Bibles, or a case of VB, I didn't do it!"
"Okay, fine, rah-rah-rah," hang up. Then they all rang back to my producer. [whispers] "Did he really do it?" "No he didn't!" So they finally let me back on air. I go on American Morning, give the daily report, and then the anchor goes, "So, Michael, there's been an accusation, blah-blah-blah. Did you do it?" "No, I didn't, and I suggest anyone who has any doubts check the videotape." Now, at a military briefing in Baghdad, it's a room akin to this, much more heavily fortified... where there's cameras on me, the speaker, but there's also cameras on you, the audience. All the journalists are filmed all the time. Someone in their infinite wisdom at Multi-National Force Iraq chose to leak the video feed of the journalists, which showed me sitting there behaving like an altar boy.
Drudge had to retract his report and Senator McCain then spent the next two years trying to get me sacked. But thank God he didn't make president, I had one White House that hated me, I didn't need a second one!
- on this page is a copy of the Drudge Report piece and although I have never seen the MNFI footage, as soon as this blew up I posted most of the press conference from CNN's coverage and Pipeline broadcast
So that's a boy from Brisbane. You shouldn't give him any responsibility whatsoever. He doesn't know what to do with it.
Like I said, I wouldn't trade it for quids. I've had a front-row ticket to world history. I've sat and watched it unfold in front of my very eyes. I've had the honor of being able to report it back home to you all, to my family. And I've had the distinction to be able to call them out when they're lying; them, us, the others, whatever. For me it's been an extraordinary ride. And I don't know how much further it's got to go, if this is just the beginning of ... [imitates movie trailer-type recap] is this the beginning or the sad and tragic end? But either way, I wouldn't be dead for quids. And I thank you all for attending. Appreciate that very much.
[James Swanwick] Thank you very much, Michael, for that. I'm sure we all agree it was an absolutely fascinating, fascinating speech. We're going to, I'm going to ask Michael a few questions now and then we're going to open up to the floor. Any questions that you would like to ask Michael about his time as a war correspondent, please feel free to do so. Michael, you're very famous for having been kidnapped on more than one occasion. I know it's probably a sensitive issue, but we'd certainly all appreciate you telling us all about the circumstances.
[Michael] Yeah, thanks, James, just kick me in the nuts.
I've been ... I mean, kidnapped, hostage-taking, prisoner of war, an enforced guest ... I mean, you know ... it's hard to define these things. Suffice to say I've had three such occasions, the most notable of which was on September 14, 2004. Let's keep it brief.
Right in the heart of Baghdad, within mortar range of the US embassy, was an area controlled by a bunch of Sunni insurgents whom I knew very, very well. This is in the center of the capital, Baghdad, and they could hit the American embassy at will. Anyway, early in 2004 these guys called al Qaeda started showing up, offering to help. And then bit by bit these al Qaeda guys started taking over. And eventually there came a day, on September 12, when there was this pitched battle with US forces -- I think it was 1/6 CAV -- that ended with an American Bradley armored fighting vehicle abandoned, burning, on this famous boulevard called Haifa Street. And it's in flames and there's an al Qaeda member standing on top waiving an al Qaeda flag, so the Americans sent an Apache attack helicopter, fired upon the Bradley, killing the al Qaeda guy, an Arab TV correspondent, and wounding a photographer mate of mine.
Two days later, I'm just sitting at home, minding my own business as I tend to do. [audience laughs] Yeah, shut up. [more laughter] And one of the Sunni insurgents showed up at my house, bitching and moaning, al Qaeda this and al Qaeda that and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. "They've completely taken over. They've lined the boulevard with their black flags." And I said, "Mate, I love you like a brother," I said, " but unless I see it with my own two eyes, I can't believe it." And he goes, "Alright, come on, I'll show you." And I went, "Yeah, okay, alright, let's go look."
So we drive into Haifa Street. There's Sami, my driver -- Sami. Sami's just this Iraqi guy who was a national boxing champion in the 70s who was refused by Sadaam to go to the 1980 Olympics because he refused to join the Baath party. Then during the Iran/Iraq war he was in the Iraqi special forces, during one particularly bloody assault he was caught between enemy lines and had to crawl his way back at night through a minefield, blew both his feet off, got back, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. Sami was my dear boxing coach and driver. Doesn't speak much English. Then there's the Baathist; he doesn't speak much English, either. And then there's me in the backseat.
So we drive down Haifa Street and I'm filming between the two front seats, just the flags. There are al Qaeda fighters strewn everywhere. I went to great pains not to film their faces. We drove down, we drove back. "Mr. Mick, you have enough?" "I think so." And the Baathist goes, "Oh, we do one more, one more." As we turn back, suddenly -- and I caught this on film, I filmed my whole kidnap -- these guys stepped out, pulling the pins on the grenades, standing in front of the car. And then we were swarmed by gunmen, al Qaeda gunmen.
When they opened the back door and dragged me out, the guy that dragged me out, he had the pin of the grenade on this finger [indicates left middle finger] grabbing my collar, and he held the live grenade to my head [indicates right hand] as he dragged me out. And of course they had all the guns around my head, rah-rah-rah. You know, as it goes.
So I'm standing there ... now, on three separate occasions I've been in Iraq where I've been in a room and they're debating whether I'm going to be executed or not. Now, this is separate to my hostage-takings. I remember the first such incident was in Khaldea. In a room, blah-blah-blah, we have a nice old lunch; nasty little bloke comes in, bit of a banter back and forth, I smile and nod and we walk out. My translator is white as a sheet. "What's wrong with you?" "Shut up, I'll tell you in the car." Turns out the guy came in and went, "Oh, a foreigner, right, let's whack him." And the bloke who invited me goes, "No-no-no-no, he's my lunch guest, you can't do that." There's a big debate, right? And my translator then told me. Two things: one, I happily learned ten days later that the bad guy got whacked, and I then learned just enough Arabic to understand when they're talking about killing me.
So there I am, all the guns to my head, and they're talking about killing me. Actually, they weren't really talking about it, just discussing how they were going to arrange it. Anyway, it got to the point where they held onto me for awhile, they actually had me under one of the black Tawhid wal-Jihad banners from al Qaeda. Now, this was a point in 2004, I don't know if any of you remember, but al Qaeda stormed a house in Baghdad and took three elderly contractors hostage. One was an American, two were Brits. They immediately beheaded the American, filmed it, released it. Then they said to Tony Blair, pull out your forces or we do the Brits next. Tony Blair said no, so they cut off this old man's head, filmed it, put it out there. We're waiting to learn the fate of the third man, the second Brit. This is when I get kidnapped. Oh, bloody good show.
I was actually under the banner, they had the knife, surrounded by all the guns, everyone's all hepped up, "We're gonna behead him, we're gonna behead him." They were gonna film my own death with my camera, and the dude's trying to figure out how to use it. I don't know what the fuck I was thinking at the time. Anyway, the Baathist who brought me in there -- you have to understand the whole Arab honor/guest culture thing. He's standing there cool as a cucumber the whole time, I'm thinking, you son of a bitch, thanks very much, mate, just ... you know. But he's really playing it cool. He finally walks over to this Syrian al Qaeda chief and he goes, "So you're, uh, gonna cut his head off." "Yeah, we're gonna cut his head off." And he goes, "You know he's my guest." He goes, "Yeah." "Well, it's a little bit of an insult." And he goes, you know, bugger you. And the Baathist goes, "Bugger me? You know who I am--" He was a mid-ranking commander. He goes, "Yeah, I know who you are. But you bring a Westerner in here and expect him to leave alive? Uh-uh, doesn't happen." And he goes, "Huh. Alright. You know who I work for --" the big dog of the area; he goes, "Who do you think told me to bring him here? Shall we get him on the phone?" At which point all the Syrian al Qaeda guys, were just -- they were literally, they had me down. I'm getting ready, I'm thinking about family. But the Iraqi al Qaeda guys went, "Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa, hang on a sec. You Syrians have come here in jihad to die, to become martyrs. We gotta live here. We're gonna look out, you know." Eventually it was the Iraqi al Qaeda who told the Syrian al Qaeda, "We gotta let him go." Through the most gritted teeth, the Syrian al Qaeda gave me back to the Baathist, put me in the car and off we went. Sami my driver, who survived the Iran/Iraq war minus his two feet, when we got home that night said, "Mr. Mick, today we died. From now on is our new life, and never forget that." I didn't leave my bedroom for three days after that.
That was the kidnapping. Gee, thanks for bringing that up.
- according to Wikipedia, the contractors were two Americans and a Brit, and were kidnapped on September 16; the Americans were beheaded on the 20th and 21st, the Brit in October.
- his original article in TIME, published on the 27th, which included the information about the contractors
- some of his footage from the Haifa Street incident was used in the Frontline special "The Insurgency" (about halfway through this compilation clip)
- the section of the "Hidden Wars" special on CNN in which he told the story
[James] Thank you for that very humorous tale there, Michael, yeah. You know, seriously, though, could you maybe tell us a little bit about when you were living in Baghdad, what was a normal 24 hours for you? I say the word "normal" carefully, obviously, but what was your average day like? What time would you wake up, where were you sleeping, did you have security forces with you, where did you have breakfast, did you go out and have a drink? What was a normal day?
[Michael] Oh, I remember the halcyon days of 2003. So many journalists, so many young women, no idea what they're doing. Have I got that shit-eating-grin on my face? I remember this one time in 2003 -- [the top of the podium nearly falls over] That's not very good. That's a workplace health and safety issue. [laughter]
I remember this one time in 2003... back then the evil hadn't started. There was literally hundreds of journalists. At the Hamra Hotel they had a gorgeous pool, a lot of journalists lived there. We lived in a house on the other side of the city, but I'd go there for pool parties. You know, get very drunk, everyone's partying, very Western. Not very Iraqi at all. I remember driving home this one night in 2003, about 12:30 at night and we drive straight bang into the middle of this ambush. There's an American outfit protecting a bank and the insurgents decided to attack it. So suddenly there's bullets flying, I jump out of the car. Some locals grab me, drag me into their shop and pull down the steel shutter. When it all died down, there I am walking up the middle of the street, with the cordite still thick in the air, the smell of cordite. I'm in a Hawaiian shirt, bathers, thongs, pissed out of my mind, going, "G'day, mate, how are ya?" I had M-4s on me, laser sights... [laughter]
Yeah, that changed. By the end of 2004 we became prisoners in our own little home. The way you live in Baghdad as a media person -- like, for example, I was the Time magazine bureau chief. The house I was heading to in the Hawaiian shirt, we eventually had one of our staff assassinated a block down the road for working for us, and then they lobbed some hand grenades in. So we thought, well, we'll leave the house. So I then set up the next house. You choose a house, then it's up to you to defend it. So I chose this house, I took out all the glass and replaced it with 6mil plastic. I bought mountains of sand and thousands of empty sandbags. I built gun positions on the roof, laced it with concertina razor wire, sealed off the streets, put in my own checkpoints, bought $2,500 per sheet concrete blast barriers that were thirteen feet high, and I created my own private militia. I built them from three families who were very dear to me. And if any one of those members actually betrayed us, it meant not only was he betraying members of his own family but we also knew where to hunt him down. But you have to defend yourself.
Now, the major America TV corporations contract that out to 'security consultants,' which in any other age would be called mercenaries, and I don't think mercenary should be a bad word, quite frankly, but anyway... So for example, CNN, CBS, ABC all engage AKE, Pilgrims, one of these other firms -- ex-British SAS, ex-Aussie SAS, ex-Green Beret, making fifteen grand a month, tax-free -- who will then put in place all of these provisions for you. But you build your own complex and defend it. Now, that Time magazine house that I was in, we got car-bombed twice and one time -- we're actually across the road from the Aussie embassy. Remember when the Aussie embassy got bombed? Right, Channel 7 got to break that during the Aussie open tennis. There I was, asleep in my bed. I wake up and something wasn't quite right. I wasn't on top of my bed, my bed was on top of me. It had lifted up in the air and come down on top of me. The 6mil plastic worked perfectly, instead of a million shards of shrapnel flying at me it just popped out. Curtains shredded, this, that, the other. So I ran outside, had a look, sure as shit, yeah, Aussie embassy [imitates flames] Yeah, that's not good. So I go back, I'm sitting in my bedroom, I ring Channel 7. I said, "Can you put me through to the news desk?" And they were, like, "I dunno, why?" "Um, the Australian embassy in Baghdad just got truck-bombed." "Just a moment, please." They come through and I'm getting some twit and they said, "So, um, how do you actually know that the embassy's been bombed?" And I said, "Let me describe to you where I'm sitting." I said, "My bedroom..." blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah "...across the road..." rah-rah-rah. And another one of my friends died in that blast, 'cause he was a newspaper seller, he used to just hang out in front. He got shredded to bits. But anyway ... um, what did you ask?
How we live, normal day. There's no such thing as a normal day. No such thing as a normal day. I was very fortunate. Or unfortunate. I've lived in Baghdad or in Iraq so long that I'd gone native, real bad. So that when I went to TV, I made sure that I was still able to operate as an old print hack, like I am. So I wasn't beholden to the security firm, I brought my own Iraqi crew. So unlike most journalists, I could still travel the city disguised as an Iraqi. But we would drive through one area and we'd have -- it's like Protestant and Catholic. We'd have some Shia icon dangling from the rear-view, then we'd get through that checkpoint, rip that down, and we'd put up a Sunni icon on the dashboard. Rip that down, put up something else and drive on through. At any given point, if they'd spotted I was a foreigner, we were all dead. We operated on the second-glance principle. You know, I'd have enough of a beard, and you trim it according to a Sunni or Shia area. But you could be stuck in a traffic jam so the next Iraqi is literally just three feet away from you in a car. And you're sitting in the backseat trying to mind your own business, hoping to God no one realizes, and he will look at you every time. [demonstrates] It's the second glance... [demonstrates] If there's no second glance, you live. And that's how I operated.
So on any given day I'd wake up in the morning, eat absolutely shitty food, and then it might be hosting members of the Iranian-backed militia, the Sunni insurgents, or al Qaeda in my house or venturing out to visit them. Or I'd be sitting there chained to my desk trying to write or you then venture off on an embed with the American troops or British troops or whoever it might be for days or weeks on end. So there's no such thing as a normal day. But that's how you lived. You protected yourself, the journalists circled the wagons and lived in three concentrations around the city, and they still do today. And normality just went straight out the window.
[James] Thank you, Michael. Okay, we're gonna open up to the floor now, if anyone has questions here for Michael. [points] Yes, sir.
[question from man in the audience] Obviously you had the courage to live this life and are still living this life, how do you find that? I mean, initially you must have been very frightened, tell us the story, how does one get over that?
[Michael] Yeah, fear is a funny thing. The question is, how does one, like, one must be very frightened and if at first you are then how do you deal with it, blah-blah-blah. You never get over fear. And if you do, you're dead. Fear, in many ways, keeps you alive. It becomes normal. It really does become normal. And so it doesn't become fear, it just becomes an element of your day. Everything is suspicious, like, I've got a mate of mine, we were in the battle of Fallujah together. [pauses] No, I won't tell that story.
Um, nothing becomes normal. A window can open -- you're walking down a street and a third-story window can open and you will stop dead in your tracks because that could be a sniper. A door slams -- you know, one of the classic symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is hyper-vigilance. That's the state you maintain. So I guess that's your expression of fear and how you process it.
[same man] Follow up question? So our soldiers are coming back here with PTSD...
[Michael] They're fucked in the head.
[man] So how does a journalist deal with that? You must see a lot of--
[Michael] I don't know. [drains wineglass] I have no idea! Neither do the panel of experts I'm currently seeing.
[James] Yes, sir?
[another man in the audience] I want to talk to you about the concept of nationhood. We sort of talk about Iraq as if it's one amorphous mass and obviously it's not. Sunni and Shia and Turkman are there, and how is that going to work when it's being held together by the external tension?
[Michael] Well, it's held together by a strongman.
[man] Yeah, exactly. What happens now as we pull out? How does that stand as a nation?
[Michael] Well, America is ... America is subcontracting out the security of Iraq to Iran. Iran is going to hold Iraq together. The Iraqi government works for Iran. Always has, always will. The CIA's number one Iranian agent of influence is the president of Iraq, Jalal Talibani, a Kurd. Now, the Kurds have got no love for the Iranians, but unlike the Americans, the Iranians and their border are never leaving. It's just a reality of geography. Every major faction of the Iraqi government is a party that was either created in Tehran during exile, is a party that currently is funded and armed by Tehran, or like the Kurds is a group that has long-standing relationships of convenience or inconvenience with Iran.
The most likely war or the most likely instability that is going to break out is the Iraqi Shia Arabs are gonna go to war with the Kurds. That's a very distinct possibility. The Iraqi Sunni, who are America's natural ally, have been completely sold out. And so now we're starting to see, as an essay I'm trying to write says, Egypt, the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, others trying to step up, pumping in money, intelligence-sharing, advising, training to the Sunni. Not to be able to retake the country or the government but to just at least do what they can to limit the inevitable tide of Iranian influence.
Under Saddam, women held high positions in government; they don't now. Christians were in the cabinet, Tariq Aziz was a Christian; most of Iraq’s one million Christian population have fled. You'd be lucky if there's 100-200,000 Christians left. Lucky! I mean, I just came back from there, there was one Sunday, six churches were bombed in one day. And the Yezidis, a poor, nothing, pissant sect, I remember the day -- they live in this series of villages, you know, out in the northwest, basically a bunch of neighborhoods. Al Qaeda didn't just hurt them, al Qaeda sent four garbage trucks packed with explosives into four different critical junctures of their neighborhoods and killed 500 people in one blow. Within seconds, 500 people ceased to exist, most of them women and children.
So that's ... Iraq becomes a client-state of Iran, Obama's calculation is that we can live with that because Iraq is no longer a strategic imperative to this administration. And in some ways, maybe it never should have been for any administration. So is this just a reassessment, a recalibration of reality? It gives me pause to stop and think about the 4,324 dead Americans, not to mention the tens of thousands of wounded.
Do you know that in Iraq and Afghanistan at least 1.8 million Americans have served? Iraq and Afghanistan, 1.8 million men and women have served at least one tour. 800,000 of them are now out of uniform. Hundreds of thousands of them are weekend warriors. A recent study out of Stanford said that at least 37% report mental issues upon return from Iraq or Afghanistan. No shit, Sherlock. Among the National Guard, the part-time soldiers, it's those who are over 40 who have the most severe PTSD and are the ones most likely to turn to drugs because of the jarring jolt of civilian life to combat. And among the active-duty soldiers, these young kids full of fire and steel who join up, it's the under-25s who have the most severe PTSD and who are turning to drugs. 'Cause they're the ones on the front line.
[man in audience] They have no fear.
[Michael] Just on that no fear -- I have one particular memory from that same place [gestures to the still from the Ramadi video]. The Marines sign kids up in high school. So you can do your senior prom or your last day or whatever the fuck you call it, four months later -- after Parris Island -- you're in Ramadi. I had this one kid who was on this weapon called a Mark-19. It's like a machine gun, instead of firing bullets it fires 40mil grenades. [imitates rapid fire, rapid explosions] He was 18 years and one month. [imitates American drawl] "What I like the best is watching the bodies blow apart." Loved it. Fucking loved it.
[woman in audience] Are you saying that America is going to befriend Iran --
[Michael] Oh, no-no-no. You've just given up. You've just turned around [mimes dropping trousers] and gone, "Thank you very much."
Those guys kicked your butt. The minute the American tanks crossed the Kuwaiti border in 2003, America was at war with Iran. The only problem is, America didn't realize for about four years. The Iranians have done a masterful job of scooping up Iraq. I mean, in terms of just pure military and strategic policy, it is awe-inspiring. They own the government. The National Police death squads that go out slaughtering Iraqis at night are run by Iran. Today!
You know what's happening right now? American troops have pulled out of the cities. The Iraqi prime minister -- who comes from a party that sheltered in Iran; who is surrounded by four chief advisers, all of whom are Iranian -- has set up his own Praetorian Guard, a brigade of forces who answers only to him. Not to the Minister of Defense, not to the chief of their Army, but only to him. And anyone detained by those people goes into a prison for which there's no records. You know who they're targeting? People who worked for America.
I've got a wife -- Umm Salah, the mother of Salah -- her husband, Dr. Walid, ran a sports medicine clinic in Dora, an area that was overrun by al Qaeda. All the Shia there were slaughtered and cleansed out of it. And now they're finally starting to come back. With successive units who worked in Dora, Dr. Walid helped them to identify where al Qaeda was hiding. It eventually became known that he was a friend of America. On March 9 this year, Iraqi National Police with legitimate identification and a legitimate court warrant that identified him as "Dr. Walid, the husband of the good-looking woman" came to the house at 10pm at night and arrested him. There's absolutely no record of his detention.
The CIA dismantled its entire apparatus earlier this year. The head of that apparatus had to flee to Syria. the number two has been assassinated. The chief of the Iran desk of that apparatus has been arrested by the Iraqi government and sent to Iran!
It's a fact of life that we have to live with.
[James] This gentleman in the back.
[man] You mentioned the soldiers. What do you think of the quality of the American military leadership, particularly the junior and mid-levels of command?
[Michael] It's one of the things that has always intrigued me. You meet chaps in the field, be it from the military or be it from the CIA or other agencies -- there are bright, capable, skilled individuals. They know what's going on and they report it up the chain, but then it gets lost. I've got guys from military intelligence who have written reports that I've seen, and then I've seen the report that was presented to the president and it bears absolutely no resemblance to what they had.
Look, there's good commanders and there's weak commanders in any military. And each branch of the military trains its individuals differently. Like the Marines. If you have a man in a building shooting at you, the Marines ingrained response is, "Charge!" and at least some of us will survive. The Army's response is "Bring up a tank and level the building, and then we'll go and see what's left."
I mean, it really is a mixed bag. The problem is the institution. A friend of mine, Lieutenant Yingling, wrote this very controversial document that kind of fucked his career. And it said, "Our system is designed by a series of Commanders and Generals that simply reproduces and re-promotes the exact same kind of Generals and Commanders, so therefore the system doesn't change." He sacrificed himself on the altar of his career which was one of the many, many things that led to this outside rebel faction led by the kinds of guys like David Petraeus, who eventually got told, "Well, you had such big mouths, all along criticizing, now's your chance to run the show." And we're seeing a different sort of thing.
A West Point graduate's a West Point graduate; they're not dills***. They're naive and they're green, but so is the kid from Duntroon.
*** dill: Aussie slang for idiot
I mean, I was talking to James earlier -- there's many times that I can think of, but there was one in particular in Baquba. I'm with an American platoon that's being led by a 23 year old 2nd Lieutenant straight out of West Point. He wasn't yet in command, you know, as they are. And as you know, it's like 1st Sergeants, your rump platoon. I mean, come on, let's face it, it's the NCOs who are the shit.
But we were walking down a street ... now, I'd had seven years in combat and he'd had one month. I knew at that intersection we're about to get ambushed. Now, do I tell him? Or am I a journalist? So I prepare myself to get into the best position to film it.
There is some strength in the US military's mid-ranking command. There has been a sea-change at the top level, or certainly at the CENTCOM level, the SOCOM level, although Stavridis is about to move on. Whether that trickles down enough to empower the mid-ranking commanders and leadership to feel that they can actually lead is gonna be the great question. When we have people like Colonel HR McMaster, an old sparring buddy of mine. I mean, he went about it and did it exactly the wrong way that his commanders were telling him but it was the way that worked. And he's now a hero, he's got his one star. We'll have to wait and see. There is great potential, but will they be allowed to breathe is the real question.
[James] We've got time for one more question, this gentleman over here.
[man] Does Obama have access to the real summaries of the situation?
[Michael] Does President Obama have access to ...?
[man] The subtleties that you were talking about.
[Michael] The subtleties? God, I hope so.
[man] The reports that you were talking about.
[Michael] Well, that we've yet to see. I mean, the new head of the CIA, he's an old hand, he has no intelligence experience but he's not a 72-year-old dill. He's been around, he was Chief of Staff to Clinton. He knows the current Chief of Staff to the president very well. He's not a CIA CIA guy, but we'll have to wait and see how he leads. I'm not sure. My gut is that that environment that was created where unless you told them what they wanted to hear you were a dead duck in the water, I'm hoping that's changed. I'm hoping.
In boxing we used to talk about The Great White Hope. Well, here we have The Great Black Hope in an American president. No one more than me wants to see change. But I'm waiting to see them prove it. They haven't yet been tested in fire. I'm waiting for them to fulfill the promise.