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Falluja account from Stefan Zaklin

this was just forwarded to me, an email written by a photographer named Stefan Zaklin. I haven’t seen his photos yet, but homeboy can write.


-—- Forwarded Message
From: Stefan Zaklin
Date: Sat, 20 Nov 2004 20:35:18 0500
To: Stephanie Kuykendal
Subject: A Fool’s Game

Dear All

I’m sitting at the back of a huge Airbus, on one way ticket from Amman to
New York.

Don’t read into it too much- I’m sure I’m not in the US indefinitely, but I
don’t know where is next, and I couldn’t communicate enough with the ticket
agent to get what I wanted.

Never have the words “Final Call” sounded so welcome. Running from one
terminal to the next, then back again, I got on the plane without a
reservation ten minutes before the gate closed. Yesterday I was in Baghdad,
two days ago Fallujah. I showed up at the airport yesterday with my excess
baggage and without a ticket, and just enough cash to pay for both. Ninety
minutes before this plane left, I bought an unrestricted ticket and made a
run for the airport. The taxi driver, though he promised to drive fast,
also insisted on stopping at a roadside coffee stand and treating me to a
cup of coffee on the way. My two cups at breakfast and stress over missing
the flight notwithstanding, it was indeed a decent cup of coffee. Still, I
don’t know if it was worth the extra gray hair to stop for it.

So I haven’t really had a lot of time or energy to reflect on the events of
the last two weeks or so. I hope to spend some time looking at each day’s
pictures, and writing everything I can remember. I kept a notebook with
some quotes from the soldiers I was with, so that should help jog memories
of the downtime. Just one example: Sgt. Bentley, 23, was in the middle of
a firefight. The soldiers had occupied an elementary school, and were
taking sniper fire from all four sides of the building. Bentley emptied his
clip, and had to pause to reload. The moment gave him a second to reflect,
and he said, “Dude, this is crazy! Two weeks ago, I was eating a
cheesesteak in Philly.” Then he scanned out the window for where he thought
the sniper was, and continued to pock-mark the building across the street
with bullets.

All through the week there were flashes of self-awareness that made the
entire experience surreal. I hope to be able to reconstruct those moments
bit by bit for you in the next couple of weeks.

As you know, Stephanie was injured a couple of days before US troops moved
in Fallujah. As documented in a tortured email, you know what I went
through before deciding to go and photograph the invasion. The rest of the
week wasn’t much easier.

After I decided to stay in Fallujah, I didn’t look back. I knew I would
need to be focused to be able to make good pictures and stay alive doing it.
Some of my colleagues and friends were worried my head wouldn’t be in the
game. I allowed myself time every day to think about Steph, check my email,
and get off a quick note. But that was during down time, in relative
safety. When out on operations, I was totally present in the moment.

I have an ability to do that- to compartmentalize my emotional landscape.
It has never been difficult for me to do, but this week really stretched my
limits. I didn’t feel the strain at the time, but in the last few days, I
have felt a deep, deep exhaustion, both mental and physical.

There are so many things I experienced I want to tell you about, but there
are other things too, swirling around, larger than anecdotes, though I know
they would help you see. I can’t really organize my thoughts, so I guess I
will just start.

I have spent a lot time in the last four or five days with journalists who
covered the fighting in Fallujah. Our conversation tends toward two main
themes- our personal experiences out in the field, and what we think
Fallujah, the fight for Fallujah, will mean in the long run.

The first thing I want to say is that trying to make sense out of what we
saw that week is a fool’s game. It’s a thin line though- I’m not saying
anyone should just passively accept it, although that is one way of dealing.
But to try to understand, really comprehend, the death and destruction and
desecration that we all witnessed is a recipe for personal disaster. I have
covered conflict before, but never have I seen anything like this. Across
the board, from journalists who have covered 10 wars to to journalists
covering their first, no one I spoke with, out of thirty or forty reporters,
had ever witnessed or experienced anything like Fallujah. People were
saying things like, “Yeah, in Sarajevo they mortared food lines and water
lines and snipers shot people walking in the street on the way to work. I
mean, it was savage. But nothing like this.”

That’s what will drive you insane if you try to wrap your head around it. I
spent the week with a squad of infantrymen, about 10 total. They were part
of a larger platoon, but most of my time was with those ten guys. The
average age was about 22 or 23. A couple of the senior sergeants were about
my age, 30. They were great guys- some smarter than others, with a
predilection towards bouts of drunkenness and Russian and Bulgarian whores
(“Dude, the whores in Sofia, they look like fucking supermodels, dude. I
mean, I normally don’t pay for it, but when I saw them, I was like ‘Fuck
yeah’.”) Not exactly blue blooded boys, but good guys from mostly poor
backgrounds trying not to end up like their parents. Misfits and characters
all, but good people. But to see what these guys were capable of, the
hatred and wanton destruction, and the joy, the pure pleasure they took in
it, well, that was hard to watch.

It wasn’t impersonal, it wasn’t like watching a helicopter rocket a house on
TV. It was watching guys I considered, and do consider, friends and
brothers, destroying civilian homes out of anger, or sometimes just boredom.

It’s hard to reconcile, because, really, nice people don’t do things like
that. But then again, the guys were under orders, and they were doing their
job. And boy, did they do it well.

But that’s what will do you in as a human being trying to understand all of
it- the pieces just don’t add up. I guess in a lot of ways that’s what war
is: basically good people doing fundamentally evil things.

I don’t mean to get into trite little sound bites to try to explain all the
insanity, but I guess that’s just another way to deal.

I spoke with some journalists who are really losing their heads over what
happened in Fallujah. I guess I keep saying that, so I’ll sketch loosely
for you what I mean. I don’t want to get into a lot of details because it
will take too long and I don’t want to get bogged down, but I’ll just try
and give you a general idea.

I was with what is called mechanized infantry- that means tanks and
Bradleys, which are a kind of light tank that can carry up to six
infantrymen in the back, in addition to a three man crew.

Our sector was the eastern edge of the city. Basically our job was to go
from house to house, looking for insurgents. If we got shot at, our
commander said the day before operations started, “There is no reason any
soldier should go into a house where fighters are still alive. If you get
shot at from a house, you don’t go into the house. You level it.”

At the beginning, the soldiers weren’t really leveling much. They were
shooting back a lot, but the main goal was to move forward until we reached
a main road that bisects Fallujah into northern and southern halves. We
would come under fire, but we would leave fighters behind without finishing
them, because the main effort was to secure that road, which then became the
main supply route to get additional food, water, and fuel.

That took about two to three days. It’s hard to judge time because we
pretty much moved the whole time, bedding down in civilian houses for a few
hours at a time.

And that is part of it. Before we could go into a house to sleep for a few
hours, we had to “clear” it. In other words, make sure nobody was home, or
hiding and waiting to kill us. Ideally, that would mean breaking in, and
then going from room to room, making sure nobody was there. Sometimes, it
went like that. Other times, the guys trashed furniture, stole small
things- like cameras- put holes in walls. They broke out all the windows
so if they got shot at the glass wouldn’t hurt them. That made sense to me,
but some of these homes really got wrecked. More than that though, when a
platoon of thirty or so guys takes over a house with no electricity or
running water, it can get nasty. The homes we stayed in got wrecked- people
would use the toilet- if there was one- until it filled up. Then they would
designate one room, like a bedroom or the living room, as the latrine and if
would fill up with, say, both solid and liquid waste.

Honestly, if all the soldiers did was open the door without breaking it
down, and everybody used the bathroom once, that would be enough to
infuriate me as a Fallujan home owner. But the guys I was with wrecked the
place on top of it.

That’s really smalltime, though. One night, the company (made of three
platoons) had a free fire exercise. They had been issued a lot of
especially high powered ammunition and rockets for the Fallujah operation,
and they had to use it. If they brought it back to their home base, it
would have screwed up the flow of things, because they were only authorized
to be in possession of the stuff while in Fallujah. So they essentially
lined up the tanks and Bradleys, and said anything south or west of here is
a free fire zone, shoot what you want where you want.

A colleague was in a vehicle where he could monitor the radio traffic. A
tank gunner was looking at the minaret of a mosque. He targeted it, and
then said, no, maybe I shouldn’t do that. He scanned away, looking for
another target, and changed his mind again. He scanned back to re-target
the minaret, but by the time he did, someone else had already blown it away.

Now there were certainly minarets that were used at one time or another by
insurgent gunmen, and there’s nothing wrong with blowing those up. But this
was simple wanton destruction, unjustified. And which US tax dollars are
now going to pay to rebuild. Everything the army wrecked will be fixed with
US tax dollars. To the military morons who designed this campaign, they
figure as long as they pay to rebuild whatever they wrecked, then it will
all be okay.

It’s not like the destruction of Fallujah was caused by a natural phenomenon
and FEMA is going to chopper in relief. The destruction was premeditated
and personal.

According to another colleague, Marines took over and slept in a mosque.
Granted, they had taken fire from the mosque, so there was nothing wrong
with that. But the Marines tracked their bloody boots all over the mosque
prayer area. That is a major insult, since normally shoes are not permitted
inside the mosque at all. That would have been bad enough, but then the
Marines used the mosque as a latrine, defecating in a holy place. Then,
later in the week, the mosque got shelled during a firefight. Arabs are a
people with a long memory, and this is the kind of thing nobody forgets.

Jews still commemorate a holiday, Chanukkah, which marks the retaking of the
Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated by the Greeks. That was more
than two thousand years agon. These mosques in Fallujah aren’t of the same
symbolic level as the Temple was, but the symbolism of the desecration
performed by US soldiers will be the touchstone event for thousands of new
insurgents. You have to keep in mind that we aren’t fighting “former Saddam
loyalists” as Tom Friedman ignorantly wrote in his column on Wednesday. The
people the US is fighting are hard core Islamic fundamentalists, and the
desecration of a mosque on that magnitude will only swell their ranks.

Fallujah, when Ileft, had one minaret left standing. Before the battle,
there were at least six. There are holes in at least one mosque dome.

I read a quote from the Pentagon where they said they have only found 28
foreign fighters. On my last day in the field, I photographed four wounded
insurgents, one of whom was from Fallujah. The other three were from Sudan,
Jordan, and Palestine. Of the dead insurgents I saw, none of them looked
Iraqi. Other journalists had similar experiences.

Iraq has become our Afghanistan. There is a link between the two, but it’s
not the one the Bush administration has tried to make. When the Soviets
invaded Afghanistan, they created the modern incarnation of the
international jihadi movement. Like in the times of the original Moslem
hordes that rampaged west from Mecca and Medina all the way to Morocoo, and
then north into southern France, the invasion of Afghanistan gave rebirth to
the idea of Islam before nationality. Moslems flocked to the jihad banner
to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan, and the United States helped train and
equip them in one of the numerous proxy wars of the Cold War era.

Afghanistan gave birth to a movement, a network, and an ideology. After
Afghanistan, jihadis traveled to join brother Moslems to fight in Bosnia,
Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, and Yemen, just to name a few. The ideology is
simple- hardcore Islam, and Moslem brothers fight side by side for the glory
of Allah against all comers. If you can kill infidels who are trying to
hurt Moslems in any perceived way in the process, then that’s a bonus. What
this did was create a core of experienced, battle-hardened fighters.

After the first Gulf War, when US troops were based in Saudi Arabia, Osama
bin Laden tried to use the propaganda of the infidel occupying the holy land
of Islam as a tool to recruit a new generation of jihadis. It didn’t really
work for him. Sure, some guys were still going to Bosnia or Chechnya, but
it was an unfocused and decentralized movement at that point.

September 11 was a milestone, it was the beginning and an end. It was the
last real gasp of the Afghanistan generation. The 19 guys had so many
Saudis because it was where Bin Laden’s message of anti-Americanism rang the
truest. But nobody was really going to Saudi Arabia to fight that fight.
September 11 was Bin Laden’s way of showing potential recruits that they can
strike with impunity, and it was a call for others to do the same, and he
would bank roll it. Then the US invasion of Afghanistan happened, and Al
Qaeda decentralized. Still there were people answering Bin Laden’s call,
but it was unfocused cells in disparate countries.

Then the US invaded Iraq, and failed to secure the borders. As the fight
continued, and innocent Iraqis were getting killed, all of a sudden the idea
of an actual unprovoked US invasion of a Moslem country started to have some
resonance. Then the fledgling insurgency had some successes, and fighters
began to flock to Iraq.

Now it is becoming a right of passage for young fundamentalist Moslem men,
who are being schooled in systems that are becoming ever more conservative.
Another colleague, and Iraqi journalist, recently spent a week with
insurgent fighters in Baghdad. He says they make the Wahabbis (the Saudi
form of fundamentalist Islam) look positively permissive.

There is no greater street cred available than the bragging rights of having
gone to Iraq to fight and kill Americans. That was what Afghanistan was for
the Soviets, and that is what Iraq is for the US. Except Iraq is much
closer, and most jihadis can get there from the neighboring countries where
they live. Interestingly, there is a second pipeline of insurgent fighters-
they are Arabs who have moved to Europe, and are returning to fight against
the west via, you guessed it, Bosnia.

The borders are wide open, and illegal migration into Iraq is permitted by
neighboring countries. They figure two things are likely as long as jihadis
flock to Iraq: 1) the jihadis won’t try to create fundamentalist
governments in Jordan, Saudi, Iran, Syria, or the Gulf states if they are
busy fighting in Iraq, and 2) oil prices will remain high because of
instabliity in the region.

For all the other Arab states, at least in the short term, Iraq is a

Fallujah, while a smashing military victory, just poured gasoline onto the
fire. As families come back to destroyed homes and desecrated mosques, they
will send their sons to the insurgency. Window dressing of payments and
reconstruction money will not heal the hurt pride and shame of what US
forces have done.

On another free fire mission, one Bradley gunner told me, “I was basically
looking for any clean walls, you know, without any holes in ’em. And then
we were putting holes in ’em.”

Allawi said a couple of days ago that only 200 homes sustained damage in the
Fallujah fighting. I watched at least that number get pummeled by artillery
for hours, and that was just one afternoon. I would venture to say that
there may be, possible, 200 homes that were NOT damaged.

I think we will look back on Fallujah as the point when everything got
totally out of control. And that’s the other fool’s game- a conventional
army cannot win a guerilla war. Ever.

Fallujah proved that the US military hasn’t learned much since Vietnam. The
last time the US military behave this way, they were torching villages for
harboring Viet Cong. Yes Fallujah was a significant and overwhelming
military victory. But as a recruiting tool, it is even better news for the
insurgents. They have more money than they know what to do with, and there
is no shortage of weapons in the region. The leadership staged a tactical
retreat weeks before the fighting started. They are in communication with
each other, and they are following standard guerilla procedure- never meet
the enemy head on, only fight battles you can win, and choose the
battleground, don’t ever let the enemy with superior forces choose where you

The US effort in Fallujah will create thousands of new fighters. This is a
hurt that no one will forget. Small boys will go to sleep for years
dreaming of revenge on the Americans until they are old enough to go out and

The Americans won in Fallujah, and they sealed their defeat all at the same

The other main effect of Fallujah is that it has further polarized the
Sunni- Shiite split. Sunnis across the board are in an uproar about what
happened in Fallujah. Shiites are split, but most are taking some pleasure
in the beat down Fallujah took, with sentiments running along the lines of
they got what they deserved. The attack on Fallujah only underlines what
Sunnis have feared to be true- that the patronage they received under the
British through Saddam’s time is about to end, and they are going to be
ruled by a Shiite majority that doesn’t seem to have a problem with them
getting killed.

If you don’t think that is going to add to tensions around election time,
boy, have you got another thing coming.

So that’s the general consensus of the press corps after Fallujah. From
what we saw individually, and then hearing what other people experienced,
there isn’t much hope that anything positive can come out of what happened.
Yes, it was a Catch-22. You couldn’t really have elections with Fallujah
under insurgent control, but then you might not be able to have elections
anyway. The press corps is starting a pool to guess what day the government
postpones elections. Members of the press are also talking about shifting
their operations to the Green Zone, and not putting reporters on the street
anymore. That would kind of be like covering city hall based on the mayor’s
spokesman. A number of news organizations are also setting up plans for
evacuating personnel from the country, and have reserved office space in
Amman in case they need to cover the story from there.

As far as dealing with it personally, I just have to take a zen attitude
towards the whole thing. There is a zen saying that is something along the
lines of, “You can’t hate the wolf for killing because it is its nature to

I basically figure you can’t freak out about war not making sense, because
by definition, by its very nature, it is insane. You have to accept the
insane nature of war, but you don’t have approve of it. But war is crazy,
and warriors are animals, and it is their nature to kill, steal, and
destroy. You can’t hate them for that, they are fulfilling their nature.
It is awful, frightening, and sorrowful. It is the lowest level of human
interaction. War debases all of us, its evil and darkness taint each and
every one of us. Those who wage it may be the most affected, but the evil
finds its way to all of us. The evil of Fallujah is now part of who we are,
as a nation, as a people, as a society, as individuals. You yourself may
not support the war, but to millions, if you are an American, you are a
symbol of that evil. We have to reckon with it.

I have had enough destruction. I have had enough pain. I have had enough
death. I have had enough mourning. I will not stop photographing it
though. I know I won’t change the world with my images. But I don’t want
to be responsible when sometime down the line people say, “We didn’t know
what was really going on there.” I want to be able to say you were being
told, you just didn’t listen. And not just by me- by all of us risking our
lives to tell the story of that place. There is evil there. We cannot
fight it alone. But the evil that was once the province of terrorists and
insurgents is now becoming the province of the US military, too.

I would have to check my history, but it seems to me a guerilla war is lost
by a conventional power at a tipping point. That is the point where the
local populace starts to blame the conventional power for their misery more
than the guerillas in their midst. It’s too soon to tell, but Fallujah is
looking like a pretty good candidate for that tipping point.

America has sown sees of hatred in Fallujah that will grow and mature for a
generation. We will reap what we have sown.

America may have just become its own worst enemy.

The good news is, I’m going to see my wife and family in a few hours (4).
I’m physically unscathed. And I’m going to be home for Thanksgiving.

Have a happy Thanksgiving all, wherever the holiday finds you.

I’ll try and write more soon.



End of Forwarded Message

by teru kuwayama at 2004-11-22 12:05:54 UTC (ed. Mar 12 2008 ) | Bookmark | | Report spam→

This is an incredibly eloquent and perceptive statement. It is gripping. It may be that your photos wont change the world, but then again they may eventually convince the American public of the folly of our govt´s policy (as photos convinced Americans of the folly of Vietnam), especially if more and more journalists bring home the truth. I just finished listening to the Time Magazine head in Baghdad (Aussie guy, name slips mymind just now) give his analysis over NPR, completely in agreement with Stef here. The evidence is so overwhelming that, I hope, it will evetually be able to pierce the ideological blinders that people have on and build up the public pressure to stop the war. Gotta keep the pressure on.

It is incredible to me how American foreign policy consistently screws up in the same way, war after war. People of course make comparisons with Vietnam, but Mogadishu also echoes in my mind. Funny enough, I live now in a country that we invaded twice (Santo Domingo, 1916 to 1926 and in 1965), and we made the same mistakes then too. Moreover, the consequences of our involvement, which are ignored because once we leave a place the news media and our short term historical consciousness move on to the next new thing, can be seen in all sorts of ways there and they are not generally good. We tend to build alot of stuff (infrastructure) but leave the more sticky political, economic and cultural issues unattended. these places continue to be troubled long after our invasions, but no one bothers to follow up. Just look at Haiti. We restored Aristide to power, made a big show of it in fact, and then once the media´s attention turned to other matters, we basically pulled out the rug from under him, he was helpless to push his reforms, and then we deposed him in what appears to be another CIA abetted coup (with armaments smuggled right through Santo Domingo en route to Haiti). In the case of Fallujah, we have sown great evil and we are going to reap the whirlwind.

by Jon Anderson | 24 Nov 2004 11:11 | | Report spam→
Well written indeed. Wish there was more of this getting through to the mainstream press. Thanks to Stefan for hanging in there, living, writing and posting it! [btw, why isn’t he on LS?]

by Adam Cohen | 26 Nov 2004 17:11 | | Report spam→
Yeah, I wondered the same thing. Get him on LS.

by Jon Anderson | 26 Nov 2004 18:11 | | Report spam→
Indeed educational on my part. I forwarded his letter to like-minded friends.

by J. P. Pacquing | 26 Nov 2004 23:11 (ed. Mar 27 2005) | | Report spam→
This is the type of information that won’t make it on
the news channles in the USA. The shame of it all is that we are living
in an amazing time. It is a time when information can be passed around the world in an instant, and yet we recieve little in the way of content.
I don’t blame the photographers or wordsmiths. I blame the editors, the suits
but mostly the advertisers.
We have the tech, but the networks and the papers don’t have the balls.
sorry for the ramble.

by [unverified member] | 13 Dec 2004 20:12 | | Report spam→
Hey JoZa, No apologies….that wasn’t a ramble, just the truth. Couldn’t agree more. Hang in there.

by Adam Cohen | 19 Dec 2004 11:12 | | Report spam→
Vis a vis JoZa´s pertinent argument, I would direct all your attention to the following address given by Bill Moyers re: the problems of getting meaningful content across to people. Here is the address: http://www.commondreams.org/views03/1112-10.htm. Moyers basically blames 3 factors:

“despite plenty of lip service on every ritual occasion to freedom of the press radio and TV, three powerful forces are undermining that very freedom, damming the streams of significant public interest news that irrigate and nourish the flowering of self-determination. The first of these is the centuries-old reluctance of governments  even elected governments  to operate in the sunshine of disclosure and criticism. The second is more subtle and more recent. Its the tendency of media giants, operating on big-business principles, to exalt commercial values at the expense of democratic value. That is, to run what Edward R. Murrow forty-five years ago called broadcastings money-making machine at full throttle. In so doing they are squeezing out the journalism that tries to get as close as possible to the verifiable truth; they are isolating serious coverage of public affairs into ever-dwindling news holes or far from prime- time; and they are gobbling up small and independent publications competing for the attention of the American people.”

And he goes into detail on the subject. Then there is another element:

“Which brings me to the third powerful force  beyond governmental secrecy and megamedia conglomerates  that is shaping what Americans see, read, and hear. I am talking now about that quasi-official partisan press ideologically linked to an authoritarian administration that in turn is the ally and agent of the most powerful interests in the world. This convergence dominates the marketplace of political ideas today in a phenomenon unique in our history. You need not harbor the notion of a vast, right wing conspiracy to think this more collusion more than pure coincidence. Conspiracy is unnecessary when ideology hungers for power and its many adherents swarm of their own accord to the same pot of honey. Stretching from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to the faux news of Rupert Murdochs empire to the nattering nabobs of know-nothing radio to a legion of think tanks paid for and bought by conglomerates  the religious, partisan and corporate right have raised a mighty megaphone for sectarian, economic, and political forces that aim to transform the egalitarian and democratic ideals embodied in our founding documents. Authoritarianism.”

I think there are other factors involved, but he lays out a pretty powerful argument,a nd it makes good reading for all of us involved in “the media”. I think more and more about this these days, particularly as the kind of stories I like to do find no room anymore in the media. I remember reading Salgado remarking on the new possibilities for journalism afforded by the internet, etc, but I cant help but feel that these ghettoes of truth telling pale in comparison with the great wrap around media of American TV and magazines. Since I have been back to the States and watching a bit of TV for the first time in a few years, I am impressed by the remarkable seamlessness of the programming—no matter what you watch, the values expressed are almost all the same. You have to make much more of an effort to get different points of view, though they still exist, thank heaven.

by Jon Anderson | 19 Dec 2004 15:12 | | Report spam→

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teru kuwayama, I/O teru kuwayama
New York , United States
Jon Anderson, Photographer & Writer Jon Anderson
Photographer & Writer
Ocala Florida , United States
Adam Cohen, Film/Picture Maker Adam Cohen
Film/Picture Maker
(Adam Cohen filmmaker)
Berlin , Germany
J. P. Pacquing, J. P. Pacquing
New York City , United States
JoZa, Commercial Photographer JoZa
Commercial Photographer
Chicago , United States


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