On Reparative Oral History: An Interview with Ross Caputi

Ross Caputi, a PhD student in Modern U.S. and Italian history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is the co-author of The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History (UMass Press 2019) and the director of the People’s History of Fallujah Digital Archive. His research on U.S. military operations in Iraq originates from his military experience in Iraq: Caputi is a veteran of the Marine Corps. “Regrettably, I participated in the second siege of Fallujah in November, 2004 as a U.S. Marine,” says Caputi in an interview with Past@Present. “I didn’t understand that we were hurting innocent people at the time. But ever since I did come to understand that, I’ve felt a sense of responsibility to speak out against what we did there and to pay reparations, in whatever limited capacity I’m capable of, to the people of Fallujah. That sense of responsibility has only deepened the more I’ve come to understand the historical significance of the sieges of Fallujah. The attacks came at a pivotal moment in the occupation, and I think the sieges of Fallujah occupy an important place in our collective memory of the occupation. So, rather than opposing the war in a more general way, I’ve decided to focus on Fallujah.”

After leaving the Marine Corps, Caputi became active in the antiwar movement and formed a group called the Justice for Fallujah Project, which hosted public speaking events to raise awareness about the human costs of the operations in Fallujah, among other important initiatives. Later he joined a nonprofit organization called the Islah Reparations Project and organized a series of grassroots reparations projects with the Fallujah General Hospital.

Portrait of Ross, taken in Fitchburg, MA in 2018

Caputi is now pursuing a PhD in History, and a Graduate Certificate in Public History at UMass Amherst, concentrating on oral and digital history. He hopes that by using different media, he can bring historical perspective to new audiences. Besides coauthoring a book on Fallujah, he has written op-eds and made a documentary film, Fear Not the Path of Truth. He is currently working on a digital archive project, the “People’s History of Fallujah.” Caputi hopes that the digital archive can become a source for educators to teach students about the U.S. wars. “Through all of this work, my greatest frustration has been trying to reach new audiences,” says Caputi. “It’s been easy enough to speak with people who are predisposed to my antiwar message, but, of course, people who already agree with me are not my target audience. And it’s been a struggle to find ways to speak with people who are either supportive of or ambivalent towards the Global War on Terror.”

You’ve conducted interviews with Iraqis for your book and the digital archive project. They include five oral history interviews with refugees from Fallujah. Why did you decide to interview people from Fallujah for your project about the siege of this Iraqi city?

One thing that became clear to me the more I researched the sieges of Fallujah was that U.S. information operations were an integral part of the violence. U.S. forces went to great lengths to control the production of information about their operations in Fallujah, particularly during the second siege. This made it very challenging to write a history of these operations, because the vast majority of primary source materials were produced by this propaganda apparatus. And Iraqi voices were intentionally omitted. So, as a methodological choice, we thought that writing a people’s history and trying to recover as many Iraqi voices as possible was the most ethical way to go about telling this story.

My coauthors and I did a number of journalistic interviews with Fallujans while we were working on the book. It didn’t occur to me to try to do a more systematic oral history project until after we had already submitted our manuscript to UMass Press. And then the opportunity presented itself to begin working on this project in the winter of 2018, when the war against the Islamic State was pushing a new wave of Iraqi refugees into Europe. I met up with five men from Fallujah, who were gracious enough to tell me their stories, while they were living in Helsinki. 

How did you address the emotional challenges of interviewing individuals who experienced traumatic war events and witnessed extreme violence during the siege? What were the challenges of conducting these interviews in Arabic?

I didn’t think there was a lot I could do as an interviewer to make the sharing of traumas easier for my narrators. I expected all along that doing so would be uncomfortable for them, and sharing their stories with the public would make them vulnerable. So for me the question wasn’t “How can I make this easier for them?,” but why should they want to do this in the first place?. In other words, what stake do my narrators have in my project? And this question was led to a number of other considerations about how to relate storytelling to reparations.

Telling war stories in an ethical way is very difficult. I’m very aware that Americans are very interested in war stories and will readily consume the most sensational of war stories, if they are made available to them. In my own experience, I find that many people are more interested in hearing about my own personal experience with violence and reintegration into society than they are in hearing about my research, and I can only speculate as to why that is. At the same time, I think there is something exploitive in the way many journalists collect war stories and sell them to their publishers; and the same thing could be said about many scholars who earn their paychecks by gathering other people’s stories and recounting them. So, I began this project trying to be mindful of this double-edged sword: the fact that the stories I collect will be funneled into news feeds that invite passive consumption, and that in this transaction of stories, I’m just a middle-man. I wanted to collect stories from Fallujans, who were often being spoken for by commentators and self-proclaimed Middle East experts in the American news media. But I didn’t want to put their traumas on display, to be mindlessly consumed on social media and yield nothing more than a few likes while I earn a paycheck.

Ross in Fallujah, 2004

I have to thank Kali Rubaii, who cofounded the Islah Reparations Project with me, for helping me think through the ethics of telling war stories in this way. Kali not only came up with our model of grassroots reparations, but she applied that model to her ethnographic work as an anthropologist, calling it “reparative ethnography.” I tried to conceive of my oral history project in a similar fashion, making storytelling a means to an end (reparations), rather than having storytelling be an end in itself.

At the time, I thought that it was necessary to acknowledge that my society was still responsible for the ongoing violence in Iraq, and my primary responsibility to those men was to try to end that violence. Many of my narrators had bad experiences with journalists in the past, who took their stories to make a profit, never to be heard from again. So I began the pre-interview process by acknowledging this and explaining that I intended for these interviews to be part of a broader reparations project. Then we had a conversation about the potential risks of sharing their stories, and many of the men faced serious risks, for their families and for themselves, if they were ever forced to go back to Iraq.

Through these conversations, it never occurred to any of us that something could be done make the exchange of these stories easier, emotionally. The question on my mind was how to make it worth it to them, and the question on their mind was whether or not they could trust me. One man wanted legal assistance with his status as an asylum seeker. Another wanted help finding lost relatives in Iraq. The others just appreciated my acknowledgement that Americans owed reparations and chose to participate for that reason alone.

As far as the translation goes, it required a lot of patience from everyone involved for each sentence to be translated into both English and Arabic. It stretched what should have been a one-hour interview into three hours. But also, it became clear to me that there were a lot of differences in our uses of vocabulary to describe the war that weren’t an issue of translation. For example, the Western news media often described the period from 2005 – 2006 as Iraq’s “civil war,” but Iraqis didn’t experience it as a civil war at all. They called it the “militia war” because the violence was driven by U.S.-backed death squads. It was a striking moment to realize that, as critical as I was of the war, my understanding of it was still very much shaped by outsiders’ perspectives.

Many works have been published in English on the coalition forces attacks on Fallujah. In what ways is your book’s narrative different from other works about the siege of Fallujah and its humanitarian consequences?

The vast majority of the works published on Fallujah are military histories, written by American veterans of these operations or professional military writers. As such, the actions of American soldiers are usually the focus of these books, and the experiences of Iraqis are completely omitted or relegated to the background. What our book offers is a narrative that foregrounds the Iraqi experience. But I think we also have some original things to say about the role of information warfare and the emergence of ISIS in Fallujah.

There are a lot of clichés that get thrown around about the weaponization of information in war. But I don’t think many people appreciate how different the use of propaganda was in Fallujah. We go so far as to argue that in Fallujah propaganda truly was a constitutive element of the violence. And it created an enduring mythology, most notably in case of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. It’s likely that anything you think you know about Zarqawi can be credited to the propaganda campaigns leading up to the second siege of Fallujah.

And much of the media discourse about the Islamic State focused on their fanatical religious ideology as a motivator for everything they did. But we tell a different story grounded in the history of social movements in Iraq that explains how ISIS went from being a very unpopular organization in places like Fallujah to a state-like entity encompassing large parts of Iraq and Syria. We argue that it had little to do with religion and everything to do with the Iraqi government’s oppression (with American assistance) of Sunnis.

You mentioned that some of the interviews you have conducted for your book are journalistic in nature. Tell us about these interviews. How does your journalism background influence and help your research as a historian?

I call these interviews journalistic because they were more topically focused. We sought out certain individuals to gather their insights about specific topics, instead of trying to see their experiences from a historical perspective, as I would in an oral history interview. We interviewed Dr. Muhammad al-Darraji, a former member of the Fallujah City Council and an author of many human rights reports; Dr. Samira Alani, the Head Pediatrician at Fallujah Hospital’s Women and Children’s Ward; and Naji Haraj, a former Iraqi diplomat and the Executive Director of the Geneva International Centre for Justice.

I never truly worked as a journalist in Iraq. But following the work of independent journalists in Iraq is what made me appreciate the scope of U.S. information operations in Iraq, and how those operations extended the violence beyond the traditional battlefield. In many instances, U.S. forces regarded independent journalists as enemies. For these reasons, I think historians, to understand the journalism written about the occupation, need to take it in the context of an information war.

Ross interviewing Naji Haraj in his office in Geneva in 2018. Naji, who is from Fallujah, is the Executive Director of the Geneva International Centre for Justice.

Since 2003, the United States has maintained its military presence in Iraq. President Trump says that he wants to bring back the U.S. troops from Iraq and other countries in the Muslim world, like Afghanistan. This position has met with strong opposition from both Democrats and Republicans. As a public historian and journalist who has written about the U.S. military and the American role in the Middle East, how do you see this bipartisan insistence to keep the U.S. forces in Iraq? 

It’s implicit in these debates that there is an inter-imperial competition between the U.S. and Iran for influence in Iraq. There is a bipartisan consensus that withdrawing from Iraq will strengthen Iran’s position there, which is absolutely true. But I think we need to understand that, first of all, this is only possible because our experiment with regime change in Iraq created a weak, corrupt, and unstable country, and continued interference in Iraq’s political and economic life most likely will not help it become capable of managing its relationships with its neighbors.

Second, our misadventure in Iraq was not a mistake, as it is often remembered; it was a war crime. The insistence of Democrats and Republicans that we need to maintain a troop presence in Iraq is an echo of the imperial hubris of the Bush administration. A continued troop presence in Iraq would do nothing to bolster our national security, since neither Iraq nor Iran are a threat to us. But it would strengthen our position as an imperial force in the region, and that’s what this is about.

I think we need to recognize that it was this kind of thinking that led us to invade and destroy Iraq, and we need to break from this delusion of American Exceptionalism. The only thing that the U.S. owes to Iraq is reparations. Apart from that, we need to get out. 

What can your research on the U.S. military operations in Iraq teach policymakers in Washington about the U.S. policy in the Middle East and its involvement in the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria?

I hope the book instills a healthy amount of self-doubt in every policy maker and military leader. It’s still hard for me to wrap my head around how it’s possible that I didn’t know I was participating in a war crime while it was happening. And through the sieges of Fallujah, all three of them, we see that kind of self-delusion again and again. It’s shocking how wrong we were about who we thought we were fighting against in Fallujah and why. And I’m willing to bet Fallujah is not an isolated incident. I hope it makes others wonder if we’ve made similar mistakes in other countries where we thought we knew what we were doing and decided to wage war.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: