Former deep-sea diver and guerilla-doc filmmaker Mark Manning spent the last 18 months grappling with a lethal wrinkle on the age-old riddle: If a tree falls in the forest and nobody is there to see it, did it really happen? For Manning, the fallen tree in question is the Iraqi city of Falluja, toppled in November 2004 by American troops who forced the exodus of some 250,000 residents and killed unknown numbers more. Viewed by U.S. military strategists as the base camp for the most extreme, bloodthirsty, and virulent of Iraqi insurgents, Falluja—bombed to ruins, occupied, and subsequently repopulated under checkpoint Charley restrictions—had to be subdued if Iraq’s fragile democracy were to stand a chance. Disgusted by the failure of the American media to tell the true story of Falluja—beyond the Pentagon’s proscribed narrative—and dismayed by the acquiescence of the American public in the face of such controlled news, Manning smuggled himself into Falluja in late 2004 armed with a camera. Taking the term “guerilla filmmaker” to a new level, Manning spent three months disguised in Iraqi garb, surreptitiously filming the aftermath of Falluja’s fall. He gathered hours of footage of leveled buildings and cratered urban wreckage, while interviewing dozens of Fallujans.
Still at work on a full-length documentary and hoping to raise much-needed funds, Manning recently unveiled the 20-minute documentary teaser Caught in the Crossfire, a passionate but quietly stated tour through a city already forgotten by most American media. Last week, the film made its official debut at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Independent reporter Nick Welsh spoke with Manning about his fixation with Falluja, and the following is an edited transcript of their talk.
Why Falluja? We set a precedent in Falluja—we took out an entire city. It was the first time we did that in Iraq. It was a test case to see what the United States could actually get away with. My fear was that if we got away with sacking Falluja—if it didn’t get any press, if American citizens did not rise up and cry out—we’d replicate it. And in the last year we have been. American troops go in and force a mass exodus; they wipe out the infrastructure and provide no aid to the civilians. It’s happening now in Al-Chaim, in Rawa, and other small villages of western Iraq.
Watching Caught in the Crossfire, I found myself wondering if this is just what happens in war, or is this specific to our war against Iraq? The main thing that’s specific is the complete blackout of media—we’ve mastered that now. That’s one thing. We’re using only embedded journalists, so there’s [no coverage] of what’s actually going on in Iraq on the ground. The other thing, which everybody knows, is that Iraq did not attack us. We call it preemptive, but we invaded a country that did not attack us. … We’re liberating a country that never asked us to come there, attacking another country that never attacked us, and then blacking out the media and calling it something else.
What has the United States gotten away with? The destruction of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives. We’re saying we’re there to liberate the people, to provide freedom and democracy to the Iraqi people, but we’re destroying cities. There were 65,000 people living in Al-Chaim and we wiped out the village.
What do we know about the number of civilians killed in Falluja? When we first invaded Iraq, our stated policy was that we do not count Iraqi deaths. The message that sends to the world is we don’t care about Iraqi citizens. There is no accurate count of how many civilians were killed there. But I do know the Pentagon said that up to 20 percent of the population was still inside the city during the siege. I’ve walked those streets and I can tell you their survival possibilities were extremely limited.
What kinds of weapons were used during the siege and what do we know now that we didn’t know a year ago? The only thing we really know now is that white phosphorous was used as a weapon. At the time, the military said they were just using it in illumination rounds, to light up night operations. The Pentagon now admits we fired white phosphorous in “shake-and-bake” rounds, designed to kill anyone in the near vicinity by burning them to death. There’s still no accurate information on whether we used chemical-agent weapons or whether we used depleted uranium.
What’s the evidence to suggest that we did? I saw a lot of corpses with no trauma wounds. I saw dead dogs, dead cows, dead birds, and dead people with no gunshot wounds and no trauma wounds. They were dead and there was no obvious reason why.
That suggests nerve gas or some kind of chemical? I don’t know. I’m not an expert on that. But the people there think they were the victims of chemical weapons by the United States military.
What does Falluja mean to the people in Iraq? When we talk about freedom and democracy, Iraqi people now call it a joke. When their electricity is out, they say, “Oh, that’s freedom and democracy.” When the sewers are backed up, “There’s our freedom and democracy.” In recent polls, 85 percent of Iraqis want us to leave; 65 percent of them support suicide bombings against Americans—and that includes the Shia and the Kurds. We have a chance to remedy that, but we’re going to have to do some work.
How? First, by admitting we made a mistake. Then you do the work of making right. But the American people are still completely ignorant of what we did to Falluja. You can’t imagine it—there are folk songs over there being written about Falluja. The most common name given to an Iraqi girl born now is Falluja. It’s a battle cry, like “Remember the Alamo!” Falluja is a symbol now of right versus wrong. Unfortunately now, in a large percentage of the world’s eyes, we’re in the wrong. We need to really look at how we’re accomplishing what we’re accomplishing. The ignorance is going to kill all of our souls.
I understand you shot Caught in the Crossfire clandestinely, so interviewing troops wouldn’t work. Did you get a chance to talk with them, and if so, what did they say? Did you see the recent article on the “Marlboro man,” the sniper photographed in Falluja, who looked so cool with a cigarette in his mouth? He said that now [his tour of duty has ended] he can’t help thinking that when he was looking down his riflescope and killing people he was just killing people who were protecting their homes.
What about people who say, “Hey, this is what war looks like. It’s too bad, but we’re bringing down a repressive regime and, unfortunately, this is the price Iraq has to pay to be free.” Some people do feel that way. But they’re predominantly people who have never experienced war, who don’t have relatives or friends getting killed. It’s a luxury statement based in ignorance. It’s just a little glib to say, “This is what it takes.” And you know what? There are peaceful ways to bring about change. Only those people who haven’t been in war go for the violent means first. Yeah, this is what war looks like. But what does peace look like? That, to me, is a much better question.