A Marine’s Arab Spring
I have an article in the current edition of Reader’s Digest, but in case you don’t subscribe or you’re not in a doctor’s office, here it is…
In Helmand, Afghanistan, August 2009 (Snorre Wik)
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I sat in a conference room at a resort in Desert Hot Springs, California, with dozens of other Marines as a tall one-star general in a crisp uniform, Brig. Gen. Andrew B. Davis, presented a well-worn lecture on digital media. It was the annual conference for Marine Corps public affairs officers. Davis was the head. I was a junior officer.
In the corner of the room, a muted television broadcast live images of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon on fire. America was under attack — a Pearl Harbor moment for every Marine there — and we looked on in disbelief. Irked by our divided attention, Davis ordered the television turned off and pressed on with his hour-long presentation. (Davis denies this.)
Davis’s seeming blindness to the life-changing magnitude of 9/11 inspired a rare act of rebellion: I walked out and relocated to the empty hotel bar, where I watched the consequences of the attacks unfold until I was called back to my base. (Davis’s own office at the Pentagon was destroyed that day in the aftermath of the crash of American Airlines Flight 77, which slammed into the building, killing 184 soldiers, sailors, and civilians.)
A native Texan and lifelong Marine, I was the only person in the world to be simultaneously inside the U.S. military and Al Jazeera
I had been a Marine for 11 years — my entire adult life — and on that day, especially, I felt fortunate to be one. I knew a military response would soon follow. I decided that if my unit were not called upon to be part of it, I would volunteer and politic my way to the tip of the spear.
But the incongruity of that morning — a yawn-inducing seminar backlit by searing images of mind-boggling destruction — would come to characterize a critical phase of my military career and the beginning of its end.
In January 2003, I deployed to the front lines of the media war at Central Command Forward headquarters — aka CentCom — in Doha, Qatar, hundreds of miles south of the line of troops massing on the southern border of Iraq. From there, I gave daily interviews to the world’s media justifying our pending invasion of Iraq — the weapons of mass destruction supposedly harbored by Saddam, his ties to Al Qaeda. Underpinning the military buildup lay a little-discussed but ambitious goal: The Bush administration hoped to ignite the flames of democracy in the heart of the Middle East and fan them across the region. I recognized that to do this, we would need to reach Arab audiences through their own media, and that meant working with the controversial pan-Arab news channel, Al Jazeera. I argued that CentCom should grant Al Jazeera access to top military officials.
This was not a popular idea. Then–Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld had labeled the channel the mouthpiece of Al Qaeda and accused the network of airing beheadings. So instead of Gen. Tommy Franks, the network got me. I regularly appeared before its reporters, who peppered me with difficult questions. I had a unique vantage point: A native Texan and lifelong Marine, I was the only person in the world to be simultaneously inside the U.S. military and Al Jazeera and — because I worked closely with White House officials — the Bush administration. I came to a hard conclusion: American animosity toward Al Jazeera was not only ill founded but also counter to our strategic interest in the region.
In 2004, in the spring of Abu Ghraib, a documentary about Al Jazeera, Control Room, debuted in American theaters. I was surprised to learn I had been featured prominently and described by reviewers as a Marine sympathetic to Al Jazeera. Not surprisingly, the Pentagon was unhappy with my role in the film and still held tight to its view that in many respects, Al Jazeera was the enemy.
The Pentagon turned down dozens of requests for interviews with me — from Fox News to NPR — and I was ordered to keep silent about the movie and my views on Al Jazeera. That edict felt like a betrayal of the very civic values — standing up for what one believes is right, true, and honest — that had led me into the Marine Corps in the first place. To do nothing would advance my career aspirations in the military but hardly serve America’s best interests. In the fall of 2004, after 14 years in the Corps, I resigned my commission. Six months later, I signed on to help launch Al Jazeera English.
I knew it was risky, but the Corps taught me to do the right thing for the right reason — damn the consequences. As soon as I hired on with Al Jazeera, I was blistered by hate mail and death threats from people who had never seen a minute of the Arabic news channel. Once, to promote my appearance on Hannity & Colmes, Fox News ran a picture of me in uniform. Beneath it the word traitor was punctuated with a question mark. Five years later, that image is still one of the first pictures that pop up in a Google image search of my name — despite the fact that my reporting has taken me to Iraq and Afghanistan ten times, often embedded with soldiers and Marines at the invitation of their commanders.
Since the channel’s shaky beginnings, Al Jazeera and the United States have become strange bedfellows: Both promote democracy bolstered by a free and open media. As revolts from Tunisia to Bahrain press into the palaces of kings and tyrants, the network can count top U.S. officials among its newest converts. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “Al Jazeera has been the leader in … literally changing people’s minds and attitudes.” Perhaps the most surprising compliment came from former presidential nominee and Republican senator John McCain, who vowed that he was “very proud of the role that Al Jazeera has played” in spreading democracy around the world.
Incongruous? Perhaps, but no more so than the notion that an Arab TV network, once considered an enemy of the United States, is now one of the greatest proponents of freedom in the region. Ten years ago, who’d have thought?
In Kirkuk, Iraq, February 2010 (Jeremy Young)