< Last Days in Iraq

Transcript

Friday, August 01, 2008

On a baking hot morning in late June, a freelance photographer named Zoriah Miller was embedded with the Marine Corps in the Iraqi city of Gharma, in Anbar Province. That day, a suicide bombing at a city council meeting in Gharma killed several Iraqi civilians, three U.S. Marines and two interpreters. The next day, the picture that accompanied The New York Times story about the Gharma bombing was solemn and still, a lone body covered by a white sheet.

On Zoriah Miller’s website, the pictures of that day told a different story, a gruesome story of death, dismemberment and pools of congealed blood. It was a story about what a suicide bombing actually looks like.

Miller published the photos on his website, photos that included those of high-ranking U.S. Marines, and was quickly disembedded for his trouble. Now he’s back in the United States and joins us. Zoriah, welcome to the show.
ZORIAH MILLER:
Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:
Briefly, tell me what happened that day.
ZORIAH MILLER:
On the morning of the 26th, I was assigned to a security patrol down the street from a city council meeting that was being attended by local officials, the mayor, sheiks and some high-ranking U.S. Marine officials. The bomb attack, which targeted the city council meeting and killed and injured the vast majority of people who were attending it, was something that we responded to immediately.

Upon arrival, it was a scene of carnage. Several of the Marines were vomiting from the scene. The Iraqis were in a state of hysteria. They had dead and injured and body parts all over the place. And it was one of the situations in which I had to remind myself that I needed to focus and do my job and that it was not a time to be emotional or shocked, that it was a time to do my work.
BOB GARFIELD:
And in the space of five minutes before you were physically removed by the Marine unit, you captured horrifying images of the aftermath of a bomb explosion. What happened to those pictures?
ZORIAH MILLER:
Later that day, the Marines tried to take my memory cards to delete the photos. I notified them that they were not within the rules to do such a thing and that I would not allow it. They didn't push it any further.

The following day, we were notified that families of the deceased had been notified and we were, at that point, officially allowed to make reports and publish images.

I spent an additional three days making sure that the images that I was going to post were not identifiable. Even though the rules actually state that you are allowed to post identifiable photos once the family has been notified, out of respect I wanted to make sure that the images I chose were not identifiable.
BOB GARFIELD:
So you put the photos up on your site in a post to your blog. What happened then?
ZORIAH MILLER:
Within several hours of posting the images, I received a call from the Marine High Command, nearby in Camp Fallujah, telling me that I needed to remove my blog completely from online. And I told them, you know, this is not something that I'd consider doing.

When I refused to take the post down within several minutes I was told that I was being taken off my embed and that they were arranging a special convoy to bring me back to the main Marine base, Camp Fallujah, and put me on the first flight back to the Green Zone.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, you were not merely disembedded from the unit. You were actually put under guard at Camp Fallujah. What were those circumstances?
ZORIAH MILLER:
After they arranged a convoy to remove me from the small base that I was in outside of Gharma, I was taken to Camp Fallujah, where I was told that I would be on the first flight back to the Green Zone.

That night came and went. I was taken off the flight and told that the commanding general of the Marines wanted to have a word with me the next day and that they were keeping me there to speak to him.

By this point, they had assigned armed escorts to accompany me to meals and whenever I left my sleeping quarters because apparently they feared that there were people angry enough there that they could possibly do me harm. The next day, I spent two hours waiting for General Kelly, who was the general that wanted to have a word with me. He never showed up.

The second night that I was held there, I protested the situation. I said, “It’s wrong of you to keep me here. You’re not only keeping me from getting back to Baghdad and doing my job but you’re keeping me in a situation where you’re afraid enough for my safety that you’re putting me with armed escorts.”

And at that point I was told that my options were to stay on the base or they would be happy to drive me to the wire and let me walk outside the wire, which is the equivalent of saying, we'd be happy to let you walk out and be killed by the Iraqis.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, according The New York Times piece about your story, the Marines claimed that you violated the rules that, quote, “No information can be published without approval, including material about any tactics, techniques and procedures witnessed during operations” that, quote, “provides information on the effectiveness of enemy techniques.”

Did the Marines make the argument that you were somehow compromising security by publishing photos of dead American servicemen?
ZORIAH MILLER:
I believe they used, officially, a clause that’s very broad. I mean, pretty much picture you could possibly take in Iraq could potentially provide the enemy with information on an attack. And since this incident I've gotten dozens of emails from military public affairs officers from all around the world, and people who know a lot about these rules and how they were made, stating that this clause was never intended to be used this way, and its original intention was to prevent photographers from taking images of vehicles that had been disabled by IEDs and roadside bombs which would give the enemy information on the placement of their bombs.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, a lot of the commentary on your blog praises you for showing the real truth of the war to the public, and it suggests that if Americans understood the carnage that goes on in Iraq daily, that the President would have long since been forced to withdraw troops and so on.

But, Zoriah, all war produces carnage and dead solders and grisly images. World War II, which virtually nobody believes that the Allies shouldn't have fought, was filled with grisly images. This makes me think about court rules, evidence that might cause a jury an emotional reaction that overwhelms cool deliberation. The courts call that prejudicial and make it inadmissible.

Do your photos, in effect, prejudice the public about the war?
ZORIAH MILLER:
Absolutely not. They're an honest account of what happened, especially on this day. I think when I arrived on the scene, I realized that even with my experience as a war photographer and, you know, someone who pays attention to the news reports and hears daily about the suicide bombings that happen all over Iraq, that I really had no way of understanding what that meant and how to visualize it.

And I think it’s important for people to realize what these things look like. It’s my job to document things the way I see them as a photojournalist and present them in a real and true way, which I did in this situation.
BOB GARFIELD:
Now, newspapers, for reasons of their own, not only out of respect to victims but out of respect for their own readers, who don't necessarily wish to be assaulted by ghastly images on the front page of a newspaper or on a television broadcast, often show great discretion in what images they'll use.

But those who wish to see your images were not assaulted by them unless they went looking for them. Isn't that right?
ZORIAH MILLER:
Absolutely. I decided to not post these images on the front page of my blog. You have to read a disclaimer that you will be viewing graphic images of both American and Iraqi deaths. And if you choose to do this, you click a button, it takes you to a separate page, which once again gives you a disclaimer that what you’re about to witness is very graphic, and if you choose to, you can view that material.

So people have been given the choice. It’s, you know, the military which has been trying to take that choice away from people.
BOB GARFIELD:
If you wished to go back, to be re-embedded in Iraq, is that an option open to you?
ZORIAH MILLER:
What ended up happening was my case went up the military chain of command about as high as it could go. The Marines were pushing to have me barred permanently for lifetime from ever covering any U.S. military operations ever again.

After about three days in the Green Zone, after being disembedded, I was invited to a dinner at the U.S. Embassy with General Petraeus’ personal public affairs officer. He told me that the Marines had made several claims but they had been unable to back them up with proof.

At that point, I was notified that I would be allowed to keep my credentials. The unfortunate thing about that is that because of the way the embed system is set up, the decision as to whether a photographer will actually end up on an embed is given to the units in the field.

At this point, I've heard that the Marines have contacted pretty much every branch of the military and, at this point, the chances of ever being approved for another embed, I would imagine, are extremely small.
BOB GARFIELD:
We're five-and-a-half years into this war, almost, and in some ways we keep reporting the same story about suppressing information. Now that this episode has been duly reported, what do you think, if anything, has been accomplished?
ZORIAH MILLER:
I think at the very least it’s brought it into the public’s eye that the military has an incredible control over the information that comes out of Iraq. I was shocked when The New York Times stated that they were able to come up with five images during the entire war of dead U.S. soldiers in a war in which 4,000 people have died, and of those, I took two of them.

So it’s pretty bizarre to think that you took one-third of all of the images and you did that documentation in a period of about five minutes. I mean, it’s just insane.
BOB GARFIELD:
Zoriah, thank you very much.
ZORIAH MILLER:
Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
BOB GARFIELD:
Zoriah Miller is a freelance photojournalist. His work can be found at www.zoriah – that’s Z-O-R-I-A-H - .net. We asked the Marine Corps for its side of Zoriah Miller’s story. The Marines declined to speak with us or provide a statement.