After a Siege

American forces in Iraq laid siege to Fallujah twice in 2004. When the smoke cleared at the end of that year the city on the Euphrates lay in ruins. Months of shelling, airstrikes, and house-to-house fighting damaged or destroyed tens of thousands of buildings—including countless homes, shops, schools, and mosques. Most of the approximately 300,000 inhabitants fled their homes, remaining displaced long after the sieges ended, but others were not so lucky. There is no precise body count of Iraqis who perished during the attack, but the figure is likely somewhere over 1,000. The city never recovered from the assault, falling prey to ISIS in 2014, and then another brutal Iraqi-government led siege in 2016.

The Sacking of Fallujah, published in April 2019, is an unusual history of these three sieges. The book is the product of years of work by six contributors inside and outside of Iraq. Personal essays and collected testimony of people marked by the destruction of the city are interposed between the chapters of a chronological narrative. In one affecting essay, Ross Caputi, one of the book’s credited authors, describes his participation in the second siege as a Marine and his gradual disillusionment with the war in Iraq. After leaving the military Caputi became involved in anti-war work and eventually co-founded the Islah Reparations Project, which provides resources to Iraqis and Palestinians in need.

With the fifteen-year anniversary of the 2004 sieges of Fallujah in mind, I reached out to Caputi to request an interview. We discussed The Sacking of Fallujah, his shift in perspective on American foreign policy, and his views on reparations and international solidarity.

Michael Youhana: Can you talk about the timeline of events encompassed in your book? 

Ross Caputi: The Sacking of Fallujah offers a little bit of background information on the city’s early 20th century anti-colonial struggles against Britain. The impact of the 1991 Gulf War and UN Security Council sanctions on Fallujah’s residents is also discussed. But the core of the book starts out in 2003, during the invasion of Iraq. The book describes the two American-led sieges of the city in 2004. It also discusses the more recent operation against ISIS in Fallujah in 2016 and the really difficult position residents of Fallujah find themselves in today. 

MY: Can you briefly describe how the two American-led sieges of Fallujah in 2004 unfolded? 

RC: In March of 2003, coalition forces invading Iraq saw no real strategic importance in Fallujah at all. They just blew right by it on the highway on their way to Baghdad. Coalition troops finally entered Fallujah that April, and, very quickly thereafter, conflicts arose between civilians living in the city and the occupying forces. Violence escalated from there. The first siege was an impulsive, month-long operation initiated in April 2004. The operation was launched in retaliation to the killing of four Blackwater mercenaries who were attacked as they were driving through Fallujah. The American military contractors’ bodies were burned and mutilated and hung from the bridge as war trophies, and the attack became a huge media spectacle that really enraged a lot of people. So within four days, and against the better judgment of a lot of American military leaders, the US launched a very poorly planned operation to sweep through Fallujah and try to kill all of its insurgent forces. 

Within a week, the coalition faced a wave of backlash due to high civilian casualties caused by the operation. Additionally, Al Jazeera had been able to place a broadcast crew in Fallujah and they caught a lot of the violence of the siege on camera. The broadcasts from inside the city helped to swing political opinion against the US-led operation, and forced the coalition to withdraw from Fallujah. 

The second siege began with a weeklong air campaign and artillery bombardment on the city. Five coalition battalions lined up on the northern edge of the city, and then for about a month, went house to house sweeping from north to south. At this point, all the civilians had basically been forced to leave, either due to bombardment or intimidation. So about 300,000 civilians were living either in refugee camps, or with family in the area. Except for military aged males. Military aged males were not allowed to leave the city. They had to stay in and either fight if they chose to do so, or hide and hope to survive. This was one of the most destructive operations of the entire occupation. I think an entire third of the city was completely destroyed, just leveled to the ground. Another third had major structural damage and the last third just had minor damage. It was hugely destructive and the city has never really fully rebuilt or recovered.

MY: I’m wondering if you can talk about the communication and media strategy of the American military during these two sieges. 

RC: The lesson that the coalition took from its failed operation in the spring of 2004 was not that they should avoid launching hastily planned combat operations in densely populated residential areas. Rather, they felt that they had lost the information war to the insurgents. So the coalition launched what they called “shaping operations” to prepare for a second assault on Fallujah in November of 2004.

To this end, the coalition worked to characterize the insurgents in Fallujah as primarily foreign, religious extremists, rather than as Iraqi nationalists. The coalition also worked to control the production of images and stories coming out of Fallujah during the second siege. Whereas, during the first siege of Fallujah, they were only able to embed one journalist within military coalition forces, this time, they embedded 91 journalists and they forbade independent media entering Fallujah during the second siege.

MY: In what ways was the relationship between the media and the military different during these sieges, than during past conflicts, such as the Vietnam War?

RC: Probably the place to start explaining this is the first Gulf War in 1991, because this was right at the dawn of the information age. Suddenly, all these new information technologies were being integrated with military technology and new doctrines and military structures were being built around all of these technological changes. At the time, military strategists got really excited by the idea of soft power, which they called a “force multiplier.”

By the time the second Gulf War started, the US military viewed the news media as a platform that they could use to disseminate propaganda and influence the way the US military actions are portrayed to domestic audiences. They saw such public relations work as an important part of their battle plans. You have to appreciate how drastically different this is from a war like Vietnam, where basically, the media was regarded as a nuisance on the battlefield that was going to create trouble for the US military.

In the third Iraqi-government led siege of Fallujah in 2016, the strategic use of media remained an important part of the battle plans of forces trying to clear ISIS out of the city. But combatants laying siege to cities have new tools at their disposal. Whereas embedded journalists played a major role in disseminating the coalition’s media narrative in 2004, in 2016 social media became the front of the information war. The Hashd al-Sha’bi militias that were aligned with the Iraqi government and the Iraqi army during the war against ISIS all had their own Twitter accounts. They were all in this very choreographed manner disseminating positive images of liberated cities and saving families from ISIS and all this stuff. They very conveniently omitted a lot of the really brutal things that they were doing in the course of these operations.

MY: You are a co-founder of the Islah Reparations Project. What does that organization do?

RS: I often think of Islah as a marriage of solidarity work and aid work. The founders of the organization felt that to frame aid to Iraq as charity is really inappropriate. That frame elides the context of the occupation of Iraq. The provision of aid is a moral responsibility that follows from the recognition that we are citizens of the society that destroyed Iraq, destroyed it as a cultural and political entity, and created the need for the aid that we’re trying to bring. 

MY: I’m wondering how you became involved with this reparative work. And, specifically, what set you along your journey from Marine deployed in Iraq to vocal participant in the anti-war movement?

RS: Yeah, sure. I was a Marine during the second siege. That’s my whole connection to this topic. I didn’t get involved in anti-war work right away. I thought there was something wrong with what we were doing in Fallujah as we were doing it, but I couldn’t articulate that well at the time. I didn’t understand it well enough that I felt confident to come out as an opponent.

I had doubts about our mission pretty much right away, as soon as we got to Iraq. We were doing counter-insurgency training before it was getting marketed as counter-insurgency. The Marine Corps was calling it Security and Stability Operations. To do that kind of training, we were going out to these mock urban villages. They would just sort of close down project housing, and we would practice doing urban operations there. We’d either have Marines dress up in traditional Arab dress and play Iraqis, or we would actually hire actors and have them play Iraqis. We always had either people playing good Iraqis or bad Iraqis, and you could tell the difference because the good Iraqis liked you and the bad Iraqis wanted to kill you. And it was really that simple, in the way that it was presented to us during these training exercises. As soon as I got to Iraq, without even speaking to an Iraqi, just seeing the way that they looked at us, it was clear that there was an entire spectrum of attitudes and feelings towards us as occupiers in their country. And that made me very uncomfortable right at the very beginning.

Then there were certain incidents during my deployment, leading up to the siege of Fallujah. A few incidents where civilians got hurt, a few incidents where I felt that we were arresting people sort of on a whim. Things that really gave me pause about what we were doing, and made me think that maybe we’re not actually helping people. Maybe these so-called terrorists who are trying to kill us, maybe they might have reason for wanting to fight against us.

So it took couple of years, it was a slow process of learning. I don’t think I spoke for the first time publicly until 2010. But I eventually got involved in anti-war work. I just sort of, more naturally, gravitated towards solidarity work, as opposed to some of the organizing that was going on at the time that, to me, seemed very focused on domestic politics. Rather than petitioning policymakers and raising awareness in the US, I was looking for a way to connect with Fallujans.

MY: Did you happen to read any books that impelled you along your trajectory towards solidarity work?

RC: Through the second siege of Fallujah I continued to sort of wonder what I didn’t know or what the other side of the story was. And I guess the first thing I read, once I got back, which started to piece all these feelings together for me, was John Lee Anderson’s biography of Che Guevara. This might sound silly, but the book was the first thing that made me understand the word “imperialism.” Reading that, I think I began to understand our mission as an imperial mission, as part of an American imperial project, which had a long history, even outside of the Middle East. The second book I read was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and then just continued from there. It took a few years of reading to sort of feel a certain amount of conviction in my beliefs and to feel confident enough to speak up publicly about what was happening.


Ross Caputi, a former Marine, is the cofounder of the Islah Reparations Project. His work has been profiled by Newsweek, Vice, and Al Jazeera among other outlets.

Michael Youhana works for a nonprofit and occasionally writes about foreign policy. Views on Fellow Travelers are his own.

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