In The Sacking of Fallujah, recently released by the University of Massachusetts Press, Authors Ross Caputi, Richard Hil, and Donna Mulhearn argue that the Iraqi city of Fallujah has become a locus of geopolitical conflict. In the course of its war on Iraq, the U.S. military, with aid from the coalition forces, sieged the city two times, and contrary to the myth of liberation, it left the city, as well as the whole country, in a catastrophic condition. The book argues that during the invasion, the U.S. military’s strategy shifted to transform Fallujah into a “Battlespace” that stretched the boundaries of a battlefield to include cyber warfare and information operations specifically designed to crush the city’s popular resistance. 

In this interview, we talk to Ross Caputi, the principal author of the book and a former Marine who participated in the second siege of Fallujah to explain the timing of the book, the military significance of the city and how it became a primary site of contemporary warfare. 

Public Seminar: What is the significance of this book now, and who is it written for?

Ross Caputi: There are several books written on the operations in Fallujah by current and former U.S. military personnel, but almost all of them focus on the tactics and heroics of American units in Fallujah and ignore or obscure Iraqi perspectives. This book is the first of its kind, in that it is the first English-language historical account of the sieges of Fallujah that places Iraqi experiences at its center. It’s also the first book to cover all three sieges; the two in 2004 and the most recent one in 2016 to take back the city from ISIS. I think this last point is important because it’s crucial to see how the sieges of 2004 not only set the conditions under which ISIS could exist and flourish but also how they were used as a model for the third siege.

Of course, we want this book to reach everyone. But the choice to write a people’s history was intended to best reach journalists, activists, NGO workers, academics, students, politicians, veterans, and active duty military. The book is information-dense, and intentionally so, because we wanted to reach people who can either put this information to use or to the ones who might be beholden to the propagandistic narrative that U.S. forces liberated Fallujah.

PS: You’re an ex-marine who took part in the siege of Fallujah back in 2004, and then famously took a stance against it, acknowledging that you were an aggressor and that if you were an Iraqi, you would’ve done the same thing and resisted the occupation. Sixteen years later, do you think that justice took its course there, or is it still far off? What are the efforts currently being undertaken on the U.S. national level to address the atrocities that happened there?

RC: I’m not sure that justice is possible. We broke Fallujah in irreversible ways. We leveled the city to the ground (twice), irradiated it with uranium weapons, and destroyed an entire way of life. In the book, we argue that these operations amount to urbicide, ecocide, and sociocide. So I’m not even sure what justice would look like for such an enormous crime. Maybe “accountability” is a more realistic goal, but, so far, there’s been none. And the crazy thing is that these crimes are very well documented. There’s just no easy way to hold the United States government accountable to law or morality.

There’s an attorney named Inder Comar who has made courageous and path-breaking efforts trying to bring war crimes charges against the Bush administration in a state court since an international tribunal is practically impossible. There are a small handful of human rights organizations in Fallujah and in the Iraqi diaspora that regularly submits reports on human rights violations to the U.N. Human Rights Council and nothing ever comes of their work. I work for a nonprofit called the Islah Reparations Project that focuses on what we call “grassroots reparations.” There are likely other groups who are also working towards some form of justice for Iraq that I’m forgetting to mention, but this is a Sisyphean task. The group that I work for is having a hard enough time sending medical equipment to hospitals in Fallujah as a form of reparations. So justice and accountability are still very far off goals.

PS: The book places the recent events in Fallujah as a direct consequence of the 2003 U.S-led invasion, and moreover, blames it for what followed as a consequence, resulting problems, such as the emergence of ISIS, sectarian violence, government repression and the overall economic instability on the U.S.-led invasion. How do you see this legacy playing out today in Fallujah, and do you see an end in sight?

RC: Today Fallujans live in fear from the presence of the government-aligned al-Hashad al-Shaabi militias in their city. These are militias that have been accused of numerous war crimes and acts of terrorism by human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and they were our allies during the war against ISIS. This is just one example of how our policies in Iraq fuel insurgency. We created a deeply sectarian government in Iraq, which has persecuted Sunni Iraqis for over a decade. It’s unreasonable to believe that Sunnis will just accept a subordinate position as second class citizens in Iraq. I think the question is by what means will the current order be overthrown and how long will it take for this to happen.

PS: The book highlights U.S. operations in Fallujah not only in its use of propaganda but also siege warfare. You argue that the U.S. strategic military focus shifted over time from “jungles and mountains to city sacking,” and consequently, cities now are the “principal site of contemporary warfare.” Can you tell us more about this? Moreover, and do you think that the U.S. military shifted its strategy again after its failure to control the population?

RC: I think that the use of siege warfare over the last twenty years did not receive enough attention. It’s usually just spoken of as urban warfare, but that conflates tactics such as room clearing, urban patrol, and others with the cordoning off (and assault on) entire cities. We’ve seen it in Raqqa, Mosul, Ramadi, Gaza, Fallujah, and elsewhere. Sometimes these city sackings are spoken of in the language of counterinsurgency as “clear and hold” operations, but I’d argue that the operations in Fallujah were an abandonment of counterinsurgency principles.

This return to siege warfare is relatively new. We’ve seen modern examples of city sackings before, in Leningrad and Sarajevo, but not with this frequency. And I see this as being part of a broader shift in strategy from wars to control the populations rather than to control a specific terrain. Scholars like Hannah Arendt, Michel Foucault, and Giorgio Agamben have all observed this shift and have analyzed it in different ways. It wasn’t enough for U.S. forces to capture Baghdad to win the war. They needed to coerce Iraqis to consent to the new political system that was being imposed on them. And when the Iraqis didn’t comply and faced the occupation with popular resistance, the distinctions between civilian and insurgent and between the battlefield and civilian areas were necessarily blurred.

This is why information operations, which you can think of as militarized propaganda for our purposes here, took on new importance during the GWOT. Conquering the hearts and minds of Iraqis and Afghans became as important a military objective as destroying the enemy, and the easiest way to do that was through propaganda.

PS: The introduction highlights Fallujah’s symbolism; its cultural and historical significance in resisting occupation and colonial rule. For the U.S. military, this was threatening enough. In the book, a strategy of the U.S.-led invasion was to transform Fallujah from “a battlefield into a battlespace.” Can you unpack the difference between the two and was this strategy successful?

RC: In my opinion, one of the most dangerous concepts that came out of the military literature on information operations was the notion of a “battlespace” that stretches beyond the battlefield into cyberspace and the information realm. That’s why journalists, doctors, and human rights activists were so often treated as combatants in Fallujah because they produced information – in this battlespace — that challenged the American mission. That’s also why so much of the mythology that was built around Fallujah has lived on in our collective memory.

After U.S. forces were forced to retreat out of Fallujah during the first siege, they launched a campaign of information warfare to “shape” the battlespace for the second siege. This included spreading misinformation about the nature of the insurgency (characterizing them as al-Qaeda terrorists), embedding 91 journalists within American units, and forbidding independent journalists from entering Fallujah. What resulted was a highly censored narrative told from the frontline perspective of embedded journalists, placing the experience of American soldiers in the foreground and moving the Iraqi experience to the background, if not absent altogether.

This propagandistic narrative has become something akin to a mythology that has not only lived on with us in popular culture — in films like American SniperWar Dogs, and Vice — but it also shaped the media’s narrative about ISIS. Nobody asked why Fallujah was the first Iraqi city that ISIS had a significant presence in, presumably because it seemed consistent with the mythology of Fallujah as al-Qaeda‘s former stronghold. Nobody noticed that this new insurgency against the Iraqi government emerged out of a nonviolent protest movement (the Iraqi Spring) and that local insurgent groups were in command, at first, with ISIS taking orders from them. Instead of explaining how the sectarianism of the new Iraqi government provoked this conflict, everything was explained in terms of ISIS’s extremist ideology.

So, in a sense, the information operations in Fallujah were very successful — they spread misinformation that lent a battlefield advantage to U.S. forces, they legitimized an operation in the eyes of the American public that should be regarded as a war crime, and they created a durable mythology that frames U.S. forces as heroes and liberators.

PS: You wrote back in 2011 that “History has defined the U.S veteran as a hero, and in doing so it has automatically defined anyone who fights against him as the bad guy. It has reversed the roles of aggressor and defender, moralized the immoral, and shaped our societies’ present understanding of war.” Do you see this now as part of the same information warfare affecting Americans’ understanding of what is happening in Fallujah? Do you think, fifteen years later, that our society’s perception of the U.S army and of war has changed since then?

RC: President Trump recently pardoned Michael Behenna, a former American soldier who murdered an Iraqi. The motives behind this gesture are pretty clear to me. There are a lot of Americans who will see this as an act of loyalty and patriotism; to rescue a soldier who had been sacrificed to appease liberal sensibilities about war conduct, because, in the eyes of many, our soldiers can do no wrong. But this mode of thinking is not new, and I don’t think it’s related to the propaganda concerning Fallujah. If anything, it’s more associated with the political backlash to the Vietnam War, in which conservatives sought to reframe opposition to the war as an attack on soldiers and veterans.

The use of propaganda in Fallujah was very innovative at the time. The most significant difference here is the way that propaganda was such an integral part of the planning and conduct of the operation, rather than just being an ancillary P.R. effort. However, it certainly did capitalize on the reverence that Americans feel for veterans. To this day, I often speak with people who appreciate my critique of the operations in Fallujah but still think that they need to preface their opposition by thanking me for my service. And they’re a minority. Most Americans immediately assume that because I’m a veteran, I must also be a hero.

This is a personal opinion, but I feel like imperialism is the last bipartisan prejudice in American society. There is still clearly so much work to be done on racism, misogyny, classism, and attitudes towards LGBTQ people, but at least we’re having public conversations about these issues. We’re still a profoundly militaristic society, and our veterans enjoy a very esteemed place in it—esteemed, and often used and abused, but also venerated like sacrificial lambs, or perhaps like Giorgio Agamben’s “homo sacer.” These attitudes make opposition to our foreign policy exceptionally challenging.

Ross Caputi is a PhD student in Modern U.S. and Italian history, with special interests in the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and the social and cultural history of southern Italy. A former US Marine who participated in the second siege of Fallujah, Ross was compelled by the destruction and suffering he helped cause to become an anti-war activist, speaker, and writer. He is the main author of The Sacking of Fallujah: A People’s History and he is a co-founder of the Islah Reparations Project, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing grassroots reparations to communities affected by war, occupation, and displacement.