THE OSCAR NOMINEES for best documentary should've included Control Room, which is being played on the Sundance Channel this month and is available on DVD (Artisan, $26.98). The intimate, insider's portrait of the Al-Jazeera satellite news operation, filmed during 2003 as this country was first invading Iraq, made an unlikely, even reluctant star of then-Lt. Josh Rushing, a Marine attached to the Pentagon's Centcom facility in Qatar (where Al-Jazeera also is based). Though he thought the Control Room crew was only producing a student film amid all the swirling media, Rushing ended up as one of the larger and more sympathetic figures in the documentary. (Asked about media bias on the right, he says, "Fox plays to American nationalism . . . because that's their audience.")
Dispatches from the Quagmire
So much has happened yet so little has changed since March 20, 2003. Nearly two years into the Iraq War, it's hard not to see parallels to Vietnam: a drumbeat of casualties, traumatized soldiers coming home, competing claims of success and failure. "Nothing is black-and-white here anymore," says one soldier. Was it ever? Here's a collection of war-weary perceptions brought home to Seattle by media and the soldiers themselves.
• Life and Death and Gunner Palace by Tim Appelo
• Weapons of Mass Improvisation by Rick Anderson
• Reality Show: Getting War on Film by Brian Miller
• Control Room's Iraq Flack is Back by Brian Miller
• Safe at Home, Soldiers Ill at Ease by Nina Shapiro
•Alternative War News by Geov Parrish
WASHINGTON'S TOLL: A complete accounting of 93 people with links to this state, killed since 2001 in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. MORE
SPECIAL EVENT: Veterans reflect on the Iraq War, March 16 at Town Hall in Seattle. INFO
Back home in the States, however, promoted to captain after his Iraq war tour, Rushing found himself at the center of controversy following the film's 2004 Sundance premiere—particularly after a quote he gave to Seattle Weekly's sister publication, The Village Voice: "In America, war isn't hell—we don't see blood, we don't see suffering. All we see is patriotism, and we support the troops. It's almost like war has some brand marketing here." His superiors ordered him not to comment further, so he retired after 14 years in the Marine Corps, which he joined at 18. Today, Rushing's doing speaking engagements, pitching a book, and preparing to teach a class at USC. We recently sat down with him in Seattle.
Seattle Weekly: Now that you're back in the U.S. as a news consumer, what are your foreign news sources about the war?
Josh Rushing: One of the ones I often recommend is English Al-Jazeera.net. Al-Jazeera.com has nothing to do with Al-Jazeera [TV]. Someone just got the name before they did. I think that's one of the leading reasons that there are so many misperceptions about what Al-Jazeera reports on. They're launching Al-Jazeera International later this year; it's going to be a worldwide, English-speaking, 24-hour news network.
Do you have one preferred American news source?
I flip back and forth. I'm a subscriber to The New York Times; I think it's the paper of record, I really do. Conservative people will tell you it's a liberal rag, but I think it's pretty thoughtful. Guys like Thomas Friedman, I think he's got a great perspective. I'm really depending on magazines and the Internet: The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, The Economist . . . bloggers.
That's something you did as part of your Centcom job—monitor bloggers and Web sites, right?
Misinformation on the Internet can take on a life of its own. That was an interesting job. I wasn't there to mind them. I was just there to join in the discussion. I think that's one reason I've gotten such a positive response in the film. I don't necessarily have to be wrong for you to be right. It was almost like part of my job was customer service [with media and bloggers].
And you also got to handle Al-Jazeera, even though you were a fairly junior officer?
The fact that it was me on Al-Jazeera, it tells you how little we recognized what I believe is possibly the most important front in the War on Terror, which is engaging the Arab perspective. Outside of the mosque, Al-Jazeera is probably the largest shaper of Arab opinion in the world. No matter how many nations you invade, you're not going to stop 19 guys with ideology, like what happened on 9/11. There's no better place to do it than on Al-Jazeera. But Al-Jazeera is no more monolithic than the Pentagon is.
You mean both reformers and conservatives —so is our own military as right-leaning as we've been led to believe?
I think the military is a much better cross section of our society than people give it credit. I think there are plenty of people in the military who are well educated, who come from different backgrounds, who are liberal, and who are there to do the right thing. . . . [But] you get more military service [personnel] from the Midwest and the South, and right now those two regions are leaning more toward conservatism.
So when you look at the red-state/ blue-state electoral map . . . ?
It's like the recruiting map, I think. They go hand in hand.
Your experience at Centcom didn't make you feel like a lone, isolated, blue-state voice?
No. One of the guys sitting next to me was named Mark Kitchens. He was in Clinton's White House as a deputy press secretary, and he was also a reservist in the Navy.
You're meeting all these college kids, the Jon Stewart demographic, on your speaking tour. Does the same thing exist in the military?
I think so. I served with these enlisted guys who had degrees from all over. [Though] that's a little different from the infantry ranks.
How would you like to see the U.S. media improve their coverage of the war?
What I'd like to see in the American press is to pull back the microscope off of Iraq and show how Iraq fits into that larger picture and a lot more reporting about the Arab mosaic, rather than about a single country. [Over] there, I couldn't even have a conversation about what we were doing in Iraq without it being Israel-Palestine, Israel-Palestine. In that way, it's all interconnected over there; and they all see it like that.
You got in trouble for saying, in essence, that it was appropriate for Al-Jazeera to show the bloody stuff, and that our own news channels are guilty of sanitizing and simplifying the war and its causes.
Absolutely. I think they shy away from some of the more complicated issues. It's tough to put in a two-minute story.
Are you sorry now about talking candidly to the Voice?
I don't regret that at all.
Josh Rushing will appear with other veterans at a community forum about the Iraq war at 7 p.m. Wed., March 16, at Town Hall in Seattle.