Dispatches from the Void

Three journalists watch the gears of history work in real time

Suicide bombing in baghdad
Baghdad, September 12, 2004: Injured civilians are carried from Haifa Street during attacks by U.S. helicopters. / Photograph by Ghaith Abdul-Ahad

Just outside Mosul, Iraq, across the river from the last Kurdish peshmerga checkpoint, sits the Sunni Arab village of Hassan Shami, a collection of walled homes nestled among small hills and dry, white-gravel gullies. Nearby is the River Zab. A few months before I visited, American forces raided a resistance cell that had been based there.

I went to the local mosque to interview Sunni Arabs about the then-upcoming constitutional referendum and national elections. But for the men I met there, democracy remained abstract. During the first post-Saddam elections, in January 2004, no ballots arrived and no one explained why. Now, almost a year after that initial vote, the eldest of the men, Faisal Faati Ali, said the village would vote against the new constitution “because there is nothing in it for us.” Ali and the others went on to explain that there had been no public investment in this town of 2,000 since the war started. “We have received nothing in two years,” Ali said. “We do not have enough water. Our only power is from generators and we need a new school and staff for the health clinic.” A younger man named Mafud Mohamad added: “Our primary school can’t even hold all the children inside.”

Kurdish refugees from the surrounding villages told me that Sunni guerillas operate checkpoints on all the back roads. “They kill Kurds who are with any of the political parties,” explained a woman who recently left a mixed village for the safety of an all-Kurdish town further west along the road from Mosul to Arbil. A refugee from Kirkuk on his way to Turkey told me that armed Kurds took his brother’s home and shop. Forty-five minutes back up the road, in the safe Kurdish capital of Arbil, a successful local businessman, Shiek Zana, was arrested and revealed to be the head of an Islamic terrorist cell engaged in kidnapping and murder. Even the parts of Iraq that are not wracked by constant car bombs and assassinations are frequently ruled by fear, corruption, and the threat of mayhem.

Pull back from this complex local matrix of war, crime, religion, and ethnicity and the problem takes on even more horrible dimensions. In Mesopotamia we see the gears of history working in real time, and the crisis has unfolded in the form of an almost Shakespearean tragedy. Witness the familiar characters and plot arc: the father, the son, the great power, the villain, the vendetta, the initial victory and hubris, and then the inevitable disintegration. Under US occupation, Iraq has sunk into a quagmire of civil war, theocracy, corruption, and poverty. There is no American exit strategy, yet US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld claims to have “a victory strategy.” Nor is there any realistic plan to rebuild Iraq. This, despite the evident ravages of Iraq’s eight-year war with Iran, its internal civil wars among the Sunni, Shiites, and Kurds, the first war with the American-led coalition, the crippling twelve-year regimen of economic sanctions, and finally the bombing, looting, and chaos of the current war and occupation.

Three titles stand out from a large crop of recent books by prominent journalists, all describing and analyzing the US misadventure in Iraq. Given the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Iraq’s cities, much of the detailed, on-the-ground reporting in these books would be impossible today: Iraq has become a black hole.

George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq may be the least compelling of the three books, but it attempts something important: to marry cogent, personal reporting with a broader theory of the war’s origins. For Packer, the only legitimate motives for the war are moral—to liberate a people from a brutal despotic regime and to aide in the creation of a democracy. “The only justification for the war left standing, in my view, ” Packer writes late in the book, “was the creation of a government that would give Iraqis the better lives they deserved. It would have to be democratic, but it would have to fill in the bare forms of democracy with substance.” Like a number of other intellectuals who supported the war, Packer subscribed to a liberalism that allowed him to overlook the warning signs of disaster and to believe that the Bush administration, though motivated by interests that had nothing to do with the well-being of Iraqis, could inadvertently liberate 26 million people, many of whom were persecuted under Saddam Hussein. In retrospect, this was naive and even irresponsible, and Packer finally learned as much when he went to Iraq and saw first-hand how the occupation was being mismanaged and how ordinary Iraqis were suffering as a result.

It is in the first third of Assassins’ Gate that Packer, a self-described “liberal hawk,” tangles with the ideas that made him support the war. He provides a series of mini-bios of some of the war’s intellectual apologists, men like Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, and most of all the Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya—the author of two important books on Iraq, Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence. Both books made the case against Saddam and catalogued his despotism in gruesome detail. Eventually, as the US invasion draws near, Makiya makes the transformation from lone dissident to counsellor of the war party. He offers Bush’s inner circle wildly optimistic opinions about what will and will not happen in a US-occupied Iraq, claiming that Iraqis will “greet the troops with sweets and flowers.”

Though Packer dislikes the Bush administration’s politics, as well as the more feverish messianic visions erupting from the neo-conservative think tanks in Washington, he is drawn to the power of ideas and the hope that liberal democracy might take root in the Middle East. As part of the US- government-funded network of Iraqi exile groups, Makiya created a detailed blueprint for Iraq’s transformation from dictatorship to democracy. “It’s the architect in me,” Makiya, who was trained as an architect, tells Packer at one point. “Architects are such megalomaniacs.” Paraphrasing Christoper Hitchens on Washington’s neo-conservatives, Packer thinks: “It was also the ex-Trotskyist in him. For somewhere in the cortex of Kanan Makiya—not deeply buried, either—was the name of Leon Trotsky, and alongside it the Trotskyist idea of an intellectual vanguard leading from the front, forcing history to move in the desired direction.”

All of this is very inspiring, or very dangerous, depending on how you feel about utopian ideas backed by force of arms. As the war of ideas is replaced by the real war of fire, blood, gore, and heartbreak, things go terribly wrong in Mesopotamia. When Packer sets out to look around, confronted by mounting evidence of disaster, he bravely begins to change his mind. “Iraq needs to be liberated—liberated from big plans,” says Ghassan Salamé, the political adviser to the late UN Special Representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, who was killed in a suicide bombing in Baghdad in 2003. “Every time people mentioned it in the last few years, it was to connect it to big ideas: the war against wmds, solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, more recently the war against terrorism and a model of democracy….[Mistakes are] made because Iraq is always in someone’s mind the first step to something else.” Ultimately, when all Packer’s justifications and big ideas are rehashed and all the chaos-induced hand-wringing is done, one suspects that Packer was simply seduced by the glory of being right, and by the potently macho hold that war has upon the male imagination. Other people did not need to give war a chance. They did not need to see for themselves to know that war is a miserable thing. Those who opposed the Iraq war before it happened read history and understood the politics of the Bush administration; they correctly concluded that this invasion was based on lies and bound to be bad both for the people of Iraq as well as for the US troops sent to enforce the new order.

Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near bores deeply inside the Iraq disaster to produce an intimate and painful portrait. Based on his reporting for the Washington Post, Shadid’s book is quiet and politically restrained. He tells the story of the slow political, physical, and psychological disintegration of a nation under occupation. The book covers Iraq from before the invasion, when the mood was a mixture of fear and hopeful anticipation, through the war, and into the occupation’s rapid decline.

If there is a core theme in Shadid’s book, it is contradiction. As Shadid portrays it, everyday life in Iraq is fraught with contradictions. Amal, a young Shiite and Baathist, kept a wartime diary that was uncritically “infused with the government’s propaganda…[believed] with the force of a loyalist,” Shadid reports. After Saddam fell, Amal held to her loyalty, but “privately Amal seemed baffled, and she gave voice to her confusion in the diary. A war she had dreaded was over and a revolution she did not understand was just beginning; she tried to reconcile her experience with reality, as churning, unpredictable, and menacing as it was. Just as she questioned her views of the US soldiers, she began to reconsider her beliefs about Saddam.” Amal writes that, “her community used to have trust in President Saddam…but now we don’t know whom we trust.”

These deep cultural and psychological contradictions, produced by decades of despotism and perpetual war, and now the chaos of occupation, are essential components of modern Iraqi culture. While reporting in Iraq over the last three years, I have been repeatedly struck by the prevalence of just this sort of cognitive dissonance among regular people. Iraqis who hated Saddam in August 2003 cried when he was captured four months later. One woman told me she didn’t like Saddam but cried because she identified with him, and identified him with the Iraqi nation. Totalitarian regimes normalize atrocities and compartmentalize thought in ways that seem to make sense to those they oppress. This strange dynamic, so aptly captured by Shadid, is almost completely lost on the many armchair pundits fighting on the West’s intellectual front.

The brutality of the occupation—its mass jailings, constant raids, devastating sieges of cities like Fallujah—drives Iraqis together in opposition to the invader. In Sadr City, the huge Shiite slum in eastern Baghdad, Shadid hears of support for the Sunni resistance fighters in Fallujah, many of whom are anti-Shia fundamentalists or Baathist officers. “They’re no different,” twenty-year-old Alaa Sarraji says to Shadid. “We’re one Iraq.” Then Baathists from Adhamiya march in support of Sadr’s Mahdi Army, which is being cut down in hopeless clashes with the US Army’s 1st Cavalry. But this enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend logic goes only so far. There is no simple and coherent Iraqi nationalism. For every event that drives Iraqis together against the Americans, another causes violent social fragmentation. The Shiites might support the Sunni but then, out of nowhere, the Shiites start to fight among themselves. Or, Sadr’s Mahdi Army and the Badr Brigade of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq suddenly start firing at each other in the streets.

Shadid emerges from this harrowing kaleidoscope with a rhetorical question from an Iraqi: “They came to overthrow Saddam…. Why are they fighting his victims?” Shadid never offers a direct answer to that question. Nonetheless, his intimate focus on Iraqi suffering and humanity is so compelling that Night Draws Near is, in the end, a very powerful argument against illegal wars of choice. Whatever the real interests behind this war are, Shadid makes it clear that they are not altruistic, and that cultural divisions stubbornly persist.

The scope and coherence of Robert Fisk’s colossal tome, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East, are truly awesome. Fifteen years in the making, the book is the result of “more than 350,000 documents and notebooks and files,” and is based on half a lifetime of immense exertion and risk. There are few significant events in recent Middle Eastern history that Fisk has not witnessed first-hand: the Lebanese civil war, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the forensic discovery that helped prove the Armenian genocide in Turkey, the Iran–Iraq war, the civil war in Algeria, the 1991 Gulf War. Fisk interviewed Osama bin Laden no fewer than three times. He saw the fall of the Taliban first-hand, was almost beaten to death by a mob, and finally ended up in occupied Iraq.

Afghanistan, 1980, is where Fisk’s story really begins, and he carries with him into that theatre the memory of a book called Tom Graham, V.C., A Tale of the Afghan War—the volume had been presented by Fisk’s grandmother to Fisk’s father before World War I. Travelling the same route Tom Graham must have taken—through the Khyber Pass and the villages around Jalalabad—Fisk meets the Russians and their foes, the mujahedeen. His account of this poorly covered jihad past is illuminating, and we read it knowing that Americans will end up patrolling these same mountains, using some of the same tactics, two decades later. The Russians of the 1980s come off as frustrated occupiers, but do not seem as brutal as the Reagan-era US press portrayed them. We learn, for example, that Islam in Kabul was a class-conscious religion and that the Afghan communists were also Muslims—or at least quoted the Quran in public speeches.

Meanwhile, the US- and Saudi-supported mujahedeen, who today make up the warlord government of Afghanistan, turn out to be retrograde thugs. By 1980, near Jalalabad, they had “burneddown most of the schools in the surrounding villages on the grounds that they were centres of atheism and communism. They had murdered the school-teachers, and several villagers in Jalalabad told me that children were accidentally killed by the same bullets that ended the lives of their teachers. The mujahedin were thus not universally loved and their habit of ambushing civilian traffic…had not added much glory to their name.”

Fisk has an unparalleled talent for skewering the West for its appalling and vicious hypocrisy. One particularly important settling of scores arrives early on in The Great War for Civilisation. Fisk takes some time to compare his own record on Saddam with that of Donald Rumsfeld. While Fisk was exposing Saddam’s systematic use of torture, rape, and execution, Rumsfeld was helping rehabilitate the dictator. In December 1983, the future secretary of defence, then an emissary of the Reagan Administration, was shaking Saddam’s hand. Not long after, the US was extending credits and providing material for the production of biological weapons. In 1990, Saddam executed a British journalist named Farzad Bazoft; as a little joke he forced a British diplomat to inform the prisoner of his fate.

Fisk wrote damning stories about Saddam again and again, causing the Iraqi embassy in London to complain about his biased journalism. Ironically, when Fisk opposed the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq in 2003, he was accused by pro-war pundits of one-sidedness and wild, unfounded allegations—the very same language Saddam’s regime had used to dismiss Fisk’s hard-hitting reportage in the 1980s.

The crescendo of The Great War for Civilisation occurs with a return to Afghanistan, and Fisk reminding us that more than 3,000 civilians were killed during the coalition bombardments of 2001. As that occupation unfolds, Fisk watches the ominous signs of history repeating itself. America bombs a wedding party by mistake, guerrilla activity picks up, and an Australian special-forces operative tells Fisk: “This is a secret war…. And this is a dirty war. You don’t know what’s happening.” The special-ops man then goes on to lament the quality of the American occupation, saying, “Even their interrogations went wrong.”

The chapters on the Iraq debacle hardly need to be quoted; the disaster moves in fast-forward toward the void. Given the 1,100 or so pages of context that precede, it is numbingly awful to watch with Fisk as Iraq is bombed, looted, burned, and then as it spins out of control. By the elections of 2005, Fisk is exhausted, and his prose collapses into the scolding and moralizing style that is his Achilles heel. But the concluding message is arresting, yet almost subtle enough to miss: one last time, Fisk invokes the memory of his father and his father’s comrades when he compares the growing instability in the Middle East to 2nd Lt Bill Fisk marching through France on Armistice Day in 1918.

In modern-day Baghdad, the carnage takes a different, less organized form, but the state of affairs is truly apocalyptic. The few Western journalists left in Baghdad these days have armed cars to follow them to intervene in case of kidnapping attempts. The violence is so intense that it is impossible for Westerners to walk the streets—regular Iraqis are afraid to have them in their shops or be seen talking with them in public. I do not plan on returning to Iraq, partly because I have found it impossible to do much real reporting in such an atmosphere of corrosive fear. Meanwhile, Iraqis live with all of this and worse every day. Journalists who have left and maintain contact from the outside by phone watch their former colleagues come unhinged as each day brings more suicide bombings and their less well-publicized corollary: US air raids. A low-level civil war is already under way between the Sunni and Shiites. Where is it all headed?

Christian Parenti