Full Disclosure: This book was provided to MO for review by Spence Publishing. In late December. I ask you to keep two things in mind: 1) Although grateful for the opportunity to check this book out, I will tell it like it is and 2) If you’re in a hurry for a review, don’t send books to Murdoc Online.
This won’t be a standard book review, as such, but rather a series of excerpts and my attendant thoughts.
Steven Vincent has written a fine book that delves into many of the issues underlying the conflict in Iraq. The book’s subtitle, “A Journey into the Soul of Iraq”, is both fitting and well-earned. He journeyed to Iraq to see first-hand what was going on. Not as an embedded reporter or a member of some fact-finding expedition. Basically, he went as a private citizen to see for himself.
He’s very clear about his personal feelings about the war. The book is dedicated “To those whose lives were taken on September 11, 2001” and like those little American flag stickers in the back windows of cars, this sort of statement is bound to be taken as a declaration of support for President Bush and his War on Terror. While generally true, the world is, of course, not nearly so simple. And this isn’t a simple book.
Vincent doesn’t study the military tactics or the technological gadgets our soldiers use. He doesn’t spend much time discussing the justification of the invasion based on WMD talk or UN Resolutions. He doesn’t seem to have much of an opinion (in this book, at any rate) about the contributions (or lack thereof) by other nations to this cause.
What Vincent does bring us is a picture of the Iraqi environment that’s far clearer than we are ever likely to see on the evening news (or in the blogosphere, for that matter). While not totally free of political bias, this book is a window into what’s really going on in Iraq, why what we’re doing is far, far more difficult than nearly anyone will admit, why it’s far, far more likely to succeed than nearly anyone dares to dream, and especially why it’s so vitally important that it be done. It is what they call a “must-read”.
I’m not sure that I can stress this strongly enough. If you want to know, or rather, to understand why what’s happening on a daily basis in Iraq is happening, you must read this book. If you are a pro-invasion Red State Bible-banging warmonger, you must read this book. If you are a militantly anti-war Bush-bashing peace-loving hippie freak, you must read this book. Anyone that wants to have a meaningful opinion on the conflict in the Middle East must read this book. Anyone that cares about current events in our world today and is interested in what the future may look like must read this book.
Americans being what they are, I doubt many will, in fact, read this book. And the discussion of this war and the prosecution of our strategy, the decisions behind the reconstruction and the installation of democratic systems in Iraq, and the level of true understanding of what’s happening around us will all suffer greatly for it.
Here’s a September, 2003 encounter Vincent had with an Iraqi computer specialist returning to his homeland after the invasion with his family. The man’s vehicle had broken down at Ramadi, and they hitched a ride with Vincent to Baghdad. They were returning specifically to take part in the reconstruction of the country. Vincent noted that, as far as he could tell, more Iraqis were flowing into Iraq than fleeing the devastation and violence of the war.
Mohammad was a staunch supporter of America and the liberation of Iraq. Those peace activists who took to the streets were fools,” he remarked, referring to the world-wide protests that took place before the invasion. If they saw for five minutes what went on this country under Saddam, they would not have tried to stop the war?
As if to prove his point, he leaned forward from the back seat and pointed out my window. “We’re on the outskirts of Fallujah,” he noted. “See the greenery around us?” It was true: although I hadn’t noticed before, I now saw on both sides of the highway bluish-green palm groves, hedges, shrubs and dark green grasslands. “This area should be desert, like everything else we’ve seen. But Saddam diverted irrigation waters from the Euphrates River in order to turn it into a new Garden of Eden for his supporters. But at the same time, he turned thousands of acres of fertile marshlands in southern Iraq into desert in order to punish the rebellious Shia. In this way” Mohammad concluded, settling back into his seat, “Saddam turned a wasteland into a paradise–and a paradise into a wasteland. He corrupted even the geography of Iraq.”
This book is the story of what real Iraqis in Iraq think. It’s a first-hand report on what the so-called “Arab street”, at least in Iraq, really thinks. Like all writers, Vincent certainly allows his personal opinions and biases creep into what he writes. And he surely practiced a great deal of self-censorship when choosing interviews and quotes to include in an attempt to tell the story they way he think it needs to be told. But these are accounts of real encounters with real Iraqis. Not staged interviews with spokesmen or pundits. Not press junkets to designated areas of town with designated interviewees.
Real conversations with real people in real places. In, as the title says, the Red Zone. That’s the 99% of Iraq (including most of Baghdad) that 99% of journalists never see, except maybe on specially-arranged tours that are probably quite similar in most respects to the African Safari my family and I recently enjoyed while visiting Disney World in Florida.
Now that I’ve waxed on at length about the importance of this book and the fact that it’s a glimpse into the real world of today’s Iraq, I will continue with some more excerpts and only two or thirteen reminders of my personal opinions.
In Baghdad, Vincent met an eclectic group of Iraqis in the Shahbandar Cafe. These folks were, for the most part, well-educated and well-cultured. More than a few had traveled abroad more than a little, and most were artisan-types and self-styled deep thinkers.
To my initial surprise, these “Baghdad Bohemians” as I liked to call them, expressed remarkably pro-liberation, pro-American views. “We were afraid America wouldn’t invade–” Mohammad [a different man than was quoted above] said. “We chose war to finish Saddam.” Or, as Haider put it, “When I saw the statue of Saddam fall, I couldn’t believe it–it was like a dream. We used to pray to live for five minutes without his regime, now we have the rest of our lives.” Esam found U.S. soldiers very impressive. “They called me ‘sir!”‘ he enthused. “Do you know what it’s like for an Iraqi to hear someone in uniform called him ‘sir’? They didn’t even call each other that!”
Something as simple as a bit of respect helped win a heart and mind. I’ve noted before that American soldiers are our finest ambassadors, but in a combat zone diplomacy necessarily occupies a place of low priority. The American troops who treated this man kindly and respectfully will have had their effort repaid a thousand times. How many times are Iraqi civilians called ‘sir’ by the insurgent fighters, especially those who have come to Iraq from other countries? How many hearts and minds are the terrorists winning when they blow up mosques and police stations?
In another example of asking the “man in the street”, Vincent discusses conversations he had with Baghdad cabbies:
When I asked their opinion of the U.S., for example, many drivers smiled, brushed their palms together in a “good riddance” gesture and crowed, “Saddam gone! America good!” Others flashed the thumbs-up gesture and exclaimed, “Amrikiyya thank you!” One cabbie became so worked up over the liberation of his country, he exclaimed, “We love U.S.A., do you believe me? They bring us freedom! We need U.S.A.!” Worried, perhaps, that I was not American (I refrained from revealing my nationality unless directly asked), he added, “We also need Britain, Poland, Spain”–this was before Al Qaeda’s Madrid attack induced the heirs of the Reconquista to flee Iraq–“even Turkey!”
Some cabbies, however, took a more temperate view of the U.S. “America not good, not bad’ one driver mused, as if discussing the weather. “Right now good, because they want what we want. But in the future–?” Another told me, “Bush finish Saddam, good. Now, America, go home”–once again, the “Thanks, Yanks, now beat it” syndrome you heard everywhere in Iraq. Other drivers expressed qualified support for the presence of U.S. troops, but complained about the seemingly intractable crime and terrorism problem. “Iraqi people very tired. When will America bring peace?”
Occasionally, I met drivers who were straightforwardly anti-U.S. “America no good,” one maintained. “We thought when American people come, we sleep safe in our homes. But no, Iraqi people very afraid. When I drive, my mother prays I have no troubles with thieves, fedayeen, the U.S. army.” The more critical the hack, I found, the greater chance he was a Sunni Muslim. The Sunnis, as we know, were long favored by Saddam and stood to lose the most in a democratic Iraq. This fear of the future explained, in part, one Sunni’s diatribe: “America good only for America, not Iraqi people. Where are their promises of security, jobs, peace? Where is freedom?” When I asked what in his mind constituted “freedom,” he replied, “Good government respectful of Islam–not when people drink alcohol on the street or believe what they want or when women do want they want.” I had the feeling that last possibility was what he really feared.
This last paragraph neatly summarizes two themes that recur throughout the book: That the Sunni opinion is far, far less optimistic about the post-Saddam world than the Shite or Kurdish opinion is, and that the role of women in the new Iraq has everyone more than a little tense.
Many Iraqis, at least among those in favor of Saddam’s removal and the establishment of democratic systems in Iraq, are as exasperated with the media’s coverage of Iraq as many Americans are. And, in some cases at least, it’s more than simple bias or spin.
Haider, for example, told me of acting as the translator for a German TV crew working outside of Baghdad in the summer of 2003.
The crew, he recounted, filmed a village trash heap, then reported, over his protests, that the smoldering compost was once “fertile farmland destroyed by Coalition bombs.” In September, he accompanied a French photographer as she wandered through Baghdad looking for a scene that would dramatize Iraqi suffering resulting from the war. Unable to find a suitable tableau, she paid an Iraqi woman to kneel in the debris of a partially demolished building and raise her arms to heaven as if imploring Allah to strike down the American infidels. “The photographer had me ask the woman to remove her wristwatch so she wouldn’t look too wealthy,” Haider related. Mohammad recalled watching an Al-Jazeera film crew pay men loitering on Saddoun Street to throw rocks and light a car on fire. “Within a few minutes, Al-Jazeera made their own ‘anti-American’ demonstration,” he said.
You won’t catch me noticing that German media, French media, and Al-Jazeera are all discussed in the same paragraph. No, sirreee.
But far too many on the left seem to confuse anti-Americanism with supporting the Iraqi people. Take, for example, the Dutch activist whom Naseer still recalls with barely suppressed anger. Just after the fall of Saddam, he related, the woman predicted that the American “occupation” would soon prove as bad, or worse, than the old regime. When Naseer replied that it was unlikely the U.S. would execute thousands of Iraqis and bury them in mass graves, or drop poison gas on whole villages, the Hollander answered, “Perhaps you need to see beyond your suffering under Saddam to view America more objectively:’ The corners of Naseer’s large mouth drew down as he told this story. “I was so shocked and outraged I didn’t know what to do,” he told me.
It seems that so many who rail on about “the end not justifying the means” are more than willing to watch chaos and destruction in the wake of American efforts if it will tarnish the USA.
In Baghdad, Vincent chanced upon the troupe of musician Bruce Cockburn.
“Ah, Mr. Cockburn, I’m a big fan of your work,” I lied. Then– disingenuously–I asked, “What brings you to Baghdad?”
“I am here to investigate violations of Iraqi human rights by the American army,” he intoned.
“They are troubling,” I agreed.
“Yes, I find them very disturbing.”
Cockburn had the full-throated, masculine-but-gentle voice of an old-fashioned folk singer. His close-cropped white hair and still handsome but well-lined face gave him a patriarchal appearance, diminished only slightly by an earring dangling from his right lobe. There was something dry and ministerial about him (according to his website, he became a Christian in 1974), a kind of crusading religiosity that believed in the power of righteousness–his righ