Because We Could
While Keegan's book is all dressed up in the traditional trappings of a broad-sweep military history--he even includes the "order of battle" of the little British fleet in the Arabian Gulf; so nostalgic, these Brits!--Jon Lee Anderson's account of the conflict (which draws on his reports for The New Yorker) amounts to less of a sweep and more of the toothbrush treatment, taking us down the narrow path of his personal experiences in Baghdad during the period immediately before, during and after the 2003 invasion. Anderson has much of interest to tell, but large parts of the narrative reminded me of a little jeu d'esprit once published by John Lennon consisting of a pocket diary filled in for every workday of the year with the words "Got up. Went to work. Came home. Watched telly. Went to bed." Thus we learn a lot about Anderson's daily life in Baghdad and relations with his driver, information ministry drivers and fellow members of the foreign press corps, as well as the restaurants he ate in, the barber he patronized and so on. Buried in the earnest verbiage is a great deal of arresting material, ranging from the intriguing report that Ronald Reagan sent Saddam a pair of spurs as a present in 1986, to rich descriptions of visits to the war cemeteries left behind by the British, not to mention Anderson's relationship with the morally dubious figure of Ala Bashir, an artist-surgeon who enjoyed Saddam's confidence and esteem before passing effortlessly to the embrace of the CIA.
Unfortunately, the tone mandated by the flat-footed New Yorker style drains his story of any emotional connection to events unfolding in the narrative. Sometimes the scenes speak for themselves, as when he encounters child victims of American bombing, but all too often his prose leaves the extraordinary drama of those days in a waterlogged state. For example, in recording the killing by a US tank unit of two TV journalists in the Palestine Hotel, Anderson says, "Most of the reporters I spoke to believed it had been an Iraqi attack and worried what it might mean for our safety." This is odd, since every other account of the incident I have heard makes it clear that the US tank that fired was clearly visible on the nearby Jumhuriyah bridge. In a parenthetical paragraph, Anderson concedes, "I was wrong" and correctly attributes the shelling to the US tank, adding, however, that "the Americans thought they were receiving sniper fire from the hotel.... No one in the Palestine believed this to be true." Yes, but what do you think, Jon Lee?
One of the few characters for whom Anderson has a harsh or even emotional word is the veteran British correspondent Robert Fisk--"fidgety, taciturn...with a blotchy red face." I have the feeling that at some point in some war-zone hotel lobby Anderson may have been on the receiving end of an acerbic Fisk commentary regarding American media complicity with US Middle East policy. Certainly his epithets appear to have been selected with some care, guaranteed to alert a politically correct US readership about Fisk: "Saddam's people positively adored him...ardent Arabist...wildly popular throughout the Muslim world." As I.F. Stone once remarked of Theodore White, a man who writes like that need never lunch alone--at least not in New York.
Christian Parenti's briefer but brilliantly vivid take on Iraq since the war is welcome relief indeed. Nation readers have already had the benefit of most of his incisive dispatches from the front, but for those who have been subsisting on more dreary fare, The Freedom should provide a refreshing, robust corrective. Judging by my own limited experiences of occupied Iraq, he gets it absolutely right, including the surreal mismatch between the air-conditioned Green Zone enclave housing the occupation headquarters/US Embassy, whose "real function...seems to be the intentional mismanagement of reconstruction contracts," and the hot, stinking, dangerous and exciting real world inhabited by Iraqis beyond the fortifications. He is especially good on the "stretched thin, lied to, and mistreated" cannon fodder of the occupation army, who despise what they call the "occupodians" inside the Green Zone. Parenti gets his title from an encounter in a Ramadi children's hospital, which, despite the billions appropriated for Iraqi reconstruction, had exhausted a meager grant from the Coalition Provisional Authority and had no money left for medical supplies. Aid agencies had provided only cookies. A nervous hospital director dodges a question on whether he sees many child patients with symptoms of radiation sickness because of American use of depleted-uranium ammunition. Pressed for a direct answer, "Dr. Hussein's tough composure softens and he offers something of a coded apology: 'This is the freedom.'" Quite so.
My only quibble with the book concerns a passage where Parenti delves into wonkery and suggests that the war was about "positioning US military might as the sole security arbiter upon which all advanced economies are dependent.... Securing the Middle East and its oil reserves would give America important political leverage over the EU and East Asia." I'm always dubious of the notion that nations act for reasons of "foreign policy." History indicates that almost any government's international actions are usually motivated by exigencies of domestic politics and/or squalid personal greed. Thus Parenti's succinct description of the care and feeding of the Halliburton Corporation, which receives $1 billion a month for work in Iraq (hardly any of which benefits Iraqis) and meanwhile pays $13,000 a month to former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, goes a long way toward explaining why we went into Iraq. Without the Iraq contracts, Halliburton would probably be bankrupt because Cheney, as CEO, bought Dresser Industries without noticing that Dresser had billions in asbestos liabilities (whoever said this guy was smart?).
At least Parenti does not insult our intelligence by asserting that we were manipulated into invading Iraq because a bunch of devious neocons, including Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, cherished a utopian vision of imposing democracy in the Middle East--a ludicrous notion predictably popular among the punditocracy. John Keegan takes the idea at face value, although he does think it a little odd that the neocons, while eager to transport democracy, simultaneously "supported extremist politicians in Israel" who didn't seem too interested in a fair deal for Palestinians.