Postcards From the Abyss
Before the beheadings, before the insouciant thumbs-up in Abu Ghraib and the defiant purple fingers held aloft at polling stations, the iconic image of the Iraq War was a fallen statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdaus Square. People across the world watched rapt as the sculpture, only the day before an ugly reminder of tyranny to passersby, toppled ignominiously into the street to be dismembered with joyous abandon by newly liberated Iraqis. For backers of the war, that sight was all one needed to banish any remaining doubts that George W. Bush's invasion was necessary and just. Almost overnight, however, the Internet was buzzing with news of wide-angle shots that showed a US tank dragging the statue down to the ground. For many opponents of the war, that tank was all one needed to understand the imperialistic essence of the invasion--and to suspect that the Bush Administration's talk of liberation was as fake as its intelligence on yellowcake purchases in Niger.
Anthony Shadid's eyewitness account of the statue toppling offers vindication to neither black-and-white point of view. The Washington Post correspondent, who rode out the "major combat" with a tiny band of unembedded reporters in the Iraqi capital, observed as hundreds of ordinary Iraqis strove from midday to dusk to wrench the ex-dictator's metal likeness from its granite pedestal. But their ropes, rocks, sledgehammers and chains could not dislodge Saddam from his perch. As sundown approached, their strenuous labors, accompanied by chants of "There is no god but God; Saddam is the enemy of God" appeared to be in vain. In drove the Marines in their armored vehicle. "A hush rolled through the crowd," Shadid writes, as one of them covered Saddam's head with an American flag. Then an Iraqi hung an old Iraqi flag over the statue as well, and the cheers resumed as the Marines eventually pulled it down. The celebrations shown on CNN were real, but they were only the conclusion to a longer and more complicated story.
This is one of many such stories told by Shadid in Night Draws Near, a fluid narrative composed largely of his Pulitzer Prize-winning dispatches from prewar and occupied Iraq but including much, such as the complete tale of the fall of Saddam's statue, that he has not told before. His stories are always affecting, sometimes uplifting, much more frequently heart-rending. As one might guess from the title, Night Draws Near is written in a register of foreboding.
When Shadid is at his best, the stories are compact illustrations of key moments in Iraq's torturous transition from sanctions-ravaged dictatorship to unsteady US dominion to emerging failed state. At Firdaus Square he captures the depth of Iraqi loathing for the despot now on trial for crimes against humanity, the genuine gratitude (albeit tinged with shame) of many Iraqis that the United States had done what they could not do themselves and the sense--present from the beginning--that the latter feelings would be fleeting. Mere months later in a provincial town on the Euphrates, he listens as an officer in the new police force explains that "even our families call us collaborators" with a foreign occupation. How fierce were the resentments stirred up by the counterinsurgency campaign in what the US military and media dubbed the Sunni Triangle? Elsewhere in that region, a father tells him he had "no other choice" but to kill his son, who had pointed out guerrillas to US soldiers. Otherwise, the father explains, his entire family would have been targets.
An Arabic speaker of Lebanese ancestry and a veteran Middle East correspondent, Shadid enjoys considerable advantages over the legions of journalists who parachuted into Baghdad and are now publishing books about their experiences. (Full disclosure: I know Shadid, a former colleague on the editorial committee of Middle East Report.) His facility with Iraqis' native tongue allows him to translate their painful memories, their self-contradictory hopes and fears, their sense of humor--in short, their humanity. And because of his experience in prewar Iraq and in the wider Arab world, he was in a position to appreciate truths that eluded the war party in Washington. Of course, few Iraqis would mourn the demise of Saddam's regime, but they would quickly chafe under a US-proclaimed "occupation," a word that in Arabic inevitably evokes the dispossession of the Palestinians at the hands of Israel. Even more, they would doubt the sincerity of a liberating power that "tilted" toward Saddam during his disastrous war with Iran, abandoned rebellious Shiites in 1991 to be massacred by the tens of thousands after encouraging them to "take matters into their own hands" and then pushed hardest for the sanctions that devastated Iraqi society during the ensuing decade. Others have written about these things, but Shadid helps readers to feel them viscerally. Most important, his familiarity with subtleties of Arab culture affords him access to the homes of Iraqis from all walks of life, including, for instance, the humble apartment of a working-class Shiite family. His stories from these visits are sometimes about politics but mostly about the mundane indignities--unemployment, intermittent electricity, compromised physical safety and fraying social fabric--that have soured most of Iraq's urban population on the post-Saddam era.
The strengths of the book--its unflinching depiction of wartime life for Iraqi Arabs and its focus on the resiliency of Iraqi nationalism in Arab areas--simultaneously conceal and reveal its limitations in scope. Shadid does not venture into Kurdistan, where Iraqi nationalism means something else entirely, sanctions were not so crushing, fighting has been minimal and attitudes about the war are correspondingly brighter. His last, meaty chapter recounts the April 2004 revolt of Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, the only organized Shiite force to take up arms against the United States, and Sadr's dramatic gestures of solidarity with the besieged Sunni Arab guerrillas in Falluja. So far, however, this hint of the pan-Iraqi intifada expected by many opponents of the war has been an aberration from what has been overwhelmingly a Sunni Arab insurgency. The sectarian dimension of Iraqi politics--however exaggerated by Western champions of a "three-state solution," notably Peter Galbraith, an adviser to the Kurds, and Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations--is mentioned but left unexplored in Shadid's account. The January elections, which figure in the book's epilogue, formally inaugurated the current period, in which roadside bombs are still killing US soldiers but clashing Iraqi visions for the country's future (one of them Baathist revanchism) have displaced the American presence as the driver of insurgency and chaos, and more Iraqis are dying at the hands of fellow Iraqis than at the hands of American soldiers.