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Postcards From the Abyss | The Nation

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Postcards From the Abyss

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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.

About the Author

Chris Toensing
Chris Toensing is editor of Middle East Report, published by the Middle East Research and Information Project.

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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.

These centrifugal forces receive greater attention in George Packer's The Assassins' Gate, which sits bundled with Shadid's book at the top of the stack of reporters' dispatches from Iraq. Packer belongs to that subset of liberal hawks who were unconvinced by the Bush Administration's urgings that a dilapidated dictatorship posed a "grave and gathering danger" to the United States but cautiously supported the invasion on the grounds that Iraqis would be better off without Saddam and his cronies. As the euphoria at Firdaus Square dissipated, most of Packer's cohort took the easy way out, seeking refuge in self-righteous excoriation of the Bush Administration's incompetence as liberators and occupiers. Much to his credit, Packer took extended tours in Iraq to test not only that conventional wisdom but also his own assumptions. The result is a tour de force--but it is not without its own uncomfortable silences.

Like Shadid, Packer is a storyteller, and an artful one. His canvas, however, is broader, encompassing not just the inching of post-Saddam Iraq toward the abyss but also the intellectual history of humanitarian intervention, the political history of the regime change crowd's capture of Washington and a little social history of the awkward interactions between American soldiers and diplomats turned "nation builders" and their human raw material. These sections of The Assassins' Gate are fairly familiar, but they contain some of the most stinging indictments anywhere of the neoconservatives and their patrons, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. After his Iraq sojourns, Packer goes to Washington to measure the attitudes of the war party toward their grandiose adventure gone bad. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz is "probably at the peak" of those having trouble sleeping at night, another former official tells him. Who else has trouble? "That's a good question," Packer's source says twice. He doesn't come up with a name.

Packer's most original reporting is elegiac in tone, and it comes from Kirkuk and Des Moines, Iowa. In Kirkuk, the contested, multiethnic city lying on the edge of the Kurdish heartland and sandwiched between two of Iraq's largest oilfields, he meets Luna Dawood. Dawood is an Assyrian Christian woman who, on orders from the deposed regime, distributed cash payments to Kurdish and Turkmen families evicted from their homes in the latest regime campaign to "Arabize" the vicinity of the oil riches. "She was," Packer writes, "a bureaucratic expediter of ethnic cleansing." In his hands, though, she is a tragic figure, a woman whose anguish at her complicity seems genuine and who quietly defied her superiors' command to burn records of the mass displacement as the 2003 war loomed, hiding them in her house, where someday they might have guided officials looking to compensate the victims of Arabization. Her story frames a lengthy, sensitive exposition of the ethnic tensions that rile today's Kirkuk--perhaps the most dangerous flashpoint in the country. Packer neither vilifies nor romanticizes the Kurdish parties, whose wads of dinars to build brick houses are today creating facts on the ground, "Kurdifying" the Kirkuk region long before any truth and reconciliation process can make use of Dawood's storehouse of documents. Again, Iraq reads as tragedy, not a morality play.

In Des Moines, on Memorial Day 2004, Packer stands at the grave of Pfc. Kurt Frosheiser, killed seven months earlier while on a mission in Baghdad. Standing next to him is the soldier's grief-stricken father, Chris, who had read some of Packer's New Yorker pieces and begun to correspond with him. Visits to Chris Frosheiser bracket a probing discussion of the domestic debate on the war, a debate oddly disconnected from the grim reality on the ground. (Every reporter who comes back from Iraq comments on how surreal this is.) During the 2004 campaign the incumbent refused to acknowledge the chaos, and the challenger offered little but a pledge to manage the chaos better. While this ambivalence is slowly receding from the public square, Packer's portrait of Chris Frosheiser is a salutary reminder of why the ambivalence has been so durable. A lifelong Democrat who voted for John Kerry "by a hair," Frosheiser cannot bring himself to pronounce upon whether the war was "worth it" or not. "He would not have chosen to give up Kurt for democracy in the Middle East," Packer explains. "Now he wants Kurt's death to be part of some historical good." Neither does he want to think of his son's death in such abstract terms, however.

So does Packer think the war was worth it? After all, he is one of the most thoughtful of the liberal hawks, and unlike the rest of them he has spent months in Iraq and Iowa staring the human subjects of "humanitarian intervention" right in the face. Frustratingly for readers in search of an answer, if not a mea culpa, he doesn't say. His October 13 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times is more forthcoming, but also oblique: "Was it worth it, then? If it couldn't be done right, should it have been done at all? For Americans today, the answer has to be no. For Iraqis, and for the future of this crucial region, with which our own future is inextricably linked, it's difficult to know definitively." The problem with this philosophical dodge is obvious: To say that only time will tell if the war was worth it for Iraqis is a banality that glosses over how many Iraqis have died unnecessarily, and how many more might die in the future, before history renders its verdict. But Packer anticipates this point in the book, noting that few Iraqis he met, despite their profound disappointment with the United States and shock at what is happening to their society, regretted the overthrow of Saddam. A young woman named Aseel, reminded of the nonexistent weapons of mass destruction the Bush Administration used to justify the invasion, retorts: "We are more important than missiles!" Self-evident, from both Iraqi and humanitarian perspectives. However, as Packer surely knows, humanitarian considerations were decidedly secondary in the minds of the war's architects--including Wolfowitz, whom he portrays somewhat sentimentally as the Administration's bleeding heart. For Bush and Cheney the most significant consideration was reasserting American hegemony in a volatile, oil-rich region, a motive to which Packer gives far less space than he does to the fantasies of humanitarian interventionists like Paul Berman, who had absolutely no influence on the Administration's thinking, and of Iraqi exiles like Kanan Makiya, a professor at Brandeis and Wolfowitz ally who had not laid eyes on Iraq in decades.

Makiya, an architect and writer whose terrifying portrait of Saddam's Iraq, Republic of Fear (1989), stiffened the breastbones of liberal hawks as an earlier generation of US troops deployed to the Persian Gulf, is Packer's central and most interesting character. In the Arab world Makiya is better known for Cruelty and Silence (1994), much of which is devoted to a polemical assault upon Arab intellectuals who, he claims, failed to speak out against Saddam's regime. Although the allegation is overstated, it echoes the feeling of many Iraqis--and not just exiles--that Arab governments and even their populations overlooked Saddam's role in Iraqi suffering while verbally defending Iraq from the warplanes and embargoes of the West. There are few sharper debates on Al Jazeera these days than those between Iraqis and other Arabs about the meaning of solidarity. The offer of Arab League head Amr Moussa to broker a "national reconciliation conference," which followed the polarizing October 15 constitutional referendum, came only after vehement Iraqi criticism of what has seemed to be tacit Arab-government backing of the insurgency. Packer writes about how Aseel flummoxed her Egyptian interlocutor in an Internet chat room with the suggestion that, in his words, "Americans and Israelis seemed to care about Iraqis more than other Arabs did." "What the war gave people like her," he concludes, "is hope."

Hope is, indeed, more compelling than fear. Yet hope is an unstable sentiment, and, as we have seen in Iraq, can easily turn to despair if it doesn't restore the electricity supply. History will not remember Makiya so much for his insight into the darker crevices of Arab nationalism as for his insistence, while sharing a stage with Richard Perle, that invading US troops would be welcomed with "sweets and flowers." Like the Bush Administration, in the words of Shadid, Makiya regarded Iraq as a "tabula rasa on which to build a new and different state." Today he admits his surprise at the unwillingness of "former regime elements" to concede defeat, as well as at how parties with communal and religious agendas have overwhelmed his brand of secular liberalism in the post-Saddam political arena. Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute on October 5, he called Iraq's new Constitution "a fundamentally destabilizing document" and "a patently unworkable deal. To the extent that it is made to work it will work toward fratricide."

Iraq may yet avoid the worse fates one can imagine, but as Shadid's book demonstrates, it was always an unlikely candidate for instant liberal democratization by the sword. Its wheezing infrastructure has yet to recover from the Iran-Iraq war, let alone the next two, and especially the sanctions in between. Its highly educated middle class was reduced by sanctions to penury or emigration. Sanctions and regime repression incubated social con- servatism, strengthened kinship ties and encouraged religious piety. Not surprisingly, when the regime fell tribal loyalties and political Islam were the most powerful forces vying to replace it. Sanctions are the most notable elision in Packer's account--like some Iraqi exiles and successive US administrations, liberal supporters of the war seem to have believed that the voluminous UN and NGO reports documenting their insidious effects were just so much regime propaganda. One of the first things Packer noticed after landing in Baghdad was how worn Iraqis looked; this observation appears in a chapter about the "psychological demolition" wrought by Saddam. Such demolition is indisputable, but Packer neglects the fact that international isolation and plummeting living standards under sanctions must share responsibility with Saddam's regime for the bleakness of Iraqi life. Here he betrays traces of the "simple, two-dimensional" image of Iraq that Shadid rightly attributes to most American observers of the country. Iraqis appreciate Saddam's culpability in their thirty-five-year nightmare more than anyone else, but like everyone else they are capable of forming a complex mental calculus of blame.

Packer concludes with one last visit to his friend and mentor Kanan Makiya, who tells him: "I think it was Ahmad [Chalabi] who once said of me that I embody the triumph of hope over experience." Since it was Makiya who imbued Packer with his hopeful vision for Iraq, one detects in this line a note of self-criticism. The next time American liberals are tempted to become laptop bombardiers, he seems to be saying, they should listen to someone who has visited the target recently--before the bombing starts.

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