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.