I recently spent a month in paradise. As penance for such luxury, I read Night Draws Near, by Anthony Shadid of the Washington Post. The book describes the first few years of the Iraq war, from the fall of Baghdad to the first elections. Sitting there on a southern Thai island, looking at gem-colored water filled with light, reading about unspeakable horror and colossal failure...
I don't know what's sicker, to read such a book or to not read it.
Shadid, a Lebanese-American and a fluent Arabic speaker, looks at the war mainly through anecdotes of ordinary Baghdad citizens. The book is as eloquent as it is harrowing, and reaffirms a growing belief I have that literary journalism is much more effective in creating a full picture of what's going on than day-to-day print journalism or television reporting. Daily news stories are just little pieces of awfulness that seemingly have little connection to each other. But when a strong reporter and writer like Shadid weaves them all together through personal narrative, they become a tapestry of tragedy. And one that makes sense.
Reading the book, I came away with two things: How so many problems could have been avoided through even basic understanding of Iraqi Arab culture, and how many bad decisions seem to have been made by the variety of decision-makers in Iraq.
As to the first, one of the most chilling anecdotes that Shadid relates is that of an Iraqi informer working for the U.S. in a small village in the Sunni triangle. As the man, hooded, is walking through a group of prisoners pointing out insurgents, several prisoners recognize him from a deformed hand and start shouting his name. The informer is protected by the U.S. troops for a time. But eventually he's hunted down and killed by his older brother...and his father. They kill him because the other clans of the town basically tell them that their entire clan will be wiped out if they don't. The honor culture and honor killings of the village culture trump everything else.
Hmm...and these people are supposed to transform overnight from this kind of thinking into model Middle Eastern Republicans and Democrats? Hmm...
As to the second: One thing stands out above the rest. Executive Order Number Two. Issued by Paul Bremer, who headed the Coalition Provisional Authority. The order dissolved the Iraqi Army. Which, in Bremer's defense, there must have been a reason for. But according to Shadid, the Iraqi Army was an institution that pre-dated Saddam Hussein and one he didn't trust at all (hence the creation of the Republican Guard, the Special Republican Guard, and the Fedayeen). It was also an institution which had credibility with the people because of its massive sacrifices in the Iran-Iraq war. The army, Shadid insinuates, could have been used to keep the peace, would have been respected by the people, and would have kept Americans out of harms way on the streets. Instead, the several-hundred thousand strong army was dissolved, putting all those men with guns and knowledge of how to make war out onto the streets, with a whole lot of guns and nothing to do...(My only criticism here is that the writer doesn't get - or try to get - an interview with Bremer as to why he issued the order; there must have been a reason that seemed like a good one at the time.)
While the first few chapters are filled with so much repeating bloodshed that it is hard to bear, the book then becomes much more intriguing (but no less tragic) as ordinary Iraqis go through the upheavals of the early years of the war.
The book is an absolute must for anyone interested in the topic, but certainly not one to read if you're feeling bummed out about things.
A few links with reviews and/or info: