THE FALL OF BAGHDAD
By Jon Lee Anderson
Penguin Press -- 389 pp -- $24.95
On the eve of the Iraq War, Jon Lee Anderson received a phone call from his bosses at The New Yorker asking him to pull out of Baghdad as soon as possible. Luckily for readers, Anderson decided not to heed that advice, choosing to stay in the Iraqi capital throughout the "shock and awe" campaign and the mess that ensued.
In The Fall of Baghdad, Anderson melds his distinguished magazine dispatches into a broader work, offering superb reportage while resisting the temptation to moralize about either the Iraqis or the Americans. The account is a must-read for anyone trying to understand the anarchy that is now engulfing Iraq.
Anderson writes in the first person, but it is his ability to capture the voices of Iraqis whom he meets that makes this such an absorbing narrative. By describing events as they unfold through the eyes of a broad swath of Iraqi society -- academics and apparatchiks, Baathists and barbers, poets and Muslim clerics -- he weaves a rich tapestry of Iraqi life and survival first under Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule, then under American bombardment, and finally amid the postwar chaos.
One of the most memorable voices is that of Dr. Ala Bashir, a surgeon, artist, and confidante of Saddam. Bashir provides unique glimpses of another side of a man otherwise known only as a ruthless killer and megalomaniac. Deeply aware of his own lack of formal education, Saddam, we learn, is drawn to painters and poets and writers. His purges, which resulted in the deaths of many former comrades, says Bashir, left Saddam at times feeling conflicted.
Anderson's own experiences of Baghdad life are also compelling. For example, he describes the surreal atmosphere of denial in the city before and during the war. Just nights before the conflict begins, he attends a grilled-shrimp dinner at the home of a senior Foreign Ministry official. His host cannot stay away from the TV, constantly flipping the remote so that he can simultaneously watch CNN and a broadcast of a Julia Roberts movie, My Best Friend's Wedding.
Then comes the fighting. Anderson's descriptions of the carnage inflicted on hundreds of innocent civilians are arresting and unforgettable.
Outside an apartment complex flattened by a U.S. bomb, the author sees a man's hand, "the red and white guts of it, at the messily-severed stump, spilled out like electrical circuitry from a crudely-cut cable." Yet even as bombs are falling, Saddam's cult of personality still prevails. At a state hospital, several cleaning women jump up and down singing Saddam's praises as Anderson passes by them. Some days later, back at the hospital, he interviews a 12-year-old boy, his torso blackened, his arms burnt stumps. "His large eyes were hazel, flecked with green and he had long eyelashes and wavy brown hair." After telling Anderson he liked studying geography and playing volleyball and soccer, the boy remarks, unbidden: "Bush is a criminal and he is fighting for oil."
But don't misunderstand: This is far from an antiwar polemic. Nuances are one of Anderson's strengths. In dealing with charges that U.S. troops may have been complacent about postwar looting, for example, the author simply offers unadorned anecdotes. We are witness to a U.S. soldier, manning a turreted machine gun, apparently oblivious to the attempt of several men to steal a nearby van still occupied by two dead bodies. Elsewhere, Anderson leads troops to a hospital being looted. When they arrive, rather than entering the hospital to defend it, the Marines leap out of their vehicles and take up combat positions to attack it, terrifying the doctors and nurses at the entrance.
As the author describes the deterioration of security in Baghdad, he reflects how, paradoxically, under Saddam's despotic rule, the city was an extremely pleasant place to visit, where one could prowl bazaars and coffee shops at will. But as the U.S. inability to control the country grows more and more apparent, there's an increasing frustration with and resentment toward foreigners. In Fallujah, for instance, a U.S. psychological-warfare officer, who is distributing handbills that announce the phase-out of dinar currency bearing Saddam's face, finds himself suddenly in an angry shouting match with a shopkeeper. "You should leave. Go away. I hate you," screams the man, whose grievances remain unclear. "I hate you too," the befuddled American finally replies. Not many hearts and minds were won over to the U.S. cause with that exchange.
The book does, however, leave some questions unanswered. One would like to know, for example, how Iraqis reacted to the killing by U.S. forces of Saddam's sons Uday and Qusay. And more important, how did people feel after Saddam's capture last December? Also, Anderson does not appear to have had any interviews with members of chief administrator L. Paul Bremer's coalition authority, or many Americans at all for that matter, apart from frustrated soldiers and two forgettable CIA agents.
The Fall of Baghdad, which covers the period up to the end of April, 2004, has proved to be disturbingly prescient. Even before the war, many people predicted the civil strife that has engulfed the country, saying that Iraqis would not welcome American soldiers now any more than they did the British, against whose colonial regime Iraqis rebelled in 1920. Tragically, it seems Washington's planners have learned little from history.
By Frederik Balfour