Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Reading on the edge

What have I been reading lately? Aside from Blazing Splendor, which I reviewed earlier I just picked up How we Lost Iraq by Aaron Glantz.
After living in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, he pretty much sums up what many are beginning to notice: whatever goodwill we garnered for getting rid of Saddam, has been totally squandered in Iraq by an Administration incapable of making shrewd moves, or even what would be fair for the people of Iraq. Here is a large excerpt from a review at, done by V.I. Scherb:

"Aaron Glantz, a reporter for Pacifica Radio, has written a compelling first hand account of his experiences in Iraq between early 2003 and early 2005. This is new journalism at its best. Mr. Glantz is very upfront about where he is coming from as a supporter of human rights for all, whether they be Americans, Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, or Iraqi Christians. He is quite willing to acknowledge the atrocities of Saddam's regime as well as of the terrorists and U.S. forces. Living among the Iraqi people and sometimes mistaken for one by U.S. soldiers, he brings clarity to a complex situation and puts a human face on people under enormous pressure that you won't soon forget. Glantz's honesty comes through in a way you never see in the mainstream media, whose reporters are often isolated from the day to day lives of Iraqis in their suites at the Palestine hotel. He is also quite willing to turn his eyes on himself, asking "How many people can you interview whose relatives have been killed before you start to crack--or worse, tune it all out?"

In addition to a strong narrative arc that describes how American liberators became occupiers became oppressors, the book is filled with details and conversations that make pieces of the puzzle that is Iraq fall into place. To pick one example, his discussion of kidnappings in Iraq brings up thought-provoking points that one rarely hears voiced. Glantz notes an Associated Press report that "80 percent of the roughly 170 foreigners kidnapped in Iraq had been peacefully released. Overall, it seemed hostages directly involved in the occupation [this would include contractors working for the military] fared much worse than their civillian counterparts" (217). Details that should be reassuring turn out to be disturbing, such as Glantz's comment that the soccer stadium converted into a mass grave in Fallujah "turned out to be a lot smaller than I imagined it" which necessitated the bodies being buried very close together, "and each mound has a small concrete slab as a headstone, the name of the person hand-scrawled with red paint. Sometimes there are more than one name" (273).

Although he gives you his own opinions (and identifies them as such), many of the book's most powerful moments come when he gives the voices of the Iraqis scope. To take one example, a simple conversation with a shopkeeper suggests a chillingly plausible reason for the number of suicide bombers: there are people willing to pay them, rumors suggesting one might get as much as $250,000. As the shopkeeper explains, "Of course some people will take money to explode themselves . . . That way their family and and their grandchildren will be able to live well in the future." While huge sums go to military contractors and to protect oil interests, little goes to help the locals. As the shopkeeper wistfully comments, "If some of the money went to unemployed Iraqi people . . . there would be fewer bombings" (119-20). The passage is shocking, not only because it critiques U.S. policy, but because it suggests that many of the "fanatics" may not be fanatics at all, but simply people who are trying to protect and provide for their families by victimizing the families of others. Can the noblest of ends justify the worst of means? It is a question that some Iraqis answer in the affirmative, but obviously many in the U.S. answer the same question in the same way.

Ultimately, this cycle of violence underlies the whole book, and it applies to both Iraqi history as well as to U.S. actions in the Middle East. Although the book is hardly a justification of the invasion of Iraq, the book is by no means an unrelenting attack on U.S. policy. Glantz sometimes defends U.S. actions and critiques the anti-war Left; Glantz also describes his struggle with his editors at Pacifica who want more sensational stories than Iraqi discontent with the lack of power, water, and proper sanitation. He refuses to believe many of the worst reports of the U.S. military's behavior, although he acknowledges that a number of them turn out to be true. One of the things that makes the book remarkably compelling, is that you can actually see the shift from denial to acceptance taking place in his narrative, a shift that parallels the Iraqis transition from hope, to disappointment, to outrage. Glantz also makes unheard of efforts (at least for a journalist these days) to talk to multiple witnesses and check out their statements when this is possible. If he doesn't see things himself, he describes the aftermath in telling detail and interviews survivors. Ultimately the story Glantz tells is a tragic one, a story in which a bad situation is dishonestly exploited by the powerful, opportunities to do good are squandered, and arrogance and poorly thought out policy make a situation increasingly spiral out of control. " see How America Lost Iraq

It is a easy read, and I recommend it to anyone curious about what has gone down over there. --- J.P.

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