Monday, October 03, 2005

A COUPLE OF NIGHTS AGO, I finished Night Draws Near, Anthony Shadid's book about the invasion and occupation of Iraq from the perspective of Iraqis.

Shadid is a Lebanese-American and a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. Between March 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, and January 2005, which is when the book ends, Shadid talked to ordinary Iraqis to find out how they experienced the war. He shared meals, was invited into people's homes, had extended conversations, worked with Iraqis, shared many of the same dangers they did, in some cases was even allowed to quote from their private writings, as in the case of Amal, an Iraqi girl who poured out her fears and anxieties about the war and occupation in her journal.

If there is another book that does what this book does, I don't know about it. You will not find in this book any quotes from American generals and commanders about how many insurgents were killed in the latest offensive. You will not find interviews with Marines about how welcoming the local people are, and how the Iraqi villagers brought milk and cookies to the American soldiers. You will not find any progress reports from Donald Rumsfeld about the America's success in turning Iraqi security forces into an effective arm of the U.S. Army.

The great accomplishment of Night Draws Near is in how it reveals the vast disconnect between how the war is portrayed in the U.S. media and by the politicians and militarists in the Pentagon, and how it is felt and experienced by ordinary Iraqis.

For example: Soon after the U.S. occupation officially began, Shadid and another Post reporter decided to shadow soldiers from the Army's Bravo Company as they patrolled a Baghdad neighborhood.

The day began at ten A.M., with temperatures creeping up through the nineties, as the patrol moved out through the concertina wire that protected the U.S. soldiers' outpost and past two Bradley Fighting Vehicles parked out front.

"Everybody likes us," Specialist Stephen Harris, a twenty-year-old from Lafayette, Louisiana, declared to [the Post reporter]. Harris and the others in Bravo Company considered themselves a welcome presence in a friendly land. They were there to help the Iraqis they had liberated, then head home. Tom [Ricks, the reporter] asked Harris whether the people in Baghdad wanted U.S. troops to stay. "Oh, yeah," he said, taking a slug from his canteen. He then delivered his assessment of the neighborhood they were about to enter: "I'd say ninety-five percent friendly."

As Ricks and Shadid proceeded with the U.S. soldiers through the neighborhood, a few residents waved.

Most just stared. I walked past a stand selling cheap plastic sandals, past a boy selling packets of Kleenex to cars caught in traffic, past a few stands built from cheap wood, with Pepsis and Miranda orange sodas atop. An armored personnel carrier thundered by, setting off a car alarm. Around the corner was a man named Mohammed Ibrahim, standing on the sidewalk as Tom and the ten-man patrol passed his gated house.

"Despicable" was the way he described the U.S. presence. In a white dishdasha, a long Arab robe, the thirty-four-year-old winced as the soldiers moved along his street, nine carrying automatic weapons slung across their chests, the tenth a medic. Ibrahim's grimace was personal, the kind of contortion an insult brings. "We're against the occupation, we refuse the occupation -- not one hundred percent, but one thousand percent," he told me. "They're walking over my heart. I feel like they're crushing my heart."

This disconnect is really the book's major theme. Over and over, as Shadid stands back and lets us see the war and the occupation through Iraqi eyes, what emerges is the lack of understanding on the part of Americans -- both the leaders in Washington and the soldiers and officers in Iraq -- of Iraqi history and culture, of the Iraqi national character, of the meaning and importance of Arab unity and nationalistic feeling, of what Iraqis' religious traditions mean to them.

This lack of understanding cannot be overstated. It's vast. It's cavernous. It's not just a lack of understanding; it's a fundamental misunderstanding. And it doomed the U.S. venture in Iraq from before the start.

The first thing Americans need to know is that, for Iraqis, the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation was not "liberation." It was just another takeover of their country by a non-Muslim foreign imperial power. The entire history of Iraq is a history of being conquered and occupied. The very country called Iraq is a construct of Western imperial powers -- Iraq having been carved out from the old Ottoman Empire by Britain after World War I. And after Britain's imperial power began to wane, the newly ascendant United States stepped into the breech. The entire history is far too long to go into here, but suffice it to say that Iraq's natural resource (i.e., oil) was always the primary factor in deciding which governments and leaders to support or to topple.

Americans do not have this history of being conquered and occupied. We Americans (and I use that pronoun in a metaphorical sense, not to imply the agreement of every American) view the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime through our very particular lens of the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Founding Fathers. We freed ourselves, and have never been invaded or occupied since.

That is not Iraq's historical reality. And, as the Iraqis we meet in Shadid's book tell us repeatedly, they are a proud people. Iraqis are not a pathetically beaten-down people, poignantly grateful to have Americans come and liberate them. Yes, when Saddam Hussein was overthrown, there was a brief period when Americans looked like knights in shining armor to Iraqis. Of course there was overwhelming joy that Saddam was gone, and a great hope that the United States would turn out to be the avatar of freedom it seemed to be.

But then the occupation began. The Americans didn't leave. U.S. soldiers looked the other way as looters rampaged through the streets of Baghdad, destroying priceless treasures of art and basically sacking Iraq's 10,000-year-old history. The leader of the occupation, L. Paul Bremer, dissolved the Iraqi army and emptied the government's ministries, putting hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of work in a country where there were literally no jobs.

We wore out our welcome very quickly.

It's not that Saddam Hussein did not terrorize Iraq. It's not that the vast majority of Iraqis were not overjoyed to see him go. But they did not want to exchange one form of oppression for another; and that is exactly how the U.S. occupation has felt to them for a long time now. In fact, one of the more ironic failures of the war has been the way it's allowed Iraqis to feel almost nostalgic for Hussein's regime. Saddam has been gone for over two years now, and the misery they have now feels worse than the misery they had then. Many Iraqis will tell you (as they told Shadid) that at least the violence before the U.S. invasion was not uncontrolled. More than a few Iraqis told Shadid that the fear and anxiety are more pervasive and more awful than before.

The most difficult parts of the book to read (for me, at least) were the descriptions of the carnage caused by the initial U.S. bombing campaign (Shock and Awe) and by the insurgent violence (for which Iraqis blame the Americans, because it was the U.S. invasion that led to the insurgency). It's hard to read passages where Iraqis are saying things like, "I'm so afraid, all the time"; or, "Everytime an American tank goes by, I'm scared"; or "Why don't the Americans just take Saddam out of power? Why are they killing us? We are not the government!" or "What is the children's crime? What is their sin?" when holding the lifeless bodies of children killed in suicide bombings or by U.S. bombings. In one scene I'll never forget, Shadid writes about standing near an Iraqi man cradling a baby in his arms. This was early in the war, when the U.S. was still trying to "get" Saddam Hussein. American pilots dropped several bombs, each weighing 2,000 pounds, in the Mansur neighborhood of Baghdad. This is a residential neighborhood. People live there. One of those 2,000-pound bombs killed an Iraqi man's beloved child.

Protestations that the pilots did not intend to kill that baby; that the baby's death was an accident, fall short. What meaning do such excuses have to a man holding the bloody corpse of a baby he loved in his arms?

Americans are extraordinarily lucky not to know what it's like to experience these things on a daily basis. 9/11 is in no way comparable; it was a single, discrete event, in one city: not an invasion, not a war. In part, we have been spared constant war and invasion because of geography. But also we are spared by policy. We are spared because we do to others what we do not want done to ourselves. I'm very glad that America is spared the kind of tragedy and terror that Iraqis and most of the rest of the world experience on a regular basis. But to the extent that my safety, security, and peace are achieved and assured by making life hell for other people in other countries, I am ashamed.

Perhaps if more Americans truly understood, on a feeling level, what Iraqis are going through because of U.S. policy, it would start to change. This book is a good start. I recommend it. It's a must-read for every American.

No comments: