Scanning the enormous body of literature about the Iraq War, one theme consistently emerges, as captured by the title of a new history of the conflict by Jonathan Steele, a roving foreign correspondent for the London Guardian: Defeat (Counterpoint, 2008).
Unlike many commentators, who see the post-war period as a series of mistakes that undid a successful and just invasion, Steele dismisses the notion that the war was one of “liberation,” describes Bush as a man “Ignorant of any culture other than his own” and labels the British and American rule as “imperial.”
In detailing the imperial arrogance and ignorance that doomed the Iraq war from the start, Steele could be writing about George Packer, a liberal hawk who backed the war because of “human rights” and author of The Assassins’ Gate (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005). A talented reporter for The New Yorker, Packer succumbs all too often to prejudices of the American mind. He mentions the infamous April 2003 incident in Fallujah, when U.S. troops killed 17 protesters, saying, despite all evidence otherwise, that the G.I.s were “provoked”; he claims ignorantly that the Shi’a uprising in April 2004 was “obviously planned in advance”; and is so disconnected he concludes the book, “The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is.”
One of the finest accounts of the war, The Occupation (Verso, 2006), is by veteran Iraq hand Patrick Cockburn who combines history, humor and a skeptical eye. He notes the sacking of Baghdad should not have surprised anyone familiar with Iraq’s history of warrelated looting. He provides a nuanced picture of the Kurds as the best-organized political force in post-Saddam Iraq, but with an illequipped army far less fearsome than thought. Cockburn counters the notion that tribalism is supreme in Iraq with insight into how identities are fluid, while noting many sheikhs were pretenders installed by Hussein. And unlike Packer, mesmerized by the election mirage of 2005, Cockburn lays out how the electoral process stoked sectarianism and the insurgency.
For military historians, a central question is was the occupation doomed from the start? Michael R. Gordon and Gen. Bernard E. Trainor, authors of Cobra II (Pantheon, 2006), offer that the insurgency “was not a preordained event” and there is no evidence Hussein planned a guerrilla war, a conclusion made by the Pentagon in The Iraqi Perspectives Report (Naval Institute Press, 2006). Gordon and Trainor note the unilateral war gave the United States the spoils, but left it in need of international help, which it spurned, to run a country it didn’t understand. A small force meant a lightning victory (all the better for an ambitious schedule of wars), but a lack of troops led to more force against the occupied.
Despite their voluminous detail, these histories give no real sense of the devastation wrought on Iraq. Generation Kill (Berkley Caliber, 2005) by Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright portrays the slaughter that accompanied the U.S. entry into Iraq. Quoting a U.S. Marine, Wright describes one forgotten battle in which U.S. artillery levels a town because, “We had one guy shot in the foot.” He writes of frequent use of cluster bombs on civilians and the killings of innumerable Iraqis at checkpoints, including one incident in which, as a Marine goes to aid a little girl cowering in a car shot up by Americans, “the top of her head slides off and her brains fall out.”
There are many works that look at the war from the Iraqi perspective, such as the blog-books Baghdad Burning (The Feminist Press, 2005) and Salam Pax (Grove Press, 2003) by not-so-ordinary Iraqis — after all, they are fluent in English and have access to computers and the Internet. Dripping with sarcasm and candid about their anger and fear, these works capture the feeling of what it’s like to be bombed into freedom.
There is a whole class of unembedded reporters who decided the story was not just about riding around with small-town grunts clueless about Iraq, but in the mix of Iraqi society itself. In The Freedom (The New Press, 2005), Christian Parenti vividly covers the early days of an occupation steeped in chaos, insanity and anomie. He writes of soldiers stealing money and trading photos of war gore, the rapid emergence of prostitution, the tendency for everyone to pop pharmaceuticals and the casual, institutional brutality that results in a village being sealed in razor wire and grunts allowed to shoot to kill anyone, which some do lavishly.
The reconstruction fiasco has spawned a whole line of books. Iraq, Inc. (Seven Stories Press, 2004) by Pratap Chatterjee looks at how sweatshop labor, overcharging, shoddy work, a lack of accountability and extreme profits left Iraq’s infrastructure in a worse state than 12 years of sanctions and war did. T. Christian Miller’s Blood Money (Little, Brown, 2006) is a fine work of invest igat ive reporting that uncovers all manners of corruption, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City (Knopf, 2006) is set within the bubble world of Green Zone administrators, where blind loyalty to Bush is all that matters.
There are also numerous studies on the subject of torture and war crimes. In Torture and Truth (New York Review of Books, 2004), Mark Danner gathers together the published reports on the Abu Ghraib scandal and gives them context. Seymour Hersh’s Chain of Command (Harper Perennial, 2004) looks at the decisionmaking that led from 9-11 to institutionalized torture in Iraq. And in Crimes of War (Nation Books, 2006), various writers examine the whole framework of the war and occupation in the context of international law. Finally, for anyone who knows one of the many liberals who say they oppose the war, but maintain the United States has a “responsibility” to stay in Iraq, buy them a copy of Iraq: The Logic of Withdrawal (Metropolitan Books, 2007) by Anthony Arnove for a lucid analysis why immediate, unconditional withdrawal is the only solution. —A.K. Gupta
other notable books:
Beyond the Green Zone
Night Draws Near
Henry Holt, 2005
In the Belly of the Green Bird
Free Press, 2006
The New Imperialism
The Age of War
Lynne Reiner, 2006
Metropolitan Books, 2003
Hegemony or Survival
Metropolitan Books, 2006