Monday, January 2, 2012

The Fall of Baghdad - Jon Lee Anderson

An Iraqi youth walked up to me, showed me some kind of a military medal, and said, in English, "Saddam animal," then walked away. Groups of young Iraqi men would wander up, smil, give the thumbs-up, say, "Down Bush", or, "America good," before walking on. It was unclear o me whether they meant what they said or thought this was a ritual they should perform.

The Fall of Baghdad is not a book analyzing the arguments in favor or against the American invasion of Iraq, though the book argues that the two opportunities to invade Iraq on humanitarian causes were when Saddam Hussein bombed the Kurds with chemical weapons, and after the 1991 Gulf War, when Saddam massacred the Shia population of the Southeast. This not a book about explaining what Americans should do (or should have done in 2004) to calm the mess Iraq quickly became, either. In fact, a tremendous amount of books and articles on these topics were written since 2002 but none of them became nearly as successful as this.

The Fall of Baghdad tries to tell how the life of about six Baghdadis changed between early 2003 and mid 2004. The aim of the book, modest only in appearance, is to do what the American intelligence community should have done but did not bother to: survey the hearts and feelings of some Iraqis on how an American intervention would be received (probably the American secret services did carry out some in-field intelligence, but it was not heard at all, so it counts as if it didn't do anything). Collecting the views of Iraqis at that time was no easy task.  There were few American journalists in Baghdad as the coalition troops entered the city, and the city fell into disorder quickly after. Talking to people, or even going back to the hotel, should not have been an easy task.

The Fall of Baghdad was issued right before the 2004 election, and it quickly was used by the Democratic Party as a testimony of George W. Bush's failure to provide stability to ordinary Iraqis, as well as to bring American troops back. The book became a bestseller, and Anderson joined the debate, siding with the Democrats, as this interview shows.

Eight years later, once that Americans left Iraq, and the country slides into sectarian chaos instead of chaos focused to make Americans go, I think this book is valuable for three reasons. The first one is that it tries to portray what Iraqis think, taking their opinions at face value. Anderson was criticized for this, but I think that this way of narrating inscribes in the tradition of historiography created by Thucydides and followed by chroniclers like Bernal Díaz del Castillo. Anderson could have editorialized his book, like many journalists do today, but then it would be a description of Anderson's thoughts on other people's thoughts.

The second reason is literary and is the reason why this book should be mandatory for students on journalism and literature. The Fall of Baghdad feels like a novel narrated from the first person rather than a journalist document. Anderson achieves this by not corroborating or denying the information that he received in real time. Anderson was in Iraq, getting sporadic information from the West and subject to the rumors in the street and the propaganda of Saddam's Ministry of Information. As he reviewed his notes and drafted the book, he could perfectly have narrowed all the opinions and ideas he heard by using formulas like "as we realized later, this proved to be false." Instead, Anderson lets facts follow their natural course, and information gets denied or confirmed, or left unaddressed, in their due moment. There are only two moments in the book where Anderson corroborates his real-time impressions  with information received later on: right after the attacks of the American army to the Palestine Hotel, which Anderson thought had been carried out by Iraqi terrorists, and when he confirms that a burned boy he saw at the hospital was in the U.S. receiving medical treatment.

The third reason, and this can't be stressed enough, is that it shows the failure of American intelligence. It took Anderson a couple of interviews in late 2002 to realize that American troops wouldn't be received "with sweets and flowers", as the Bush administration forced itself to believe. The fact that a semi-independent journalist did a better job than the CIA on surveying Iraqis' feelings about Americans is disconcerting and worrisome. The inability to assess the conditions of the invasion aftermath is the real failure of the U.S. intelligence and not, as some people argue, the obsession with Saddam's WMD. Saddam confessed in his interrogations to have bluffed about the WMD because he was afraid of showing weakness to the Iranians, so he brought disaster on himself -and on his people.

Here is a preview of The Fall of Baghdad via Google Books.

Here is Anderson's latest writing on Iraq, published by The New Yorker a couple of days after the last American soldier left Iraq.

And below is Anderson talking about the book, via NPR:

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