Seeing What Others Failed to Notice
Reporting from Baghdad, Jon Lee Anderson ‘offers a profound antidote to the simplistic impulses of American television news ….’
A year or so later, Anderson has taken those experiences and has woven them into a journalist’s narrative, a tale, at times harrowing, at times hilarious, at times troubling, of how one reporter works day-to-day in Iraq. Unlike his New Yorker pieces, here Anderson pays equal attention to the nitty-gritty of the journalistic enterprise, the “how-do-Ido- this” quality of reporting in Iraq, as he does to the life of the society he is covering. Indeed, the culture of foreign reporting in Baghdad, a city under growing physical and psychological siege during Anderson’s stay there, forms much of the framework for his book, sometimes distractingly so.
In the months leading up to the American invasion in the spring of 2003 Anderson, convinced that war was inevitable, sought out academics and, when possible, government officials in Iran and Iraq for their thoughts on what a postwar Iraq would look like. Almost invariably, the men to whom Anderson spoke were more prescient about the probable aftermath of the war than were the Americans huddling in a resort in Kuwait. Indeed, during the months leading up to the war, I spent a good deal of time in Kuwait interviewing the American officials plotting the organization of post-Iraq, and it was abundantly clear that they knew nothing about Iraqi society, whether it was the structure of the Baath Party, the nascent power and determination of the majority Shiite population, or the reception that American troops would receive; much was still being made in those preparatory months of Paul Wolfowitz’s insistence that the invasion forces would be treated as liberators.
Far more keen-eyed was a political scientist Anderson encountered, Wamid Omar Nadhmi, who told him before the war, “I can’t imagine seeing Western troops walking in the streets of Baghdad. I can’t imagine this being accepted by the Iraqi people, and I think if there is, we will see a growing resistance in the future.” How right he was. But then, as we know now, and was clear from the clownish efforts in Kuwait to create a postwar governing structure, the Americans only talked to Iraqi exiles like Ahmed Chalabi, the sort of men who told the Americans what they wanted to know: that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that Iraqis would welcome American soldiers with bouquets and kisses the way Parisians did in World War II.
Of all those he interviewed, no one was as central to Anderson’s reporting as a man named Ala Bashir, an artist and doctor, and not just any doctor, but one of Saddam Hussein’s personal physicians. Stretching back to 2000, three years before the war, Anderson’s friendship with Bashir, and that is what it was, accorded him an access and insight into the mind of the regime and to Saddam himself. As American and British war forces assembled in Kuwait, Bashir expressed a fatalism about his country and explained to Anderson with a rare, and possibly dangerous, candor why Saddam was not preparing for war. “The whole country, and even the Baath Party members, are weary and apathetic, as if they don’t care what is coming and are resigned to whatever happens,” he told Anderson. “You have to remember that every Iraqi has had someone in his family in prison, either here or in Iran, as a prisoner of war. Or else someone in his family has been killed in war or by the regime.”
It is in this almost gentle allusion to the thorough barbarism of Saddam’s regime that Bashir identifies the distress and anguish that pervaded Iraq. Confined in large measure to Baghdad as the war tempo accelerated and, once the invasion began, absorbed in describing its impact on the people in the capital, Anderson leaves to others the task of chronicling the extent of Saddam’s savagery towards his people. For many reporters who were, as the military so aptly put it, “embedded” with coalition forces, Iraq was seen through the lens of invading warriors. But for some of us who roamed Iraq alone in the close wake of the invading armies, the tales of torture, imprisonment, disappearances, executions and the obliteration of a culture and society—the marsh Arabs—became the first real pictures of what living under Saddam was truly like.
Unquestionably, Anderson and his Baghdad colleagues were in great danger during the assault on the capital. And he recounts in riveting detail the bombing, his shifts from hotel to hotel, the struggle to communicate with his office in New York on his handheld satellite phone. At times, for the nonjournalist, his accounts of the nuts and bolts of reporting clutter the broader mosaic of Baghdad life he so carefully and strikingly assembles. Even so, Anderson, perhaps a little too merrily to endear himself to some of his colleagues, delights in baiting foreign reporters for what he sees as their obtuseness, obliviousness, or general ignorances. High on his list of targets are French reporters who, Anderson writes, in the buildup to the war would squire a senior official from the Iraqi press office to dinner where they “arrayed themselves around him in respectful postures, their eyes shining with the rapt gazes of a guru’s apprentices.”
On occasion Anderson stumbles slightly, insisting in one passage that Iraq had never experienced democratic government and then later suggesting that the United States invasion would restore democracy. And he suffers as well, although less so than many reporters, from his lack of Arabic, a language that has allowed reporters such as Anthony Shadid, of The Washington Post, and Mohamad Bazzi, of Newsday, to file startlingly intimate accounts of Iraqi society.
In the end, though, Anderson, never content with facile explanation, offers a profound antidote to the simplistic impulses of American television news, observing that “there was no single defining moment of national catharsis that signified a break with the past. The toppling of Saddam’s statue in Firdos Square had symbolized a great deal to people abroad and perhaps especially to Americans … but to most Iraqis … the event had been a largely irrelevant sideshow. Meanwhile, they were being forced to watch, as passive spectators, the wholesale looting and vandalism of their capital city. Their liberators, the Americans, watched passively along with them.”
This deep sense of disquiet pervades Anderson’s book, a sense that by some measures “liberation” has brought not the wealth of “freedom” promised by the Bush administration but has instead unearthed the fragility and violence of a society torn by forces neither it, nor the American-led coalition, truly understand or can control. Anderson leaves us almost in despair for, as he writes, a year after the invasion, “it seemed as if Baghdad had not really fallen at all—or perhaps it was still falling.”
Edward A. Gargan, a 2005 Nieman Fellow, is Asia bureau chief for Newsday. During the past four-and-a-half years he has worked in war zones, including the Afghan war, the American invasion of Iraq, and the Palestinian uprising.
As many readers of this book will know, Jon Lee Anderson was hunkered down in Baghdad before and during the American assault on the Saddam Hussein regime filing powerful and compelling reports for The New Yorker each week. While American and European newspaper correspondents were reporting daily from the Iraqi capital during the late winter and early spring of 2003, Anderson was blessed with weekly deadlines that allowed him to wander more, to explore byways of the capital, within the constraints of the ever-monitoring secret police, to linger over conversations with people he met.