Jon Lee Anderson. The Fall of Baghdad. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. viii + 375 pp. $16.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-14-303585-5.
Reviewed by Wm. Shane Story (U.S. Army Center of Military History)
Published on H-War (May, 2006)
An Iraqi Tragedy
Like a greyhound chasing a mechanical hare, Jon Anderson has raced after America's war on terror without catching his prey. Nevertheless, the race has made a good story. A veteran foreign correspondent, Anderson returned to old haunts in Afghanistan after the attacks of September 11 to report on the fall of the Taliban. A year later, Anderson published The Lion's Grave: Dispatches from Afghanistan(2002), but the world's attention suddenly shifted to Iraq and Anderson continued the chase. The Fall of Baghdad is Anderson's travelogue of the next twenty-one months, from Saddam's referendum and prisoner amnesty in October 2002 to Ambassador Paul Bremer's self-congratulatory departure from Baghdad in June 2004. Anderson's writing emphasizes details, colors, and the ambience of the places he visits and the facial expressions of the people he meets and cultivates as sources. For background material, Anderson jumbles years and events--1958, 1920, 1979, an assassination, a coup--suggesting hidden meanings in such anachronisms. Anderson sees contradictions everywhere, and he dresses them up as riddles. Offering intrigue at the expense of analysis or answers, Anderson's riddles bear only a patina of wisdom.
Developing portraits of a few Iraqis to give his story depth, Anderson emphasizes the experiences of Dr. Ala Bashir, Saddam Hussein's doctor, favorite artist, and confidant. Bashir saw Hussein as a ruthless survivor, and his system of survival depended on tyranny. Tyranny, Bashir thought, was a virtual prerequisite for governing Iraq, so even its mass killings--or killings of the masses were not beyond the pale, because they were necessary to sustain the state. On the other hand, Bashir damned the regime he served for its unmitigated corruption, for "dictatorship, for murder, for torture and bloodshed" (p. 70). The system culminated in Saddam's despotic son Uday, a psychopath, serial rapist, thief, and murderer who transformed tyranny into recreation and "humiliated many Iraqis, many officials" (p. 292). Bashir believed such corruption sealed the regime's fate; someone had to overthrow Saddam.
Bashir admired western democracies and thought that life was worthless in totalitarian states like the Soviet Union and communist China, and yet "no place was crueler than Iraq" (p. 71). Although Bashir prospered because Saddam survived, he held America responsible for Iraq's fate. Just as the United States kept Castro in power in Cuba, Bashir thought, the United States kept Saddam in power for its own purposes. Most Iraqis must have shared Bashir's impression of America's virtual omnipotence, because when the Americans came, resistance seemed pointless and the regime collapsed. Bashir claimed vindication; "I was expecting this" (p. 291).
The regime's swift collapse hardly seemed predictable in the midst of the invasion. The bombing campaign, which General Franks had billed as "shock and awe," was impressive in its scale and precision, but it failed to topple the regime. Once American forces reached Baghdad, however, panic set in and civilians fled. When Iraqi soldiers declined to fight, the government fell and disorder spread. Initial encounters between American forces and Iraqis tended toward friendly amusement in an atmosphere of liberation. Disorder grew, however, as looting escalated into mob frenzies. With the situation out of control, American forces began stopping traffic, erecting barriers, implementing curfews and detaining hundreds of suspects. Anderson left Iraq in late April 2003, when the Americans seemed to be re-establishing authority and laying the groundwork for a transitional Iraqi government.
Weeks of instability, however, kept Iraq in the headlines, and Anderson returned to Baghdad in the latter half of June 2003. An American official warned Anderson that Iraq was a mess and very dangerous, especially around the western towns of Ar Ramadi and Al Fallujah. The American enterprise, the official thought, gave every sign of failing. In Baghdad, Anderson found Bashir full of complaints about the Americans. Americans gave the impression of listening and caring about Iraqis' welfare, Bashir said, but they did not deliver on their promises. Moreover, tribal chiefs complained that the Americans dissembled about their intentions and had failed "to put things right"(p. 319). Anderson's visit to an American unit in Fallujah confirmed his worst fears about the American forces' inability to comprehend or deal with Iraqis. The troops were lost, and the chain of command was in denial. An American battalion commander, whom Anderson described as enthusiastic, stated, "Fallujah is a success story" (p. 328). Anderson's tour of Fallujah with an armored patrol indicated otherwise. At one point, Anderson witnessed an unwinnable testosterone-driven clash between a Fallujah shopkeeper and an American soldier, a "psy ops officer, a beefy man in his thirties" (p. 331). The American, who presumably thought his pierced tongue was an expression of stylish independence, found it brought only insults and ridicule from the Iraqis. Fear and respect were long gone, and laughing young Fallujans toyed with the Americans as a prelude to attacking them.
Month by month the situation deteriorated. Iraqis demanded solutions and respect from the Americans, but denounced and assassinated other Iraqis for working with occupiers. American actions seemed clumsy and inept, whether it was cracking down or backing off, all of it culminating in the stillborn Marine assault on Fallujah in April 2004. The first pictures of Abu Ghraib torture surfaced, followed by jihadists sawing off Nicholas Berg's head. Finally, Paul Bremer turned sovereignty back over to the Iraqis on June 28, 2004 and returned to Washington, satisfied that he had left Iraq better than he found it.
Anderson's style imposed its own limitations on his work. Long before the invasion, Anderson cultivated relationships with Iraqis approved by the regime--his driver, his "minder" from the Ministry of Information, and ranking regime insiders like Saddam's doctor--to provide personalities and depth for his stories. Anderson tracked these same individuals' lives after Saddam's fall. Anderson's regime-connected contacts accepted Saddam's demise as necessary, but they were stunned to see their own fortunes melt away as well. Theirs is the tragic story that Anderson relates, and not that of the Kurds or Shiites whose torture was Saddam and whose freedom was anything but Saddam.
As Anderson closed his work in 2004, he saw great risks in Iraq, both of a nationwide jihad against the Americans and of an Iraqi-on-Iraqi civil war. The Fall of Baghdad illuminates some of the prejudices and conflicts that energized the strife. Those insights make Anderson's work a worthwhile read, with the caveat that readers should not expect a developed or documented consideration of the failed defense of Baghdad or any comprehension of American military operations. Since Anderson offers no analysis, the wait continues for a capable study of the American war and the Iraqi crisis.
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