Where were you when the bombs started falling on Baghdad? Most of us imbibed the current war entirely via the 24-hour dripfeed of cable. Those embedded journalists and their night-vision cameras supposedly gave us an unprecedentedly intimate, soldier’s-eye perspective. Yet instead of edging us closer to “being there,” those TV tricks just disconnected us further. How many images from those hundreds of hours of invasion coverage burned their way into your memory, let alone yielded insights into the conflict?
Jon Lee Anderson’s Baghdad dispatches in The New Yorker literally brought the war home, supplying precisely what was lost in the televisual bombardment of meaningless images—wrenching sense of actual humans caught in the snare of geopolitical gamesmanship. Anderson went one step further: Instead of secreting himself in the bosom of an army convoy, he was one of the few to stay on as an independent journalist in Baghdad—a dicey decision that left him vulnerable first to Saddam’s malevolent officials and then, after the regime’s collapse, to kidnappers and terrorists.
Anderson has remodeled and recontextualized his New Yorker reports into The Fall of Baghdad, a riveting book that retains the visceral immediacy of the original pieces while also building cumulative resonance. Many of his pre-war interviews with Iraqis feel prophetic in retrospect, their warnings against the hubris of occupation and their fears of fundamentalism filling the power void now horribly vindicated. Because he maintained contact with several of his subjects over the book’s two-year span, Anderson conveys a sense of the vertiginous transformations in Iraqi society. Before the war, he was forced to decode the body language of people too frightened to speak openly—grabbing onto clues like a raised eyebrow here, a furtive shrug there. By book’s end, Anderson’s interviewees feel free to air grievances. But freedom also entails the post-Saddam chaos of looting and thuggery, and the current destabilized miasma of terrorism, kidnappings, religious factionalism, and a jumpy American occupying army.
The Fall of Baghdad offers a cavalcade of wonderfully evoked characters, not all of them Iraqi. Converging on the city on the eve of war are a motley crew of Western eccentrics, including a death-obsessed Vietnam vet from Brooklyn who sees himself living out Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and a former contestant from the Australian version of Big Brother (nicknamed “Donkey Boy” after he exposed his genitalia on TV) who is one of the well-meaning Human Shields. But Anderson naturally devotes most of his attention to the (male) natives: bureaucrats and poets, sheikhs and barbers, doctors and drivers. He’s particularly interested in those Iraqis who “had survived by collaborating in one way or another with the regime”—men like Dr. Ala Bashir, a prominent artist, surgeon, and confidant to Saddam. Bashir prides himself on his ability to speak honestly to Saddam, so maybe it’s not so surprising that he’s one of the first Iraqis willing to criticize Saddam in front of Anderson. But when pressed as to why he chose to remain in Iraq and serve a tyrant, Bashir replies with strangely evasive anecdotes, sheltering behind “the illusion of his neutral role as the doctor who checked up on Saddam’s corns,” as opposed to the morally complicit truth of his situation.
With his novelist’s eye for telling detail, Anderson slices through the mayhem (so overwhelming it perpetually risks leaving us numb) and instead homes in on the vivid, concrete specifics that bring out both the reality and the surreality of war. After the American forces pulverize the Baghdad telephone exchange, Anderson notes a bizarre ringing sound seeping from the building, like that of “a disconnected telephone, but much, much louder, as if a hundred phones had been left off their hooks.” At one of the first bomb sites he visits, he mingles with a crowd of people staring at “a man’s hand severed below the knuckles, sitting like a kind of macabre prop on a green metal window shutter”—the amputated remnant of one of those “surgical strikes” we heard about on the news, aimed at suburban neighborhoods rumored to be hiding Saddam. Anderson literally fleshes out the clinical statistics of civilian casualties and the Pentagon’s depersonalized talk about acceptable levels of collateral damage.
For me, the most revelatory part of The Fall of Baghdad is its portrait of post-war anarchy. Even though we know the messy outcome, it’s shocking to witness the chaos unfolding in these pages, and the utter absence of coalition planning. Looting spreads through the city like plague (or as Anderson puts it, like a cancer metastasizing). He sees people stealing fire engines, and watches a father and son step around a dead man as they try to steal the corpse’s van. Visiting Ala Bashir’s hospital, Anderson finds it threatened by marauders, guarded by one medical student. Although American troops seem oblivious and unconcerned, Anderson persuades a platoon to follow him, only to find himself effectively leading a troop of confused young men with little idea of what role they’re supposed to play: “When we arrived, the marines leapt out and got into crouching combat-ready stances facing the hospital.” After Anderson explains that it’s the hospital they should be protecting, the soldiers obediently turn around and point their guns at the street. Distilling the story of American unpreparedness and botched nation-building into this single potent image, Anderson shows how a well-wrought word-picture is worth a thousand hours of CNN.