I heard Abdul-Ahad interviewed on the radio and immediately bought his book. I was very interested to know what the Iraq war felt like to an Iraqi. As an American, my memories begin with hearing Condoleeza Rice talk about Saddam Hussein causing a “mushroom cloud over New York City,” and Vice President Cheney promising that the war wouldn’t cost us anything, it would be paid for by revenue from the Iraqi oil fields. I thought they were both living in Wonderland, and this book shows how far away from reality they were.
One point of the book is summed up on page 126. An Iraqi man torn between warring factions says, “‘I am between two fires, my Sunni neighbours who would kill me if I don’t go out with them into the street, and the Shia militia.’ He paused before correcting himself. ‘No, three fires—there are the Americans, too.'” The Americans were on the margins of what was going on in Iraq, an afterthought to ordinary Iraqis.
The book opens with the author waking up in a hotel room in Baghdad in 2007. He remembers a photograph of him and his teenage schoolmates taken in 1991, just before the Second Gulf War. At that time, he didn’t know know who was Shia and who was Sunni. Now where are they? Kidnapped? Killed? In exile? His hotel room is “heavy with the dust of two decades of War, Sanctions and Occupation.” The hotel pool was the scene of happy afternoons when the author was a child, but now “[t]wo car bombs have left long, thin cracks on the walls; plastic sheeting covers a broken window, and pipes are dripping in the bathroom, where layers of grimy green mould carpet the corners.” When the Americans first attacked, the hotel had been the scene of the “bliss of war survivors,” correspondents who “caroused and rekindled old affairs from previous wars.” The war correspondents have “binary cognition of black and white, Hutu and Tutsi, Muslim and Serbian,” and in Iraq, Shia and Sunni. As the war dragged on, the hotel became “a suffocating and depressing holding pen,” and that was only the beginning of the suffering.
For Iraqis, the disruption of the American invasion was not “shock and awe,” but a replay of eight years of war with Iran that was still hot in their memories, including the Iranian Scud missiles that hit Baghdad. (FYI: though Abdul-Ahad lived in Baghdad, he never heard or saw the “shock and awe” that was playing on my television set in New Jersey.) The invasion also recalled the bloated propaganda of Saddam Hussein—his militaristic posturing, the lying about casualties, everyone’s fear of being caught up somehow by the secret police. Nobody knows exactly how many people were killed in the eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, but it is well over half a million, with the worst casualties being suffered by Iran. Still, there were terrible Iraqi losses and the inchoate fear of missile strikes.
In 2003, when the Americans came, Iraqis were not starting from zero. They were starting at fearful-but-hoping-for-the-best, and by the end of the book, their bodies were being eaten by dogs in the street.
This is a war story as frank and thundering as All Quiet on the Western Front or Matterhorn. But that is not what struck me. It is what the Iraq war has done to America. Into a fragile but healing country we imported chaos, callousness, ignorance, and mountains of money. The result was occasionally helpful, such as the air strikes that helped push ISIS out of Mosul, but mainly either irrelevant or destructive. An already corrupt kleptocracy was supercharged by American cash which went to politicians who served the American project of weakening Iran. Weapons and sustenance were supplied, though inconsistently, to favored Iraqis, but much of it camped out in the pockets of the politicians, not in the homes and tummies of ordinary Iraqis or even ordinary Iraqi soldiers. Military leaders were appointed according to their bribes, not their brains. The Iraqi landscape is thoroughly confusing, especially to an American reader unfamiliar with common Arabic words. Halfway through, I had grasped that the Shia were generally poor and from the South, and Sunni had served under Saddam, but then there are Christians (Nazarenes), too, and a fair share of the non-religious, and the power shifted back and forth. The general atmosphere of unreliability, mendacity, panic and terror, unbridled butchery, anger and resentment is made clear. Perhaps Iraqis themselves were more able to place events and people, but they were no more able than an American reader to make sense of the chaos.
The divisions that had always existed in Iraq, flaring form time to time, were pried open by this war. Once enough war buddies and family had been killed, once the horror and emotional lethargy created by exhaustion and brutality took hold as families buried their children and lost their homes, a murderous mania took over. “…hundreds of commanders both Shia and Sunnis had begun the fight for a variety of reasons: religious, national, protecting one’s neighborhood, sect, tribe, or family. These men, who had …destroyed for what they believed in, had after a few years of fighting become nothing more than criminals exploiting the opportunities available to them in the chaos of civil war. And that is probably one of the most lasting legacies of civil wars.” America knows about that; a hundred-plus years later, it is still suffering the consequences of its own civil war.
The chaos, division, confusion, and corruption caused in Iraq is now being re-created in America. It’s almost as though Iraq had taught us the value of chaos. Self-interested would-be autocrats are prying apart sections of the populace who had always lived in relative harmony, making them suddenly hungry to destroy each other. Fueling Iraqi and American unrest is fury at the corruption at the top, mistrust of the government, and rage at the wealth of the few made possible by the labor and sacrifice of millions. It matters that the U.S. Supreme Court is corrupt, that misinformation and self-aggrandizing propaganda are taking over the airwaves, that the top 1% hold more wealth than the entire middle class. This creates a roiling anger and resentment that can be marshaled to turn us against each other. Ordinary Iraqis and ordinary Americans cannot be hoodwinked by pretty pictures and strutting promises; they know what’s going on.
The unrelenting savagery of the Islamic State is well represented in the book, but its warnings look deeper: “…perhaps the victory of the Islamic State lay in its ability to make the people adopt its own savagery. Those who were the most cruel in torturing the detainees were often the ones who had not seen actual combat: the unit cook, the logistics officers, people who spent the war in the rear.” We are seeing this contagion in the U.S. today. The shooters, the destroyers, are not men strutting around in public with AR-15s slung across their chests, bulletproof vests and slogans on their backs, they are misfits, the ones who have missed the boat, the ones not invited to the party, the loners. Abdul-Ahad writes: …the Americans…saw themselves as saviours, not conquerors. As for the Iraqis, friend and foe alike, this was still an extension of America’s war, even if it was now only Iraqis who were butchering Iraqis.” America is becoming the leader in division, chaos, and butchery, both in our own country and elsewhere.
The book ends with two post-war events: 1) the capsizing of an ill-maintained ferry in Mosul killing over a hundred men, women, and children, and 2) the demonstrations in Tahrir Square (called Tishreen) which threatened to bring down the vile corrupt government that was holding onto the money meant for redevelopment instead of rebuilding after all that was lost. The ferry tragedy revealed the corruption of the government, even after the war was over. “The ineptitude of the Iraqi state was laid bare. In oil-wealthy Iraq, the Mosul River Police Department had one boat which had sat broken for many months. Nor did they have lifejackets, or even ropes to the throw to the people drifting and drowning in front of them. While the chief of the river police had jumped into a civilian boat and gone to help…, his men just stood there staring. They didn’t know what to do, most of them had never trained for such a crisis. Some didn’t even know how to swim.” Warnings that the ferry should not operate were ignored by the ferry owners so that they could benefit from a particularly profitable day. News of the ferry tragedy spread throughout Iraq and “[l]ike everything in Iraq, the ferry became a political issue.” Does that sound familiar, America?
During the 2019 Tishreen Uprising, hundreds of thousands of people surged into the streets of Baghdad. Many protesters were killed by government forces, but they persisted. The protesters were young, an undifferentiated mix of Shia, Sunnis, Christians, and apostates. After surviving the butchery of the recent war, they were still unemployed and hungry, bled dry by what Abdul-Ahad calls “the post-2003 ruling class.” They knew that this same old, same old, would bring them back to a place where they would die anyway. As the uprising lingered, the author notes the familiar splitting, mainly on religious lines. Religion was at the heart of the civil war in Iraq and it is at the heart of the civil unrest in America.
Americans would do well to heed the last lines of the book. “Tishreen eventually failed, another compromise prime minister was elected, and the domination of kleptocracy continues to this day. But Tishreen showed the power of the people when not cowed by sectarian fears, and indicates that the post-2003 state can no longer satisfy its own people. The failure of consecutive regimes…to reform and listen to the demands of their people led to their demise eventually…. As dozens of militias cajole and compete with each other to capture a bigger share of state spoils…the failure of the ruling class, the religious parties, regional bosses, the clergy and militias to heed the warnings of Tishreen will lead to their eventual demise.”
America has militias today; it has religious parties, regional bosses, a self-satisfied ruling class, and kleptocrats galore. America is not Iraq, but we should be careful not to fall into the chaos, confusion, and destruction that American forces brought to Iraq, exacerbating the already annoying divides into murderous factions that destroyed the country.