Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Review The Fall of Baghdad

Review Anderson, Jon Lee, The Fall of Baghdad, New York: Penguin Press, 2004

The Fall of Baghdad was written by Jon Lee Anderson who worked for the New Yorker. It was about his time he spent in Baghdad from 2002 before the U.S. invasion of Iraq until right afterward. The story reads like a journal of Anderson’s day to day activities waiting for the war to start, the Iraqis he met, and then the chaos that came afterward. Anderson was one of the few to report on what Iraqis were experiencing during this period and realized early on that they would not stand for a U.S. occupation.

A major part of the book is Anderson talking about all the Iraqis he met. Every day he went out in Baghdad he was assigned a handler by the Ministry of Information. They had to follow strict rules or get in trouble with the government. For instance, they couldn’t talk about any of the presidential palaces that they drove past every day. In Basra, he met people who were angry at the Americans claiming their use of depleted uranium during the Gulf War made them sick. He even got to go to Iran and talked with members of the Islamic Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution, an Iraqi opposition party created by Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War. This was an important addition to the Iraq War cannon. Very few Americans knew nor talked about Iraqis especially at an individual level. Many in the Bush administration thought they knew what Iraqis wanted. Many in the Iraqi opposition had been in exile for up to a decade or more and had no idea what was happening in their former homeland. Here you get a series of stories of day to day life under Saddam right before his fall.

The second half of the book was about the invasion and its aftermath. Anderson described the bombings that shook his hotel. The infamous Iraqi Information Minister Mohammed al-Sahaf who began giving press conferences claiming the Americans were losing. The government would also take journalists on tours to emphasize the civilian casualties of the war. As soon as the Americans reached Baghdad everything fell apart. The authorities disappeared and people started looting everything they could get their hands on. There were shortages, there was anger at the Americans, who were completely out of their element dealing with civilians. Anderson visited many of the Iraqis he knew to ask them to reflect upon their time under Saddam, but few were willing to do so. All of them condemned the dictatorship, but most of them had worked for the Baath and couldn’t explain why they had done so. The author provides a good firsthand account of his time in the capital during this period. It was utter chaos, which he captured well. Again, he was able to talk to Iraqis about their experience which was missing from a lot of the reporting.   

Finally, Anderson had some very good insights. He spends one chapter on the 1920 Revolt, and then returns to it in the epilogue. The 1920 Revolt was when Iraqis rose up against the British Mandate and fighting broke out across southern and central Iraq. This started when the English promised Iraqis self-rule when they invaded during World War I, but ended up being colonialists instead. Anderson predicted that the Americans would face the same experience and they did. The U.S. invasion was called Operation Iraqi Freedom, but as Anderson found, few embraced the Americans. Instead may felt disappointed and oppressed all over again, which led to the insurgency and revolts by Moqtada al-Sadr. Few in the U.S. knew about Iraq, and even fewer knew Iraqi history. Anderson was a reporter who did some homework and came up with a perfect parallel between the past and the present.

The Fall of Baghdad is a very interesting read. The majority of books on the Iraq war focus upon the Americans, the Iraqi elite and exiles, and the insurgency. Anderson was able to talk to plenty of Iraqis from his government handler to a taxi driver to an artist who was favored by Saddam. The inclusion of their stories was the most important part because Iraqi voices have been consistently missing from many western books on Iraq. Anderson could also see how things were going early on with opposition to the U.S. and compared it to the 1920 Revolt. That makes The Fall of Baghdad a good addition to the traditional history books on the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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