Top-down and bottom-up views of Iraq

In January 1991, the U.S. military started waging the first Gulf War. From the moment my friends and I gathered in a dorm room around a tiny television to watch CNN reporting live from Baghdad, I was addicted to war.

In January 1991, the U.S. military started waging the first Gulf War. From the moment my friends and I gathered in a dorm room around a tiny television to watch CNN reporting live from Baghdad, I was addicted to war.

Within a week, I covered an entire wall in my dorm room with a collage of magazine photographs of the war. Some students were so alarmed by my obsession and the pictures that they hinted I should remove them. Fifteen years later and more than three years into an altogether different war, I remain equally obsessed about the emotional journeys of soldiers and reporters who witness the raw violence and fear of war up close.

At the start of the first Gulf War, I could have dropped out of college and enlisted to see the war firsthand. But by the time that idea popped into my head, the war had ended and the roaring 1990s had began. But this time, with the help of friends and colleagues, I spent a few weeks in Iraq in 2004 and again in 2005, and got a glimpse of a war that most people would never see.

I doubt I’d go back, but being able to read memoirs of soldiers and journalists is the next best thing to being there. George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate, Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away, Larry Diamond’s Squandered Victory and John Crawford’s The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell are among the best.

But the two memoirs that should be required reading for every member of Congress and the media are Anthony Shadid’s Night Draws Near and Paul Bremer’s My Year in Iraq. Although they differ in tone and style, they provide the most insightful glimpse of the American experience in Iraq.


Shadid, a reporter for The Washington Post, tells the story of the Iraq war from the viewpoint of everyday Iraqis who suffered under Saddam’s reign of terror, the crushing “shock and awe” campaign that rained on Baghdad and the fear and uncertainty instilled by the insurgency. His ability to speak Arabic and understand Arab culture provides a view of the war that never appeared on the nightly news or in the newspapers.

Most important, Shadid’s lyrical writing humanizes Iraqis in ways that most American reporters cannot. Night Draws Near has an Anne Frank quality to it because Shadid reprints the diaries of a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, Amal. Her view of the world neatly traces America’s involvement in Iraq. Her first entries after Baghdad falls ask, “What are the Americans going to do with us now?” and, later, “Where is the help?”

What Shadid describes in haunting detail is that it would be impossible to help. The invasion unleashed a virulent Iraqi nationalism grounded in Islam, which the United States never saw coming. The Bush administration became trapped among religious Shiites, a weakened Sunni community without a real leader and skittish Kurds. All the while, the Iraqi exiles in whom Bush had placed so much faith seemed only to exacerbate problems and bureaucratic infighting.

After “the fall,” which is how Iraqis refer to what Republicans call “liberation” and the war’s critics call “the occupation,” a Baghdad man quotes an old Iraqi proverb to describe the American reconstruction effort in Iraq: “If you want a rabbit, take a rabbit,” he said. “If you want a gazelle, go ahead and settle for the rabbit.” In other words, one would prefer a sleek and speedy gazelle rather than a rabbit, but rabbits are easier to catch.


Enter L. Paul “Jerry” Bremer, the American viceroy in Iraq from June 2003 to June 2004 whom many Iraqis counted on for swift and much-needed help — to be the “gazelle,” as Iraqis put it. But early in the book it becomes clear that the task is too overwhelming for any one man or even one government.

Amid the summer’s grinding heat, the cultural gap between American and Arabs and a lack of communication, a reader can feel Bremer’s fatigue and frustration.

“Trying to absorb all this was like grabbing fog,” Bremer writes, referring to his inability to control the storyline in the media. But he might as well have been talking about the entire operation.

If Karl von Clausewitz wrote that war is a continuation of politics by other means and Mao Tse-tung coined the phrase that politics is bloodless war, Bremer’s book is an attempt to settle scores through publishing. And settle scores he does.

Midway through the book, it becomes clear that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is more concerned with getting out of Iraq than with improving the security situation. Rumsfeld’s unwillingness to commit more troops, which Bremer views as pressuring him to transfer power quickly to an unelected body of Iraqi exiles led by Ahmed Chalabi, makes you want to throttle Rumsfeld.

Bremer even complains to a surprised President Bush that Rumsfeld’s management style is to terrorize his subordinates until they are afraid to make decisions.

On the need for more troops, here’s a quick rundown: Rumsfeld wants to bring troops home, as do the joint chiefs; then-Secretary of State Colin Powell harps on fixing the security problem; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is “agnostic”; and Bush never decides. Bremer never criticizes Rice, but as national-security adviser her job is to forge consensus or choose among Rumsfeld, the military and Powell. She never does.

Bremer also gives us a glimpse of the heated policy battles between his Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and senior military officials who repeatedly painted rosy scenarios and fudged data about how soon Iraqi security forces could replace U.S. forces.

Despite his clunky writing, Bremer gives us a picture of how the White House operates, thinks and makes decisions, and he includes great detail about his conversations with Bush. But he can’t drop his Republican leanings, and his potshots at the U.S. government bureaucracy (Republican officials), as well as congressional Democrats and the media, get in the way of his story.

The best parts of Bremer’s book are the snippets of e-mails, endearing and honest considering how exhausted he was, that he sent to his wife each night. In late November 2003, Bremer feared Bush would fire him because he could not get Ayatollah Sistani to back his plan to democratize Iraq and wrote to his wife: “What a horrid day … it is the bottom of the eighth and time for a relief pitcher. He better be a long relief specialist.”

That’s Bremer at his best. But unlike Night Draws Near, Bremer never lets us empathize or buy in to the innately romantic and noble endeavor of bringing democracy, free markets and peace to the heart of the Middle East. That’s his loss and, sadly, ours too.


My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope
By Ambassador L. Paul Bremer
Simon & Schuster, 2006
417 pages, $27

Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People In The Shadow of America’s War
By Anthony Shadid
Henry Holt and Company, 2005
422 pages, $26