The Fall of Baghdad, By Jon Lee Anderson, The Penguin Press, 378 pp, $24.95
The run-up to the war with and the invasion of Iraq last year were well chronicled by dozens of reporters who gained "embedded" status with US military units. But as much attention as that experiment garnered for its groundbreaking approach to covering modern warfare, the efforts of courageous reporters who remained in Baghdad were often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work produced by the "embedded" media.
Jon Lee Anderson, a staff writer at The New Yorker, was one of those journalists. And his latest book, "The Fall of Baghdad," provides a fascinating look at life in the Iraqi capital as it awaited the devastating firepower of the most powerful military machine on the planet. This book is a highly personal account of the war, and its glimpses at the effect of battle on Iraq's civilian population is a grim, compelling reminder that no war -- no matter how "precise" and "surgical" -- can avoid the suffering and death of innocents caught in the crossfire.
What Anderson's account also provides is a look at the daunting logistical challenges that journalists in Baghdad faced. Not only were their activities curtailed and monitored closely by Iraq's information ministry, but the often-unpredictable complications of reporting from a foreign country became exponentially more dangerous during war. In the following excerpt, Anderson described his view, with other journalists, from a balcony of the Palestine hotel in downtown Baghdad on the opening night of the "shock and awe" bombardment: "There were huge blasts, simultaneous concussions with aftershocks that knocked us back on our feet and made us shout involuntarily with the shock. . . . The bombing extravaganza went on for around 30 minutes; symphonic crescendos of blasts and noise interspersed by moments of quiet until the next explosions began. With every explosion, car alarms were set off and honked briefly in the streets."
Anderson captures in unsettling detail the excruciating decisions that these reporters made. Which hotels were deemed safe? How and when could satellite phones, banned by the Iraqis as war approached, be taken out of hiding and used to contact families and employers back in the West? How did they balance the pursuit of a good story and their personal safety?
Anderson takes the reader on a vivid tour of the ancient, shabby capital in his working travels. The descriptions probably will be a revelation for an American public whose only image of the capital is through CNN footage. But Anderson's street-level prose, as well as his discussion of Iraqi history since the 1920 uprising against the British, is important reading for anyone interested in trying to understand the country.
This is a book that allows the reader to see and smell Baghdad. After racing to a marketplace that had just been hit by bombing, Anderson spoke with a doctor who reported that 35 people had been killed and 47 injured. The death toll, Anderson said, later would reach 62. His description of the site was poignantly evocative: "I could hear a woman crying inside a house across the narrow lane from the marketplace. Soon other people began weeping, too, and as they did, the woman's cries became screams."
Anderson's book is filled with conversations with Iraqis from all strata of society, from high-level government officials who had access to Saddam Hussein to the drivers and translators who helped him do his job to poor citizens he encountered in the course of his reporting. What runs through many of their comments is an antipathy for the murderous Hussein regime but also deep-held suspicions about long-term American intentions.
In a hospital, a man who had lost a leg in an American attack "protested rather mildly" to Anderson. "If Americans want to come here as tourists, like they used to, we welcome them. But they shouldn't do this,' " he said of US attacks that hit a village and a bus. "As for the missing limb," Anderson wrote, the man "dismissed it with bravado. 'I am an Iraqi. We are used to such things.' "
Anderson constantly questions Iraqis about their relationship and reaction to the Hussein regime. In his account, Anderson rarely lets standard Iraqi rhetoric about suspected Western hostility to Islam or the supposed benefits of Hussein's totalitarian rule go unchallenged. The responses show better than any "talking heads" can argue in American news media just how complicated the links are between Iraq's people and their iron-fisted leadership, past and present, and how novel the concept of Western-style democracy is to this fiercely tribal society.
As insightful as Anderson's book is, the author occasionally indulges in long descriptions of meetings with Iraqi friends that, although interesting, add only marginally to a layman's understanding of the country.
Overall, however, for a reporter who saw the war from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, Anderson's personal history of this fascinating time gave me a richer, broader understanding of how "the other side" experienced and endured the conflict.