Mere days ago, the War in Iraq entered its fourth year—despite the official “end of major combat” that the codpiece-sporting President announced mere months after it began—and the steady sectarian violence pursuant to the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party shows no encouraging signs of abatement. It has been a busy four years, with opponents of the war criticizing its planners for the endless stream of seemingly empty motivations, the President and his closest associating maintaining the need to finish stabilizing the region, regardless of cost, and a growing swell of political moderates noting the sour taste that the whole affair has left in their mouths. To a reader in 2007, it seems silly—almost masochistic—to read Anne Garrels’ Naked in Baghdad: the book chronicles the NPR correspondent’s time in Baghdad from just before to less than a month after the United States’ invasion of Iraq, and its message seems congruent with the cries that we’ve been hearing ever since 2003, the truth falling somewhere in between the most stringent rhetoric from either ideological side. This is old news—no pun intended.
Garrels’ fragmented narrative does not coalesce into an overarching parable about preemptive war or the human cost of conflict, nor does it fall prey to maudlin sympathies. I believe that most important “string”—if I may borrow one of Garrels’ own metaphors—to be found in Naked in Baghdad is the occasional reference to the author’s time in the Soviet Union during its declining years. Not only is Russian language and influence pervasive in the Middle East—Garrels notes this, citing the Soviet Union’s own intrusions into the region during the 20th century—but the parallels between Saddam Hussein and some of the former U.S.S.R.’s less illustrious leaders, and between the two countries’ essential dissolution into chaos and mob rule during regime change, is a pressing allusion.
The tragic prescience of Garrels’ reporting is the most revealing aspect of her story: the ambivalence of the Iraqis to the presence of the United States in the country is nothing new to anyone except perhaps Dick Cheney. The Vice President’s prediction that we would be “greeted as liberators,” was not the blatant error that it is often made out to be: U.S. Soldiers were in some cases greeted with some joy and gratitude; in other cases, with a smoldering ambivalence and suspicion; in others, with downright hostility, but all these attitudes coalesced into the latter as the occupation stretched on and it became clear that the Iraqis had merely exchanged a despot and a tenuous infrastructure for anarchy and a crumbled infrastructure. Iraqis understood this beforehand: however much of a surprise the ensuing civil war was to the designers of Operation: Enduring Freedom, it was a simple causal relationship to those in Iraq. At one point, Garrels’ guide/translator (called a “minder”) admitted that “people are not afraid of a U.S.-led war because they believe Americans will only target Saddam and government sites, not ordinary people. However, he continues in his very broken English, Iraqis are afraid of the aftermath, assuming the country will fragment and dissolve into a vicious civil war” (46).
Before the invasion, Iraq was in many cases a floundering country, and this was believed to be not only the fault of Saddam, for his multi-billion-dollar expenditures on his war with Iran in the 1980s, but also the U.S./U.N., whose embargoes in the 1990s strangled economic growth, made affordable and available health care a patent impossibility, and turned Iraq’s culture very much inward, and Hussein, though his government is more or less secular, has used the relatively recent upward surge in religious conservatism to his own ends, exacerbating tensions between the Shiites and Sunnis (and Christian minority) and generally fomenting a bastard form of nationalism or Pan-Arabism (55).
Like the Soviet Union, Iraq’s transition from despotic regime to pro forma democracy seems to have been done with little or no regard for the economic and political realities of such a transition. The Soviet Union had the advantage, at least, of changing from within, but the invasion of Iraq smacked to many of imperialism or unjust coercion—even to Iraqis, and not merely dovish Americans and Europeans—the categorical imperative for the war seemed to be oil (26-27, 64, 202). If a lowly NPR correspondent, under the strictures of a paranoid government, could separate such wheat from the chaff of official party lines with nothing more than interviews with taxi drivers and students, it begs the question: why the U.S. not prepared for such hostility and the inevitable struggles for religious primacy? Why was the onus upon the United States to remove Saddam Hussein from power?—Saddam Hussein who, though undoubtedly a monster, had reached a sort of uneasy provisional stability despite the strain of embargoes1. “While this family [with which Garrels stays during the initial combat operations] and their friends blame Saddam Hussein for many of their problems and believe that Iraq does need a change, they resent what they see as American arrogance… They are clearly caught in the middle” (130).
Garrels’ book, when read in 2007, is an exercise in dramatic irony. Her prescient observations, mere likelihoods at the time of writing, are to modern readers foreshadowing of the most potent sort. History has proven most of Garrels’ conclusions correct, but it is all the more foreboding that it has done so: her point, as sketched with small interviews from people in unspoken places, is that there are shades of Iraq to be teased from so many lessons learned in the past, and that there is more to a nation than the despot—be he benign or malevolent—who controls it. That the invading forces did not see this was the fundamental mistake made both before and after the short span of “major combat operations” which sent Saddam into hiding. Iraq was a quagmire long before George W. Bush came into office, and it was a complex set of factors which led to its sorry state: much blame can be laid at the feet of the despot; some can be laid at the feet of petty religious rivalries more at home in the dark ages than the 21st century; still more blame can be laid at the feet of an misaimed embargo, a myopic war plan, and a general lack of concern from the “coalition of the willing” for the well-being of the very people it seeks to liberate.
Garrels herself summarizes the situation succinctly: “Iraq is a complicated place, rife with contradictions and divisions that the Iraqis are the first to acknowledge” (218). This statement describes almost the entire Middle East. There’s no simple binary that fits the looming crisis there: the region is comprised of very subtle differences which tend to elude the grasp of unconcerned foreigners, even though it is entirely clear its its inhabitants. This, in part, was the catalyst for the disaster that the war in Iraq is become, but it should not have been unexpected or surprising: Garrels understood it, as did most of her colleagues. The lesson at work here is that aid without understanding is little more than conquest.