THE FALL OF BAGHDAD Jon Lee Anderson New York: Penguin Press, 2004. x, 389pp, $36.00 cloth (ISBN 1-59420-034-3)
THE IRAQ WAR As Witnessed by the Correspondents and Photographers of United Press International Edited by Martin Walker Washington, DC: Brassey's, 2004. xviii, 220pp, US$i9.95 paper (ISBN 1-57488-798-X)
The face of war is rarely human. Amid a barrage of foreign policy concepts, meaningless statistics, and endless editorializing, real life tends to be forgotten. This is why Jon Lee Andersoris The Fall of Baghdad is a breath of fresh air. It's a comprehensive account of how ordinary Iraqis lived during the months leading up to the March 2003 invasion through to the famous toppling of Saddam's statue and beyond as the country slides into chaos and mounting insurrection. The international media documented the blow-by-blow movements of the US- and UK-led forces, thanks to the hundreds of embedded reporters. Many of their contributions are documented in Martin Walker's collection of reports from United Press International journalists, under the title The Iraq War, of which more later.
But accounts like Anderson's, of normal day-to-day activity for Iraqis originally recorded for the New Yorker, are what was missing from the mainstream. And to an extent, this kind of coverage is still missing. Reporters inside Iraq have very little freedom of movement due to the ongoing security risks. Broadcasts are more often than not conducted from the relative safety of a Baghdad bureau. Most Iraqis have to get on with life as much as circumstances allow them. It's these people we never hear from. But in the age of 24-hour news, suicide bombings make for better headlines than "Iraqi goes to work as usual."
Anderson had the opportunity to leave Baghdad when it became clear war was imminent. Many journalists did and who could blame them when the prospect of mortars raining down on the city became a distinct probability? But luckily for the reader, Anderson put himself in danger and continued to travel across the city to meet his Iraqi contacts, many of whom, it's clear from his writing, became close friends.
Although a war correspondent in this case, Anderson is true to the literary style that makes his work, such as CAe Guevara:A Revolutionary Life, not only a mine of information but also a cracking good read. He presents characters with such vivid descriptions that you feel you know them. Take Karim, the Baghdad barber, a "warm-hearted man in his middle fifties," Anderson writes, "but he looked at least ten years older. He had Coke-bottle , glasses that made his eyes look huge, and he was missing some of his front teeth, giving him a wizened look." Karim's perfectionism meant he subjected Anderson to a 4O-minute shave, which included an excruciating exfoliation with a length of twine "which he held in his mouth and twiddled with his fingers."
Another man, Dr. Ala Bashir, was a key contact for Anderson. An artist, plastic surgeon, and doctor to Saddam Hussein, Bashir was an extremely influential man in Iraq. The very mention of his name was a ticket for Andersen to gain access and even won him the favour of a Mukhabarat official-Saddam's secretive and greatly feared intelligence service. But what makes Bashir a fascinating source is his closeness to Saddam. He provides insight into the mind of the man whose brutal reign kept his countrymen enthralled and in fear. Bashir appeared to have won Saddam's approval through his art and his pioneering surgery to re-implant hands and fingers in Iraq. Anderson quizzes Bashir on how a highly educated man of culture could have a close relationship with the architect of barbaric rule. It seems Bashir was half-flattered by Saddam's respect for him, half under obligation to obey the leader he served. But he also seems to have blocked out much of the reality in order to cope. He tells a story of a walk through the palace gardens with Saddam during the Shia uprising following the first Gulf War. …