Respond to this Article December 2004

Ground Up

John Lee Anderson avoided hanging out with U.S. troops—and wrote the best book on the Iraq war.

By Matthew Harwood

To New Yorker writer Jon Lee Anderson, Ala Bashir didn't look like a confidant of Saddam Hussein. The London-educated physician seemed more like a Western university professor with his longish hair and corduroy suit, eschewing the bristling mustache look popular in the inner circle of the Iraqi dictator. Anderson first met Bashir in August 2000, after hearing him described as the most erudite man in Iraq, a fine artist as well as one of Saddam's personal doctors. Anderson and Bashir became fast friends, and the Iraqi's experience becomes the lens through which Anderson tells of the Iraq war in his new book, The Fall of Baghdad.

The Fall of Baghdad
by Jon Lee Anderson
Penguin Press, $24.95

Most of the first wave of Iraq war books by journalists were written from the perspective of the U.S. troops with whom the reporters were embedded. In this book, expanded from his extraordinary “Letters from Baghdad” dispatches for the New Yorker, Anderson tries something different. His eyewitness narrative follows a handful of Iraqis as the tense social peace of Saddam's dictatorship gives way to the “Shock and Awe” bombing of Baghdad, Saddam's fall, and Iraq's descent into the current mire of crime and insurgency.

The most interesting and prescient of these Iraqis is Bashir. Humanistic, refined, and a secular Shiite, Bashir represents the antithesis of everything you would expect in a close associate of Hussein. It was Bashir's artistic talent that drew Hussein to him, an attraction that may well have been rooted in Hussein's own literary dreams. (Saddam fancied himself a writer, having penned at least three romance novels.)

Bashir's motives are less clear. Although he laments his relationship with Saddam—“The most bitter experience for a free man is to make a friendship with someone he doesn't like”—Anderson discovers Bashir took pride in Saddam's lavish praise of him and his art. Anderson believes that Bashir and Saddam held each other in mutual thrall, Saddam drawn to Bashir's artistic vision and Bashir to Saddam's ruthless use of power.

Impressed by Bashir's work, Saddam had the doctor create great sculptures glorifying his rule. Bashir responded by creating horrific surrealist monuments that were abstract criticisms of Saddam's reign (and Bashir's own private rebellion). The most memorable of these is the Epic of Saddam, in which an enormous soldier's fist stabs the eye of a hideous dragon with a lance, with all parts seeming to be part of one body. Anderson describes the sculpture as “stupefyingly grotesque,” one which “no one could view. . . without a feeling of horror. . . . It demonstrated the utter totality of [Saddam's] power and conjoined him symbolically with the entire sweep of Mesopotamian history.”

While Bashir held Saddam in contempt, he also believed (as many do in Iraq and elsewhere) that only the iron fist of a dictator could contain the ancient ethnic and religious hatreds within Iraq's borders. Without Saddam's heavy hand, Bashir argued to Anderson, the region would either descend into civil war or become another theocracy like Iran. In the past, U.S. leaders had shared this view, which is why the first President Bush didn't send American troops into Baghdad during the first Gulf War. Much like Bashir, the United States preferred to deal with the devil they knew, rather than hope a pro-Western leader would emerge from the internecine warfare that would likely engulf Iraq if Saddam was overthrown.

As the American invasion approached, it became harder and harder for Anderson to maintain contact with Bashir. Deprived of the story's most dynamic and interesting character, Anderson's narrative shifts and begins to focus on the Western reporters, himself included, as they run around in a desperate, and sometimes comical, effort to prepare for the attack or leave Iraq before it begins. Anderson describes the exorbitant fees journalists had to pay for rides to the Jordanian border, the bribes paid to Information Ministry officials for press credentials, the hassle of getting an assortment of hotel rooms in case certain hotels became targets, and the difficulty of getting meals as restaurants began to close.

Anderson decides to stay for the war despite the pleas of his editors to leave Iraq. As New York Times veteran Chris Hedges explained in his book, War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, war correspondents tend to become addicted to their subjects, and Anderson seems no exception. After making the decision to stay, Anderson writes he “felt a strange mixture of relief and despondency”—the allure of the war and the story having overriden his sense of self preservation.

Soon, bombs begin to fall, buildings crumble, and people die. Anderson scrambles to report the human catastrophe, detailing the chaotic scenes at Baghdad's only functional hospital. There Anderson meets a young boy mortally wounded in a U.S. rocket attack. His description of the boy's wounds is wrenching. One hand, writes Anderson, was “twisted and burned into a hideous claw,” while the other limb was burned off below the elbow, two bones exposed, reminding him of “something that might be found in a barbecue pit.”

The war's effect on ordinary Iraqis is the weakest link in Anderson's tale. People become one-dimensional figures caught in a maelstrom, bloodied and disoriented, screaming for loved ones while heaping scorn on the United States. Their own vision of a free Iraq is never articulated, and one can feel their fury at being made pawns of history once again.

Yet the hatred of the United States Anderson describes could easily shift to approbation. As the United States military rolls into Baghdad, Anderson happens upon the toppling of Saddam's statue in Fardous Square, the image that graced the front pages of newspapers around the world. When the crowd asks if he is American and Anderson responds yes, the crowd cheers and claps. One man yells, “America is good.” But the goodwill doesn't last long.

As the occupation gradually moves in, Anderson reunites with Bashir, who had escaped Saddam's clutches and survived the bombings by hiding at his sister's house. Together again and free of Saddam, the conversation reignites and follows the trajectory of Iraq's plunge into anarchy.

Describing the looting epidemic, Bashir lays the blame on Iraqis, tracing the behavior back to their Bedouin ancestry where raiding one and another's camps was the mode of survival. “Every time there is a war in Iraq, and among all the Arabs, in fact, they rob and loot. This is unfortunately part of our nature.” Bashir's admission of Iraqi guilt juxtaposes nicely with the dismay and anger Anderson feels as he watches American soldiers do nothing as mobs plunder Iraq's cultural wealth. This sense of shared responsibility casts a refreshing gray on top of the simplistic moral black and whites people color the war in.

Two weeks before President Bush declared the end of combat operations, Bashir had already foresees that the present disorder will give way to anarchy. He laments the Americans' inability to provide security and deal effectively with the rising Islamic fundamentalism of Moqtada al-Sadr, remembering how even Saddam Hussein had problems navigating this tortuous terrain. He knows the Americans cannot repress the different groups or they will be labeled “the same as Saddam.” Bashir is left with an uncomfortable—and accurate—feeling that the United States has no postwar plan. Soon thereafter, Bashir leaves Iraq for Qatar, his life threatened by Iraqis because of his involvement with the old regime. Anderson's narrative continues, but it is cut short as Iraq eventually becomes too dangerous even for him. The book's closing paragraph reports the horrors of Abu Ghraib and the monstrous beheading of Pennsylvania contractor Nick Berg.

The Fall of Baghdad is a somber, harrowing account of war. Although Anderson doesn't break new ground, his crisp and lush prose reads more like a work of literature than like reportage. But for all its literary beauty, the book's real power lies in its narrative strategy. By focusing on the perspective of insightful Iraqis on the ground, Anderson documents that the current debacle was, tragically, foreseeable.

Matthew Harwood is an editorial fellow of The Washington Monthly.


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