Dumb and Dumber
The Occupation: War and Resistance in IraqPatrick Cockburn
(Verso Books · hardcover · $24.95)
It is now apparent that the Bush administration has started two wars in Iraq. The first one, which involved the take-down of Saddam Hussein’s government, was over even faster than Washington predicted.
Many recent books about Iraq have focused on how this first war was sold to the American public. Meanwhile, the second war—the insurgency and the current civil war—grinds on, with rising costs to Iraqis as well as American soldiers and their families.
The lurid, heartbreaking story of how the first war begat the second is brilliantly told in Patrick Cockburn’s The Occupation: War and Resistance, one of the most concise, well-written portraits of Iraq on shelves today. It was recently named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Cockburn began writing about Iraq in 1978, wrote a book about life under Saddam with his brother, Andrew, and has been covering the current war for the Independent in London. No other western reporter knows the country better, and The Occupation opens with a grim, unequivocal portrait of Iraq prior to the U.S. invasion in March of 2003.
Iraq was a nation in shambles, Cockburn writes. The power grid was held together with Band-Aids, and even U.S. estimates held it would require $11 billion to repair. Nor had Saddam’s military recovered from war with Iran in the ’80s. From a distance, a parade of Saddam’s elite Republican Guard looked fearsome. Up close, however, Cockburn witnessed that the white gloves they appeared to be wearing on their hands were in fact tube socks.
The nation’s people were in the worst shape. Cockburn explains how U.N. sanctions had impoverished Iraqis without discrimination. More than a quarter of the children were chronically malnourished. Up to 70 percent of the country’s men were out of work.
Cockburn believes that the U.S. was in full possession of this knowledge, and that riding high off temporary success in Afghanistan, the Bush administration believed it wouldn’t matter.
“After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein,” Cockburn writes, the “U.S. found themselves presiding over a society in a state of collapse, full of bitter and dangerous people with very little left to lose.”
On the eve of the 2003 invasion, Cockburn re-entered Iraq illegally, crossing the Syrian border. He has since traveled just about everywhere, often at great personal risk, reporting on Kurds in the north, and Shias and Sunnis in Falluja, Mosul, Baghdad and beyond.
Out of his travels emerge a portrait of a country deeply divided along religious and sectarian lines, but fiercely nationalistic when pressed.
The United States’ great mistake, Cockburn reports, was to bungle badly enough, early enough, to make a unifying target of itself. Many of the blunders Cockburn reports upon—such as L. Paul Bremer’s dismissal of all former Baath party members from their jobs, the Coalition Provision Authority’s attempt to control the outcome of elections—have been noted before.
The Occupation breaks new ground, however, in the way it puts these events on a timeline with terrific on-the-ground reporting. Like Anthony Shadid, Cockburn speaks Arabic, and it shows in his storytelling. In one memorable scene, he visits the book stalls of Baghdad, where one assumes a renaissance of free-expression would be underway. But bombs explode and it soon becomes unsafe for journalists, or anyone else, to walk there.
As the situation deteriorated, every slight Iraqis experienced under the occupation—be it the U.S. military’s excessive use of firepower, or the CPA’s unwillingness to honor the previous administration’s debts, or the bloody wave of suicide bombings—magnified hatred of the U.S.-led forces.
Once the insurgency was in full swing, U.S. soldiers were in an impossible situation. In one scene, Cockburn describes how the American military bulldozed an orchard when the farmers that owned it didn’t hand over guerilla fighters the U.S. believed were hiding there.
As Cockburn discovers, there were no fighters, just everyday Iraqis trying to make a living. The action put 50 families out work. Cockburn asks one of the farmers about losing his date palms and fruits trees, and the man’s anguished reply could be one of this war’s most sobering epitaphs: “It is as if somebody cut off my hand and you asked me how much my hands are worth.”