A Disturbing Book

I am making my way through Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.  I’ve caught myself yelling out loud at least twice today.  It is a disturbing portrayal of the lack of serious planning that went into Iraq’s reconstruction and its consequences through 2004.  If Chandrasekaran’s picture of life in the Green Zone and the way in which officials both in Washington and on the ground in Iraq went about their jobs then it is clear to me that the present state of affairs was inevitable.  I actually feel sick to my stomach reading this book and thinking about the men and women who have given their lives for this failed policy.

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8 thoughts on “A Disturbing Book

  1. Ajay Reddy

    I watched an interview with Chandrasekaran (on C-SPAN, I think), and his revelations were indeed disturbing and disgusting. If I recall correctly, he said that when recruiting for the Coalition Provisional Authority they chose inexperienced kids fresh out of college whose responses to irrelevant political questions (such as abortion) favored the Republican stance. What a farce.

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  2. Bruce Miller

    I was also very impressed by Chandrasekaran’s book. He really conveys a strong sense of how isolated the people in the Green Zone were from the people they were ruling. So few of them even spoke Arabic. The late Steve Gilliard used to call the Coalition Provisional Authority the “Young Republicans Abroad” because so many of them were so inexperienced and marginally qualified (if that). And their were screened according to ridiculous ideological criteria.

    One of the things that historians should find particularly useful about this book is that it it draws extensively on interviews with participants in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) that ruled Iraq from shortly after the American invasion of 2003 until near the end of June 2004. As time goes on and people seek to distance themselves from this disaster, memories will inevitably tailor themselves to convenience.

    It strikes me that Imperial City would actually be a useful book for a management study of an ad hoc organization pulled together with a time-limited mission. Chandrasekaran provides a lot of rich information about the organizational dynamic at work of the kind that such a study would require. The experience he describes is a lot like an Internet firm that flourished for a few months on venture capital and then crashed and burned. But company collapses don’t normally leave the legacy of violence that the CPA left in its aftermath.

    I was particularly struck by his story of how the free-market zealotry of the CPA led them to drop import restrictions on automobiles. The result was a classic case of the unintended consequences of which conservatives are so intensely aware whenever someone proposes a domestic program to benefit poor or working people. Auto imports flooded into the country. And the streets of Baghdad became jammed. And the traffic jams in their turn created new opportunities for terrorist bombers to strike and also spurred resentment against the Americans.

    One of the things I try to keep in mind at this stage of the war is that the scramble for alibis is on full-bore. Different groups will have different alibis. And the spectacular incompetence of the civilians in the CPA was real.

    But it’s not a case of some golden opportunity missed because of a few mistakes. This war was a bad idea from the get-go.

    And the military has a lot to answer for in the conduct of the war, as well. Generals are skillful at alibing themselves. But our glorious generals shouldn’t be allowed to hide their failures behind the public’s good instinct to “support the troops” – bad judgments about the opposition, failure to have trained Arabic speakers since the Gulf War, neglect of counterinsurgency training, heavy reliance on artillery and air power in fighting an urban guerrilla war, implementing the torture policy in violation of law and military regulations, and, constant streams of phony reports to the American public about how great the latest strategy is going, to name a few.

    I’m just reading John Hope Franklin’s book about Reconstruction. And I’ve often wondered if there are useful lessons in that experience for a situation like the one in Iraq. There probably are. But such “lessons of history” more often become ideological slogans than useful comparisons. One “lesson” that I would tentatively suggest would be the importance of establishing basic security and order early on. The massive looting in Iraq in April of 2003 may have wiped out any chance of avoiding an immediate insurgency just in itself. President Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policy in 1865, by giving former Confederate officials immediately restored status and formal authority in the former Rebel states, and especially by allowing vigilante violence against the freed slaves to run rampant, also badly damaged the chances of a successful, democratic Reconstruction.

    But it makes my head swim to think about where our Lost Cause zealots will take the Iraq-Reconstruction comparisons.

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  3. Bruce Miller

    Another couple of thoughts on this. The books that I’ve so far found most informative about the war as it unfolded in Iraq, as distinct from the decision-making processes behind it in Washington and London, are all by reporters also. Night Draws Near: Iraq’s People in the Shadow of America’s War by Anthony Shadid (Washington Post), The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn (London Independent), and The Great War for Civilsation: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk (Guardian). The latter deals with a lot of other things than Iraq. And it’s long. One thing all three of those reporters have in common is that they speak Arabic, and so were able to communicate with Iraqi people in their own language. Arabic-speaking reporters like those three have normally been far more pessimistic in tone than those having to rely on translators.

    Jeffrey Record of the Air War College, one of the leading military analysts/historians, also did one of the earliest books on the war, Dark Victory: America’s Second war Against Iraq. The book is more analysis than “military history”. And even though his book cuts off in 2004 or late 2003, he correctly identified a number of the major problems that have unfolded since then.

    Lastly, we’re already seeing a “stab-in-the-back” theory about the Iraq War being promoted, even though Congress has so far not restricted the President’s ability to conduct this war in any way. (Unless you count the bill re-outlawing torture practices that were already illegal.) There is a similar theory widely held about the Vietnam War, which holds that the military actually won the Vietnam War, but the gutless Congress and the wimpy American public made them lose. This kind of argument isn’t unique to the United States. But the tone of it is often so strikingly similar to Lost Cause arguments about the Civil War that I’m sure there is some kind of cultural connection. But I would only embarass myself if I tried to guess what that might be. I’m sure those like you, Kevin, who give close attention to how historical memory develops could make better guesses.

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  4. Kevin Levin

    Hi Bruce, — Thanks for the references. Ed Ayers wrote an Op-ed piece a few years back for the NY Times, which I believe can be found over at H-Net. He compares our Reconstruction with the challenges posed in Iraq.

    One of my favorite characters from the book is the pizza owner who set up shop just across the street from the Green Zone. Unfortunately, no one stops in either because they are scared or because everything is provided in those massive cafeterias.

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