A year ago respected Johns Hopkins scholar Fouad Ajami mused, "You go to war with the press you have." Reporters in Iraq have been more attuned to the politics of the beltway than of Baghdad, too confined to the Green Zone's spin zone, and largely uninformed about the densely woven history of Iraq from the time of Abraham, a history that includes not only Sunni and Shiite elite but Jews, Nestorian Christians, Persians, and a league of other people groups. The result, according to Ajami: "a literary yield [that] has so far been a literary desert."
With facts on the ground improving plus political change in the Washington wind, the documented record of a five-and-a-half-year war told by its scribes is more vital than ever. Out of the morass of journalistic memoirs, the apologetics from scholarly experts of left and right, the soldiers' stories, and the armchair bloggers, a few gems emerge. Judging from the mail and questions received by WORLD, never before has a U.S. war been so eagerly discussed and its actualities so stubbornly misunderstood. These volumes each offer unique perspectives along with a measure of relief from propaganda and cliché.
Moment of Truth in Iraq: How a New "Greatest Generation" of American Soldiers is Turning Defeat and Disaster into Victory and Hope - by Michael Yon (Richard Vigilante Books, 2008)
Former Green Beret Michael Yon decided to take blogging about the war a step further than the average web jockey. In 2005 just as the war turned decidedly nasty he showed up in Mosul and Anbar Province to see insurgency up close-a self-taught, self-supporting, over-40 freelance journalist. That sort of hubris has gotten other soloists killed. Yon parlayed it, along with military savvy and a cold-eyed but warm-hearted approach to both U.S. military personnel and Iraqis, into well-written, carefully detailed dispatches. They were read mostly by his blog fans (whom he frequently asked for money to keep it all going) until media outlets like National Review and The Weekly Standard, along with a slew of notable bloggers, drew attention to his battlefield reporting. If this war has an Ernie Pyle, Yon is it.
Now the dispatches have become a book, edited into a nearly seamless commentary on war at its closest range. Yon's faith and patriotism are refreshing but not blind: "We made huge mistakes early on," he writes from Baquba, "and now we pump blood and gold into the desert to pay for those blunders."
The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq- by George Packer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005)
In the genre of insider tell-alls-a crowded field of books like Thomas Ricks' Fiasco, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's Imperial Life in the Emerald City, and the latest by one of the insiders himself, Pentagon war planner Doug Feith's War and Decision-George Packer's now aging chronicle remains unbeatable. One reason is that Packer, an award-winning staff writer for The New Yorker, is unbeatable at his craft. Another is that he spent shoe-leather as thoroughly as any money-exchanger hawking stacks of inflationary Iraqi dinars on Baghdad's streets.
The guy combed not only the Green Zone's windowless hallways but Sadr City's comfortless streets. He made it his business to be in Iraq's schools and liquor shops and hospitals and mosques and to be with its shopkeepers and intellectuals and its politicians large and small. As a result he chronicles not only the chaos that substituted for a coherent Bush policy post-invasion, he sees one of the key philosophical mistakes missed by pundits right and left: "What had been left out of the planning were the Iraqis themselves." Packer's account is at once enormously disheartening and endearingly human. If this war has a David Halberstam, Packer is it.
Instructions for American Servicemen in Iraq During World War II - by the United States Army (reprinted by University of Chicago Press from original, 1943)
"You have been ordered to Iraq (i - RAHK) as part of the world-wide offensive to beat Hitler. You will enter Iraq both as a soldier and as an individual. That is our strength-if we are smart enough to use it. It can be our weakness if we aren't."
Thus begins "A Short Guide To Iraq" issued to every U.S. soldier entering the theater in 1943 to assist British units guarding against Nazi infiltration. If only U.S. military personnel from 2003 on had something similar. Indeed, U.S. army commander and counterterrorism expert John Nagl writes in an introduction to this reprint, "I wish that I had read it before beginning my own yearlong tour in Al Anbar in late 2003!"
The 44-page booklet is the most succinct summation of Iraqi culture for Americans anywhere anytime. It may shock readers to know how much has changed-an Iraqi dinar worth four U.S. dollars in 1943 is today worth .004 U.S. dollars. And to know how much remains the same: "That tall man in the flowing robe you are going to see soon, with the whiskers and the long hair, is a first-class fighting man, highly skilled in guerrilla warfare."
Bush vs. the Beltway: How the CIA and the State Department Tried to Stop the War on Terror - by Laurie Mylroie (HarperCollins, 2003)
Critics dub Laurie Mylroie "the neocons' favorite conspiracy theorist," but their dismissal falls flat, considering that Mylroie taught at Harvard and the U.S. Naval War College before serving as an adviser to Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign. But beginning with Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait through the U.S. invasion of 2003, Mylroie has documented a formidable array of links from Saddam's regime to terrorism worldwide and to a weapons of mass destruction program. Foreign policy names like Peter Bergin, who dubbed her "a crackpot," rarely challenge her research per se, choosing instead to eviscerate her for allowing documented discoveries to change her politics. Among the liberal establishment, she is an apostate.
Despite pro-war leanings, Mylroie is no fan of President Bush. Her account in Bush vs. the Beltway of mid-level wrangling among the CIA, State Department, and the Pentagon following 9/11 is less polemical than fascinating, a sometimes abstruse tale of straining at gnats and swallowing camels.
The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace- by Ali A. Allawi (Yale University Press, 2007)
Ali Allawi does what none of the preceding authors could: He tells the war's story from an Iraqi perspective. But what makes The Occupation of Iraq perhaps the most compelling of all books written to date about the war is that he does so with Americans in mind.
Allawi and his family were forced to leave Iraq after the 1958 revolution and became permanent exiles from Saddam. He studied in England, then MIT and Harvard, eventually working for the World Bank and as an investment banker. A leading member of the "secular" Shiite opposition to Saddam, he returned following the 2003 invasion and ran for office, becoming a member of Iraq's transitional government and serving as minister of defense, trade, and finance.
Allawi's exile condition allows him to bridge the post-war chaos over Iraq that extended from Washington to Baghdad. He is an astute observer of the inside game who does not forget that there is life-and death-on the streets. Not surprisingly, he calls the insurgency "almost an exclusively Sunni Arab affair," but overall he is dispassionate in spreading blame for the collapse of post-war Iraq among the Bush administration (chiefly), lawmakers of both parties, and Iraqis of varied sectarian stripes. And he is strategically credentialed to end with this warning: Time is running out.