Mighty Babylon, how low has it fallen!

The Fall of Baghdad     Jon Lee Anderson

389 pp, (hard cover), The Penguin Press New York 2004  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern 20 December 2004


    This is a significant book, recommended to anyone who tries to puzzle out the second Gulf War, which as of this month--December 2004--still goes on. It suggests no clear-cut solutions, but then again, no one at the present time has any. What you get is an eyewitness account by a reporter who covered Baghdad on the eve of the war and who stayed at his post throughout the take-over and its aftermath.

    It is quite a story, a view of the war from the Iraqi side. True, most people the author interacted with were a select group, educated and open to westerners. Some were government functionaries, and the reader senses how ambiguous was their support of Saddam, how much a function of the web of fear and informers on which the regime subsisted (one is tempted to compare here with Soviet Russia). Others were doctors and intellectuals, or represented special interests, or tried to stay close to the American correspondent to help ensure the survival of their own households. But one also gets glimpses of the rest of Iraq society--of the great uneducated underemployed underclass and its religious fanatics, at a time when wild rumors replaced solid information. No wonder the future of Iraq sees so dismal.

    All of these stand on one side of a great divide, the less familiar side, while on the other are Americans with their arms, dollars and cell phones, a great military power which crushed Iraq into a state of disorder, then allowed the disorder to persist and worsen. It seems remarkable how many informal ties did the author forge with Iraqis of diverse backgrounds--and at the same time, it seems no less remarkable (considering the great US effort invested in the war) how few such ties seemed to have been created between Iraqis and their military conquerors.

    The price for that lapse is still being paid. Few now question that a great military achievement was undone by the social upheaval that followed--by the failure to replace an old corrupt regime with, at the very least, an effective temporary order. Instead came a brief pause, during which people like Jon Lee Anderson freely roamed around the country, gathered impressions and talked to people, while the regular economy stagnated and while factions organized, gathering supporters, arms and explosives. In hindsight it seems now that even retaining the old army, police and government (except for its top leadership) may have been a better policy.

    The book leads its reader through that dark confused transition, a mood which the author conveys very well. By now this deterioration is far gone, and maybe nothing can prevent a full-scale civil war, possibly followed by another oppressive dictatorship. There are lessons to be learned here, and while it may be too late to apply them to Iraq, they may still guide us in other erupting trouble spots, in the Moslem world, in Africa and Asia, maybe even parts of Latin America. Lessons about the importance of maintaining a civic framework, of the instability brought by the wide availability of weapons and explosives, especially in poor overpopulated societies, at times when marginal livelihoods are disrupted by fighting. Unfortunately, those very same ingredients already exist in too many other places!

    And yet, as the book shows, the author also found in Iraq well-educated, well-motivated, creative and sincere people. It may be a sign of worse things to follow, but as the book ends, in the middle of 2004, many have given up and have fled the country.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 21 December 2004