Homage to Babylonia

Ironically—or perhaps not—Fall of Baghdad, Jon Lee Anderson's new book about the U.S. war in Iraq, begins and ends at Abu Ghraib. The book, which is destined to become the definitive story of how the U.S. lost the war almost as soon as it started, opens as Anderson witnesses the release of hundreds of prisoners from Saddam Hussein's notorious prison.

“I caught glimpses of some prisoners staring out from the bars of upper stories of the cellblocks,” Anderson writes. “Human shit clung like caked mud to the razor wire that was looped outside their barred windows.” His attention is quickly torn from the sight of desperate relatives seeking their loved ones amid the mass of limping, emaciated prisoners to the plight of an attractive female Italian-television reporter in tight jeans who begs Anderson to protect her from a group of leering young men. As he pulls her away from the groping mob, she tells him, “I don't think it was a good day to wear Armani.”

Both a journalist and a historian, Anderson—whose last book was Che: A Revolutionary Life, the definitive biography of Ernesto Guevara—spent more than a year in Iraq before, during and after the U.S. invasion of March 2003. Fall of Baghdad does for the Iraq war what George Orwell's Homage for Catalonia did for the Spanish Civil War: it provides a vivid, first-person portrait of a man-made disaster in the making. The point of the hectic scene at Abu Ghraib isn't just to reveal the dreadful nature of Saddam Hussein's regime. Instead, it provides a hint of the tragic anarchy that would quickly devour Iraq—an inexorable downward cycle that Anderson, as foreign correspondent for The New Yorker, was in a perfect position to witness.

The book's action kicks off in the days leading up to the massive “shock and awe” bombing campaign, as Anderson and other journalists scramble to get rooms with the best view of the imminent aerial bombardment. Surprisingly, most Iraqis Anderson interviews seem relieved, even excited about the prospect of having Hussein removed from power. But when the bunker-busting bombs fail to kill Hussein and instead start landing on civilians, their mood quickly darkens.

Just a few days into the war, Anderson interviews a boy named Ali who had both his arms burned off in an errant bombing attack that killed four families, including the boy's relatives. Ali says his favorite class is geography and that he wants to be a police officer when he grows up. Then he adds, “Bush is a criminal and he is fighting for oil.”

Weeks later, when U.S. ground troops arrive in the Iraqi capital, Anderson meets another critic of the U.S. invasion, an Iraqi who loses his leg when a U.S. tank fires at his car. “If Americans want to come here as tourists, like they used to, we welcome them,” the man says. “But they shouldn't do this.” Then the man shrugs off his injury. “I am Iraqi,” he says. “We are used to such things.”

As Anderson's reporting reveals, the true fall of Baghdad referred to in the book's title isn't so much America's bombing, but the terrible looting that began once the air campaign ended. Nowhere was this mayhem more evident than in the sprawling, predominantly Shia slum then known as Saddam City, where Anderson frantically searches for Ali, the young burn victim and Bush-hater. In that unsuccessful effort, Anderson is nearly kidnapped by militiamen loyal to Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who eventually stopped the looting and renamed the slum Sadr City.

Up to this point in the war, Anderson has remained a neutral observer of the chaos and destruction around him. He admits to weeping after an especially grueling hospital visit, but he doesn't editorialize. But when he sees the U.S. remove its roadblocks from the major bridges crossing the Tigris river—allowing looters access to the untouched half of the city—and witnesses U.S. tanks idling their engines while vandals empty Baghdad's museums of their priceless artifacts, Anderson's emotions start to creep into his reporting. “I was dismayed and angry my countrymen were simply standing by and watching as Baghdad was sacked and burned,” he writes. “It made no sense.”

As everyone already knows, things only got worse from there. The book ends in April 2004, when an Iraqi academic Anderson knows is mysteriously arrested and imprisoned at Abu Ghraib for five months, suffering several heart attacks in the process. After visiting his friend, who days earlier had walked out of the prison wearing nothing but a hospital gown, Anderson departs the country for the last time—on the eve of a countrywide uprising that started in Falluja when Americans killed 17 demonstrators and still hasn't ended.

Making his hasty escape from the lawless, apocalyptic nightmare that has become Iraq, Anderson drives down the same stretch of road to Baghdad International Airport where Nicholas Berg would be abducted and beheaded just a few days later. “The date of Berg's kidnapping was believed to be April 9, the first anniversary of the fall of Baghdad,” Anderson concludes. “A year had gone by, but it seemed as if Baghdad had not really fallen at all—or perhaps it was still falling.”

The Fall of Baghdad by Jon Lee Anderson; Penguin Press. Hardcover, 389 pages, $24.95.

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