Anthony Shadid, Night Draws Near; Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005), 424pp.
Among the proliferation of books about America's pre-emptive war in Iraq, Anthony Shadid's distinguishes itself for its singular focus. His narrative contains virtually no mention of neo-conservative ideologues or influence, liberal cant, analyses by think tank experts, disputed claims about the war's rationale, or even the main architects of the war like Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz or Feith. Instead, he reports first hand from the Arab street about who and what really matters, letting every day Iraqi citizens tell their own stories.
In these pages we meet the caretaker of a mosque who washes the body of a fourteen-year-old boy, a bookstore owner, suicide bombers, a fourteen-year-old girl who keeps a diary during the war, extremist clerics, a father who is forced to murder his son because he had served as an American informant, a mother who vomits upon identifying the mutilated corpse of her son at the morgue, parents who stuff cotton into the ears of their children at night because the bombs are so loud, and a pregnant woman who is denied admission to hospitals because they are all full. He depicts the humiliations of soldiers searching your house in the middle of the night, the terror of bomb blasts that rip open refrigerator doors, waiting in line at the Red Cross for five hours to make a three-minute phone call, and the deep resentments but also remarkable resilience of people who suffer a war they did not want and that was not necessary. For Shadid, the intensely personal thus reveals the deeply political.
Shadid, an Arab-American who grew up in Oklahoma, is a reporter for the Washington Post, fluent in Arabic, and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2004 for International Reporting. His book spans the period from October 2002 (five months before the invasion) when Saddam Hussein granted a general amnesty that released tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqi prisoners, to January 2005 and Iraq's first free elections in four decades. He was one of only 300 or so reporters who were not embedded in the U.S. military. He organizes his book into five sections—before the war, the invasion, the aftermath, the occupation, and the insurgency.
Wrong beginnings lead to wrong ends, says an Arab proverb. Shadid laments the tragic consequences of America's simplistic (mis)understandings of a complex people, their history, and their culture. Even today much of our public discourse barely moves beyond contrasting "free democracy" and "totalitarian dictatorship." The war, as Shadid reports from the trenches, unleashed a maelstrom of unintended consequences, most of which politicians, experts and every day people did not predict and even today barely understand. Most Iraqis, he says, simply cannot conceive how the most powerful nation on earth bungled so badly. So great is their incomprehension that they resort to conspiracy theories—perhaps the Americans did not want to stop the looting or restore electricity. In two different places Shadid renders the sum and substance of his conclusions about the war: "the terrible reminder of the inevitable disparity between wars's grand aims and the reality of their execution."