On March 19, 2003, Operation Iraqi Freedom began. Thanks to embedded reporters and video phones, the entire world watched as coalition forces wrestled control of Iraq from the iron grip of Saddam Hussein. Major combat operations were officially concluded on May 1, 2003.On January 30, 2005, national elections were held in Iraq. Again the world watched as her citizens braved the threat of terror, waited in long lines and proudly dipped their fingers in ink as they voted. Nearly 60% of the Iraqi people cast ballots to elect a 275-member national assembly that will be responsible for selecting both a president and a constitutional committee. In the 20 months between these two dates, the story of Iraq was largely untold. Certain events received airtime: the capture of Saddam and the abuses of Abu Ghraib were both heavily reported. The cease-fire and withdrawal from Fallujah as well as its subsequent recapture by coalition forces also made their way into our newspapers and 24-hour news networks. From the outside looking in, Iraq appeared to be a nation with a multiple personality disorder. The media served up stories of electricity shortages, looting, torture and abuse, insurgency and quagmire. The coalition and individual soldiers (via blogs) conveyed reports of rebuilt hospitals and schools, restored infrastructure, dredged harbors, trained policemen and terrorists removed from the battlefield. Yet the story that received little if any play is that of the day-to-day lives of the Iraqi people. Unheralded, they lived their lives through these months of anxiousness and uncertainty. Most of that story will never be known, but a glimpse is available thanks to In the Red Zone by Stephen Vincent. The book is an account of Vincent’s two solo expeditions through the chaos of an Iraq between governments. Instead of staying with the rest of the foreign journalists in the relative safety of the Green Zone, he spent his time in the cities and village of Iraq, interacting with the people. There is content in here to shatter the preconceptions of any reader, regardless which political rung they swing from. He recounts events and stories that I did not want to hear; that did not line up with how I thought Iraq should be. But who am I to argue with how Iraq is. The author does not whitewash anything. His diary relates progress and failures, triumphs and tragedies. He chooses to tell the whole truth, favoring neither the pro- or anti- war side. Instead, he records the voice of the people of Iraq, and his evident compassion for them is the only bias that shines through.
I believe that is the most important aspect of this book – the author’s refusal to allow his own biases and opinions determine the content. He spends the majority of his ink relaying his genuine interactions with all types of Iraqi nationals. His own personal opinions on the military action and subsequent reconstruction are not spelled out until the concluding chapter.Yet, even then, Stephen’s never spells out what the rest of us should think. He merely examines his beliefs prior to his trip and describes how they have been tempered and changed by his time in the Red Zone. This quote makes a very important statement:
This is difficult to write, especially since on of my intentions in this book is to persuade readers that fighting for the Iraqi people is worth American blood and treasure. But we must be honest. The first step in knowledge is to see the Other as a distinct entity, not as an extension of oneself. Like many supporters of the war, I had perceived the Iraqis as I wished them to be: latent Jeffersonian, yearning for freedom and democracy. Like others I was blinded by my personal need to account for 9-11 – a desire that had sublimated itself into political idealism. An idealism, moreover, that was reflected back to me by reasonable Iraqis, the Westernized, English-speaking people I met. Unable to speak Arabic, I, like most foreign journalists, had little access to the millions of unreasonable Iraqis whose lives, thoughts and spirits are ground into passivity or resentment by religious obscurantism and tribal parochialism. The people, in short, who swell the armies of Islamofascism.
This is both a humble admission as well as a very insightful look at how easily it is to view any event through the prism of our own ideology. It is too easy to listen to the evidence within our own echo chamber.No matter where you stand on Iraq, In the Red Zone is outside of your echo chamber. I highly recommend reading it. Stephen Vincent’s blog is also available here.