Imperial Life

Kurt Vonnegut died this week and despite not knowing him personally and not having read any of his works for a decade and a half, I feel oddly bereft. It was good to know he was out there and now, he isn’t. I bought his last book, A Man Without a Country a few years ago and once I’ve finished my current book, I’ll dive back into his universe.

I finished reading Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran – Lynn’s Gift That Keeps On Giving (Kurt would have loved this book). Or rather, I zoomed through it. Couldn’t put it down.

Candrasekaran was the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post for several years before, during and after the US invasion. Imperial Life is the story of the year-long occupation immediately following the war to topple Saddam Hussein and details the attempts of the Coalition Provisional Authority, led by viceroy Paul Bremer, to rebuild Iraq. The goal is a grand neoconservative experiment – to recreate Iraq in America’s image. To ensure commitment to this goal, most staffers and contractors were selected based on political affiliation and loyalty to the Republican Party instead of skill, experience in post-conflict development or knowledge of the region. In fact, many appeared to have deliberately avoided familiarizing themselves with the history and culture of the Arab world, preferring instead to “go in cold” so they can “make up their own minds”. Then proceeded to bumble around, not consulting Iraqis, ignoring religious leaders and focusing on ridiculous initiatives, leaving basic ones ignored. For instance: creating non-smoking policies when the hospitals have no equipment or medication. So it goes.

The pace is unrelenting and the events so surreal, it’s easy to get caught up in the hugely entertaining absurdity and start laughing. This books reads like Catch-22, like Slaughterhouse-Five, like watching M*A*S*H and then you realize that it’s all real and that the actions you’re reading about contributed directly to the current mess in Iraq, that the actions (inactions?) of the CPA played a direct and large role in destabilizing the region and the world. And then you want to throw up and stop reading, but you can’t because it’s so gripping.

Towards the end, someone – I forget who (that’s the trouble with audiobooks – it’s hard to check facts later), but he was an Iraqi academic, maybe? has a brilliant quote: “[t]hirty years of tyranny do terrible things to people. It breeds a culture of dependency, it breaks the spirit of civil responsibility”. By not taking into consideration the effects of living under a dictator for that long have on the population and refusing to consider the factors of culture and religion, the CPA’s efforts to create a “mild and moderate” democracy were doomed.

Although I spent days being alternately frustrated and terribly sad, I am glad I read this book. I never quite understood what went so terribly wrong, couldn’t quite manage to untangled the players and Imperial Life brought some clarity to that. Chandrasekaran avoids the newfangled trend of “emotionews” and instead writes the book as old-fashioned journalism: reporting the facts, keeping his opinions and reactions to himself. And that’s what makes the book so absurd and subversive – that everything he writes can be corroborated elsewhere, that it is not an opinion that can be easily dismissed as liberal claptrap. Brilliant. Can’t recommend it enough. Go read it.

Which brings me to the next recipient of The Gift That Keeps On Giving. I promised I’d try to find some cute replacement for the Tinks and who better than Her Royal Catness? The draw involved a highly sophisticated selection method – I threw the wee pieces of paper with contestants’ names on the floor and picked the one she batted at first. It took some time as apparently, she found the game beneath her, but finally, we have a winner! Lucia, if you send me your address (landers5ATgmailDOTcom), I’ll get the book in the mail for you.

Mojo, expressing her opinion of my little games.