Blood in Shades of Grey


Jon Lee Anderson believes in good wars. "I’d like to think that I would have fought in the Spanish Civil War and in World War II against fascism," says the longtime war correspondent and author of The Fall of Baghdad. "I don’t know if there have been any good wars since — because you have to be willing to get your hands dirty. And that’s the problem," he tells me in the incongruously plush foyer of his hotel in Sydney. "The way wars are fought now is we use proxies."

Iraq is a dirty war, of militias and death squads, says Anderson. "All of the Western notions of codes of warfare do not apply in Iraq. If you take someone hostage, you can butcher them on camera. Social codes of behaviour are enforced through a campaign of murder."

"It’s not a war as we know it," he reiterates strongly. "It’s a war of murder." It’s a word he uses often, and each time it comes out heavily, like a curse.

Anderson was one of a handful of Western journalists who worked in Baghdad up to and throughout the US-led invasion. As a correspondent for the New Yorker, he was filing regular dispatches from Saddam’s Iraq in the years prior to the war. "It was the most oppressed society I have ever witnessed," says Anderson — who has lived or worked in Afghanistan, Liberia, Colombia, Cuba and Iran, to name a few.

Today’s Iraq, he says, is the most murderous environment he has ever known.

In his articles, which later provided the bulk of The Fall of Baghdad, Anderson charts the heady days leading up to the invasion. Life in Baghdad continues, on edge but almost unchanged. He attends a wedding for the eldest son of his driver, Sabah, who struts around throwing fistfuls of Iraqi dinars over the wedding guests like confetti.

"Please understand, we are not afraid of the Americans." Sabah’s nephew tells Anderson during the celebrations. "What we are afraid of is this regime, because of what it might do if the Americans don’t come and finish things quickly."

As the title of his book suggests, Anderson remains in Iraq as Baghdad falls, sleeping sporadically through nights of "shock and awe" and witnessing first hand the effect of the campaign on ordinary Iraqi civilians — as well as the odd band of journalists, aid workers, conflict tourists and human shields who congregate at times of war.

At the besieged Al Kindi Hospital we meet Ali, a 12-year-old boy wounded in a rocket attack that also killed his mother, father and a brother, and wiped out four neighbouring houses. His torso is entirely blackened and both of his arms have been burned through. One still has a hand attached, burnt into a twisted claw; the other is cut off at the elbow with bones protruding, "like something pulled out of barbecue". Anderson talks to Ali about school and asks if he likes sport. Then, without prompting, the gravely ill boy volunteers calmly: "Bush is a criminal and he is fighting for oil."

There’s Patrick Dillon, Vietnam vet cum war tourist, who is on his own journey to the heart of darkness, trying to reconcile his inner Marlow and Kurtz. Sabah the driver, who has developed such a finely tuned system of nods-and-winks bribery under Saddam’s regime that he is at a loss once the Americans arrive and it is no longer recognised as currency. And the young man from Saddam City, a large Shiite slum in north eastern Baghdad, who is at pains to explain that the violence and looting being witnessed is "not representative of Iraqis nor the people of Saddam City".

If most war journalism offers the bomber’s eye view — or at least, the "big picture" clarity that comes from working closely with the occupying force — Anderson’s work is the victim’s eye view. We are on the ground, in the mayhem, never sure where or when the next bomb will strike.

And yet, when pushed to give his opinion on the US-led invasion, Anderson avoids a direct answer.

"Why do I have to editorialise, why can’t you just see it? I think my book accurately reflects my viewpoint," he says.

"When you take a black or white position and you’re talking about war, the minute you do that, you are condemning the part of the population that you’re not in agreement with to death. You take a position in a war, you’re saying: all of those people are killable. If you’re pro-invasion that means you take on to yourself morally the consequences of what you just said."

But if that’s the case, I ask, then why weren’t you against it?

"Because I thought Saddam was an evil tyrant," he says. "In Iraq the fear was so palpable it’s beyond the scales of what most well meaning Western urbanites of the 21st century [can understand]. They don’t believe there’s such a thing as an evil system. [They think:] ‘Oh no, we can’t ascribe moralistic notions to political systems.’ The same people believe that there is no such thing as Islamic extremism; that it’s really our doing and we’ve somehow created them. No, they exist. Does that mean that I’m defending or somehow going along with George W Bush’s view of the world? No. It’s not that black and white."

"I felt strongly in the 1980s over the position the US took in the Iran-Iraq war and its relationship with Saddam; [I felt] the US had a moral imperative to make good then," says Anderson.

"If there was a time to invade Iraq, it would’ve been when Saddam was using weapons of mass destruction against his own people and his enemies — but at that time he was acting as a tacit proxy of the US. And so I found all the arguments — when I heard them being made so belatedly by Colin Powell and the others — shockingly reprehensible."

In early 2003, prior to the invasion, Anderson traveled to Iran, where more than half a million Iraqi Shiites were living as refugees of Saddam’s regime. Here he was warned ominously by a prominent Shiite Iraqi sheik that the US should not "get involved in the shifting sands of Iraq. If you do anything in Iraq, do it quickly."

He meets with Wamidh Omar Nadhmi, a political scientist and university lecturer — whom Anderson describes as "one of the few Iraqis who had ever dared question Saddam’s policies and lived to tell about it" — who warns him about the aftermath of the war, predicting that there would be serious social divisions among Iraq’s various ethnic groups, leading to civil strife, terrorism, and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

"Remember how the Iraqis revolted against the British in 1920," Nadhmi cautions.

Whatever else they disagreed on, writes Anderson, the Shiite Iraqis he spoke to were unanimous in their view that the country would not view a foreign occupation kindly. And the 1920 uprising against the British colonial presence was a common theme.

In person, Anderson talks a lot about things not being "black and white", and being interested in the grey area; about trying to find a truth, an opinion, but never feeling quite like he knows the terrain well enough to commit the opinion to paper. And yet the accuracy of the predictions he records in The Fall of Baghdad is heartbreaking in retrospect. Over and over again the insurgency was mapped out for him. Given this, I ask whether he ever felt the responsibility to step over the line of impartial journalist and become an active player in the political process.

"I had no idea it would get as bad as it did," he says. "Even though you’ve seen it in my reporting — yes, my nose was taking me here and there and I was hearing things and I was worried and it was reflected in my reporting. But I was only coming to that myself. I mean, I was also exploring the unknown."

"I did a piece a month before the war called Invasions and it was a cautionary tale, to Americans about Iraq. It went into past history. That was the closest I came I suppose to feeling finally — I had this hunch – that there was a lot of hubris, a lot of superficial knowledge, and a great gulf of misunderstanding."

The US military employ anthropologists in Iraq these days, to advise young troops on culturally sensitive behaviour and how to win local support without using military force. The "Human Terrain Team", an experimental Pentagon program, was launched in combat in 2006, in response to complaints from serving troops that they were ill-prepared for the job at hand.

It’s a small, belated (and controversial) measure in the face of a massive problem: that the invading forces had next to no cultural or historical understanding of the country — nor, it would seem, much of a game plan — before they wove a bloody path to Baghdad in March 2003.

It’s unlikely a little anthropological advice would have warded off a war mongering Administration, but could the quagmire of daylight murder, rape and sectarian violence that Iraq has now descended into have been different?

"I asked a Colonel who was in charge of Fallujah right after the invasion [whether Iraq’s colonial history was taken into account prior to the invasion]," says Anderson. "He was embarking on a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign in July 2003, which involved flying in frozen chickens, and distributing them to the sheiks and mullahs."

"This was a period when you would go to the military and they would tell you all the wonderful things they were doing. [Whereas] I was going with all the things I was hearing from the Iraqis, and feeling as though the earth was opening up under my feet and that they weren’t aware of it."

"This guy was relatively bright, he was a West Point graduate and a Colonel. I said: ‘You’re in Fallujah, are you aware that the Arab revolt began here in 1920 against the British and that this was key to the reason why they had to leave eventually?’ He looked really uncomfortable, he was flushed. I said: ‘This is an Anglo-American invasion, were you taught about this?’

"He said there wasn’t time, but that he’d ordered some books on that he was trying to read them in his free time. He was trying to learn on the job. Which said it all, I thought. [The invasion] was incredibly improvised in many ways, and it was ultimately left to the individual intellect, willpower and experience of the various commanders that were in place at the time."

"It was a complete shambles."

So unprepared were the invading troops that at one point Anderson personally informed the Military Commander that one of Baghdad’s major hospitals was being looted and should be secured.

"The Americans came into this city that they had carefully bombed, neutralising the Government’s forces, they had the country in the palm of their hand — and they threw it away," he says. "They came to the city in their tanks and they allowed it to be looted."

"The [Baathist] regime’s people had melted into the shadows to watch and wait, and they took advantage of it too. There was a lot of burning of buildings, a lot of intentional sabotage. It wasn’t happy looters — poor people from Sadr City, suddenly being able to cart off thrown chairs from Saddam’s palaces. There was a lot of what looked like targeted sabotage.

"In mid-June [2003], I went to the south of Baghdad where all of the war material from the city had been taken. Within yards of the road there were live ammunition shells, anti-aircraft batteries with live rockets still in their pods, you walked over things with electrical fuses still attached. And there were men there taking stuff away.

"Across the road there was this vast area, which I’d seen before but never knew what it was. It turned out to be a huge ammunition dump. And it had already been looted — so this had taken place between April and June. The insurgents went in trucks, took it out, and left.

"There was not an American soldier within kilometres of theses sites. The Iraqis realised this was taking place — that they weren’t protected and that the usual suspects were going to continue to be able to operate.

"A few days later I talked with a former colonel who was an envoy of Rumsfeld. He listened to me, didn’t know about it, shrugged and said: ‘Yeah. We don’t have enough people.’ I thought: That’s it? You have to be kidding."

"Saddam Hussein had won Iraq," says Anderson. "He’d done it through terror. The only way to have truly won Iraq, militarily, was to out terrorise him."

"If the US had wanted to truly neutralise Iraq, to have truly remade it into a democratic society, it would need to have fought a total war, and devastated the country militarily. It needed to have so traumatised the support base for their ideological foes that the rest of the population would be willing putty in their hands — like the Germans and Japanese were after World War II. It did not do it, could not do it — it won’t do it."

"Therefore any result will be less than good, from the radical reformer’s point of view."

"You cannot idealise Iraq at this point," Anderson says. "We’ve screwed it. It can’t really be fixed. The bleeding can be staunched and the only way to do that is to do kind of what they’re doing: to gradually build up a new security State — with all that implies — which will be powerful enough, and hopefully controllable enough, and murderous enough to neutralise the more murderous militias."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.