The parts of the book about his being embedded with the US Marines when they entered Fallujah are just incredible. At a time when the Pakistani army is going into South Waziristan and we are completely dependent on the (conflicting) accounts of the spokesmen of either side of the conflict, his account highlights the importance of embedded journalism in order for the public to gain a better understanding of the nature of the conflict.
What really struck a chord with me were the accounts of middle class Iraqis frustrated with the direction of Iraqi democracy, even while they asserted that they would not like to return to the time of Saddam. There was this really cool account of Paul Bremer’s visit to an Iraqi hospital. Apparently they only had a few hours of electricity a day and babies were dying due to lack of oxygen. Later, Filkins returned to talk to the person in charge of record keeping at the hospital to find that the records were in complete disarray, in many cases there was no record of patients’ address or identification information. The hospital official complained about how, during Saddam’s time there was at least electricity and things ran like clockwork but that he would not want to go back to life under the tyrant. Towards the end of the book, Filkins describes how one of his interpreters, a liberal Shia, draws a diagram on his reporter’s notebook to describe the difference between the post-Saddam and the Saddam eras: for Saddam’s era she draws a large circle. For the post-Saddam era, she draws multiple small circles and some small dots representing Iraqis. According to her, in Saddam’s time, there was one large circle around which everything gravitated. Now, a collision with any of these larger circles would result in ones death and one didn’t know which way to go.
The book is full of other examples of Iraqis having trouble dealing with the negative consequences of democracy. His description of the 2006 election in which people braved dire threats from the Sunni insurgents in order to go out to vote is really moving. Most interesting is his conversation with an angry Sunni woman who, despite the likely negative outcome for her community is voting in order to save her country from the invaders (“You”). He also describes an election rally in an Iraqi factory in which the main concern of the working class Shia factory workers is that the candidates have the endorsement of the Ayatollah Sistani and how difficult it is to conduct an election in a security situation which doesn’t even allow the names of all the candidates to be revealed for security reasons.
It’s a great book, full of amazing moments which make you sit up and rethink a lot of what you think you know about Afghanistan and Iraq, even though it’s ostensibly non-political.