Phil Klay’s short stories about Marine Corps life in Iraq and after Iraq begin so realistically that I had to check to confirm I was reading fiction. The accumulated mosaic combines the experiences of grunts, commanders, American snipers, wounded veterans, supply men, post-war rebuilders, chaplains, and kids who found themselves fighting Hajis before they were even old enough to legally drink beer. Notably absent are women and people of color who combined probably make up the majority, or nearly so, of our army. While some stories are naturally better than others, the net effect is not so much the hackneyed maxim that war is hell, but rather this war created by George Bush and incompetently prosecuted by his post-war advisors was an ineptitude of epic proportions. No character in this book seems fully confident of who the enemy is or for what logic they are fighting. Winner of the National Book Award.
Sadly, so much of the terror that has become ISIS in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, the countries of North Africa and the attacks in Europe are a consequence of America’s invasion of Iraq and depressingly inept post-war policies. The historical evolution laid bare in this highly readable, and rather suspenseful account, is an excellent introduction. In contrast to George Bush and his democracy cowboys, Jordan’s King Hussein, and especially Jordan’s secret service, the Mukhabarat, appear to be prescient, surrounded by enemies, and highly competent. It could be because Warrick likes Jordan or had access to more material from Jordan, but I do have new respect for Jordan’s plight. I also have questions about whether ISIS can be beaten militarily or whether more difficult measures like economic development, women’s empowerment, and more participatory politics are needed to stem the tide. The test case seems to be Tunisia, but for the outcome on that experiment, we will have to await someone else’s book.
Filkins has chutzpah. He has been reporting on the war in Iraq since the days before Al Qaeda ever goaded the Bush administration into attacking Baghdad. What this book provides is the feeling of being on the ground in a country that is disintegrating. His writing is alive with the smell of a recent bombing by the U.S. Air Force, the sight of a freshly decapitated suicide bomber, and the sound of sniper bullets teeming past his head. It reads best if you recall some of the war’s history on your own, but it also stands alone as a gutsy, first-hand account of life among U.S. soldiers and ordinary Iraqis caught up in post-Saddam anarchy. January 2009.
In the late 1950’s Elizabeth Farnea’s new husband traveled to a small rural village in southern Iraq to do graduate research on an irrigation project. Farnea was relegated to life with the women and thankfully recorded her observations of how women completely veiled by clothing, secluded behind walls, and hidden inside houses lived with one another and their multitude of children. It must be one of the first books to think women’s stories are worth telling. Moreover, I suspect that for many rural, Muslim women life has not changed dramatically in the intervening fifty years. The strength of the book lies in its cracking open the stereotypes and Farnea’s revelations of the individual personalities behind those veils. The fact the book has been reprinted and is still available is testament to its insight. March 2006.
An excellent memoir of life in the marines during the first Gulf War.
A memoir in graphic novel form of growing up under Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. It’s a good introduction to the history of the era and a fine description of living as a liberal beneath the feet of an autocratic religious regime with their minions of spies and enforcers. The comic book format makes for a very quick read, but the storyline is too superficial. January 2006.
This is Marjane Satrapi’s second half of her graphic (comic book) memoir of life as an Iranian exile in Europe as a young teen followed by her return to Iran as an older teen. It is more personal, and therefore, more compelling even then Persepolis 1, especially the second half of the book about life in Iran after the eight-year war with Iraq has ended. August 2006.
Nafiisi believes democracy can only succeed in conjunction with a fundamental human right to imagination. She demonstrates its value by documenting the deteriorating lives of eight young women she discusses fiction with under the tyrannical regime of Ayatollah Khomeni’s Iran. Western classics are banned and so is the option for young women to imagine a life of joy. “Fiction,” Nafisi says, “is not a panacea, but it did offer us a critical way of appraising and grasping the world — not just our world but that other world that had become the object of our desires.” Like the novels Nafisi uses to develop her memoir, this book grows in power and was worth sticking to. It is the most nuanced and complex view of women under fundamentalist Shia rule of the three that I’ve read. See also Persepolis 1, Persepolis 2, and Guests of the Sheik. May 2006.
OK, I admit it. I’m tired of reading books about the evils of Islam. It’s enough to make you think there’s a conspiracy of publishers each searching for the next great novel of Islamic terrorists, brutal prison guards, violent husbands, and psychologically tortured ordinary citizens. After reading this overrated book about a Jewish gemologist in Iraq imprisoned after the Iranian revolution and tortured while his family waits helplessly and anxiously I was left wishing for more complexity. Sofer hints at deeper characterizations, but doesn’t quite make good. The gemologist, for example, really did turn a blind eye to the Shah’s evil secret agents. The prison guards did have mixed feelings about their obligations to the revolution, their families, their own security, and to justice. Yet, for me, the characters felt flat, surprising, since I suspect much of the book is an autobiographical account of the author’s father. (Makes me doubt she has another critically acclaimed book in her.) Perhaps I’m poisoned reading this book back to back with A Thousand Splendid Suns but I am issuing a challenge to editors: surely there are some level headed Muslims living in the Middle East. Let’s hear their stories. January 2008.
David Finkel was embedded with the 2-16 on the outskirts of Bahgdad during Bush’s 2007 surge. He journals their work for one year. The troops are ordinary volunteer enlistees on routine patrols in a suburb bursting with IEDs, missiles from nowhere, and small-arms gunfire. The power of the book is its omniscient eye and spare reporting. Soldiers lose hands, legs, jaws, sleep, mental stability, and their understanding of purpose with devastating simplicity. An excellent companion to Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War.