Christian Parenti’s Iraq Uncensored
December 19, 2004
“The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq” By Christian Parenti, The New Press, 208 pages.
Parenti’s book provides a first-hand description of life in occupied Iraq, primarily the life of the occupiers, but also that of the occupied. None of this has been seen on the network news or read about in the corporate transcriptions of Pentagon PR that pass for newspapers in the United States. Yet much of it will be familiar – primarily from movies based on the war on Vietnam.
Through Parenti’s well-told accounts of people and events, we see the horrors and blunders of war, the cruelty that can result from a language barrier, the trigger-happy fear, the pharmaceutical-induced courage, the bureaucratic nightmare for victims’ families, the sociopathic humor of the deeply disturbed, and the conflicts between the corporate profiteers and decision makers and the U.S. National Guard troops brought in to do their bidding.
Parenti is a talented writer and observer, and he throws in asides about his own exploits that can occasionally seem out of place but serve as comic relief, bits that could have come from Hunter S. Thompson or Henry Miller. So, the book is entertaining. It’s also honest – about the suffering caused by the Saddam Hussein regime, by those who have replaced it, and by the resistance.
If anything were to change the minds of those Americans still supporting this war – short of persuading television news to show images of what war does to human flesh and human families – it would be an account like this of what life is like on the ground in Iraq. But I’m afraid this account may not reach as many people as it otherwise might, because the dust-jacket and the early pages label this a book from the “liberal elite.”
Parenti’s preface says: “I have chosen descriptive reportage over a more analytical approach for a number of reasons. One is the surfeit of already existing radical analyses of the Iraq debacle….” Fine, but couldn’t this explanation have come in an afterword? And, then, couldn’t it have been followed more strictly? The few bits of analysis that slip into the book are mostly found toward the beginning and could have been moved to the end. The book could have opened with narrative and been packaged as simply an account of what’s happening in Iraq. Instead, the dust-jacket carries praise from various lefties, a description of the book as an account of disastrously bad planning, and this quote from a Baghdad resident:
“Ah, the freedom. Look, we have the gas-line freedom, the looting freedom, the killing freedom, the rape freedom, the hash-smoking freedom. I don’t know what to do with all this freedom.”
That quote could have appeared in its place in the book, following descriptions that would have made it comprehensible to red staters who support their president.
What did Parenti hope to accomplish with this book? It’s not clear that he believes in the possibility of convincing anyone of anything they do not already agree with. He describes U.S. soldiers stationed in Iraq as wondering what the war is for but having no answers:
“Talking to these young soldiers, I begin to feel that many of them didn’t have the skills to answer their own questions. They have satellite TV and internet access, but putting the bits and pieces together – some BBC here, a critical article from the Net there – is a rare thing on most military bases. Usually the war is framed as patriotic duty or through the narrative of private personal trauma.”
Parenti closes the book with a description of the intense struggle soldiers have fitting into peaceful society when they make it back to the Unites States. And he finds no increase in the soldiers’ understanding of the war:
“This group of guys, recently forced to spend a year of their young lives fighting an imperial war with global implications, are politically mute. They are neither pro-war, hopped up on patriotism, nor bitter, cynical and anti-war. Even when prodded by my occasional questions they are reluctant, or unable, to discuss the larger politics of what they have just lived.”
All right, but what if a greater effort were made than occasional questions? What if a serious discussion were to follow the reading of this book?