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"The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."
-Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool.
- Chinua Achebe, In Suffering
Imagine if Hunter Thompson’s knack for a near-miss had ridden shotgun on Jonathan Schell’s tours of Viet Nam, or if, instead of catapulting his war stories into metafiction and metaphysics, the invincible William T. Vollmann wrote with the concision and focus of a good journalist. Now you are beginning to see the kind of fellow we are dealing with in Christian Parenti and his documentation of his travels in American-occupied Iraq. As you read the accounts, especially those from "Meeting the Resistance" and "Things Fall Apart," you’ll feel your jaw drop and wonder aloud how the hell he had the nerve to go into insurgent strongholds, interview rebel fighters, join troops on relentlessly assaulted patrol missions, and always bolt toward the source of an explosion. When I first met him, here in New York, and he referred briefly to his time in Iraq (and Afghanistan, though that’s not covered in this book), he got a sort of look on his face like sometimes he too wonders how the hell he got the nerve to do that stuff.
Wanting for neither first-hand experience nor exhaustive research, the man who made awful sense of the ideology underpinning the prison-industrial complex (Lockdown America) and cultures of surveillance (The Soft Cage) has outdone himself with The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq
Parenti reports on things that literally nobody else is talking about, not the least of which is his early-on encounter with the Iraqi Workers Communist Party. Sharing offices at that time with the Unemployed Union of Iraq and the Organization for Women’s Freedom in Iraq, they were holed up in "the remains of a looted bank near the base of the Jumhuriyah Bridge" and running, among other things, a one-room radio station. Equally disdainful of the American Occupation and of the "hostile militants" working on behalf of Muqtada al-Sadr, they are groups interested in "a secular, democratic Iraq where women are full members of society," as OWFI-leader and IWCP-member Yanar Mohammed put it. She continues: "In some ways gender in Iraq is like race in America. But the condition of women has been deteriorating. In the fifties and sixties, my mother wore sleeveless shirtsThis current situation, this fundamentalism, is not natural, it is not even traditional. It is desperate and reactionary."
The point is one worth dwelling on. As Parenti notes early on in the book, Baghdad was once "the great summit of Arab and Islamic culture," where learning, tolerance, and a separation of religion from government were sustained for centuries, even as Europe languished in a gory Dark Age stewpot of wars, massacres, and theocratic misrule. Many US commentators and reporters write about Iraq as if it were some ineluctably mysterious and unknowable Over-There, not so different from the way people used to talk about India in the heyday of the British Empire. Even the "liberal" voices in the mainstream, when they work up the guts to call for the US to pull out of Iraq, often cite the "fact" that Islamic cultures are simply not suited for democracy. This is an absurd notion, of course, with Orientalist and racialist overtones that deserve to be challenged. And Parenti does. He speaks to Iraqis about how they view the US army’s view of them.
Iraqis hate this sort of arrogance, and the more of it they see the more they hate the occupation. As one highly educated and bilingual Iraqi told me, "The Americans think we are Indians and that this is the Wild West." Another Iraqi, the relative of someone killed at a US checkpoint, asked rhetorically why the US soldiers always used such strange names like "Camp War Eagle" or "Task Force Panther," then offered his own explanation: "It shows they do not respect us, that they hate us."
Shoving democracy down a culture’s throat doesn’t work, more and more people now seem willing to reluctantly admit. But the conclusion they draw is typically that it’s because of an aversion to democracy. Consider, instead another possible conclusion: that the aversion is not to the delicacy, but to the manner of feeding.
Akeel, a twenty-six-year old who Parenti has on as a translator throughout most of the book, is a great example of the kind of Iraqi we never get to hear about (or from) on the evening news. Simply put, he’s a real person. He’s got a girlfriend (he later escapes to the UK and marries her), he knows his way around the area, sometimes he drinks too much, he and Parenti have an easy working friendship, he’s got a sense of irony. It is Akeel, in fact, who provides the title and epigraph for the book: "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." In an American media environment where irony is still dead (or at least bound and gagged in the basement), Akeel’s simultaneously tragic and wry survey of his occupied homeland has no place, largely because it has no context. The mainstream doesn’t want an Iraqi with an intelligent point of view and a sharp tongue.
The Conrad connection, which Parenti also makes explicit late in the text, is key. Like the Imperial projects of centuries past, the profit motive is the driving force for the endeavor in Iraq. "Iraq reconstruction is a racketWithout the Iraq contract, Halliburton-which had a net loss of $947 million in the fourth quarter of 2003 despite year-end revenue that was up by 63 percent-would probably be in bankruptcy thanks toasbestos payments and other problems connected to ‘creative accounting.’" The pseudo-pious "mission" to bring light to the dark places of earth is the cover-up; it comes second to the money-hunger but needs to make itself understood as both primary and essential. This is not just to keep popular support but also to assuage the consciences of the imperialists themselves. This reversal of motive primacy isn’t easy to pull off. It requires constant maintenance and reinforcement: a perpetual and histrionic erasure of origins that would have done Freud proud.
But that sort of cultural psychoanalysis does nothing for the people on the ground: insurgents, US army grunts, citizens, journalists. Especially for the US soldiers, fighting for their love of country or their sense of duty or their pressing economic need or a mash-up of all those factors and more, the big picture is not supposed to be their concern. For the most part it’s not. Sure they think about the vastness of the military project, and some of them are rather forthcoming about their doubts about the administration, the reasons for the war, hierarchy and privilege within the military, and so on. But they don’t dwell on those things. They can’t, or else they’ll die. For the grunts, life is broken down into miniscule bits: this ration of water, that porno tape, how the vehicles are holding up, when it’s time to go patrol. In chapter four, "With the Grunts," Parenti embeds with Alpha Company of the 3rd Battalion of the 124th Infantry, a National Guard unit mostly made up of college students and college-age non-students from north Florida. I have to admit that this made my blood run cold, because it’s not so long ago that I was a north Florida college student. I don’t personally know the men Parenti spent time with, but I could have, and it’s not outside the sphere of possibility that I’ve crossed paths with some of them, maybe at a party or football game. One of the troops, a guy named Crawford who was described by another grunt as "the squad’s house liberal," was an aspiring writer. "Instead of watching porno DVDs, Crawford is here to finish a short story." He and I probably have a lot in common.
Returning to Joseph Conrad (and critical theory), I want to mention that "Things Fall Apart," the title of a particularly chaotic chapter in Parenti’s book, is a reference to Chinua Achebe’s novel of the same name. Achebe, a Nigerian novelist and poet, is an outspoken Conrad detractor who called Heart of Darkness a racist novel, which, in part anyway, it is. This two-step how to access Conrad’s important-albeit-limited critique of colonialism and then explode those limits to clear ground for Achebe’s equally important post-colonial critique what makes The Freedom such a coherent and ultimately useful book. It’s almost too readable. Honest as he is, brutal and visceral as it gets, the writing carries the reader along and you find yourself wanting more.
Maybe war reporting shouldn’t be this good. But then I think of Akeel, and how much The Freedom probably amuses him.
JUSTIN TAYLOR is an intern at The Nation. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org