Thursday, April 8, 2010

I could never do what this guy does...

"Baghdad comes alive for a few minutes just before dawn when a chorus of muezzins summon the faithful with their hauntingly beautiful fajr calls to prayer. Their voices bounce off the cememt buildings and seem to roll through the city. But sometimes, when the melodic songs go quiet, I am assaulted by memories of Baghdad's new music, the whooshing of outgoing mortars, the rat-a-tat of assault rifles, the crashes of car bombs, and the buzzing of low-flying Black Hawks. I can pick them out like instruments in a terrible orchestra."

This excerpt from Richard Engel's second book, War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq (published in 2008) is printed on the back cover. I'm not sure exactly when the dashing young reporter from NBC first caught my attention, but I will tell you that when I recently learned that he had written two books about his experiences covering the war in Iraq, I knew I wanted to read them. (His first book, A Fist In the Hornet's Nest: On the Ground in Baghdad Before, During, and After the War was published in 2005, and it's only a matter of days before the secondhand copy that I ordered arrives in the mail.)

War Journal begins at an important turning point in the war: just after Saddam Hussein is captured. Engel describes the day when he and other journalists were given a tour of the area where Saddam was hiding until he was found in a hole in late 2003; he was almost giddy with excitement when he got to actually explore the tiny "spider hole" that the dictator was pulled out of. I remember the news coverage of Saddam's capture--the pictures of the old, tired, and haggard-looking man with the look of total defeat on his face--and at the time I think most of us in the US were optimistic that soon the war would be over, the troops would come home, and the Iraqi people would live happily ever after.

Obviously, this did not happen. The violence began to increase and things seemed to be getting more and more unstable. I am almost embarrassed to admit that I didn't always pay close attention to the news reports out of Iraq, and according to Engel, not too many people did. Most of us are clueless. For one thing, the politics involved in trying to form a new parliamentary government in Iraq was, and is, much more complicated than most people realize, and the deep-seated tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims have existed for so long that it's extremely difficult to expect their leaders to just shake hands and agree to work together peacefully. Engel devotes much of the book explaining the history of the Sunnis and Shiites and the reasons for the ongoing rivalry between the two groups; he explains the complexities of the different political groups in Iraq, all vying for power. I'm still struggling to understand it all. (Before the recent elections in March, he wrote this blog post describing how it all works. Check it out, it's fascinating.) As the war progressed and the violence continued to escalate, he persevered in his comprehensive and objective coverage of the war, even if it meant risking his life. In his book he recalls many close calls when he'd been shot at, almost blown up by IEDs and truck bombs, and once someone even tried to kidnap him.

I think I've always found Richard Engel intriguing because he doesn't seem
afraid of putting himself right on the front lines. (Okay. He's also quite comely. There, I said it.) He'll embed for days with troops and report right from the scene of battle. He's interviewed the bad guys as well as the good guys, from children in an orphanage to Geroge W. Bush. In the book he describes the bizarre trial of Saddam Hussein, and the excitement of covering the elections in 2005. The news reports we see on TV, though, however thorough and informative they are, only give us a tiny glimpse of what is really happening. I have a renewed respect for war journalists like Richard; the unspeakable horrors that they must see in order to bring their viewers and readers some sense of what our troops are doing to try and bring peace to a people halfway around the world is something that, honestly, I don't think I'd be able to endure. Much of this book is difficult to read; he describes scenes of carnage and cruelty that are almost too horrible to imagine. As the book progresses and Iraq seems to become more and more unstable, the insurgents and terrorists find increasingly horrific ways to kill people.

Engel also shares a little bit of his own personal heartache, too. His marriage dissolved while he was in Baghdad. Later he fell in love with a humanitarian worker who "was the opposite of all that was ugly and brutal about Baghdad...the closest thing to an angel I have ever met, the kindest person I knew." Just a few weeks into their relationship, she was killed by a suicide bomber.

This is the kind of book that sticks with you. It makes you realize that we don't really know nearly as much about the situation in the Middle East as we think we do. (Personally, I've never purported to know much at all.) It's fascinating and brutal, amazing and tragic and eye-opening, all at the same time. I found that when I wasn't actually reading the book, I was thinking about it. I might wait a while before I read his other one.

"Standing in dust up to my ankles, a powder so fine it penetrates every pore in your shoes and then mixes with sweat and turns to clay, I watched the chopper blades hit the sand in the air and turn it into yellow sparks. The sparks made a glowing halo over the dark green bird in the star-filled night. War and its machines can be so beautiful and seductive, until you remember what they do." --War Journal, p. 122

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