Graeme Wood

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A Wide-Eyed Foray into Iraq

The New York Sun

Review of In the Red Zone by Steven Vincent.

Iraq began descending into blood spattered madness just days after the fall of Baghdad, but it took about a year before the country went into its grisly tailspin and landed in the utter bedlam that now rules the day. For that year journalists could do their jobs in relative safety. Even humble freelancers could wander the country, scraping by without paid security and freely chatting up locals about the wretchedness of life in Iraq.

Since then, beheadings and bombs have deterred many journalists, and freelancers in particular have chosen to go home rather than tempt death for the sake of a story that may or may not sell. Their departure, however honorable, leaves independent journalism in Iraq impoverished. It also makes books like Steven Vincent’s “The Red Zone: a Journey into the Soul of Iraq” (Spence Publishing, 247 pages, $27.95) more important than they would otherwise be.

In any other war, his navel-gazing little memoir would earn immediate dismissal as amateur war correspondence. But in the present climate, with massive obstacles hindering the work of most reporters, Mr. Vincent’s book presents a rare perspective. It deserves attention, if not praise.

Mr. Vincent, a New York-based art journalist, stayed four months in Iraq in late 2003 and early 2004, and almost everything he writes about occurred outside the Green Zone, the district of Baghdad secured with a permanent American military perimeter. He based himself in Baghdad and Basra and inserted himself into the occupation’s key events and places, including Karbala, where more than 100 pilgrims perished in the 2004 Ashura bombings, and the festering Saddamite nest of Fallujah (long before the Marines surrounded and pulverized it).

Mr. Vincent’s first chapter explains his inspiration to go to Iraq in the first place: seething rage over September 11 and the belief that the Iraq invasion would permit the exercise of “a nation’s just wrath, harnessed to a righteous cause.” Mr. Vincent marries this contemptibly incomplete argument for the invasion to a contemptibly solipsistic reason for visiting the country himself – his desire to take part in the world historical moment that he believes the September 11 attacks initiated.

These are the first of many passages in which he rambles on about politics and his notions about the interconnectedness of Iraq and Islamist terror. Indeed, his ability to slip into irrelevant introspection disfigures nearly every scene in his book. In one moment of narcissism, he reacts to a grisly bombing by “feeling angry at my own superficiality.” Indeed, indeed. The morally scrupulous reaction to this atrocity is not to chide oneself for insensitivity.

Mr. Vincent commits basic war journalism gaffes. He quotes his own cab drivers and translators. He makes a big deal about not carrying a weapon while on the Iraqi roads, as if packing heat were standard procedure for journalists. He lies to sources about his nationality. He dons Arab dishdasha robes – I have never seen a Western journalist do this – and, incredibly, wears a T-shirt bearing Shiite religious slogans.

He might have learned from the restraint of more seasoned war journalists, who are at best transparent eye balls, analytical and subtly present yet never the most important subject at the scene. Journalists have sound reasons for not interviewing their own hired help, for being honest, and for not compromising safety or objectivity by arming themselves or faking conversion to radically conservative Shiism.

Mr. Vincent cannot be faulted for breaking down when he realizes that a dear female Iraqi friend may have endured unspeakable cruelties under Sad dam’s regime. But he deserves blame for writing about his own breakdown as if his grief could decently share the page with the trauma inflicted on her. Ryszard Kapuscinski witnessed tragedies but declined to say if he convulsed with sobs before them.

It is impossible to endorse a book so thoroughly warped in its self-regard – which is too bad, because Mr. Vincent’s inexperience does makes him open and eager in a way that eludes jaded veteran reporters. Early in his memoir, he calls his Iraq trip “the experience of a lifetime,” a cliche so sunny and wide-eyed that you immediately fear for his life. He shamelessly rhapsodizes over the exoticism of Iraq, its people, and its religions. And he does not hesitate to make bold generalizations about “the Iraqi temperament,” a phrase more cautious writers would shun.

Mr. Vincent’s account of Iraqi humiliation sounds spot-on – “every time I see a U.S. tank I feel like it is crushing my skull,” one lawyer tells him – and goes a long way toward explaining the bitter ambivalence Iraqis feel about their occupiers and liberators. He describes the mortification of Iraqis at being part of a society that permitted a ghoul of Saddam’s magnitude to keep power. There are few ways to discuss such complex feelings except in vague terms of Iraqi psychology, and to Mr. Vincent’s credit he does so without hesitation.

The best parts of the book are Mr. Vincent’s portraits of Qasim al-Septi and Nour, two Iraqis with murky histories from Saddam’s time. Septi, a middle-aged Baghdadi who owns a gallery and hosts a salon for artists and intellectuals, flourished suspiciously under Saddam. Nour, Mr. Vincent’s young and strong-willed translator and guide in Basra, suffered mentally and physically to an extent she is unwilling to discuss. (It is when Mr. Vincent realizes what her horrors might have entailed that he gasps and bursts into tears.)

In a safer time, it may be possible to write a more detailed account of how Iraqis confront their past, an Iraqi version of Tina Rosenberg’s “The Haunted Land.” For now that is a book in search of an author – and a brave author at that. By telling the stories of these two Iraqis, Mr. Vincent at least reminds us of that need.

Postscript: This story has a sad end. Soon after this review ran, Steven Vincent published an excellent New York Times op-ed about corruption in Basra. Almost immediately, assassins snatched him with Nour al-Khal, his friend and translator. They executed him and wounded her gravely. He was killed for doing his job well.

Vincent was writing a book on Basra, a city he knew well, and about which he would have produced a splendid book. I reviewed In the Red Zone harshly (and, I think, fairly) when it came out; I regret that I never had the chance to read and praise this other one.

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