A journalist's notebook

War correspondent's book offers snapshots, not the big picture

Liberation, invasion, occupation; whatever you want to call it, the Iraq war is now two years old. (Contain your feelings, please.) With the chaos, bloodshed and occasional glimmers of hope have come more than a few books. At first, the majority were polemics on why the war was a necessary evil, or why it was just evil. Thankfully, a growing number of titles are kicking ideological axes to the curb in favor of comprehensive reporting; Jon Anderson’s The Fall of Baghdad comes to mind, as does Evan Wright’s Generation Kill.

Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad’s A Hundred & One Days is a well-meant attempt in this direction. It privileges the experience of ordinary Iraqis over geopolitics. If the word neoconservative appears in these pages, it does so quietly. Seierstad is a veteran war correspondent who cut her teeth in Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan. (The latter was the setting for her global best seller, The Bookseller of Kabul.) She stayed in Baghdad from January through May of 2003, reporting for several Scandinavian newspapers, radio stations and TV networks.

A Hundred & One Days is a breathless, fleeting and unsatisfying correspondent’s diary that, two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein, does little to advance our understanding of what happened. Seierstad’s stated aim was to try to cover the war through basic muckraking journalism, “to find dissidents, a secret uprising, gagged intellectuals … to point out human rights violations, expose oppression.”

Mostly she writes about how hard it is to report with a Baathist babysitter. Like all journalists, Seierstad exists on a 10-day visa, which can be revoked at any time by Saddam’s Ministry of Information. And like all foreign journalists, she’s appointed a government minder who approves each and every interview and journey beyond her hotel.

In other contexts, this might seem like so much shoptalk. Who cares how the story was got, just get it, right? And yet to witness how a regime controls information, and how suppressing truth is at once institutionalized and internalized by every one of Hussein’s self-preserving subjects, is to understand a dictatorship in all its delusional glory.

For a reporter accustomed to operating in an open society, it’s a maddening catch-22: Go behind the regime’s back and you’ll be on the first plane to Jordan. Write too critically — use the word “regime” or “dictator” for instance — and you’re equally expelled. But toe the line too much and you risk being part of Saddam’s thuggish PR squad. (Think celebrity flack Lizzie Grubman and company with guns.)

So when our intrepid Seierstad asks politically sensitive questions about the possibility of civil war between Sunnis and Shias, she’s met with contemptuous denial. The regime’s reality problem leads to scenes of 1984-ish absurdity. For example, when she happens upon Iraqi soldiers waiting to be treated at a hospital, a bewildered doctor denies they’re soldiers — even though they’re wearing uniforms. As the author is told, Iraqi troops know not casualties. They don’t exist. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. …

Iraqis on the street are no more forthcoming. For they know the most minute slip can lead to their disappearance or a one-way ticket to torture and imprisonment. How does a reporter understand the thoughts and feelings of the populace when they’ve been trained to parrot government propaganda upon threat of disappearing?

Seierstad does an admirable job exposing the Baathists, as well as the ambivalence Iraqis feel toward their “liberation.” She hustles to hospitals and bombing sites where civilian casualties are raw and undeniable. But her book is not unified by central characters or an overarching analysis. What’s left is a series of pulpish installments of The Horrors of War show. While this is not something to belittle, it becomes excessive and sadly forgettable. Especially since Seierstad’s voice, however translated, is a mawkish staccato that evokes the improbable collision of the sentimental novelist Maeve Binchy and a burned-out AP editor. This is not a good thing.

Not to dwell on the obvious, but a lot’s happened since Seierstad left Iraq: the capture of Saddam, Abu Ghraib, the growth of the insurgency, the famous inky-fingered elections. A follow-up trip might have added a touch of continuity and a dose of relevance. Ultimately, A Hundred & One Days leaves its readers wondering not about the Iraqi people, but why it can’t make you care. When we think of how we’ve become desensitized to troubles far away, TV news is often the first target of pointed fingers. Funny that a well-meaning book can mirror a thousand droning sound-bites.

John Dicker reviews books for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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