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An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind
on March 30, 2011
I will start off by agreeing, reluctantly but whole-heartedly, with the criticism of Rosen's writing made in the review by Z. Cohen. This has got to be one of the most tedious books I have ever slogged through. It's roughly equivalent to reading a 560 page newspaper article. There is little flow between sections - we often jump abruptly to a whole new topic. There doesn't seem to be much order to the presentation - entire paragraphs could be put in an entirely different order and it would make little if any difference. Much of the text is basically a series of long quotes (not blocked, even when the quote comprises an entire paragraph or more), which read the way people talk and, hence, are difficult to follow. In fact, I have to admit that, try as I might, I couldn't force my way through the whole thing. I skipped the entire section on Afghanistan and only skimmed the final chapter.
Nonetheless, I believe the book deserves more than one star. I think Rosen is a consummate reporter. He interviewed hundreds of people for the book - Sunnis, Shiites, clerics, militiamen, militia leaders, government officials, American soldiers and officers, humanitarian workers, and simply ordinary Iraqis (and Syrians, Lebanese, etc.). He's not afraid to go where the story takes him and he put himself at great risk to cover events that few other English-speaking journalists were covering. Because of this work, we Americans have a perspective from the ground which we might otherwise not have if we rely solely on administration reports and embedded reporters.
But on the other hand, a 560 page book needs to have a focus, more of a point and needs to ultimately have an opinion. Rosen could have interviewed hundreds of Americans, from Main Street to Wall Street, regarding the economic melt-down, but without a focus and a point to make, it would just be a lot of random people's opinions wrapped up into one big package. That's essentially what "Aftermath" is, only regarding the Iraqi view of the Iraq war.
Furthermore, if Rosen's point was to increase sympathy for the Iraqis, he failed with me, at least as far as sympathy for Iraqi men. I do have sympathy for innocent women and children caught up in the testosterone-laden mess. But nearly every man that Rosen interviewed seems to be more part of the problem than the solution. Nearly everyone denies that sectarianism was a problem before the Americans came, and they all deny that they personally support sectarianism. But as Rosen gives them more rope to hang themselves, they nearly all eventually espouse anger, hatred and a desire for "revenge" against members of other sects, ethnicities, religions, etc. Some Lebanese Sunni protesters sum it up nicely on page 393: "We don't want sectarianism, but God is with the Sunnis!" Nearly every person Rosen interviews is focused on getting revenge for past injustices, real or perceived, some dating all the way back to the murder of Hussein, rather than focusing on how to move forward and build a new country.
I will give Rosen kudos for exposing how little the American forces and leadership knew about Iraq, its population and its culture at the time of invasion, how long it took them to start caring enough to start learning, and how inadequate their efforts were. Time after time the Americans, intentionally or unintentionally, ignite sectarian firestorms by favoring one group over another or pitting groups against each other. It took American forces far too long to recognize that they had stumbled into the midst of a civil war (which they themselves had helped to launch through the removal of Saddam Hussein and subsequent actions such as radical de-Baathification and the disbanding of the Iraqi army). Even once they realized and, much later, admitted, to the "sectarian strife", they didn't know what to do about it. There were perhaps hundreds of different militias, large and small, organized or not, all claiming to be fighting to "protect" Iraq and/or its people, but each in their own way involved in escalating the violence, murder and chaos.
One opinion that Rosen does express, repeatedly, is that America can't simply wash its hands of Iraq and pretend that it has nothing to do with us, as we have done in Rwanda and Sudan, for instance. I don't disagree with Rosen, but he needs to take this idea further. Having broken it, and therefore bought it, what do we do with it now? I agree that it probably would have been better had we never invaded or occupied Iraq, but that ship has long sailed. Rosen has very mixed feelings about the surge (as do most analysts and experts), but he doesn't explore what specifically he agrees or disagrees with or what he would suggest doing differently.
Reading this book was a lot like reading raw field notes for an anthropological study - valuable in its own right, of course, but difficult to make much sense of without an overarching framework. This work is valuable for posterity and historical reference, but it won't do much to inform the opinion of average citizens or guide policy decisions.