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War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq Hardcover – June 3, 2008

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*Starred Review* Anyone who has followed television coverage of the Iraq War knows NBC’s Engel. As chronicled in his first book, A Fist in the Hornet’s Nest (2004), he snuck into Baghdad as a freelance journalist to report on “shock and awe.” This is what he’s seen in the five years since, and while some readers will want to turn away from the horror and brutality, Engel bears witness to what has been done to the people of Iraq and what they are doing to each other. Reported in an almost herky-jerky manner, as befitting a journalist who hears gunfire as a lullaby, this memoir offers stunning testimony of man’s inhumanity to man and, perhaps even more forcefully, of the havoc that our most firmly held ideals, whether about democracy or religion, can wreak on human lives. Underlying the mayhem is Engel’s contention, amply proven throughout, that Iraq is the embodiment of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Encouraging democracy in a country that is 60 percent Shiite, the U.S gave Iran everything it wanted, by way of the clerics who, all along, have had their own plan for Iraq. A fascinating chapter chronicles Engel’s meeting with a well-informed George Bush, who is comfortable saying we will need troops in Iraq for 40 years Whether describing IED attacks, kidnappings, or soldiers’ hardships—or pondering how to hold onto one’s humanity in hell—Engel writes with heartbreaking weariness. This is required reading for anyone who wants to know what’s really going on “over there.” --Ilene Cooper

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.


"Conceal thy travels, thy tenets, and thy treasures."

Arab proverb

Ad-Dur, Iraq

December 15, 2003

No one was to come in or out.

Dozens of American soldiers formed a defensive circle around the palm grove, silently keeping watch. Gunners in the turrets of Humvees parked next to the troops turned hand cranks at their waists to pan .50 caliber machine guns left and right, training the long gun barrels on the dense trees around the edges of the grove.

"Got to keep your eyes moving.

"Got to look out for snipers.

"Got to protect the circle.

"Nothing can go wrong today,

"Not in front of all these reporters."

It was a big day, and we all knew it. I was at the center of this defensive ring of American muscle and machines along with about a dozen other journalists. We probably looked ridiculous to the troops. They had their uniforms: khaki combat boots, M4 rifles, Kevlar helmets, and Wiley X ballistic sunglasses. We had our uniforms: brightly colored flak jackets (mine was sky blue), cameras, tripods, notebooks, khakis, and quick-dry synthetic shirts. The army had choppered us into this clearing on two Black Hawks to see what didn't look like much from the outside: a tiny cinder block farmhouse with a garden filled with sunflowers, oranges, and pomegranate trees. The fruit looked almost ripe on the cool bright December morning. But no one would be picking it. Not from this house. Not anymore.

"We have a cordon around the area, but it is still dangerous. Don't wander off," an army officer warned. My canvas hiking boots stuck in the soft black soil as I walked to the farmhouse and through its thatch gate.

But what I saw inside didn't make any sense to me. Military officials said Saddam Hussein was captured hiding in a hole. I didn't see any hole, but only a typical one-room Iraqi farmhouse with a cement patio in front where laundry and basterma (Arab pastrami) were drying on a line. One of the biggest manhunts in history had led the U.S. military here: Saddam's safe house where he slept and apparently cooked for himself. It seemed that he lived badly as a fugitive. My mother would have called the place, like my room growing up, "a pigsty." There were broken eggs on the floor, a dirty frying pan atop a gas burner, and a half-eaten Mars bar and an open bottle of moisturizer on a wooden stand next to a single, unmade twin bed. I imagined the dictator, who had lived in palaces with hundreds of servants, suddenly forced to fend for himself like a freshman in college who, no longer having his mother to pick up after him, eats junk food and doesn't clean up. It must have been a tough adjustment for Saddam. One of his private chefs told me the Iraqi leader was a finicky eater, often struggling with his weight; he always made himself a bit thinner in his statues. He liked vegetables and mutton stews, and would fine the chef if he used too much oil. Saddam would tip him if meals were particularly tasty and light. He liked things just so. One of Saddam's palace maids -- like many, a Christian woman (Saddam thought Iraqi Christians to be especially honest and clean) -- told me Saddam was also so fastidious about hygiene that she was required to take off her shoes and walk barefoot across a mat soaked in disinfectant before entering his bedroom. Saddam couldn't have liked living in this farmhouse, just three miles from his dusty home village, al-Ouja, which he hated for its poverty. The poor street thug who intimidated and killed his rivals until he became "al-Rais," Arabic for both head and president, had come full circle.

"But where's the hole?" I asked the officer. "Didn't you find Saddam in a hole?"

He led me back outside to the cement patio with the laundry line.

"At first we didn't see it either. A soldier was standing right here and didn't notice the hole until he kicked aside this mat," the officer said, pulling back a plastic tarp on the ground. Underneath was a Styrofoam cork in the cement about the size of a big fishing tackle box.

"When the soldier removed this Styrofoam cover," he said, "Saddam was inside. Saddam put his hands up and said, 'I am Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq, and I am ready to negotiate.' "

Saddam apparently lived in the farmhouse most of the time, and took refuge in the hole only when danger was close. Saddam also had a pistol, but didn't use it, and traveled in a beat-up white and orange taxi discovered nearby.

The soldiers were relaxed and joking with journalists. It was a "good news" day and this was the military's chance to play show-and-tell.

"And what did the soldiers say to Saddam?" one of us asked.

"President Bush sends his regards," an officer said.

We all laughed.

The scribblers among us frantically scratched notes into pads. Cameramen marked time codes so they could easily find the sound bite again, and the snappers took pictures of every angle, their big black cameras clicking like crickets.

The troops were playing it up. The soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division were the "landowners" here, in charge of the entire Tikrit area. Their commander, Major General Raymond Odierno, an ogre of a man with a bald head and a no-nonsense personality, said, "Saddam was caught like a rat."

But in reality the elite U.S. Special Operations Forces code-named Task Force 121 did most of the work. U.S. officials said Saddam was located after the "hostile interrogations" of several of his relatives and bodyguards. Odierno said "five or ten" of them were arrested about ten days before Saddam's capture. On the day of the predawn raid, roughly six hundred soldiers from the 4th ID provided perimeter security to ensure no one escaped as members of Task Force 121 moved in, raided the farmhouse, grabbed Saddam, and choppered him south to a prison at the Baghdad airport, where he was identified by former aides, among them soft-spoken, gray-haired former deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz. But members of Task Force 121 don't give interviews, so to the 4th ID went the glory. Sorry, Task Force 121.

Looking back, it's easy to see why so many people, including me, were generally optimistic back then. Saddam was in custody. U.S. forces had killed his hated sons, Uday and Qusay, five months earlier. President George W. Bush had just stopped by Baghdad for a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to the troops. U.S. military officials said at the time there were only about five hundred to seven hundred insurgents, many of them former Iraqi intelligence officers or members of Uday's paramilitary force, the Fedayeen, operating in about a dozen cells in the Baghdad area.

But even then, violence was starting to pick up. Two days before Saddam was captured, militants threw a grenade at a U.S. patrol in Baghdad carrying Time magazine writer Michael Weisskopf and photographer James Nachtwey. The grenade landed between the two journalists as they were stopped in traffic. Weisskopf reached down and threw the grenade out of the vehicle. It exploded in the air, blowing off his hand. Nachtwey was also wounded, but the veteran war photographer was able to keep taking pictures throughout the ordeal. Tough guy.

That's one of the reasons we liked Odd Job.

I had driven to Tikrit to cover Saddam's capture in Odd Job, the affectionate nickname for our homemade satellite truck. It's what Iraqis call a "bongo truck," a pickup with a rear cab covered in a canvas tarpaulin. Our engineers -- the unsung heroes of the news business, our Task Force 121 -- fit it with a portable satellite dish, generators, tanks of diesel fuel, and enough cables to make it into a self-contained TV uplink. But it was Iraqi style. Unlike the white TV vans with telescopic dishes emblazoned with company logos that rush to crime scenes in the United States, Odd Job was rusted and painted to look like any other truck in Baghdad transporting onions or sheep. We liked it that way. Even back in December 2003, you didn't want to be seen. But stealth and discretion were our only defense at the time. Less than a year later, Iraq had become so dangerous we were forced to develop the most complex, expensive, and often inhibiting security procedures in the history of combat journalism.

The soldiers from the 4th ID gave us an hour to explore Saddam's hideout before heading back to their HQ, ironically in one of Saddam's most lavish palaces just a few miles away. The soldiers lived on green folding cots in the palace's huge rooms of green and white marble. Although the palaces looked impressive, like giant wedding cakes, the construction was shoddy. The crystals in the giant chandeliers were plastic. The toilets often didn't flush. The sinks with gold-plated faucets leaked. Hundreds of soldiers packed the building, nearly all of them young men away from their wives and girlfriends. You could almost smell the testosterone. A soldier told me that a few months earlier a visiting female reporter was sleeping topless on a cot, just covered with a white sheet.

"And it kept falling off!" he said.

It can reach over 120 degrees in the summer in Tikrit, so I can sympathize with the journalist trying to sleep. But she was such a distraction the military ordered her to leave the base.

I was in no rush to get back to the palace. I wanted to go in Saddam's hole. I was excited and must admit I was having fun. The entrance was smaller than a manhole cover, too small for me to fit through wearing my bulky blue flak jacket lined with ceramic strike plates. I ripped back the Velcro straps, put my hands on either side of the hole, and lowered myself inside.

When my feet landed on the floor, I switched on a flashlight and painted the walls with dim yellow light. The subterranean chamber was like a tomb: rectangular, about ten feet long, four feet high, and three feet wide. The walls were covered in rough concrete. The floor was lined with boards. A naked lightbulb and fan hung from the ceiling. The fan was attached to a plastic hose that ran through a hole drilled in the wall and led outside. It was a ventilation system and let Saddam breathe when the tomb was plugged with th... --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (June 3, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416563040
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416563044
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.3 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,018,975 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

38 of 38 people found the following review helpful By Loyd E. Eskildson HALL OF FAME on June 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Richard Engel came to the Mid-East about 12 years ago without a job, little money ($2,000), and no knowledge of Arabic. Now he is head of the MSNBC Bureau in Iraq, fluent in Arabic, and backed by NBC. That, in itself, is an incredible story.

"War Journal," however, spends little time on Engel himself. It begins with telling how it felt to descend into Saddam's spider-hole, and goes on to observe that the rising power of Shiites in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon is the most significant shift in the region in decades. (Turns out Iran had a strong hand in selecting the Shiite candidates in our greatly heralded first Iraqi elections.)

"War Journal" tells the real story from Iraq's front lines, not the official blather dispensed from the "Green Zone." Engel wastes no time telling readers that many Iraqi army officers felt betrayed by Bremer's telling them to "get lost" after giving them token payments and their having obeyed American instructions to not fight. As for Al-Qaeda in Iraq - Engel states that Saddam allowed a few of their jidhadists in when the U.S. invasion seemed inevitable, but undoubtedly would have run them back out if the U.S. had not invaded. We also learn that Bin Laden planned to suck the U.S. into a war of attrition in Afghanistan post 9/11, but did not forsee locals turning on Al Qaeda.

"Support Our Troops" became a bad joke when contrasted with the poor or non-existent equipment American troops had in Iraq. Hussein's tyranny became replaced by constant kidnappings and midnight murders of sectarian enemies. Engel also tells the heart-breaking story of a grocer's young daughter kidnapped for ransom - when the father learns she has been raped, he tells the kidnappers he doesn't want her back, and she is killed.
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Little Miss Cutey on June 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I must say that books on the war is not usually the kind of book that I read, however I picked this up because I've seen Richard reporting from Iraq and other nearby places on a regular basis on the Today show.
As a reporter on the frontlines, there is little he hasn't seen. He's had close calls, dodged bullets many times, escaped kidnapping attempts and has seen too many dead bodies to count. He is passionate about the region and wouldn't live anywhere else.
He starts the book on the day where he was taken to the spot where Saddam was captured. He writes about everything thereafter in great detail. He also lets you know his position on the war - rather than trying to remain neutral like journalists should, but he wanted to tell it like it is for him. He ends the book by saying that the world has moved on and people don't want to hear about Iraq anymore and how he finds that frustrating and sometimes wonders "why I have done all this?". He knows people are losing interest in the war.
It is a heavy going book and yet, if you push through it, it is interesting and it's great to get a feel for what it might be like over there first hand from a very knowledgable and trusted journalist. I liked this one.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Kristin Glinzak on June 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover
"War Journal" is a personal and engaging account of Engel's experiences in the five years since the invasion of Iraq. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and read it almost straight through in about a day and a half. Engel covers a wide ranges of topics including military tactics, media coverage of the war, Iraqi and US politics, personal accounts from those he speaks with, and even recounts a rather revealing talk he had with Bush (particularly interesting in comparison to Engel's most recent interview with the president). He also revisits most of the moments and events featured in his MSNBC special "War Zone Diary", including the bombings of his hotels and the false kidnapping of one of his reporters. Here he gives them more context and illuminates them with more of his own personal reflections.
The text is quick-paced with the straightforwardness of a journalist. It reads easily and informatively. That said, the descriptive prose sometimes lacks the eloquence of a novelist as the similes often border on the trite and tired. Nonetheless, they effectively convey the atmosphere or mood Engel means to evoke. The quickness of the text seems to mirror the experience of covering the war as Engel is unable to spend much time contemplating the atrocities he sees and the losses he experiences as there always seems to be another story to file.
Engel's personal anecdotes pepper the recounting of events and intersperse the background information Engel eruditely includes to help the reader understand the various "why's?" many of us have regarding the war. His anecdotes range from the harrowing and infuriating to the comedic and touching.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful By mmsalazar on June 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Heard a book interview with author, today on NPR. Mr. Engel's concise and keen knowledge and appreciation of the culture, coupled with his language skills left me with a realistic impression of what lies ahead regarding the alliances and treaties being formed in the lull of a war-torn society. What struck me most was the caller who asked if we are getting the whole story from the media and leaders of our country. Without hesitation, Mr. Engel said, 'what we assess as illogical and as irrational reasons for war is not without its own logic.' Based on the observations that history and events have led to what he identified as five (5) separate wars, I believe he has made his case. This informative book, without embellishment provides compelling talking points necessary to our national dialogue on the subject. This timely assessment should be on every citizen's must read list.
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