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Occupation Is Hell

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
01.12.2005 | BOOKS

The producers at PBS' The News Hour with Jim Lehrer must have been feeling lazy. Had they done their homework before inviting Christian Parenti on their show last March, they would have known his comments would draw fire from the usual quarters. As the 35-year-old academic-turned-journalist had been explaining with some force in his dispatches for the Nation, reconstruction in Iraq was simply not happening, and the occupation was rapidly losing whatever legitimacy it had left among the Iraqi people.

"Where is all the money that's going to Halliburton and Bechtel to rebuild this country?" Parenti asked on News Hour, noting that the entire city of Ramadi lacked adequate drinking water. "I think that one of the most important, fundamental causes of instability, is the corruption around the contracting with these Bush-connected firms in Iraq. Unless that is dealt with, there is going to be much more instability for times to come."

The next morning, Parenti received a call from one of the show's producers, who expressed concern over the invited guest's "lack of balance." Parenti replied by asking if this need for balance applied to every government official who appeared on the show. A day later, Jim Lehrer read a rare on-air apology for Parenti's remarks. "For those who were watching two nights ago," said the solemn anchor, "a discussion about Iraq ended up not being as balanced as is our standard practice. While unintentional, it was indeed our mistake, and we regret it."

Ten months and a whole lot of failed reconstruction later, Jim Lehrer should consider apologizing to his viewers for apologizing. Not only was there nothing controversial about Parenti's claims of corruption--the Pentagon had already begun criminal investigations into Halliburton--but his guest's writing on post-Saddam Iraq, compiled and expanded upon in The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq (The New Press, $21.95) has been some of the most honest and coherent to appear in the American press. And it doesn't detract from the accomplishment to note the lack of competition.

The Freedom is a personal story as well as a political intervention. Parenti is open about his own fears and vanities as we accompany him and his trusty translator, Akeel, down the side alleys of Baghdad to meet with the resistance, approach trigger-happy U.S. soldiers with arms up, duck firefights and chase the plumes that follow the booms. For anyone who's ever felt the tug to pack a duffel bag and get to the latest hot spot before it cools, The Freedom offers some of the purest second-hand adrenaline since Anthony Lloyd's Balkan war tale, My War Gone By, I Miss It So. Like Lloyd, Parenti discusses the mixed motives and unbeatable highs that draw people to warzones while the world watches on tv. In a chapter called "Voyeur's Banquet," he takes us into the Hotel Agadeer, Baghdad's magnet for the rag-tag adventure freaks and freelancers who populate the cheap hotels and boarding houses of the war circuit. On the few occasions Parenti enters the "largely square, center-right, big money journalism scene that rules the press space in Baghdad," it is only to marvel at its absurdity and ask questions he knows he won't get answered.

It's not just U.S. officials who dodge Parenti's questions. In one scene, the author discusses the effects of depleted-uranium-tipped shells, 1700 tons of which have been used in Iraq. He confronts a reticent Iraqi doctor with statistics showing cases of Down Syndrome increasing fivefold and serious deformities rising sevenfold, sparking an exchange that illuminates the meaning of the book's ironic title noun:

I ask Dr. Hussein if he sees many children in Ramadi with symptoms related to possible radiation poisoning. The doctor says nothing...

'This is an important issue. The world needs to know about these things. Do you see children who suffer from radiation sickness or not? It's a simple question.'

'I cannot answer.'

'What do you mean? Why not?'

Another long pause. Dr. Hussein's tough composure softens and he offers something of a coded apology: 'This is the freedom.'

Or as Parenti's translator Akeel puts it: "Ah, the freedom. We have the gas-line freedom, the looting freedom, the killing freedom, the rape freedom. I don't know what to do with all this freedom."

Parenti had done some foreign reporting over the years, mostly in radio, but he didn't make his first trip to Iraq in the summer of 2003 as a seasoned war reporter. When the first wave of U.S. cruise missiles struck Baghdad, he was living in Brooklyn, finishing a post-doc at CUNY's Center for Place, Culture and Politics. His previous books included well-received studies of the prison-industrial complex and the history of surveillance technology. Though his academic prospects were brighter than most, Parenti's numerous trips to post-conflict zones over the years hint that his inner journalist was awaiting an opportunity to pump a few slugs into his inner professor. The prose in The Freedom--clean, straight, a touch literary--could serve as the professor's death certificate. Though in conversation Parenti will pepper his points with Marx, Weber and Foucault, footnotes in The Freedom are blessedly few; the word "semiotics" appears only once.

"I never really liked the Academy's misuse of the English language," he says. "It's hard to take most of academia seriously these days. I may teach again, but for now I'm committed to writing and trying to see the world."

His first trip to Iraq was about more than journalism and adrenaline. During the invasion of Afghanistan, Parenti was disturbed by a common ploy he noticed being used by hawkish intellectuals like Michael Ignatieff, David Reiff and Christopher Hitchens. Again and again, they dismissed their opponents with a wave of their passports.

"They'd come back and say, 'Since you didn't go there, then you don't understand.' And I don't ever want to be censored like that. So I went to see," he says. "But even when you go to a place, you still use a lot of the same methods you use in New York. You're still online, reading things. The idea that experience alone gives you access to truth is just bullshit. So I went in part to be counted among those who went and saw. Once I got there I was fascinated by the situation, and went back."

And then back again. In 12 months, Parenti has made three tours of Iraq, the most recent ending this July. He's twice entered the country overland from Jordan, and once from above, making the steep, evasive-maneuver-filled descent into Baghdad International. From the first visit to the third, he's watched the country go from bad to worse to its current nosedive in the run-up to shaky elections nobody expects to solve anything.

"I keep in touch with Iraqis, and it's very sad," he says. "For a long time they remained hopeful, despite all evidence. And that's going away. When I went back this summer, that's when I thought, 'Wow, it's over. This place is gonna melt down and become a failed state.' And people have to understand, that's the strategy of the resistance: 'We will destroy this country and burn it to the ground before we will let you have it.'"

Beyond this, he cannot locate much of a plan for the country, and the fighters interviewed here illustrate his criticism of the resistance as ideologically underdeveloped. "The nature of political Islam is really stripped down. It doesn't have solutions for how to build a modern society," Parenti laments. One of the resistance fighters he spoke with last winter in Baghdad put it this way: "Our goals are clear. We want sovereignty. We will force the Americans to go home."

After that, nobody seems to know.

In the chapter "With the Grunts," Parenti depicts the cynical yet strangely apolitical culture of the professional U.S. military, where sophisticated deconstructions of America's motives are followed by a stated desire to turn the country into a glass parking lot. In between patrols, sweeps and visits to barrack porn closets, soldiers tell Parenti of their hatred for certain commanding officers and the "hajis," army slang for less-than-friendly locals.

The repeat appearance of the Iraq war's equivalent of "Charlie" isn't the only Vietnam-esque detail in the book. Parenti also reports the low-key presence of young Iraqi prostitutes, who tempt G.I.s with offers of "ficky-fick"--perhaps destined to become this war's "Me love you long time." In relaying the fuck-ridden dialogue and dirt-floor stink of life on both sides of the occupation, The Freedom holds shades of Michael Herr's Vietnam classic Dispatches.

It isn't just minor details like prostitution that Parenti finds lacking in most mainstream coverage of the war. It's the big things, the little things, and the inability or unwillingness to explain the difference.

"Reading the coverage in the Times is surreal," he says. "A few weeks ago they reported that Haifa Street is now considered a no-go area. Haifa Street is like 5th Ave. It goes right past the Green Zone. The Times will acknowledge that things are deteriorating, but rarely steps back and analyzes the meaning."

This inability to confront and process harsh reality is most palpable inside the Green Zone, which Parenti describes as absolutely psychedelic.

"Entering the Green Zone is like consuming a thousand-milligram tablet of denial washed down with fresh-squeezed orange juice," he writes. "The air-conditioning is superb; everyone looks happy."

Here Ivy League MBAs and Ph.Ds draw up plans for Iraq's privatized future, while blocks away fury swells in the fetid, lumpen Shiite slums of Sadr City. Going from one to the other, writes Parenti, is like unplugging from the Matrix:

The temperature suddenly soars to a brutal 115 degrees Fahrenheit; the air reeks of sewage; and hot furnace-like gusts blow grit into your eyes. An urbanized plain of misery and squalor opens before you, the hyperviolent Sadr City. The wide boulevards, laid down in the late 1950s by the optimistic planners of the Qasim regime, are now flooded for blocks at a stretch with ankle-deep pools of green, algae-rich sewage. Heaps of garbage smolder on the medians and in empty lots. Pirated electrical wires crisscross dense side streets of mud brick homes. Small flocks of mangy goats and sheep, shepherded by women in flowing black abayas, forage in the trash.

All those reconstruction billions, as the author told Jim Lehrer, are nowhere to be seen.

The illusions of the Green Zone are reflected in the policies coming out of Washington, where "staying the course" is still the only script on the White House teleprompter.

"The U.S. is fucked," he says. "No matter how you slice it. It's a disaster, even on the administration's own terms. I never supported the war, but even if you did--what a disaster. It seems to me that this is one of those rare moments in world history where a great power that had everything going for it just screwed it all up. They just went for the one thing they shouldn't have done. The people running this country are delusional. That's why I put 'hallucinations' in the subtitle."

Watching Iraq melt down took a heavy personal toll on the author; it contributed to a break-up with his live-in girlfriend and put stress on his relationship with his parents, especially his father, the well-known academic and author Michael Parenti.

He also experienced a milder version of the after-effects common among returning troops. "Sometimes I found myself feeling angry and depressed for no clear reason," he says. "The horror and hopelessness of the suffering and waste of life in Iraq made me intellectually depressed, which manifested as a lack of interest in my work. At times writing the book or pitching the next article was a real forced march. Inspiration would arrive but only after much wasted time."

Parenti's next destination is South America, where the word "freedom" doesn't come loaded with sarcastic triple meanings.

"I'm interested in this new Left in Latin America. One, because it's not getting enough press, and two, to recharge my batteries," he says. "Wars that involve people taking control of their countries with a positive vision can give you hope. But there is something particularly awful about nihilistic wars where both sides are just not very appealing."

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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