The Washington Post
The Fall of Baghdadby Jon Lee Anderson
In the months leading up to the American invasion of Iraq, Jon Lee Anderson “embedded’ himself among the people of Baghdad and, along with a small number of other Western reporters, rode out the entire invasion and much of the subsequent occupation from inside the city. His dispatches from Baghdad were immediately and widely recognized as the most… See more details below
In the months leading up to the American invasion of Iraq, Jon Lee Anderson “embedded’ himself among the people of Baghdad and, along with a small number of other Western reporters, rode out the entire invasion and much of the subsequent occupation from inside the city. His dispatches from Baghdad were immediately and widely recognized as the most important writing anyone was doing on the war anywhere, for any publication. In recognition of its significance, the New Yorker routinely held the magazine open an extra day and set up a special production team to deal with the pieces; around the magazine, comparisons to John Hersey’s fabled piece “Hiroshima” were flying. The Fall of Baghdad is not a collection of New Yorker pieces; it is an original and organically cohesive narrative work that tells the story of what the people of Baghdad have endured at the hands of Saddam Hussein, during the war, and during its aftermath. This is not a pro- or anti-war book in the same way that A Perfect Storm isn’t a pro- or anti-weather-event book; the point is to bear witness to what the people in this ancient world city have endured, to put a human face on a calamity of epic dimensions. The book’s focus alternates among a small cast of characters, a group of disparate Iraqis who allow Anderson to bring to life different facets of the story he wants to tell; and he fills in the canvas around his figures with rich background that makes their significance sing, and helps bind the book together as the definitive reckoning with this, among the most fateful stories of our time.
The hallmark of Jon Lee Anderson’s writing is its bravery, its moral wakefulness, even in the sorts of extreme situations in which most other war reporters retreat into gonzo, vainglorious posturing. That bravery shines through here: because he is able to keep the aperture of his mind open wide in situations in which others shut down, he’s able to capture the humanity of his subjects, the people of Baghdad, with a depth of field that’s breathtaking. It is no surprise that two of his heroes are George Orwell and Robert Capa; he is their rightful heir.
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Read an Excerpt
The Fall of Baghdad
By Jon Lee Anderson
The Penguin PressISBN: 1-59420-034-3
Chapter OneOn the ninth day of the war, there was some bombing, but it was desultory, mostly on the fringes of the city. People came out to shop, and a few businesses opened their doors. In the late afternoon, I went out for a drive with a couple of friends. On Sadoun Street, sidewalk vendors were selling kerosene lamps and plastic jerricans for storing water and fuel. A few men were buying bread and eggs and vegetables for their families from the stallholders around Tahrir Square. In a dusty strip of park, a group of boys played soccer, and a man was shining shoes. We stopped for tea in an ancient coffeehouse on Rashid Street, in the former Jewish quarter. It was filled with old men playing dominoes and smoking narghila waterpipes. Some watched the television set, which was showing scenes of Iraqi civilians and soldiers around the country dancing and waving weapons, singing odes to Saddam Hussein and chanting slogans against George W. Bush. The atmosphere in the cafe was calm and meditative. Except for the television images, it felt almost as if there were no war.
At about nine o'clock, after having dinner at one of Baghdad's two restaurants still open for business, we heard that there had been a bombing in which many civilians had been killed. We raced out to the place, which was on the northern outskirts of Baghdad. About twenty minutes later, we arrived at the Al-Nur General Hospital in the Shia suburb of Al Shualla. There, the hospital director, Dr. Haqqui Razuki, told us that a warplane had struck a marketplace just a few hundred yards away. Razuki was polite but angry; he believed the attack had been deliberate. The bombing had occurred a couple of hours earlier, at dusk, when the market was crowded with people. Thirty-five dead and forty-seven injured people had been brought into his hospital, but some of the casualties had been taken elsewhere. (The final death tally was sixty-two.) Wordlessly, Razuki's assistant led us through hallways thronged with soldiers, doctors, relatives of the wounded-into a rear garden. There, we passed a man who had his face turned to the wall. He was sobbing in a loud, grief-stricken way into his folded arms. We walked on. A few moments later, still sobbing, he came up behind us fast and then, breaking into a run, he overtook us.
We arrived at an aluminum hut. The sobbing man was standing there with some other men next to a young hospital attendant wearing a filthy smock. The attendant opened the door, and a blast of cold air came out. Inside, I could see four dead men lying in contorted poses. The weeping man dove wildly inside, crying disconsolately, but another man, a friend of his, pulled him back out and away from the doorway. The dead men's bodies were torn up and bloody, and their clothes were ragged and dirty. There was a lot of blood on the floor. Some nurses appeared, older women wearing white head scarves, and began keening quietly.
One of the dead men was placed on a metal stretcher and brought outside. Other men arrived carrying a plain wood coffin and placed the dead man inside it. Several of the men broke down in tears and held their heads with their hands as this took place, calling out the dead man's name, "Haidar," over and over again. They placed the lid on the coffin and hoisted it onto their shoulders. As they set off, they repeatedly chanted the Koranic verse "There is only one God." As they went by, the morgue attendant came and stood very close to me. I gagged at his stench, which was of dead bodies.
In the local mosque, where the dead were being taken to be washed and prayed over, people stood around quietly. A stream of coffins came and went through the front door. Men smoked cigarettes or simply stared. A black banner across one wall was illustrated with an image of the decapitated head, gushing blood, of Imam Ali Hussein, the martyr of Shia devotion. I followed one of the coffins as it was taken outside, the bearers singing their praise to God, as before in the hospital. On a vacant lot just outside, they set down the coffin and knelt in prayer. Red tracer fire from an antiaircraft gun floated into the sky above us.
I walked down the lane to the scrubby little marketplace where the bomb had hit. It had left a tiny crater, just a meter in diameter and very shallow, at the edge of a little plaza surrounded on two sides with modest market stalls. The stalls were ravaged looking, their tin roofs torn up, and a large pool of water had formed in front of a burst waterpipe, which still gushed torrentially. From one of the houses across the street, I heard the sound of a woman crying. Soon, other people began weeping too, and as they did, the woman's cries became screams.
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Meet the Author
Jon Lee Anderson is the author of Guerrillas, Che Guevara, The Lion's Grave, and, with his brother, Scott Anderson, War Zones and Inside the League. A staff writer for the New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson lives in Dorset, England, with his wife and three children.
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I had read the author's biography of Che Guevara and became a fan of his writing style. But this one is definitely the best for me so far, with his on-site experience in covering Iraq. His descriptions of the events leading up to the war from inside Baghdad to the locals he became acquainted with, will make you feel not just you were there, but also make you feel you're one of them or the protagonist wanting to lead them from false beliefs.