Thursday, September 1, 2011

John Lee Anderson Recounts the Invasion of Baghdad

(This interview was published in the Denver Post in November 2004)

By Dylan Foley

When the American invasion of Iraq started in March 2003, New Yorker war correspondent Jon Lee Anderson covered the war from Baghdad. Anderson survived bombings, the Iraqi secret police and other hardships to bring out some of the best journalism of the war. He reported on the surreal nature of Baghdad before and after the invasion, and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship.

Anderson’s chronicle of the Iraq War, “The Fall of Baghdad,” which was recently published in the United States, details the corruption and brutality of the dying regime. Anderson covered the Iraqi disbelief that the invasion was coming, the lightning quick U.S. assault, the unchecked looting of government buildings and businesses, and the growing Iraqi hostility to the American occupiers.

“The idea of being embedded with American troops is an anathema to me,” said Anderson in an interview in a park in New York City.

“I’ve covered a lot of wars, but I don’t regard myself as a war correspondent,” he said. “I don’t go to war because I like ‘bang bang’ or military life. I don’t like to be around troops. I find it enervating and boring as hell. What I wanted to do was observe the goings on in Baghdad, a place with depth and larger-than-life personalities.”

With his tweed jacket and glasses, the 47-year-old Anderson looked more like a classics professor than a journalist with 25 years of experience covering wars in Afghanistan, El Salvador and Nicaragua. Anderson lives in Dorset, England, with his English wife and their three children.

Reporting on the war from Baghdad was no picnic, with American bombs falling and tight control by the Iraqi information ministry.

“Baghdad was a very controlled environment,” he said. “You were assigned a government minder. Inevitably, some of their bosses were secret police, and were obliged to inform on you. Most journalists in Baghdad spent 80 percent of their time currying favor with craven officials.” Anderson noted that right before the war, the big American news agencies started putting government officials in their pockets.

At its best, “The Fall of Baghdad” is a hard and frank look at an insane regime and the resulting U.S. military quagmire in Iraq. The surreal nature of Saddam’s Iraq continued up to the American attack. “There were no preparations for the war until the last few days before the invasion,” said Anderson. “There was a relentlessness, part of the psychology of Saddam, that he was determined to engender the inevitably of his survival and that of his regime.”

Information was hard to come by for reporters trapped in the city. “There was the clandestine use of reporters’ satellite phones,” said Anderson. “That was how we got information. As the war progressed, the pace of events was so frenzied that I found it impossible to keep up with the news. To a great degree, I was almost as cut off as the Iraqis.”

At the center of the book is Anderson’s chilling interview with Saddam collaborators, including an almost-friendship with Ala Bashir, Saddam’s personal doctor, which explore the madness of a genocidal tyrants and the moral compromise men make under dictators.

Anderson also spoke at length with Farouk, Saddam’s favorite poet, and Samir, a foreign ministry official.

“I’ve always been fascinated the dynamic of power and how it affects the psychology of nations and entire groups of people,” explained Anderson. “I am interested in how political violence is enforced and institutionalized. That was my fascination with Saddam and these people, Farouk, Ala and Samir. They are cultured and learned. They are not violent men. Somehow these men ended up in the service of one of the most thuggish, brutal, and illiterate dictators of modern times. How can box ourselves up to live with moral compromises?”

“At what point does someone begin to explain away things? When you are doing that, you are basically say in a country like Iraq that part of the population is killable.”

At one point, Ala Bashir recounted a 1991 conversation with Saddam, where the dictator was pumping himself up to order the mass murder of Shiites involved in the post-Gulf War uprisings. Ala Bashir rationalized the conversation away.

“There were things that Ala Bashir could not face,” said Anderson. “I was debriefing him after the war. Because I liked him, I wanted him to confront himself, but I found that he always eluded me at the last second. It is a tragedy, for I think that Ala Bashir undermined himself in a key way: Saddam got to his ego.”

In one of the most poignant parts of the book, Anderson recounts civilian casualties at a Baghdad hospital. After two dead children, a brother and sister, were brought in, the nurses, doctors and Anderson found themselves breaking down.

“You are wounded by these things and the wounds don’t go away,” said Anderson of three decades of witnessing war atrocities. “There is something shameful about seeing children hurt, where the criminality of the enterprise of war comes down very heavy.”

For Anderson, one of the most disturbing aspects of the immediate post-invasion period in Iraq was the unchecked looting as American troops stood by.

“There was simply no explanation for it,” said Anderson. The insurgency that the American military is facing now, I attribute to the fact they did nothing to stop the looting after Baghdad fell. The looting went on for weeks, and quickly became organized. Some of it was sabotage and gratuitous destruction.”

The looting showed that despite American military might, the generals had no plan. “I was in Baghdad and was aware of the invincibility of American power. We were putty in the American military’s hands, and they chose to do nothing. They lost the civilian respect.

“Armories were looted by the Saddam fedayeen in front of American troops, he said. “They realized the Americans had no intelligence. When a Bradley Fighting Vehicle points its gun at you, you are afraid. But after four weeks, they realized you go to the back of the vehicle and shoot the soldier sitting there in the head.”

Anderson wants to go back to Baghdad, but says it may be too deadly now.

“With the latest beheadings and kidnappings, a lot of journalists have understandably fled,” said Anderson. “It has gotten dangerous to keep doing what I’ve been doing. I may go back if I can bring back a story that will shed new light on the situation and can come back with my life.”

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