“Voices from Iraq”: Lest we forget

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Book Review

Voices from Iraq: A People's History, 2003-2009
by Mark Kukis
Columbia University Press, 2011, hardcover, 220 pages


Iraq has largely dropped out of the U.S. news lately, except for reports of car bombings or other violence, and hints and rumblings from U.S. military officials about whether or not our troops will all actually leave by the end of this year.

But what the reality is for Iraqi people is seldom dealt with these days. And even in the heyday of U.S. media coverage, starting with the Bush administration's clever "embedding" of reporters with U.S. military units, what we read about was pretty much American-centric.

U.S. journalists who reported on what Iraqis thought and did tended to focus on self-promoting leaders and/or those favored by U.S. officials. And even the better reporting generally conformed to the official U.S. narrative which defined Iraqi people by religious/ethnic categories that they themselves had rejected.

Mark Kukis was a Time magazine correspondent in Iraq from 2006-2009. In his new book, Voices from Iraq, he has tried to do better than a lot of that reporting, by conveying the experiences of ordinary Iraqi people in their own words. He says he modeled the book after Studs Terkel's The Good War, in which a range of famous and non-famous people tell about their experiences in World War II. Kukis presents the voices of 69 Iraqi people from various backgrounds, distilled from interviews he conducted in Baghdad. Most deal with the period of intense sectarian violence that ravaged Iraq from about 2005 to 2008.

The stories they tell are harrowing, filled with unspeakable horror. Two middle-aged women, from the same Baghdad neighborhood, tell how a militia invaded their homes, lined their sons up and slaughtered them before the women's eyes. A young woman tells how a rocket fired from a helicopter into a busy street killed both her unborn child and her eight-year-old sister and left her crippled, scarred and contemplating suicide. A young man tells how he rushed to save a three-year-old child in a burning minibus following a car bombing. As he held the child. a second bomb exploded, obliterating the child, leaving only his head. The young man's arm was blasted off and his other arm damaged, but he survived - it was the child's body next to his that had saved his life. The stories leave you gasping at the brutality and wondering how anyone could survive the psychological as well as physical trauma.

The stories also reveal an incredible tenacity and endurance. These people are far more than just victims. The young man later establishes a nongovernmental organization dedicated to helping civilian victims. Another man helps bury unidentified bodies. A woman tells how she and her neighbors, under seige from terrorists, organized civil disobedience to demand security for their village.

A striking number of the people are in "mixed" Sunni-Shia families or have mixed friends. It provides a glimpse of how misleading, really useless, the constant U.S. media "Sunni-Shia" definition of Iraq has been.

In a revealing tale, a man tells how he helped organize a right-wing "resistance" after the U.S. invasion. For these people, Saddam Hussein's regime had too much of a "socialist ideological view." They "reached out" to the Sunni officers in Saddam Hussein's regime not because they were "Sunni" but because "we needed them. They had military experience and they knew where to find weapons." With help from "an Egyptian from al-Qaeda," they set about making the soon-to-become-famous IEDs.

But Voices from Iraq never explores where all the violence really came from. Was this massive brutality simply endemic to Iraq? The selection of interviews barely touches on the U.S. role - Americans are mentioned almost in passing. The stories do indicate a wide ambivalence toward the U.S. invasion, and a deep feeling against being occupied by foreign troops. But one wonders why there are no deeper insights into the disaster that has wracked Iraq. Did Kukis fail to ask deeper questions? Or were the interviewees were drawn from too narrow a pool of Iraqis, perhaps reflecting that Kukis, like so many of his U.S. colleagues, may himself have a limited knowledge of Iraq? It is odd that the only two Iraqi politicians interviewed in the book are problematic figures like Ayad Allawi, a former Baathist apparently favored by the U.S.

Despite these shortcomings, the book is worth reading by Americans as our military occupation winds down - we hope. The U.S. invasion in 2003 unleashed a terrible disaster, but the troubles did not start then. We have to trace U.S. policy towards Iraq, and the region, going back decades, to see the roots of this disaster. Voices from Iraq reminds us that the United States has a debt to pay to the Iraqi people, to help rebuild and restore their country, not to serve U.S. "interests" but to serve theirs.

Photo: An Iraqi woman at a demonstration in Baghdad's Tahrir Square in May, demanding public services, jobs, protection of their civil rights and liberties, and an end to sectarianism and corruption. al-nnas.com

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