My Review of “Blind Into Baghdad” by James Fallows

8683090An excellent “history in the moment” book about the early years of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq which should rightly anger readers of any political stripe. Blind Into Baghdad by James Fallows (@JamesFallows) is comprised of five longform stories originally published from 2002-2005 in The Atlantic magazine, bookended by an introduction and exceptional afterword written in 2006.

I’ve been a subscriber of The Atlantic for many years and have always enjoyed the work of Mr. Fallows. I recall reading most of these stories when they came out in the magazine, but still found re-reading them in this format to be beneficial. Of course from the perspective of early 2014 we know how the story ends but these essays provide snapshots of the tumultuous first few years of U.S. involvement in Iraq. Any serious study of the 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq should have Blind Into Baghdad in the bibliography.

Why should it anger readers of all political leanings? The U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was made for questionable reasons, reasons which from where I sit appear to have been made emotionally. Even as a junior petty officer in the Navy I was taught not to make big decisions emotionally; I expect better from the people who purport to be the leaders of not just our nation, but the “free world” — regardless of which party holds the White House.

But even if we swallow hard and skip past the reasons for invading, and the duplicitous way the need for action was sold to the American public, we can’t skip past how the Bush Administration systematically ignored the extensive post-war planning of many people inside and outside the government. Mr. Fallows provides a detailed look, before the invasion, at this planning in which things like the prospect for widespread looting, sectarian violence and the need for a large enough occupation force were identified.

If none of that gets your blood steaming, how about the way in which the architects of the invasion simply washed their hands of the mess they made even as it grew and grew, consuming billions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives, and completely overriding our ability to do just about anything else like deal with Iran and/or North Korea … two states which really were pursuing WMD and, in the case of the former, had firm ties with terrorist organizations.

These are among the dozens of passages I highlighted:

To govern is to choose, and the choices made in 2002 were fateful. The United States began that year shocked and wounded, but with tremendous strategic advantages. Its population was more closely united behind its leadership than it had been in fifty years. World opinion was strongly sympathetic. Longtime allies were eager to help; longtime antagonists were silent. The federal budget was nearly in balance, making ambitious projects feasible. The U.S. military was superbly equipped, trained, and prepared. An immediate foe was evident—and vulnerable—in Afghanistan. For the longer-term effort against Islamic extremism the administration could draw on a mature school of thought from academics, regional specialists, and its own intelligence agencies. All that was required was to think broadly about the threats to the country, and creatively about the responses.

The Bush administration chose another path. Implicitly at the beginning of 2002, and as a matter of formal policy by the end, it placed all other considerations second to regime change in Iraq.

— Fallows, James (2009-02-20). Blind Into Baghdad: America’s War in Iraq (Vintage) (pp. 145-146). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 The nation undertook a battle for largely idealistic reasons. A number of its leaders thought they could bring democracy to people who deserved it, or at least free those people from torture and oppression. Despite the idealism of their goals, the results were in most ways a failure. They were a failure in a limited sense, in the theater of Iraq, and they failed more grandly, in undercutting the longer, harder struggle against violent religious extremism.

The country failed because individuals who led it failed. They made the wrong choices; they did not learn or listen; they were fools. No one responsible for these errors was dismissed from the administration. No senior officer was relieved or reprimanded. After President Bush withstood what he called an “accountability moment” in the election of 2004, he promoted or decorated with medals the members of the team that had ill served the nation.

“Hindsight is not a strategy,” President Bush said in his State of the Union address in 2006. But accountability, and any hope of learning from errors, requires an honest look back at what has occurred.

— Fallows, James (2009-02-20). Blind Into Baghdad: America’s War in Iraq (Vintage) (p. 230). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I’d say the day for that “honest look back” is long overdue.

5 stars

5 stars


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