Sunday, July 08, 2007

Imperial Life in the Emerald City-Rajiv Chandrasekaran (book review)

Between teling me to access multiple levels of true awareness, my friend Mr. Pogblog has been urging me to get a copy of Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, the Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief in 2003-2004. I was something like number fifty on the waiting list at my county library for one of their eleven copies, so I wound up picking up an unabridged audio version through a promotional offer through I still hate their software, but I like the service all in all, just wish they'd widen their fiction selection. Mr. Pogblog rather likes giving advice, much of it good, and this is one of those occasions.

Eventually, some writer finds the perfect metaphor for a war. During Vietnam, David Halberstam called it the Making of a Quagmire and Frances Fitzgerald came up with Fire in the Lake, both of which had a liquid or even quicksand-filled feel that caught the "stuck" nature of that conflict. Chandrasekaran’s metaphor of the Emerald City used to describe the "safe zone" built around one of Saddam's former palaces catches the "tragic fantasy" at the heart of the Iraq war.

While one of the major subjects of debate around this war has been the matter of how real or sincere was the administration's evidence for getting us there, Chandrasekaran rather intriguingly avoids any discussion of the path to the war itself and chooses instead to portray the utter incompetence of the Administration's planning and execution of the occupation. By choosing to focus on what is meant to be the safest and most secure zone in all of Iraq, he manages to make the portrait even more disturbing.

Chandrasekaran has a very sharp eye for irony. Many of the incidents reported in the book seem like they must have sprung from some lost sequel to Joseph Heller's Catch 22. The fact that the events are real adds to the effect in a way that Heller couldn’t. Chandrasekaran’s command for irony gets established immediately in the way his unusually well written book starts not with an IED or some other page one event, but with a seemingly benign description of the food service within the Green Zone. It turns out that the most common item on the menu is some form of pork, a taboo food for Moslems.

Both due to a fear of being poisoned and the fact that food service workers have to handle so much pork, almost none of the food service workers are Iraqis despite close to forty five percent effective unemployment within Iraq. Instead, the CPA imports workers from even poorer Moslem countries like Pakistan to work the food service within the Green Zone where three times a day the workers are expected to prepare and serve food to the American occupiers there that the workers consider disgusting. Imagine if you went to work as a cook in the home of a wealthy foreign family living in your country and you discovered your job was to prepare and serve dogs and cats for them to eat every night.

Chandrasekaran takes us from the cafeteria line to a group of individuals watching news of the Iraq beyond the walls on Fox News. We learn that most of the news about Iraq itself for those within the Green Zone comes through Fox. Most of those inside never leave its secure confines and they get no native information about events. This insularity both shapes and foreshadows the many CPA mistakes chronicled in the book. For example in the name of free enterprise, the CPA decides to end tariffs on the importation of cars to Iraq. The result is an unplanned doubling of the number of vehicles in Baghdad. In a city where the major routes have already been blocked off and rerouted for security reasons, the streets of the city suddenly are beset with gridlock so extreme that it impedes the capacity of the local police or the Americans to patrol the streets themselves. A CPA official responds by gamely trying to write a traffic code for Iraq based on the state of Maryland's. Unfortunately, there are no reliable police nor is there an effective court system to implement the new traffic code. Drivers simply begin ignoring any rules or signs and formerly law abiding individuals routinely drive on the sidewalk to aovid traffic.

Perhaps the most damning theme in the book is the way in which the CPA repeatedly ignore competence and expertise in favor of partisan loyalty. At the beginning of the occupation any number of individuals with actual expertise are taken off the job simply because they are connected to the State Department instead of the Department of Defense or simply because they need to make way for young repeatedly inexperienced campaign staffers who come to Iraq to further their careers. It wasn't intended that way, but Imperial Life offers an interesting perspective on the U.S. Attorney firings scandal and the Gonzales Justice Department. The consistent preference for ideology over competence within the CPA is identical to descriptions of the current justice department.

Among the more celebrated anecdotes is the removal of individuals with actual experience on Wall Street in favor of a twenty four year old with no business experience to take on the task of bringing a "free market" institutional structure to the Iraqi economy. The young man sets out to build a New York style computerized commodity exchange complete with rules and regulations in four months with no staff and no knowledge of existing Iraqi business practices or sociology. He finds several locals to work the new planned exchange and totally misses the fact that every person he's hired to be the caretakers for the new Iraqi economy is a Sunni. Once the young man leaves, Chandrasekeran asks an Iraqi businessman what difference it made and the man answers, "Without the CPA we would have had a working system up in a matter of days."

Even more poignant, an Iraqi man returns from Italy and attempts to open an authentic pizza place just outside the Green Zone as a real expression of faith in the promised free enterprise friendly new American order in Baghdad. There are no customers because no Americans ever leave the Green Zone and all of their needs are taken care of inside the walls where market competition does not exist.

While Chandrasekaran does not argue whether the American strategy in Iraq would have worked. He makes it clear that whatever chance there was for it to work was completely wasted by the Administration and the CPA’s failures. Perhaps the deepest irony is that whatever efficiency the free market offers comes from the fact that incompetence ultimately has its price. In the allegedly "market" and "democracy" friendly American occupation of Iraq, the opposite is the case. After multiple mistakes on the path to elections and a constitution there, L. Paul Bremer and the administration celebrate their symbolic success when in fact they have sown the seeds of the sectarian struggle that dooms Iraq to several more years of internal violence and thousands of American deaths.

Imperial Life In the Emerald City may be the most devastating critique of Donald Rumsfeld, J. A. Bremer, and the Bush Administration's adventure in Iraq. Written with a fiction writer’s touch and a journalist’s accuracy, it ruthlessly exposes the unimaginable incompetence of an administration so blinded by ideology and insulated from reality that tragedy becomes inevitable. At the end of the first of the Oz books, the Wizard who runs the Emerald City turns out to be a meek little man behind a curtain. The saddest part about this Emerald City is that we saw the man behind the curtain all along and even re-elected him after all of this was known or should have been known. Imperial Life in the Emerald City will stand alongside Fire in the Lake as a portrait of American power stumbling on its own pride.

Simply put, Imperial Life tells us who really failed to support the troops in the most basic way. It makes it crystal clear that the Bush Administration made their job on Iraq both more difficult and more dangerous.



At 7/08/2007 01:16:00 PM, Blogger Martin Heavisides said...

I'm going to have to get a copy. "sewn the seeds" should be "sown the seeds" but a very fine review otherwise.

At 7/08/2007 01:29:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for catching the mistake. It's a very fast read, but obviously a little depressing because these are real people being that stupid.

At 7/09/2007 12:18:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a number of Agent Clockwork Orange fantasies in which Mr. Bush and SickerDick have their eyelids toothpicked open and are compelled to view a potpourri of the results of their ignorant &/or arrogant lunatic depredations. Imperial Life on a screen in big print is certainly top of the list.

If I were a George Soros of fortune, I'd put Imperial Life in every hotel room next to the Gideon Bible, knowing that at least one volume would tell the Truth. I'd require each Congressperson to read this remarkable heartbreaking book. The book is so well reported and so page-turningly compelling that my breath was taken away.

"Written with a fiction writer’s touch and a journalist’s accuracy, it ruthlessly exposes the unimaginable incompetence of an administration so blinded by ideology and insulated from reality that tragedy becomes inevitable." What's so horrible about this wonderful book is that the 'ruthlessness' comes not from any hint of agenda by the writer, but rather from the awful accretion of facts about a cultural blindness and pigheaded hubris that are finally in so many grueling ways titanic.

Thanks! CL, for alerting folks to this superb book.

At 7/09/2007 02:22:00 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

"Imperial Life" should be mandatory reading for every memeber of Congress who still thinks "Funding the War" is supporting the troops.

On page 271, Chandrasekaran mentions the "seven...tanks from First Armored's Crusader Company" who were rolling to the rescue. My son was commanding one of those tanks. That battle was where Crusader Company suffered their first fatality. The following week they were extended, although they had already turned in their weapons to go home. 3 more men, including my son, were killed before the Crusader's left Iraq 2 months later.

5 stars for your review, 5 stars for the book and sadly, one gold star for me.

At 7/09/2007 07:17:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Mr. Pogblog,
You make a great point, part of the power of the book comes from the way it moves from the "ordinary" to the "large" within the Green Zone yet every aspect of the place is permeated with the same arrogance or willful blindness.

I'm not sure what Congress reads about the war. If you happen to look at my post below about the Pentagon's report on the war, one would have be very dense not to understand what they're really saying. I suspect even the dense would understand Imperial Life.

I had wondered when I read that section if that might have been the incident that ended Ken's life and changed yours.

btw poignantly sad last sentence in your comment.

At 7/30/2007 12:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out the Mp3 audio book of Imperial Life in the Emerald City at

At 8/07/2007 10:00:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

thanks for the lead to an alternative to Audible.


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