Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone, by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, has been camping out on my Reading and Recently Read list for a few weeks now. I've left it there to remind me to write this post. And this is going to be the post so it can finally be retired from its sidebar glory.
First, this is a very good book, and I would recommend reading it if you're at all interested in what goes on in the Green Zone. But keep in mind that parts of it will probably infuriate (while educating) you. If you've ever seen The Simpsons episode where Bart is indicted for fraud in Australia, there's a scene that basically illustrates the principle behind the Green Zone. The Simpson family stays at the American embassy in Australia and Bart asks if the toilets flush in the opposite direction. The embassy official responds:
"No. To combat homesickness, we've installed a device that makes them swirl the correct American way."
The "device" is a huge machine hooked on to the toilet tank, emblazoned with an American flag. It is that kind of attitude of overcompensating for inconvenience overseas and wasted patriotism that characterizes the Green Zone in Iraq.
Two specific damages I had with the otherwise very good, informative book:
1. The author snidely faults American personnel for being afraid to venture into the "real world." From page 19:
"Schroeder was incredulous when I told him that I lived in what he and others called the Red Zone, that I drove around without a security detail, that I ate at local restaurants, that I visited Iraqis in their homes.
'What's it like out there?' he asked.
[...] I described the pleasure of walking through al-Shorja Market, the city's largest bazaar, and of having tea in cafes in the old quarter...The more I talked, the more I felt like an extraterrestrial describing life on another planet."
This is all well and good, and I don't necessarily doubt the truth of what he's saying, but he's also being disingenuous. I'm going out on a limb here, but I'm guessing that Mr. Chandrasekaran is not a tall, blonde-haired, blue-eyed guy with pasty white skin. Perhaps he blends into the local populace slightly better than your average career military dude, and is by default less of an obvious target. Just a guess.
2. It's not the author's fault that his source lied to him, but it wouldn't have killed him to run this by, oh I don't know, any Arab ever, to have it discredited in a moment (page 196; the speaker is "a professor of political science at Baghdad University"):
"We never saw each other as Sunnis or Shiites first. We were Iraqis first. But the Americans changed all that."
I really, really question the truth of this statement. I suspect that this professor is lying to himself, if he believes this statement, or to the author at least, if he doesn't.
Moving on to Valerie Plame Wilson's unsettlingly punctuated Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House.
This was a fairly interesting read, and I suspect that it would have been far more interesting without the extensive redactions made by the CIA before its publication (redactions are the bars of blacked-out text that you see in books that handle sensitive government material). The book also did a lot to punch holes in my conviction that Jeremy is not a CIA agent. There were waaaaay too many similarities in Mrs. Wilson's career path and my husband's for me to continue to easily laugh off family and friends' occasional queries about Jeremy's actual employer. :)
1. In the writing of her book, I don't think Mrs. Wilson allowed for the possibility that somewhere, sometime, anyone who leaned even slightly toward being a conservative would ever read it. Because the book is chock full of blanket statements ridiculing "The Right" and "conservatives" everywhere. I don't have a problem with her naming specific people who set out to harm her reputation, but lumping me in with their ilk just insults my intelligence as her audience.
2. I think Mrs. Wilson and I have very different methods of financial planning, or at least very different ideas of what it means to be "poor." In the part of the book after her exposure as a CIA operative (and thus the end of her career), there were lots of statements like "and then Joe and I were so stressed about money that we took a week-long ski vacation with the kids to Park City." I'm only being slightly facetious here. A paragraph after talking about how her family depended heavily on the income from her husband Joe's now-scarce speaking engagements, or how they really needed the advance from her book deal to come through, she casually mentions sipping a celebratory glass of wine in their home's living room, gazing out at the glorious panoramic view of the Washington Monument. Seriously, what the?!? There was enough of this kind of financial folly that it really detracted from my being able to take her seriously.
I don't know how Jeremy handles it, reading these kinds of books all the time. I think I'll read An Assembly Such as This: A Novel of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Gentleman next.