“War Journal” by Richard Engel

War Journal

In this eye-witness account of the events in Iraq from 2003 to 2008, Richard Engel, NBC correspondent for the Middle East, repeatedly asks the question that others should have been asking a lot earlier and a lot louder: namely, what the heck was the US doing there?

This is a personal account of Engel’s experiences in Iraq, which ranged from being embedded with US Marines on patrol to attending Saddam Hussein’s trial, with lots of individual color and stories about personal adventures and tragedies, as Engel’s marriage collapsed and he became increasingly addicted to the war zone, and increasingly convinced he was going to die there. Unsurprisingly, it’s a compelling read, as Engel demonstrates a journalist’s flair for a good story. But it is also an examination of the giant mess that the US found itself embroiled in when it decided to invade Iraq and engage in some ill-advised regime-building.

Engel makes clear that, as would be expected, not only was the American military technologically superior to the scrappy forces opposing them, but the vast majority of American troops were highly trained and motivated professionals, who pretty much always won in any kind of conventional battle. But, trying to do something they were not set up to do, and hampered by conflicting orders and a stunning lack of comprehension of the situation on the ground at the higher levels, they were still totally incapable of keeping any kind of order in the country, which, despite the removal of Saddam and the institution of democracy, imploded into chaos and a horrific civil war that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people, many of them innocent civilians.

Engel traces the various reasons for this, but it all basically boils down to a lack of knowledge of, or interest in, the cultural, historical, and political forces at work. The US president and the State Department wanted to turn Iraq into a Western-style democracy and had a specific and very short timetable to do so, while also attempting to impose a highly complex system of parliamentary democracy that involved multiple rounds of voting and negotiations. The result, in a country with no history of democracy, and little interest in becoming one, was a hijacking of the democratic process by hardline religious forces, backed by Iran, who, unlike the US, understood what was going on.

“War Journal” is an interesting and worthwhile read in its own right, and it also brings up a number of issues that the US really, really, really should consider, and consider very, very hard before getting any more heavily embroiled in yet another poorly understood and defined foreign conflict (*cough* Ukraine *cough* Syria). The overwhelming technological superiority of the US military over any other military in the world, combined with the belief in a one-size-fits-all democracy, has led to a hubristic tendency to solve all problems by forcibly imposing democracy, even where it isn’t wanted or needed. But it keeps turning out that the most sophisticated weapons in the world are no substitute for diplomacy and a basic knowledge of how a given culture functions, and an undemocratic imposition of democracy often leads to less democracy, rather than more. Not to mention the unfortunate fact that the US keeps arming terrorists who then go and use the US’s own weapons against them. You’d think we’d have learned by now, but, painful a lesson as Iraq was, it may not have been painful enough to effect any long-term change.

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