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In The Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq
The war after the war
By Steven Martinovich
On the morning of September 11, 2001, art critic Steven Vincent stood on the roof of his apartment building and watched the second airliner strike the World Trade Center. As with millions of others, Vincent was immediately changed. The world he knew before that morning was gone forever. The sleepwalking America of the 1990s was transformed into a nation at war.
As Vincent relates in the recently published In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq, his support for the war in Afghanistan was unquestioning. His support for a war against Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist régime, however, took on a different tone. He wanted to actually serve his nation in some capacity. Two old to join the army and unlikely to find a media outlet willing to pay for a freelancer's trip to post-war Iraq, Vincent decided to visit the country on his own dime. He made two trips, one in fall 2003 and another in spring 2004, to explore an Iraq coming to grips with the post-Hussein era.
It's a mixed picture that Vincent paints of this new Iraq, one that is entangled in the legacy of Hussein, tribalism, variants of Islam, apathy and violence. Most Iraqis are cautiously optimistic about their collective future and are grateful to the coalition for their liberation, yet at the same time are conflicted about exactly what path their nation will take.
While in Iraq he meets up with what Iraqis refer to as "The People of the Slogans" -- individuals like Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn -- Westerners who protested the war and the continuing coalition presence. One so-called peace activist coldly tells an Iraqi that, "Perhaps you need to see beyond your suffering under Saddam to view America more objectively." He chronicles a media striving to paint the worst picture possible of post-war Iraq, including manufacturing protests if there aren't any to film.
Vincent identifies the issue of religious intolerance as one of Iraq's most challenging problems. The majority of Iraqis are moderate Shia, an Islamic sect with a heritage of martyrdom -- both spiritual and physical -- and violence. Facing off against them are the Sunnis, hostile to the Shia and more fundamentalist in their interpretation of the Koran. Long allied with Hussein, many Sunnis aren't interested in taking part in the reconstruction and fill the ranks of the terrorists that the media has dubbed the "insurgency." The most prominent cleric in the country, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has a vague vision of Iraq's political future. Clerics are divided on whether shari'a law should be the highest in the land. Everyone, it seems, is anti-Semitic.
By far the most powerful parts of In the Red Zone deal with the treatment of women in Iraq. Women are gradually disappearing from public life as traditional mores make a comeback. Iraqi and Kurdish women that Vincent interviews describe having their spirits crushed by the rising tide of misogyny, a force that is compelling women to cover themselves with bulky dresses and headscarves. "Bullied by clerics, tribal leaders, and criminal gangs, they were staying in doors, rarely venturing out, ceding their rights and freedoms before the eyes of the world. It was an unnerving spectacle, like watching people fall prey to a police state."
This gender war claims victims on both sides, argues Vincent. One Iraqi woman tells him that relationships between men and women are essentially sadomasochistic. Casual interactions between the two are non-existent and Vincent could feel the tangible loneliness that an Iraqi man faces during his youth before marriage. "When someone from the West talks about his interactions with women," one Iraqi man tells Vincent, "it's like he's describing color to someone who lives his life in black and white."
Vincent's criticisms extend also to the Coalition Provisional Authority. He blasts the British authorities in Basra for doing nothing to stop rampant corruption and crime and accuses the CPA of doing a poor job in general of securing the nation. He also faults Iraqis themselves for doing little to try and reconstruct their nation, instead expecting miracles from the Americans simply because of their stunningly quick victory over the Iraqi military.
Despite all of this Vincent remains cautiously optimistic that the liberation of Iraq will one day bear fruit. He argues that the forces responsible for the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks exist in nations like Iraq and the only cure is democracy. The war against Saddam Hussein wasn't necessary only to protect the United States, but to free "the will, imagination, and energies of millions of Muslims." History may eventually judge that Iraq was indeed an unnecessary sideline in the larger war against terrorism but, Vincent argues, it also freed tens of millions from a brutal tyranny. "They have a chance for freedom. They have an opportunity, however distant it seems now, to enjoy the same freedoms you and I take for granted."
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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