Anecdotes like this one, short and long, first-, second-, and third-hand, are woven together by freelance writer Nir Rosen in his book In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq. (If his writing feels familiar, it is because much of Rosen’s work has appeared in magazines like The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine.) The American-born Rosen is a fluent Arabic-speaker who was able to blend in with the populace. He moved to Baghdad in April 2003 to cover the American-led invasion and stayed in Iraq for the next year and a half. His self-stated mission in writing this book was to tell “the story of the occupation, reconstruction, and descent into civil war of the new Iraq.” From the perspective of the Iraqi people, at least, he succeeds. If you want to gain a better understanding and tangible feel, on a pragmatic, smell-of-the-streets level, of the cause-and-effect cycle of coalition actions upon the Iraqi people, then Rosen’s book is a good place to start.
The title of the book is drawn from a verse of a hadith (an eyewitness account of the sayings of Mohammed) relating that when martyrs are killed, they receive eternal life, and their souls travel to heaven inside green birds. The book tells the story of how martyrs in Iraq have been and will be produced to sacrifice themselves for the Shia, or the Sunni, or Islam, or simply to drive out the occupation. As Rosen points out in his introduction, “For Americans, the word occupation conjures images of postwar Germany or Japan, and the repair of damaged societies.” In sharp contrast, the Arabic word for occupation, ihtilal, carries with it extraordinary negative connotations: of the Crusaders, of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad, of the British occupation, of the Israelis in southern Lebanon and among Palestinians. Throughout the book, Rosen’s underlying message rings loud and clear: Whatever chance the United States had of its presence not being viewed as an ihtilal was quickly destroyed through its own actions, which irrevocably alienated the Iraqi people.
During and immediately following the invasion, most clerics urged their followers to be patient, to observe the actions of the invaders before deciding whether they were liberators or occupiers. Very quickly, however, the actions of coalition forces”stemming largely from cultural ignorance and a lack of effective guidance, as well as a lack of real governance from the Coalition Provisional Authority”turned the Iraqi people against the Americans as well as any Iraqis working with them. Rosen takes us on an anecdotal journey through this “new Iraq,” chronologically intertwining his own experiences there with the historical and broader political and ethnic reasons for the country’s relatively rapid decline into chaos.
Rosen is careful to explicitly state that the Iraqi resistance, far from being monolithic, consists of three groups: resistances, insurgencies, and terror movements. “The majority of anti-coalition fighters are part of an indigenous resistance[which] simply wants the Americans out.” As an outspoken advocate for American withdrawal from Iraq, Rosen makes a decent case for it in this book. I found his interview with a young cleric in the Sunni stronghold of Amriya to be particularly powerful in this regard. Stated the cleric: “Every Muslim rejects occupation, though maybe the presence of American forces now and in these circumstances is beneficial to Iraqis.” Indeed, even had the Americans managed to create security, “we would remain opposed to the American presence because it did not come to provide security, but it came for greed.” This comes from a Sunni in October 2003, but a 2006 World Public Opinion poll suggests it represents the sentiments of the Iraqi population in general. The majority of those polled wanted a timetable set for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and a full 47 percent approved of attacks on U.S. forces.
Rosen’s on-the-ground-reporter writing style is compelling and conveys a palpable intensity to the reader. And, like any good storyteller, he knows how to capture in an anecdote comprising a handful of words the complete feeling of a cultural period. For example, after being stopped at a checkpoint in Karbala in April 2003, he writes that he had learned “the most valuable skill for surviving the new Iraq: how to smile at angry men pointing their guns at me and wish them peace.” Or Baghdad in July 2003: “As we spoke, the electrical power went out in the neighborhood. He smiled. ‘This is the American liberation.'”
Unfortunately, much of what Rosen writes about the coalition forces seems, to me at least, almost painfully one-sided, even demonizing. I wish that Rosen had been able to display the same empathy for the American forces he spent time with as he does for the resistance. Typical of his writing is when he quotes a brigade commander in Tikrit explaining to a civil affairs major that “I am not here to win hearts and minds; I am here to kill the enemy.” The closest Rosen comes to an assessment of why the Americans operated as they did is when he quotes an officer returning from a fact-finding mission complaining of “a lot of damn good individuals who received no guidance, training, or plan and who are operating in a vacuum.” After each chapter, I found myself poignantly aware of the plight of Iraqis but was always left with the gnawing feeling of a lack of balance.
Still, although largely anecdotal, Rosen’s rich mosaic of experiences related in this book makes for an informative read as the country slides further into what some see as a coming civil war, and others deem a quagmire. I found one quote from Rosen’s book to be particularly prescient if slightly ominous. It is from a Turkman in Kirkuk just before the January 2005 elections: “Civil war has to happen, but we won’t start it. Maybe after an hour, after a day, after a week, but civil war has to happen.”
William Perkins is a captain in the United States Army who served as an infantry officer with the 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq during 2003-2004. He is currently the Operations Officer for the Combating Terrorism Center in the West Point Department of Social Sciences.