Sunday, October 07, 2007

Rock Hard Review: "Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge" by Pepe Escobar; Buried Alive

Self-deception is one of the necessary features of life during wartime. The smoke-and-mirrors charade of faultless good vs. bottomless evil becomes a tautology and all humanizing nuances of the enemy are discarded to maintain the gruesome volley. When somebody speaks truth to power it's akin to a surprise gut-punch. Nobody wants to see the receipt to the Emperor's new clothes - not even the Emperor. However, Pepe Escobar's pitch perfect "Red Zone Blues" is a sucker-punch we need to our collective, doughy mid-sections.

"Blues" is Mr. Escobar's first person account of how the "surge" reshaped Iraq and its neighboring countries. The increase in violence pushed anyone with a semblance of money or connections out of the country. They now float in limbo, waiting in Syria and Jordan until the killing subsides or until they elect to roll the dice and request admission to a Western country. This state of suspended animation is astutely portrayed by a description of an Iraqi mother escaping Baghdad:

"Only her eyelashes can be seen in profile, fluttering obsessively like the wings of a butterfly. She is like her own striking, svelte Kaaba, surrounded by an ocean of pilgrims -- full black elegantly draped chador over jeans and a discreet mauve pair of pointy shoes, full hijab, only the heavily kohl-rimmed eyelashes trying to decode the torn-down messages in Arabic script and then the official's request for a pile of abstruse documents. Inevitably she has to sit down, like everyone else, in the antechamber of purgatory -- the cramped, dingy room of the consular section of the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus."

In these extreme conditions skilled technicians are reduced to selling baked goods, earning less than the cost of living for their families. "Little Fallujahs" and "Little Baghdads" follow the refugees to their new homesteads, weak echoes of their homeland.

Much of "Blues" centers around Baghdad and its American made "gulag", Pentagon-mandated walls inside the city. These gated communities were intended for privileged buyers and defy the will of the Iraqis who unambiguously opposed its construction. The idea of divide and control through artificial barriers is a motif Mr. Escobar frequently touches upon.

The most secure area of Baghdad is known as the "Green Zone" and the unsecured segments of the city, everywhere else, has been labeled the "Red Zone". When observing what goes on inside the former it is easy to understand why the latter is a mess. It is from inside the Green Zone where the Iraqis lost control of their oil fields which were privatized, not nationalized as the Iraqis desired. This type of crude strategizing -- forgive the pun -- only serves to roil the tension in the air.

Yet, this tension isn't a recent creation. It has been bubbling beneath the surface throughout the 1990s with the "Sanctions Generation". The average annual income nosedived as a result of U.N. sanctions effectively annihilating the middle class. Only Saddam Hussein and his sycophants retained the lion's share of Iraqi wealth while traditionally high wage earning professions like physicians struggled to survive. People jockeyed to charm the governing coterie to feed their families. Children would try to befriend classmates who belonged to the powerful clique so their parents could eat. As ruinous as the sanctions were on the Iraqi population they successfully partitioned and stratified the society into an American wet dream.

Remarkably, throughout this dark period there was no sectarian rivalry. One of Mr. Escobar's primary strengths is his doctorly dissection of the motivation behind the violence in Iraq. He presents the various tribes without the expected sterility that would typically accompany such a litany. To say Shiites are seeking revenge against the Sunnis is an oversimplification. For example, some of the more promising news from Iraq is how Sheikh Abu Risha, a Sunni tribal leader, joined forces with the Iraqi government, largely Shiite, to combat Salafi-jihadists. Also, Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi army in Sadr City favors national unity, reviles Iranian power grabs and finds no comfort in an extended American presence. Muqtada al-Sadr's opinions are held by the majority of Iraqis, regardless of tribal or party affiliation, making him one of the most popular public figures in the region. Can't exactly wedge that into a 15 second sound bite, can you?

It all comes down to walls. In the preface, the author quotes a passage from Poe's Masque of the Red Death, a Gothic short story describing a man being buried alive, which proves to be worrisomely pertinent. Be it draconian sanctions blocking citizens from their wealth or an American satellite regime denying Iraqis a political voice or even literal barriers fortified without irony in "strategic" areas, our intentions are clear. We will keep cordoning off Iraq brick by brick until the country is fully entombed.

"Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge" by Pepe Escobar

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