Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone

by Rajiv Chandrasekaran


The Green Zone, Baghdad, 2003: in this walled-off compound of swimming pools and luxurious amenities, Paul Bremer and his Coalition Provisional Authority set out to fashion a new, democratic Iraq. Staffed by idealistic aides chosen primarily for their views on issues such as abortion and capital punishment, the CPA spent the crucial first year of occupation pursuing goals that had little to do with the immediate needs of a postwar nation: revamping the Iraqi tax code and mounting an anti-smoking campaign.

As the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post, Chandrasekaran has probably spent more time in U.S.-occupied Iraq than any other American journalist. In this acclaimed firsthand account, the former Baghdad bureau chief of The Washington Post gives us an intimate portrait of life inside this Oz-like bubble, which continued unaffected by the growing mayhem outside. Chandrasekaran unstintingly depicts the stubborn cluelessness of many Americans in the Green Zone—like the army general who says children terrified by nighttime helicopters should appreciate “the sound of freedom.” But he sympathetically portrays others trying their best to cut through the red tape and institute genuine reforms. He also has a sharp eye for details, from casual sex in abandoned offices to stray cats adopted by staffers, which enable both advocates and critics of the occupation to understand the emotional toll of its circuslike atmosphere. Thanks to these personal touches, the account of the CPA’s failures never feels heavy-handed.

This is a quietly devastating tale of imperial folly, and the definitive history of those early days when things went irrevocably wrong in Iraq.

When I opened the pages, I suddenly felt very proud to be Chinese. For right there, in the first pages, smack right in the middle of the map of Green Zone, is the marker “Chinese Restaurants”. Not pizza parlor, not hamburger joint, no, it’s Chinese restaurants. Mind you too, it’s not just one, but two of them. As some travelers commented, you will always be amazed that no matter how far you travel, there’s always a Chinese restaurant where you least expect it.

A really interesting and engaging book. We’ve all read about how inept the US govt’s handle of the Iraqi occuption is, but condensing the interviews and anecdotes into one volume really opened my eyes. A lot of it seems to be variations on the same theme: big, lofty idea thought up by someone unqualified for the position. Like the idea of using a food ration debit card, when neither electrity nor telephone was working; or Operation Smiles when the hospitals had been looted clean of the most basic supplies and beds, and patients are dying from the most curable sicknesses and injuries. Too bad when, filling positions, what matters is not what certificates or diplomas you hang on your wall, but whether there is a photo of you with Bush and Cheney.

While there are a few people who went there with the intention to make some quick bucks (the ludicracy of the contractor’s story is really something), in all honesty most of the people who went out to Iraq brought with them good intentions.

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 3:06 am  Leave a Comment  

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