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Hearts and Mines

Vivid and visceral, The Freedom delivers a different vision from the battlefields of Iraq

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted 12/22/2004

Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq

By Christian Parenti
New Press, clothbound

Conventional wisdom holds that the grim news footage beamed into American homes via television played a decisive role in turning the public tide against the Vietnam war. Pentagon military planners only needed to learn that lesson once, birthing in response our current media morass of embedded journalists and spin-dominated, dutifully parroted press conferences.

This stifling climate makes Christian Parenti’s The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq a startling read. Parenti has traveled in Iraq extensively of late, reporting on the occupation for The Nation. While Parenti more than once embeds himself with American troops, he frequently flies solo in places like Baghdad and Fallujah, securing interviews that voice perspectives positively verboten on Fox News or CNN.

In so many ways, The Freedom rises far above the glut of lefty anti-war texts that have hit bookstores recently. Most obviously, Parenti’s gripping, gutsy prose captures the sights and sounds of today’s Iraq with the vivid immediacy of a cinéma vérité documentary. While Parenti doesn’t recklessly seek out dangerous situations, his book brims with first-hand near-misses with car bombs and friendly fire, and includes multiple interviews with mistrustful, heavily-armed members of the resistance.

Oddly enough, in his retelling of these events Parenti recalls no other writer so much as Hunter S. Thompson. The Freedom isn’t quite Fear and Loathing in Iraq (despite the gonzo-esque subtitle of Parenti’s book). And although everyone in the text—from American grunts to Iraqi community leaders to left-wing journalists—doses themselves with Valium to get through their days, Parenti’s words neither mine the hallucinogenic territory carved out by Thompson’s work, nor share Thompson’s wry delight in chaos.

Still, a mordantly grim war-zone humor does creep into The Freedom, especially in the Loathing-like cast of characters Parenti encounters. In one chapter, alleged author Michael Tucker embeds with the same soldiers as Parenti; during an interrogation, a knife-wielding Tucker flips out and sadistically threatens detainees, as though assigned the “bad cop” role in a straight-to-video thriller. Later, Parenti conducts an search and finds just two Michael Tuckers listed: one writes about pets, the other about food. Further outrageous antics come from “Crazy Dave,” an heir to a fortune who has made a career as a war-zone reporter—seemingly out of a lunatic’s love for the dirt and daredevilry opportunities he encounters along the way.

Even more exceptional than Parenti’s style and vibrant characters, however, is his penchant for getting at the subtext, nimbly avoiding a dogmatic tone by allowing others to make his points for him. Parenti finds in Baghdad a sprawling, hellish battlefield in which the notion of George W. Bush as liberator is so laughable as to be beneath comment—even among anti-Saddam Iraqis such as business leaders, women, minorities, and police, few of whom shy away from angrily speaking their minds.

If the greatest battle currently facing the American occupiers is for hearts and minds, Parenti’s interviewees collectively argue, then the Americans aren’t losing—they’ve already lost. One of the most likable voices in The Freedom belongs to Akeel, a 26 year-old, street-smart Iraqi who frequently serves as guide and interpreter for Parenti. Akeel begins the book with a cynical outlook towards Americans, softened by an affable personality, an obsession with Western pop culture, and his family’s particularly egregious history of suffering under Hussein’s regime.

Months later, however, Akeel has done an abrupt about-face, breaking into tears over Hussein’s capture. In an Iraq shaken by inconceivable violence and perpetual shortages of food, water, and electricity, Akeel now prefers Hussein’s iron fist. Indeed, Parenti prefaces his text with a quote from Akeel that sums up the sardonic mood shared by most people Parenti encounters: “[T]he looting freedom, the killing freedom, the rape freedom . . . I don’t know what to do with all this freedom.”

In George W. Bush’s Iraq, Parenti reports, “honor killings” have become prevalent: male relatives murdering rape victims to preserve their family’s name. Murder rates for Baghdad have jumped from 10 in all of 2002 to 470 in the month of July 2003 (a figure police and morticians agree to be a small fraction of the actual number, given the likely high volume of deaths that go unreported). Parenti also uncovers stories of civilian casualties, prisoner abuse, and widespread reconstruction corruption—not to mention of American troops utterly unschooled in the culture they patrol—beyond those reported in our mainstream media.

While fully acknowledging Saddam’s atrocities, Parenti’s book avers convincingly that these new horrors spring directly from the U.S. invasion. Few books have communicated the unspeakably bleak, terrorist-manufacturing climate of America’s Iraqi occupation with as much detail and as much humanism as The Freedom. Of course, that portions of this book first appeared in The Nation, a famously left-leaning publication, constitutes preaching to the converted. But that should only make Parenti’s book required reading for a wider audience, particularly anyone who voted for George W. Bush; Parenti’s book gushes with enough gore to suggest another meaning for the term “red state.”

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