Nobody Told Us We Were Defeated, by Rory McCarthy

A voice of truth above the bombs of Baghdad
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The Independent Culture

There have been, to date, about 400 books written about Iraq since the invasion. Few have been successful. None has been definitive because, of course, the fall of Baghdad and the iconic images of Saddam's statue being toppled marked not the end but the beginning of this pitiless war.

Quite a few books have been by journalists describing their experiences, with varying degrees of success. What makes Rory McCarthy's one of a rare breed is that it catches the voices of the ordinary people of Iraq, the people George W Bush and Tony Blair "liberated" and who have since seen their society disintegrate in the spiralling violence of the Sunni insurgency and a vicious sectarian war. I have worked alongside McCarthy in Baghdad, when the descent into endemic abductions, bombings and beheadings began in earnest. Along with this pervading madness McCarthy also had to cope with a homicidal former driver, Badr, who had built up a grudge and was determined to shoot him. But he remained one of the more sane members of the dwindling media corps.

McCarthy studiously avoided the purple prose so favoured by some of our colleagues. And this made his writing for The Guardian some of the best to emerge from Iraq - alongside that of my colleague at The Independent, Patrick Cockburn. McCarthy takes a similarly low-key approach here. The book reveals a deeply interested, concerned but also slightly bewildered traveller through a state in anarchy.

He listens not just to the politicians and the military, the insurgents and the death squads, but to the people living and dying in the middle. The accounts are not always predictable. Take Ali Abid Hassan, a victim of Saddam's regime who had once been shot and crawled out of a mass grave, broken by the horrors he had undergone. How does such a man react when he sees Saddam being tried? "I could not bear it when I saw him in such a miserable condition," says Hassan. "He should not be humiliated. After all, he was our president. He was our father."

It is people like Hassan who so confuse the neo-cons. "Why can't they be grateful?" is the plaintive cry. What the dwindling number of apologists for the war fail to grasp is that, while many Iraqis may have hated Saddam, they also loathe the occupation. McCarthy and I used to stand on the balcony of The Independent's apartment at the Hamra hotel, situated outside the Green Zone, sipping beer (before the hotel stopped selling alcohol under orders from Islamists) and wondering what would happen if a car bomb hit the blast wall at the back. I found out a few weeks later when our rooms were blasted apart in a suicide attack. McCarthy was away at the time. In a telephone call he asked, "Don't you think it is a bit of a hint that the time has come to leave?"

As visiting foreign journalists, we have the luxury of going in and out of Baghdad. Most Iraqis do not. With Iraq slipping more and more off the radar as the media's attention wanders elsewhere, this book is a reminder of what has been done to the people of that country.