An American diplomat, watching with bewilderment and dismay his nation's charge into the quagmire of Iraq, is reported to have said: "I just wake up in the morning and tell myself, 'There's been a military coup,' and then it all makes sense."
Some of the stories told by James Risen, a veteran national security reporter for the New York Times, make that assessment seem only slightly exaggerated. The book has already caused a political storm in the US with its revelation that the White House authorised the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on thousands of Americans without a warrant, but there is much else here to disturb the reader.
Risen's central thesis is that the 9/11 attacks were used by Donald Rumsfeld, Bush's uncompromising Defence Secretary, and Vice-President Dick Cheney to hijack American security and foreign policy. As soon as the Taliban had been ousted in Afghanistan, they were campaigning to invade Iraq. If decisions went against them, they ignored them or convened another meeting, this time without their opponents, to get their way. There was never a formal meeting of all George Bush's senior advisers to decide whether Iraq should be invaded, and it is even possible, according to the author's sources, that one of the most disastrous post-invasion decisions - to disband the Iraqi army - was taken without the President's knowledge.
Most of Risen's informants are CIA officers disgusted with the "poisonous new culture" of rendition flights, secret prisons and "coercion techniques", amounting to torture, that came into being after 9/11. It did not take much more for the "new cowboys" in the Pentagon and their neo-conservative allies to doctor the intelligence on Iraq so that they could have their war. Some of the detail about power games in Washington will seem tedious to British readers, but Risen sheds new light on how "hustlers and fabricators" were embraced if their information served the cause of war, while genuine intelligence was ignored.
One intriguing example of the latter was the effort to contact Iraqi scientists through family members living in the US. Some 30 Iraqi-Americans went back to Baghdad at considerable risk, and all reported that their relatives said there were no weapons of mass destruction, but their information disappeared into a black hole. Even after the war, says the writer, CIA officers discovered that reporting too frankly on the insurgency that followed was harmful to their careers.
The overall conclusion is stark: there has been "a disturbing breakdown" in checks and balances within the US government's executive branch, leading to "a new domestic spying programme, a narco-state in Afghanistan and chaos in Iraq". But Risen cannot determine just how much George Bush himself is to blame. The administration's legendary secrecy and short way with opposition has left him unable to confirm whether the President adopted the neo-con agenda or simply went along, though most of Risen's evidence points to a more passive role.
Risen's carefully sourced, sometimes plodding account is Iraq as seen from Washington's ruling heights. Kayla Williams is all first-person: a girl from the American heartland with a messy upbringing who enlists in the US Army and finds herself in Iraq, and wants to tell us what it was like.
Any female soldier stationed abroad in a predominantly male military environment, she says, automatically becomes more attractive - "Queen for a Year" - and it can go to your head if you are unused to being noticed at home. You are a slut if you partake of the sex on offer, and a bitch if you refuse: "Mostly I chose to be a bitch." To her exasperation, she watched women, some of whom were her superiors, use their femininity to gain an easier time, at the price of male contempt for their capabilities.
Wlliams can sound a little Valley Girl-ish as she tries to stick to her vegetarian diet in the desert, and deals with sexual innuendo and outright molestation from her male colleagues. Unlike her fellow grunts, however, she was a trained Arabic linguist who had lived for two years in the US with a Palestinian and spent time with his Arab friends. In Iraq she finds herself in the midst of mutual incomprehension which hardens into hostility.
"Put yourself in the position of some 18-year-old infantry soldier with a loaded weapon in a country surrounded by people who don't speak his language," she says. "And these people come up to him and yell. They want to tell him something. And he doesn't know what it is."
This deadly clash of cultures is epitomised by the bloodiest incident she witnesses in Iraq. A field on the edge of Baghdad is full of unexploded bombs and shells, and she warns the locals to stay away. But warning signs are put up in English alone. Two days later she finds herself back in the same spot, tending soldiers and civilians who have been caught up in an explosion. An Iraqi dies in front of her, and she has to calm local people who say it is the Americans' fault.
In an echo of the Abu Ghraib scandal, she is asked to help with the interrogation of a prisoner. "I am prompted to participate. To mock this naked and crying man... 'Do you think you can please a woman with that thing?' I ask, gesturing." But she imagines that it is her former lover who is being slapped and burned with cigarettes, and refuses to be involved again. "All I said was: 'I am not going to be a part of it.' I did not blow the whistle on anybody. So how morally culpable am I?"
Stories such as these make it clear that the insurgency was inevitable, and towards the end of her tour, says Williams, even Arabic speakers like her "started to hate the locals". She returns home to reverse culture shock - "everybody in America was fat" - and depression: "A year of my life and what the fuck for? It took lies to get us deployed."
At this point two very different American perspectives become mutually complementary. If James Risen explains how we went to war on a false prospectus, Kayla Williams brings out the tragic impact of that untruth, both on Iraq and upon ourselves.Reuse content