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September 15, 2005

Steven Vincent's In the Red Zone

There are two schools of thought on the morality of the US-led coalition's 2003 invasion of Iraq. On the left, there is the widely held view that this war was unjust and immoral. The leading justification for war -- the infamous weapons of mass destruction -- were never found, and the invasion and subsequent occupation have resulted in the deaths of thousands of Iraqi people and untold suffering among millions of others. While the left (when pressed) will acknowledge that removing the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein was a good thing, it was not the responsibility of the US government to do so and, in any case, life in Iraq after Saddam was just as bad (if not worse) than it had been before the war.

in the Red Zone cover art

On the right, defenders of the invasion believe that it was legally and morally justified to act against a long term supporter of international terrorism whose regime had developed (and used) weapons of mass destruction in the past against both its neighbors and their own people. More worryingly, Saddam also appeared to be trying to retain his WMD capabilities for future use. Finally, deposing Saddam and helping the Iraqi people establish a democratic, multi-ethnic and multi-religious government was expected to improve the life of all Iraqis and provide a beacon of hope for the rest of the troubled Arab world, thereby undermining the repression that fostered the growth of Islamist terrorism.

Ultimately, history will decide whether the war was a humane war of liberation or an unwarranted attack. However, it was, in part, to answer this question for himself that Steven Vincent decided to travel to Iraq and write In The Red Zone: A Journey Into the Soul of Iraq.

In those heady days and months after the fall of Saddam's statue in Firdus Square in April of 2003, there was a lively debate in the West about the Iraqi people's reaction to the war and the occupation. Polls were commissioned by western press organizations to assess Iraqi public opinion. Spreadsheets were published comparing pre and post-war levels of electricity production, unemployment, telephone usage and other measures of well being.

After foreign journalists became favorite targets for Jihadist murderers, the mainstream press largely stopped trying to assess the mood of the Iraqi public. (And who can blame them when traveling alone among ordinary Iraqis can lead to a short run in a starring role in one of Zarqawi's gruesome videos?) These days, most journalists stay inside their sandbagged offices or hotel rooms, reporting on the press conferences held within Baghdad's fortified Green Zone. The only glimpse we get of day-to-day life in Iraq is video footage of the aftermath of the latest suicide bombing. It is this information vacuum that makes Vincent's first hand account of his months traveling with and among the Iraqi people particularly valuable.

Before 9/11, Vincent was an art critic living on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Radicalized by watching mass murder from the vantage point of his own rooftop, Vincent came to see the effort to bring democracy to Iraq as a noble experiment, one he wanted to personally participate in the only way he knew how, as a writer. When he learned that New York artist Steve Mumford was going to Iraq as a freelancer to document the war, he was hooked. On Mumford's return to NYC in the summer of 2003, Vincent began planning to go to Iraq that fall.

In the Red Zone is the story of Vincent's first trip to Iraq, during the fall of 2003. During that period, he traveled widely in the country, talking to Iraqis in all walks of life. His book is part travelogue and part internal debate over the meaning of what he sees and whether or not the "noble experiment" of democracy in Iraq is working (or can ever work). A masterful writer and a keen observer, he brings to life some of the complexities and contradictions of contemporary Iraqi society as well as some of the history of this ancient region.

His book is organized thematically with each of the chapters addressing one of the questions that illuminated his travels. Like most good pieces of non-fiction, he asks (and seeks to answer) all the questions an informed reader hopes the book will address. In this case:

  • Why did he go to Iraq and what were the preconceptions and prejudices that shaped his experience?

  • What is day-to-day life in Baghdad like for the various social classes, and what do they think about the invasion and the fall of Saddam?

  • What is it like to live in Baghdad's expatriate community and interact with the largely middle class Iraqis who work with them in the interim government? (Including some great vignettes about what the Iraqis really think about the "People of the Slogans" who came to Iraq before and after the war on their anti-western pity tours as well as the anti-American bias of most of journalists and NGOs.)

  • Who are the groups supporting the "Resistance" and what motivates them?

  • What is life like among the Shia majority and what is it like to be in Karbala during Ashura?

  • Finally, knowing what he does now, having lived among the Iraqi people and seen at first hand the blunders and triumphs marking the post-invasion period, was it all just a huge mistake?

The last part of the book describes his evolving relationship with "Nour", a beautiful Iraqi woman in her late 20's or early 30's who became his colleague and translator in Basra. Nour was a poet, a university graduate in English literature, single, who was employed doing press relations by an American NGO. Her real name was Nour Weidi, and Vincent only referred to her by her first name to protect her from the religious extremists who would ultimately shoot her four times and murder him. The foreknowledge that Vincent would be killed months after the publication of the book makes his discussion of the plight of Iraqi women and the rise of Shia religious extremists in Basra even more poignant.

*             *             *

I would be remiss if I did not address the ugly controversy that has arisen since Vincent's death over the cause of his murder and the motivation of his killers. Vincent was abducted and killed two days after the Sunday NYT published his OpEd criticizing British authorities for allowing extremists affiliated with Muqtada al-Sadr and other Shia religious parties to dominate Basra's police and security forces. Less than a week later, the UK Telegraph's Colin Freeman wrote an article quoting a police investigator's theory that Vincent may have been the victim of an "honor killing" because he planned to marry Nour in order to get her a visa to leave Iraq and move to the USA. The following day, University of Michigan historian, blogger and noted critic of the war in Iraq, Juan Cole, cited Freeman's article and commented:

 . . Vincent did not know anything serious about Middle Eastern culture and was aggressive about criticizing what he could see of it on the surface, and if he was behaving in the way the Telegraph article describes, he was acting in an extremely dangerous manner.

This gratuitous slap at Vincent's alleged lack of "serious" knowledge of Arab culture infuriated Vincent's widow, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, who posted a letter tearing into Cole on the blog Murdoc Online. She argued (in my view persuasively) that her husband and Nour were not having an affair, and that therefore the "honor killing" theory was entirely bogus.

I don't know why Steven Vincent was murdered, but I do know that we lost a talented writer and a brave and honorable man. I never had the chance to meet him, but through his writing, I feel as though I have lost a friend. If, like me, you continue to debate the wisdom of having intervened in Iraq and its centrality (or lack thereof) to the efforts to protect ourselves from Al Queda and its Islamist allies, I can't think of better place to start than with this book.

You can buy the book on line at Amazon or directly from the publisher, Spence Publishing. I also recommend reading Steven's blog.

Finally, I was moved by this epitaph for Steven Vincent, written by Greyhawk of the Mudville Gazette. The title, And Then There were None, refers to the fact that Vincent was the only American journalist working in Iraq outside of the "Green Zone, away from the protection of US forces." And now he is gone.

September 15, 2005 at 09:01 AM | Permalink


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