Baghdad Bulletin: Dispatches on the American Occupation
David EndersReviewed by Joe Lockard
It is a little-known feature of the Mexican-American War that when US forces invaded Mexico in 1846 they were accompanied by independent press-men who not only sent dispatches home, but established English-language newspapers in that country. These journalist-publishers believed in the call of Manifest Destiny: the English language was to be its vehicle. A couple loaded their presses on the back of wagons and followed the army; others rented presses in Mexico. When the US army withdrew from Mexico, the English-language press withdrew along with the troops.
David Enders occupies a paradox that is both similar to and dissimilar from this historical precedent. When the Iraq War began in 2003, he was an American student abroad in Lebanon demonstrating against the US invasion. He had been active in campus journalism at the University of Michigan and, together with friends, came up with the idea of establishing an English-language journal in Iraq. The day after George Bush stood on a carrier deck to announce the end of major combat operations in Iraq, Enders was in a service taxi headed from Amman to Baghdad. Even if its editor was an active opponent of the war, unlike the Mexican-American War press-men who supported the war, like those nineteenth-century newspapers the project of the twenty-first century Baghdad Bulletin was enabled by US military operations and the occupation.
Not surprisingly, the questions engendered by this position appear early in Enders’ book, in the preface. Explaining the journal’s rationale, he writes “It is extremely important to have English-language reporting here on the ground right now because English speakers (the Coalition especially) are going to be making most of the decisions – it’s an unfortunate fact, but they should be making them based on good information, and there should be a publication here to challenge and examine those decisions (in English) as well.” In translation, the Empire needs better information than it can obtain through its military intelligence and foreign media reporters, so an on-the-ground hybrid international-native news source can mediate an information flow that will benefit both Iraq and the US occupation authorities. Rather than be embedded with the troops, these anglophone journalists were embedded in Iraqi society.
The function of the English language here is to provide practical accommodation to an undesirable and unfortunate reality of military invasion. This reformist function represents accommodation rather than resistance, but it was the defining limit of English-speaking intelligentsia arriving in Iraq. Established as a UK-chartered corporation, the Baghdad Bulletin received a certain degree of expressive freedom that local Iraqi newspapers did not enjoy from the US occupation authorities.
As an editor willing to function within these limits, Enders emerges as an intelligent, observant, competent, and likeable reporter of the period of US occupation until the end of the Provisional Administration in 2004. He questions his own purposes: “It feels like the greatest fraternity prank of all time. A magazine in a war zone. Is this really what this place needs?” But it is a great way to avoid a post-graduation job search, no doubt. Enders questions established journalistic reputations: his description of Robert Fisk portrays a patronizing pretender to deep knowledge he does not possess. He identifies with those journalists who distance themselves from the US security apparatus and guided tours, who find their own way and their own stories. It might be that Enders had no idea what he has gotten himself into, but then neither did the entire US policy establishment when they decided to invade Iraq.
The journal staff establish themselves commune-style in a rented house in a middle-class Baghdad neighborhood; their neighbors execute looters on the front lawn; policemen rob Enders; their Iraqi staff discusses whether to kill their foreign bosses; the office guard sleeps over his Kalashnikov. Life is normal, almost suburban. Their reception from Iraqis is most frequently very friendly, but variable: one freelance journalist residing in the house gets killed with a bullet to the back of the head while standing on a crowded street.
This dichotomy of simultaneous warmth and murderous animosity characterizes the reception Enders receives. As expressed by one interviewee, among the many Iraqis who adore US film culture, he cried watching both American Beauty and Titanic. Yet even though “We love American culture…we support what the resistance is doing.” During its seven-issue run the Baghdad Bulletin definitely does not represent American mass culture, not even local American culture in Iraq. It attracts Iraqi contributors nonetheless, including the one who writes sardonically on the benefits of a local English-language outlet: “I am glad to express myself in the language of Shakespeare, Bob Dylan and the Wall Street Journal. But our education wouldn’t be complete with learning the action-men English, the language of movies, comics and the gangsters’ talk. We wouldn’t be cultured men till we use four letter words in our daily talk…” The babu intellectual talks back.
Like much else that did not go as planned in Iraq, neither did the Baghdad Bulletin, which collapsed after three months amid allegations that the journal’s translator-driver, a Saddam supporter, had offered to help finance the journal through underground arms sales. It was doomed in any case by its quixotic enterprise, negligible capital, inadequate advertising base, and the simple fact that throughout the Middle East most journals establish themselves through political connections. An independent English-language journal did not gain itself any exemption for its publishing language.
The second half of the book represents Enders’ subsequent work as a freelance journalist amid the hazards of daily life in Iraq, as well as working for the anti-war NGO Occupation Watch. Enders shines as an engaged witness and writer caught up in lives lived on a daily battlefield. As he details encounters with bereaved families, prison cases, visits to hospitals and cemeteries, and the spreading number of ruined lives, the depth of Enders’ anti-war emotions emerges in simply styled word portraits of scenes and exchanges.
Even as Saddam Hussein and his Baathist government have been overthrown, new replacement tragedies are being manufactured daily by the US occupation. Enders captures the dichotomous feelings of Iraqis pleased with the end of Hussein’s regime and supportive of armed resistance to the US occupation. His diary entries incorporate large numbers of field interviews that capture the incidents of US military violence, such as the al-Adamiyah fighting of December 2003, that lent impetus to the Iraqi mujahedeen. Equally, he records the words and surreal illusions of US military officers who believe that they can control Iraq with checkpoints, ‘actionable intelligence,’ neighborhood raids, and stand-off night firing technology. Or as Enders puts it so aptly, “The US military is fighting a turf war with a street gang.”
The ability of the United States to win every engagement is not remarkable given the limited resources of its adversary. What is remarkable is the ability of US policymakers to repeat the same consistent error of winning battles and losing wars, and never learn the lesson. The United States has already lost the Iraq War, but still functions within the delusion that it is winning. A literature of journalistic witness and on-the-ground realism, such as Enders writes, is crucial to remove the blinders that have enabled the US public to normalize the war.
Joe Lockard is assistant professor of English at Arizona State University.