What Do We Owe Iraq?

By Brian Till
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Public Affairs


This is not another book about the war in Iraq.

Deb Amos, it turns out, is as eloquent on the page as she is on the airwaves as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio. More than a poetic read, though, Eclipse is an innately human story about the toll of the war; it should be required reading for all of those weighing bombing campaigns and land assaults, and, indeed, for those pontificating in favor of them from Washington think tanks or London editorial rooms.

This is not about W. or Petraeus, COIN or Al Qaeda; this is the story of a middle class -- the kind of vibrant, skilled middle class that one finds lacking in almost every other country in the region -- and what the neoconservative experiment meant for them.

It's potent because it's accessible; because the stories Amos tells are about lawyers and professionals, the college educated and often the more secular leaning. These are, quite simply, the narratives many of us might have faced had we been born Iraqi.

Leaving mosques and hijabs and cultural barriers aside, this is about brothers having to watch sisters sell themselves for their families to survive, about living in exile in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, unable to use one's education and skills and uncertain how long one's savings can support his or her family. Amos writes:

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Iraqi exiles in Syria had turned to the sex trade for survival. Nearly every war brings prostitution. But in Damascus, girls as young as ten were forced into the trade by parents -- fathers or mothers, who made the deal and lived off the proceeds. Officially, refugees were not permitted to hold jobs and had to manage on whatever savings they had.

The broader argument she offers -- she is, after all, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and thus an academic, no matter how well she and her writing hide the fact -- deals with the tilted balance of power in the region, in favor of the Shi'a Muslims, comprising roughly 10-15 percent, and against the Sunnis, who make up the vast majority.

The "exodus was not the narrative that the Bush administration wanted to project, or acknowledge, and remained invisible to much of the world. The U.S. security plan known as the surge was an American success story, but it was a sideshow for those forced out of homes and neighborhoods in a power struggle that used displacement and exile as a weapon."

I'll never forget a network correspondent describing how sectarian divisions ripped his Iraqi crew members apart over a span of weeks, as those who had once been close friends became, quite literally, mortal enemies. This was a society with perhaps 30 percent marriage across the religious divide that was literally pulled apart at its seams.

Amos builds to a brutally simple question: what do we owe these people?

To anyone who actually believes we've paid the debt, or anyone you know that holds the opinion, Eclipse ought to be on top of their nightstand.

Public Affairs Books; buy it on Amazon; Amos

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/03/what-do-we-owe-iraq/38014/