A penetrating record of the last days of Saddam’s Iraq.
Newsday correspondent McAllester (Beyond the Mountains of the Damned, 2002) came to Baghdad under the burden of fate-tempting restrictions: “Unable to obtain regular journalist visas, we had entered Iraq on journalists-with-human-shields visas, which only allowed us to cover the activities of the peace activists who said they were determined to bunk down at facilities such as hospitals and schools in the hope of preventing bombing attacks.” No story there, of course, so McAllester and his surfer-dude photographer wander through the glowing streets of the capital in the wake of the Allies’ air assaults, looking for the Big Story. The snippets that make their way into these pages are fascinating: Uday Hussein’s unhappiness over “the accurate American targeting of his real estate,” a door-to-door search for a downed American pilot, the gloomy certainty of Iraqi dissidents that the American assault would be half-hearted and that Saddam would remain in power. McAllester’s narrative takes a darker twist when, soon after the bombs begin to fall, he is arrested on suspicion of espionage and spirited away to Abu Ghraib, Iraq’s worst prison. His imprisonment and interrogation were far less than homegrown opponents of the regime had to endure, of course—as McAllester writes, “my eight days of incarceration barely registered on [one longtime prisoner’s] scale of suffering.” Still, they were plenty bad, even though he had prepared for the eventuality by having taken a survival-in-hostile-conditions course a few months earlier. (“Be worried if your captors let you see their faces,” he writes. “That means they might already be planning to kill you. I could see their faces.”) Freed a few days before the Marines arrived in Baghdad, McAllester enjoys a rare moment: the chance to confront one of his captors, who calmly explains that he was just doing his job in a country that, as McAllester portrays it, was itself one big prison.
A memorable addition to the literature of modern war.