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The Reckless Criminal

I wish I had read Revolution Day earlier.

A lot earlier.

The second it was first published, in fact.

I bought it roughly 7 years ago from my favourite second hand bookshop, Elizabeth’s. I bought it in a moment of deluded grandeur, a pretentious symbol of my desire for self-education. It says a lot about my mindset back then that this book has sat in boxes for years, occasionally optimistically joining a pile of books on my bedside table before being delegated back into the ‘too hard’ pile. What a mistake that was.

If I had read this book earlier, there would have been many passionate debates during the last few years that might have gone very differently. Like many people, (excuse the generalisation), I watched the occasional news bulletin and thought I understood everything there was to know about the Iraq War. I debated it with friends, debated it with colleagues, debated it with strangers whose faces I can’t even remember.

Our debates were fuelled by ignorance and alcohol, propaganda and paranoia, all centred around that one media catch-cry, George W. Bush’s ‘War On Terror’. I’ll admit it right now. Seeing that powerful symbol of America and freedom, standing solemnly behind a podium, declaring:

Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom….We will not tire; we will not falter; and we will not fail….Terror, unanswered, can not only bring down buildings, it can threaten the stability of legitimate governments. And you know what? We’re not going to allow it.

(Taken from G. W. Bush’s speech to congress, Sept. 20, 2001)

I felt safe. I felt secure. I felt like nothing could go wrong in the world when such powerful statements were being made, and such a powerful man was pledging to protect us. How naïve I was.

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Rageh Omaar’s Revolution Day is one of the greatest non-fiction books I think I will ever read. I honestly believe this book should be mandatory reading for anyone who professes to have an opinion on the War on Iraq. Eloquently written, Omaar does not allege to take sides, he doesn’t point the finger of blame at either institution. Rather, he offers us an honest and unabridged account of what it was like to live in Baghdad during the Allied occupation. He tells the story which has rarely been told, the story of the Iraqi civilians who were caught up in a war not of their own choosing, and not of their own making. I felt humbled, reading everyday accounts of these people who I had barely given thought to, the faceless masses attempting to cling to normality behind Saddam’s regime.

At times it was as though these unnamed, unreported people were clinging on to a life that stood still as the world outside rushed towards violence.

IMG_4030 (the author)

Rageh Omaar was BBC television’s main correspondent reporting from Iraq during the war. He portrays a pre-war Iraq society bowed beneath a ruthless dictator and crippled by years of the most severe UN sanctions ever executed, providing statements written by independent parties such as the Centre for Economic and Social Rights (CESR) to validate his claims. He notes of their findings:

It is the kind of report you might expect from academic economists: sober, rigorous. It is hardly the work of commentators with a political agenda, and it is for this reason that the reports are so shocking.

The report from November 1997 baldly states:

 The human and economic cost of the [UN] sanctions has, indeed, been enormous, and it has largely been borne by the civilian population of Iraq. There can be no question of seeking justification for policy-induced human suffering of this magnitude. (CESR)

The book goes on to explain the truth behind the propaganda, giving us a full and accurate picture of the consequences of a war which proclaimed to be for the liberation of the people of Iraq; a war to take down their dictator and give them their freedom. Omaar’s firsthand accounts of the reaction to the massive civilian casualties sustained throughout the war is both horrifying and heart wrenching.  On the street directly after the bombings of a residential area, Al Sha’ab, he witnesses the devastation and confusion firsthand:

As I recorded a piece to the camera, trying to compose myself in this scene of pitiless devastation, a man approached and began to speak to me in Arabic.

‘Tell them we are just innocent people.’ he said. ‘We don’t know why this is happening to Iraqi people. Why? What does Bush want from us?’ He pointed to the spot where moments before I had looked in horror at pieces of brain tissue scattered across the steps…stared at in horror by the people around me.

‘Is this civilisation?’  he asked. ‘Is this the freedom we are to be given?’

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This is the war of our generation. And, naturally, it reflects our generation – controversial, tempestuous, harrowing and vastly unfathomable. It is a war that generates powerful convictions, both for and against the occupation. What I liked most about this book is that Omaar doesn’t proclaim that the occupation should never have happened, he doesn’t attempt to convince the reader of a particular point of view. Rather, he is trying to open our eyes to the reality of the war, the reality behind the evasive representation provided by the political media and propaganda machines – both Western and Iraqi.

He takes us past the war, past the dismantling of Saddam’s regime and depicts for us the harsh reality of Iraq under foreign occupation, a society crippled by the effects of war, disillusioned by the outcome of their ‘liberation’.

This was the moment when Iraqi’s finally believed – for the first time in a generation and without any remaining doubts – that Saddam Hussein would never rule them again. But it did not assuage their anxiety and uncertainty about who or what would rule their country now…Most Iraqi’s knew that it was indeed ‘the end’ for Saddam Hussein and that any future violence on the streets would not be orchestrated by him, but they were still unsure as to what would follow. Britain and the United States had for so long perceived Iraq and its society through this one barbaric man that it was hard for them to picture the country and its people – with all their complexities, different voices and aspirations – beyond him. 

This is a sensitive topic, I know. But I would, without hesitation, recommend this book to absolutely anyone, regardless of their country of origin or their beliefs. It is an honest story, it is completely factual, and it shows us an element of war that is often forgotten in the motivations and justifications. I want to thank Rageh Omaar for my belated yet life-changing self-education. I know that next time I get into a debate about the Iraq War I will have a lot more to say, and a lot more conviction behind my arguments.

You have been warned.

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(All pictures taken directly from the book)

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