American soldiers and Marines recently home from Iraq tell me the same thing: The U.S. will be there, at current force levels, for years, and Iraq...

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“How America Lost Iraq”
by Aaron Glantz
Tarcher/Penguin,
303 pp., $23.95

American soldiers and Marines recently home from Iraq tell me the same thing: The U.S. will be there, at current force levels, for years, and Iraq will be crippled by debilitating sectarian violence all the while.

It didn’t have to be this way, according to Aaron Glantz’s book, “How America Lost Iraq,” his account of three trips there as a reporter for Pacifica Radio.

Pacifica is known as the radio equivalent of Noam Chomsky — reliable in its penchant for blaming America first. But when Glantz arrives in Iraq just after the Americans have swept through the country, he refuses to ignore what ordinary Iraqis are telling him: Saddam was a monster and we are pleased the Americans have liberated us.

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At one point, he’s interviewing an Iraqi, Jassim Farhan, in Baghdad, who tells him, “My daughter is named Miriam, but if I have a son, we will name him Bush. And I will name every child after that Bush, too.”

As Glantz and so many others have reported, however, the Americans let the opportunity to stabilize and rebuild the country pass, and Iraq exploded into chaos.

As James Fallows has reported in The Atlantic, the Pentagon ignored the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project, a comprehensive report detailing the requirements and challenges of rebuilding the country. More recent reporting by Walter Pincus in The Washington Post has revealed that the British warned the administration about the aftermath of the war, to no avail.

And so after the conventional war, with not enough coalition soldiers to provide security, the looting began — of ordinary businesses and government ministries, the national library and museum, but more important, weapons caches such as Al Qaqaa.

Glantz’s reporting is more intimate, though, more on the ground with regular people, who provide telling details of the occupation’s failure.

He notes that while the Coalition Provisional Authority failed to restore the country’s telephone grid, the CPA did quickly build cellphone towers. A good idea, certainly. But then it gave a monopoly contract for cell service in Baghdad to Motorola — through an Egyptian holding company — and the result was prices that were nine times greater than in neighboring Turkey or Jordan.

As the situation spins out of control in the spring of 2004, Glantz reports more clumsiness as the CPA seeks to beat the insurgency. In his translator’s neighborhood, for instance, coalition forces arrest all the men in a building and take them to an American military base, which leads to stepped up mortar attacks on the base, which leads to more arrests, and so on.

Even before allegations of torture at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, Glantz hears from the many people who were taken there and released without charges. At one point, more than 10,000 Iraqis were being held there, many living outdoors in tents without electricity or running water, Glantz writes. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that 90 percent weren’t insurgents. Consider that Iraq is a country less than one-tenth the population of the United States. Imagine if more than 100,000 Americans were locked up in prison, most of them innocent? How would we react?

Next Glantz is in Fallujah, after the first attack on the Sunni stronghold in April 2004, talking to relatives of civilian victims of bombs and sniper fire, witnessing a mass grave at the soccer stadium. Many of the dead are women and children.

This is what sets apart Glantz’s reporting, and his understanding of the situation in Iraq — his empathy with Iraqis, his willingness to spend time with them, to listen to them. He doesn’t flinch from reporting about Saddam’s brutality, nor about the Americans’. As he argues at the conclusion of the book, the problems America has confronted in Iraq are in large part due to our willful blindness to the suffering of Iraqis.

You aren’t getting the stylistic sophistication of a Michael Herr or Chris Hedges here. Glantz tends to write as if he were filing a radio report, which makes perfect sense. But his book is an important first-person document historians will look to in the future as they draw a more complete picture of America’s catastrophic victory in Iraq.

J. Patrick Coolican, a former Seattle Times reporter, has studied post-traumatic stress disorder in Iraq veterans this year as part of a Kiplinger fellowship at Ohio State University.