WAR JOURNAL: MY FIVE YEARS IN IRAQ, by Richard Engel, Simon and Schuster, 392 pages, $28.
Richard Engel, NBC News Middle East correspondent, has lived in the Middle East for 12 years. Moreover, he lived in Iraq for the entire five years since the Iraq war began, making him the longest-serving broadcaster in Iraq. Currently, he lives in Beirut, Lebanon.
Engel is fluent in Arabic and has enjoyed unusual access to U.S. military commanders, Sunni insurgents, Shiite militias and Iraqi families. Once he was even called in for a private meeting with President Bush at the White House.
He was a witness to the capture of Saddam Hussein by U.S. Special Forces. He watched the insurgency and the progress of the new Iraqi government. He observed Iraqis voting in their first election, and he was in the courtroom when Saddam was sentenced to death.
The interesting thing about Engel is that when he speaks about his book, as he did last weekend at the national book trade show in Los Angeles, he presents a certain sincerity and objectivity. Perhaps living so long in the Middle East has made him immune to the partisan and angry ways that many Americans describe the situation in Iraq.
From the podium he gave his unvarnished view that American politicians and generals were late in coming to an understanding of either Iraq or the decision of the United States to invade. But he is also unsure how anyone can accept the argument that the U.S. should now leave Iraq, because the bloodshed would continue unabated.
In his book, Engel describes how he went to the Middle East with $2,000 and the suspicion that the region would be "the story" of his generation. He soon reached the conclusion that he was in the middle of such danger that he would likely die while covering the war. While involved in many serious battles, he has managed to hang onto his life while learning more and more about Iraq.
Part of the reason for his survival is his effective "fixer and friend Zohair" who has been his "point man" in Iraq since 2003. "At a moment's notice he can find a gun or set up an interview with the prime minister. If you are looking to interview an Iraqi family with a handicapped child that speaks English, just give him a few hours. If you need morphine, a counterfeit passport, or a meeting with a Sufi mystic, give him a day."
Engel describes numerous war battles in which he was seriously at risk. He was not so objective in his coverage that he could forget the re-election of Bush, Nov. 3, 2004. "Four days later, the Marines attacked Falujah. You do the math."
Engel was referring to the political fact that "the White House didn't want Marines dying as Americans went to the polls. By 2004, America wasn't even supposed to be at war anymore, let alone invading entire renegade cities. After all, Bush had declared 'major combat' over in May 2003.
"Now his spin doctors and spin nurses were busy chirping that Iraq was just swimming with 'good news' stories that reporters like me refused to tell because we were no-good freedom haters, lazy Green Zone hacks, or just too obstinate or stupid to see the light at the end of the tunnel of democratic bliss."If you like a graphic description of current war up close, including grisly death, deformity and the R-rated vocabulary of the American soldier, this book is for you.