Nights in the
An American Strategist's
Pursuit of Peace in Iraq
(Naval Institute Press)Robert Earle arrived in Baghdad in June, 2004 just as the CPA was leaving. No, not the certified public accountants; it was the Coalition Provisional Authority, Bush's contribution to Iraqi instability and disaster.
Earle came in as part of a new wave, working directly for John Negroponte. He was Negroponte's "thinker." He was even introduced as such at a Baghdad party.
"I'm a fiction writer," I correct her.
"Really?" A asks. "What do you write?"
"Novels and short stories."
As they are leaving the party, Earle gets blue, as he often does. "The melancholy I feel now isn't the residue of puritanical remorse over impotence to make the world a better place."
It's a melancholy of this beautiful dynamo forcing me to confront my metastasizing ignorance about where and how to fight the endless battle against ourselves.
§ § §
Working for John Negroponte in Iraq in 2004 is no small potatoes. He is Bush's personal representative in Baghdad, the point man as the United States attempts to "return sovereignty" --- or whatever it's called --- back to the Iraqis.
Earle and a handful of others are to plan, hold meetings, write position papers, and, finally, to unite the various factions --- American and Iraqi, military and civilian --- in anticipation of an election scheduled for January 2005. Being a novelist in the Faulknerian/Joycean mode (one chapter here is entitled "Ivy Day in the Committee Room"), Earle is probably better suited for this impossible job than a hack from the Pentagon or the state department or from Bush's personal ADD team.
To boot, and to my total surprise, he is a helluva good writer. Earle is able to grab a hot diplomatic story and --- dare I say it? --- turn it into a fascinating piece of literature.
Pink Motel is a 250 page insider's story on Iraq, written by an intimate of John Negroponte. There is here the force of good journalism. There is the necessary tension of fiction (Earle does write novels in his spare time, when he is not trying to figure out U. S. policy in Iraq.)
A sensitive, good-hearted writer going to work for Negroponte creates in the reader, very probably in the writer himself, tension: the good and the bad mixed in such a way that there even comes to be no "bad" ... nor "good."
Fiction? Who can possibly know if all the people appearing here are real: Condi Rice, Colin Powell, John Negroponte, H. K. George, George W. Casey, George Bush (The Elder), George Bush (The Younger), George Washington, George V, Boy George? (I just threw in these last three to see if you were paying attention.)
Above all, there is here one Robert Earle: a novelist and, perhaps, a journalist in the style, most improbably, of Daniel Defoe. Did he make all these people up? Did he make himself up? It's that oldest of Hegelian paradoxes: who are we? Who is it that makes up your mind? Who is this Robert Earle? Ought we worry?
§ § §
No matter who he is, he's a wizard with words ... and completely believable. He tells us on page two that his psychiatrist is "not pleased" with his decision to go to Iraq. And when he is shipped home (the first of three returns) with a dangerous blood-clot in his leg, his nurse --- a modern-day Army Nurse Ratched --- chastises him for taking just too many tranquilizers without her specific permission.
His trips to the Middle East consistently make him sick, damn near kill him, certainly plunge him into despair. And I'm thinking that if I had to live with, deal with, answer to those who made up American policy in Iraq over the last few years, I'd feel pretty ill meself.
Depressive or no, Earle has conjured up a real-life tale that is a potent mix of political and war-zone terror, with an edgy plot, honest despair, exotic heroes, unlikely villains, surprising bores (John McCain, Hilary Clinton among them) ... interwoven with a style almost as good as that of the master mystery writers. As Earle is descending into Baghdad in a "flying truck,"
Again and again, we were given the message that serving in Iraq as diplomats would be a long step beyond hazard and danger. We made out wills. We provided blood samples that would facilitate DNA identification of our remains. We listened to a woman describing how she'd had much of her upper arm blown off, and we'd had a look at the gnarled results.
After the development of his blood problems, he moved to the military hospital, C. A. S. H. (shades of M. A. S. H.) and he shares a room with Kip, a young American injured in battle. They fall to talking about the war. Kip asks, "Do you think President Bush attacked Saddam because Saddam tried to kill his dad?"
I wish he hadn't asked me this, but I ask myself why I think my opinions would be hard for him to take in light of what he already has experienced. He's seen buddies die. Pretty late for me to try to shelter him.
"Actually, I do ... If Saddam tired to kill my father, I'd probably take a shot at killing him, too," I say.
"Me, too," Kip agrees. He touches his face in that re-centering way of his. "Do you know the president?"
"No, I know, or met, his father a couple of times."
"Do you mind me talking to you like this?" Kip asks.
"No, I've just had a hard day."
"You blood clot and all?"
"What were you doing here, sir?"
"I was trying to figure out how to defeat the insurgency and get us out of here."
§ § §
You and I would not necessarily think that the Naval Institute Press, specializing in books on you-know-what could come up with a page-turner on freaky diplomacy in the Middle East, but they do and it's here.
It does get on your nerves, though. Earle reports that "My mind is full of spiders when I'm putting this stuff together." Arachnids it may be for Robert Earle. But for Negroponte?
"His attic has no cobwebs," he asserts, at one point. No cobwebs?
Maybe not. Perhaps only a few Black Widows ... down there in the subtropical subbasement of the soul.--- Richard Saturday