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A War Against Truth: An Intimate Account of the Invasion of Iraq

by Paul William Roberts

Only a few pages into this searing narrative, Paul William Roberts recounts the sudden destruction of his friend’s family home. With the “enormous, crunchy crash” still ringing in our ears, Roberts guides us into a besieged hospital. “I don’t remember how we got out of there,” he concludes. “I just remember other awful scenes … like some terminal and interminable nightmare. I would rather forget them.”

Yet Roberts cannot forget them, nor does he want us to forget the physical and emotional ravages of this supposedly clean war. He is bearing witness, and A War Against Truth is a powerful and deeply personal record.

The British-Canadian Roberts is an erudite guide, a man of letters – journalist, novelist, foreign correspondent, religious scholar – who has had a long engagement with the Middle East. In this book, he combines a broad history of Iraq with his observations before, during, and after the 2003 invasion.

Roberts is attentive and extremely well informed. He illuminates Jordanian politics (he is friendly with the royal family) and the now-flattened architecture of Saddam’s Baghdad. He also offers a complex perspective on Iraqi and Arab culture, from the florid formality of personal visits to the humming gossip networks that make secrets impossible in Baghdad. On the other hand, it’s not surprising that Roberts is fond of T.E. Lawrence; he can be highly forgiving of his Arab friends’ less enlightened views. (“He was an old-style medieval Jew-hater,” he writes of one friend, “and I found it almost quaint to hear.”)

Naturally, Roberts has nearly as much to say about America. Here his humane intelligence sometimes fails him. Roberts can view American society in crude terms. While he manages some class sympathy for the soldiers he meets, he is far less generous about their actions (never mind those of the two Bush administrations) than he is toward the high-level Ba’athists whom he befriends.

But war correspondents never get far without some ethical compromises, and A War Against Truth is unfailingly honest about its narrator’s own limitations. The Roberts of this book is very human: at times fearful, overwhelmed, and gullible, always deeply angry at the horror and waste he sees.

It is hard to blame him. As Roberts points out, the “smart” bombing of the first Gulf War amounted to a near massacre: almost 60,000 tons of explosives missed their mark. He is deeply troubled by this, as other journalists sadly are not. If he consistently believes the worst about American policy, that is because he has seen the worst. What are good intentions and economic imperatives against a sea of dead children? The arrogance and ignorance of the American war effort – and no observer can deny there was plenty – only increases his sense of being alone in the wilderness. “An evil enchantment seems to have befallen men of good will,” he writes.

This is intemperate, and consciously so. Roberts burns with resentment at the American military-industrial complex (Dwight Eisenhower’s term, as he reminds us) and, equally, at the quislings of the North American mainstream media. “Never in history was a war so well documented yet so poorly covered by the media,” he writes. With this book, Roberts aims to help right a few wrong perceptions.

In other words, A War Against Truth is a polemic rather than a history. But that is what makes it so compelling – indeed, necessary. Roberts is engaged, ethically, emotionally, and intellectually, in what he sees. He goes far beyond the “objectivity” to which journalists pay lip service, and he renders the bloody mess of today’s Iraq from revealing angles. Going ever deeper into Iraq’s heart of darkness, he shows us how the shadows fall: from without as well as within.