In the year following the U.S. invasion, journalist Christian Parenti traveled three times to occupied Iraq, with the modest-enough goal of crafting a good description of what he saw. In The Freedom: Shadows and Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, Parenti finds that while an intrepid American reporter -- protectively camouflaged with a fake Canadian press pass -- can get into and out of Iraq, describing what's inside is like catching heavily militarized anarchy in a bottle.
From visiting Abu Ghraib with a woman whose father was jailed on meager pretenses to an "embedded" patrol with the National Guard grunts of Alpha company, from tense visits with resistance leaders to a turn through the eerie, air-conditioned calm of the U.S.-fortified Green Zone, the frequent Nation contributor captures a detailed yet wide-screen view of a post-Saddam landscape -- one where Iraqis speak the words "the freedom" with anger, resignation and knowing sarcasm.
While Parenti provides primers on subjects including the globo-politics of petroleum control, his writing is most solid when he is on the ground, encapsulating the danger, and sometimes the knife's-edge fun, of reporting on dangerous places in the company of crazy characters. Likewise with critiques that flow from what he's observed, which provides plenty of fuel for his undisguised contempt for the U.S. imperial project. "Iraqi reconstruction is a racket," he concludes, as billions of U.S. tax dollars have been spent with little perceptible benefit to ordinary Iraqis.
Most convincing, and most disturbing, of all is Parenti's depiction of American ignorance in the face of Iraqi misery. Writing with authority about the social and political complexities that most U.S. soldiers (much like our country's leaders) solve by dividing everyone into good guys and bad guys, Parenti demonstrates that approaching this culture with some sensitivity is surely within our grasp. But what he primarily witnesses is the figurative (and literal) equivalent of a U.S. soldier trashing a family's Koran, and a massive dream of empire rapidly collapsing under its own weight.