The Sirens of Baghdad: A Novel by Yasmina Khadra
Its gripping descriptions of the world as seen through the eyes of a simple young man deeply centered in culture and tradition provide a lesson on how actions can turn a friend into a very dangerous foe.
The Sirens of Baghdad: A NovelPublisher: Nan A. Talese
Author: Yasmina Khadra
US publication date: 2007-04
An unintended consequence of the war on terror has been extreme resentment toward the United States among many people in the Muslim world. Nowhere is this manifested more than in Iraq and Afghanistan, where young men and women are willing to achieve "martyrdom" by becoming suicide bombers. In his latest novel, The Sirens of Baghdad, Yasmina Khadra has accurately portrayed this phenomenon, one little understood in the non-Muslim world.
Initially set against the backdrop of an isolated Bedouin village in Iraq, the book tells the story of a young former university student who, like many Iraqis, has seen the atrocities of Saddam Hussein and later the actions of the coalition forces who ousted him from power.
The village, Kafr Karam, is like many small towns in Iraq -- "a well ordered little town. We didn't have to go elsewhere for our basic needs." It is steeped in culture and tradition, and the vast majority of the people concentrate on subsistence farming, living in relative isolation from the rest of Iraq. Their attitudes and opinions are like many Iraqis': They disdained Hussein's regime -- but dislike the presence of coalition forces. The situation changes, however.
The first incident bringing about that change is the killing of a mentally handicapped teenager at a coalition checkpoint when he fails to follow instructions; the second incident is the killing of a group of civilians during an evening wedding party at a family compound on the outskirts of the village. The third and final straw that sends the protagonist over the edge is the abuse his family, particularly his invalid father, receives during operations by U.S. forces searching for weapons and explosive devices. These separate, but powerful incidents are enough to bring about a fundamental change in him -- from an observer to a participant in a terrorist scheme with truly devastating potential.
"Yasmina Khadra" is the female pseudonym for a former Algerian army officer, Mohammed Moulessehoul, who was forced to choose retirement rather than submit his manuscripts to military oversight. His book's descriptions of the Iraqi countryside and, to some degree, the attitudes and actions of coalition forces are accurate.
Khadra refers to coalition forces' accidentally targeting a wedding party, an incident that actually occurred in western Anbar province several years ago. All counterinsurgency conflicts, Iraq included, are frequently brutal and severe. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the daily guarding of checkpoints, protecting convoys and searching for "bad guys" is often done by reserve and National Guard forces, not regular troops.
Commanders try to inculcate cultural sensitivity and respect for the "law of war," but the reality is that, at times, forces can be heavy-handed. I saw friends and colleagues killed by suicide bombers in Iraq, and that makes you err on the side of extreme caution when dealing with local nationals. So when instructions are not immediately followed, violence often occurs. While unfortunate, that is the sad truth.
However, the book does not address the hundreds if not thousands of daily acts of "random kindness" by coalition forces. Despite the nervousness of operating in a dangerous environment, troops still take the time to give children candy, repair a school, share a bottle of water with a local citizen. The author also does not mention the billions of U.S. dollars spent in rebuilding the infrastructure. Since 2003, Iraq has seen significant improvements in roads, water-treatment facilities, energy networks, oil refineries and the like. While some of these have been destroyed or diminished, the majority are still effective and are an improvement over what existed during Hussein's rule.
That said, The Sirens of Baghdad earns its place in the collection of "must-read" books on counterinsurgency and counterterror operations. Its gripping descriptions of the world as seen through the eyes of a simple young man deeply centered in culture and tradition provide a lesson on how actions can turn a friend into a very dangerous foe. A lesson that is far too powerful to ignore.