Monday, February 25, 2008

Nir Rosen's "Fistful of Dollars"

In "The Myth of the Surge," published last week in Rolling Stone, Nir Rosen recounts his recent experiences in the neighborhood of Dora in Baghdad, Iraq. Before examining the article's overall strengths and weaknesses, let's take a look at the first paragraph sentence by sentence and watch Nir at work.

1. It's a cold, gray day in December, and I'm walking down Sixtieth Street in the Dora district of Baghdad, one of the most violent and fearsome of the city's no-go zones.

Rosen adopts the historic present here from the outset to add immediacy to his narrative. A good choice to pull us into the opening scene. We feel as if we're standing with him on that street in Dora. And yet already in this first sentence, his use of the superlative forms of those two adjectives -- "the most violent and fearsome" -- sounds forced to my ear.

2. Devastated by five years of clashes between American forces, Shiite militias, Sunni resistance groups and Al Qaeda, much of Dora is now a ghost town.

The fronted adjective phrase, led by the participle "devastated," modifies Dora, a "ghost town," a compound noun with deep roots in the American West. It's possible that this description may be functioning on more than one level.

3. This is what "victory" looks like in a once upscale neighborhood of Iraq: Lakes of mud and sewage fill the streets.

I imagine that for most readers this sentence is simply jarring. How is it possible, one wonders, that Rosen's editors at Rolling Stone allowed him to begin editorializing so quickly into the article? Already in this third sentence one encounters the trendy sneer quotes around the word "victory." And what are most likely large puddles are transformed into "lakes." Why all the exaggeration? Is this a hardboiled Dashiell Hammett? No, I don't think so. Something else is going on here.

4. Mountains of trash stagnate in the pungent liquid.

Okay, "lakes" of mud are joined by "mountains" of garbage. Lakes and mountains. Where are we? Can there be a "river" of something far behind? Lakes and mountains. It's not a hardboiled urban story, that's for sure.

5. Most of the windows in the sand-colored homes are broken, and the wind blows through them, whistling eerily.

Broken windows? A wind that whistles eerily? Okay, I don't think there is any doubt now where we are. This is not just any cowboy movie. This is a Spaghetti Western! And at this juncture Ennio Morricone, the composer of Sergio Leone's films, would reprise the whistling introduction that he had used in "A Fistful of Dallars." Come to think of it, Rosen should have named his article "A Fistful of Dollars." One of the major themes of his article is how the Americans used fistfuls of dollars to buy off the Sunni insurgency, right?

6. House after house is deserted, bullet holes pockmarking their walls, their doors open and unguarded, many emptied of furniture.

Careful, Clint! You can almost hear the metal clang of a windmill, can't ya?

7. What few furnishings remain are covered by a thick layer of the fine dust that invades every space in Iraq.

Can't you just smell it? And this isn't your ordinary dust, either. Like the American military, it "invades every space in Iraq."

8. Looming over the homes are twelve-foot-high security walls built by the Americans to separate warring factions and confine people to their own neighborhood.

It might we worth mentioning here that those "looming walls" in fact saved a lot of Iraqi lives. Oh sorry! Back to the movie.

9. Emptied and destroyed by civil war, walled off by President Bush's much-heralded "surge," Dora feels more like a desolate, post-apocalyptic maze of concrete tunnels than a living, inhabited neighborhood.

Post-apocalyptic maze? Concrete tunnels? Nir, I think you're mixing your movie genres here. The standard imagery for urban dystopias and spaghetti westerns don't really work well together. And more op-ed in the opening paragraph. What were those editors at Rolling Stone smoking?

10. Apart from our footsteps, there is complete silence.

Clint, baby! Keep the hat pulled low so the sun stays out of your eyes. Watch your step!

*cue "Fistful of Dollars" whistled theme song*

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After that opening paragraph, one might expect having to trudge through the rest of the article, a polemic masquerading as journalism. But that is not what one finds at all. True, there are a few paragraphs where Rosen interrupts the narrative to insert unnecessary commentary, but for the most part Rosen sticks with his strength: detailed, on-the-scene reporting of individuals that we need to hear from if we want a better picture of what's going on in Iraq these days. The bookends of the article are Osama, the leader of one of the Awakening groups, and Capt. Arkan Hashim Ali, of the Iraqi National Police.

First we meet Osama, a Dora local, who now commands around 300 men who were former resistance fighters. Osama, Rosen writes, "speaks fluent English, wears jeans and baseball caps, and is well-connected from his days with KBR." Osama earned the respect of the Americans because his knack for locating both Al Qaeda members and IEDs. Rosen accompanies Osama and his men on a joint operation with the 2-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Dora, where they first stop by a mosque, listen to the sheikh's request for a new generator, and then respond to a tip that leads them to arrest a guy named Sabrin Al-Haqir, Sabrin "the mean," an alleged Mahdi army leader. During this stretch of the narrative, Rosen shows us the complex relationship between the Sunni Awakening groups and the American forces who are now paying them for their service.

Next, tagging along with the 2-2 Stryker Cavalry Regiment, Rosen reports from the perspective of the Iraqi National Police, where we meet Capt. Arkan Hashim Ali, a "trim thirty-year-old Iraqi with a shaved head and a sharp gaze." Rosen accompanies Arkan and his men on an operation to arrest some individuals with ties to Al Qaeda. Arkan, Rosen remarks later in the article, is a "man in the middle." "He believes that members of the Awakening have the right to join the Iraqi Security Forces," he writes, "but he also knows their ranks are filled with Al Qaeda and other insurgents." His final meeting with the captain of the INP is in a van, where Arkan is afraid that someone might see them talking together. Arkan tells Rosen that the situation will not improve. "Thanks to the surge," Rosen concludes, "both the Shiites and the Sunnis now have weapons and legitimacy. And what can come of that, Arkan asks, except more fighting?"

"The Myth of the Surge" illustrates both Rosen's strengths and weaknesses as a reporter and writer. One of his strengths as a reporter is his ability to track down sources that have distinctive, strongly-held views on what's happening in Iraq, like Osama and Capt. Arkan in this piece. Rosen gets them to tell him what they really think. As a writer, when he sticks to what he sees and hears, he offers the reader well-chosen details, thumbnail descriptions, and often places us next to him on his assignments. While he has a tendency to buddy-up with characters whose moral compasses do not point to true north (more in his earlier pieces than this one here), his chosen sources add views that one does not normally encounter.

One of his major weaknesses as a reporter, however, is his inability to shake his dissident background and the deep-seated need to draw conclusions in accordance with his old, dog-eared copies of college texts on American imperialism. Also, he offers us just a slice of a very complex picture and then extrapolates far beyond what that evidence can support. Dora, for example, is just one neighborhood in a country of around 27 million people. At the same time that Rosen was riding around with Osama and Arkan, regular Iraqis in nearby neighborhoods were going about their usual lives. They too are part of the story and Rosen's article would have been much more persuasive if he had dropped the spaghetti western frame, removed the left-radical commentary, and added more balance to his dispatch by visiting and reporting from other neighborhoods.

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UPDATE: For your viewing pleasure from YouTube, here are the opening credits for "Fistful of Dollars." Lots of cowboys riding back and forth and the sound of fired pistols and rifles. Just imagine the Awakening Dudes on one side and the Mahdi Gang on the other. Nice.

And here's the final duel from "Fistful of Dollars." It's nine minutes long but well worth watching (great editing). The question for Nir might be who gets to play Clint Eastwood, Osama or Capt. Arkan.

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