Steven Vincent wanted to do something after the attacks of 9/11/2001. Being a journalist, he felt the best thing he could do was explore and chronicle the struggle going on inside this war-torn country. However, Vincent is an arts and culture reporter. He knew that no paper would be sending him in to do news stories in a war zone. So he went on his own. This turned out to be a remarkably good thing, because it allowed him to travel as an individual into parts of Iraq that are normally not covered by reporters.
Vincent has not produced a systematic history of Iraq or of the war. Rather, he has told the individual stories of the people he met. He does a fantastic job of laying out the complexities of Iraq culture. It becomes apparent very quickly that when you ask questions like, “What do Iraqis think of America?”, you get very different answers depending on who is speaking.
Above all, Vincent explores the painful paradoxes and contradictions in much Iraqi culture and thought. For example: Iraq under Saddam was a horrible place, filled with unspeakable tortures and terrors. Iraqis are very, very happy to be freed from Saddam, yet they are filled with shame that it was a foreign invading force that freed them. The apparent ease with which U.S. troops crushed the supposedly mighty Arab army is humiliating. It leaves many people simultaneously wishing to emulate the United States while filling them with shame-based hatred of it.
The crushing victory of America also gives Iraqi citizen a convenient scapegoat for all problems. To many Iraqis, America proved in the war that it was practically omnipotent. We could kill with such precision and force that it seems nothing must be impossible for the U.S. armed forces. But if America is so powerful, surely it can restore water, power, government, police, hospitals, law and order, and a thousand other services overnight as well. The only reason American forces would not bring all of these things back to full operation immediately was to further humiliate the Iraqi people. Many Iraqis constantly feel that America is simultaneously doing too much and too little.
A very refreshing aspect of the book is Vincent's willingness to diagnose cultural pathology when he sees it. He notes how the combination of militant Islam (with its antisemitism and anti-Americanism) and tribalism (especially with its attendant misogyny) is deeply destructive. These two forces are, in his opinion, the key obstacles to the formation of a peaceful and just society.