Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Green Zone / Imperial Life in the Emerald City

I don’t read very much non-fiction – two in a row must be almost a record – and certainly didn’t anticipate breaching that limitation just to find out what I reckoned I already knew about the war in Iraq. But Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s debut was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, and then went on to win the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction. Bloomsbury have seen fit to celebrate this by adhering a hideous sticker to the front cover of the paperback, which fortunately can be peeled off (though not off the image below; I tried). Nonetheless I was sold.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City

On approaching Imperial Life in the Emerald City, an account not of the war but of the American post-occupation ‘rebuilding’ of Iraq, it’s not hard to see the author’s angle from the title down. Imperial suggests the presence of a domineering empire, and Emerald City brings to mind an analogy of the Americans in Iraq with the Wizard of Oz: omnipotent but incompetent. In fact, as the subtitle suggests, the book is about life in the fortified Green Zone, known to the US civilian workforce as the ‘Emerald City’, and Imperial relates to Saddam’s old palace where they were based.

The palace was the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the American occupation administration in Iraq. From April 2003 to June 2004, the CPA ran Iraq’s government – it enacted laws, printed currency, collected taxes, deployed police, and spent oil revenue.

Not that this means Chandrasekaran isn’t editorialising with the title, but it’s safe to assume that he’s singing to the choir. The central charge is one made innumerable times in the last five years: that the US had a plan for the war, but none for the peace. As Chandrasekaran discovers, this isn’t quite true: they did have a plan; it just wasn’t very good. Oh, and they forgot to tell a lot of their staff what it was.

The main problem was that the CPA tried to do too much: their aim effectively was to build a new country from the bottom up. Or rather, from the top down, as it was their appointments to the interim posts which would determine the course of the program. Often these were people with little experience in the relevant area, and they were replacing people who did know what they were doing. The process of “De-Baathification of Iraq Society” was intended to remove Saddam sidekicks from government, but they failed to take account of the fact that many people were in the Baath party through coercion and not choice, and the day after the order was announced, the Health Ministry lost a third of its staff, and some schools in Sunni dominated areas were left with just one or two teachers: one US army engineer at that point was running five ministries.

This decree was the work of Paul ‘Jerry’ Bremer, the US official who was effective head of government in Iraq until handover of power in 2004. Another of his ideas was to dismantle the security forces. Thousands of soldiers protested against this, on the grounds that they were loyal to Iraq, not to Saddam. Chandrasekaran caught up with a former soldier later in 2003:

“What happened to everyone?” I asked. “Did they join the new army?”

He laughed.

“They’re all insurgents now,” he said. “Bremer lost his chance.”

This is one of the rare mentions of the insurgency in the book, which for much of the time takes a more blackly humorous look at the occupation. It’s like Catch-22 in there. There were serious problems with electricity supply, healthcare, policing and other basics of life, but the US had its eye on the long game:

There was $4 million to create a nationwide system of area codes and telephone numbers, $9 million for a national ZIP code project, $19 million for a wireless internet service, and $20 million for “catch-up business training” that would “develop and train a cadre of entrepreneurs in business fundamentals and concepts that were missing in the former Iraqi regime.”

Another official in the CPA “urged the Health Ministry to mount an anti-smoking campaign,” while members of his team argued that their limited resources “would be better used raising awareness about how to prevent childhood diarrhoea and other fatal maladies.” The man charged with creating a new traffic law for Iraq found inspiration by cutting and pasting sections from the State of Maryland motor vehicle code.

A team from the State University of New York at Stony Brook won a $4 million grant to “modernize curricula in archaeology” at four of Iraq’s largest universities – schools where students were sitting on the floor because they lacked desks and chairs.

Chandrasekaran occasionally suffers from Michael Moore syndrome, in making out that life in Iraq under Saddam was pretty idyllic (“If you weren’t a dissident, Iraq’s capital was one of the world’s safest cities”), and exhibits true American surprise at the extent of pre-war Iraq’s subsidised (or “socialist”) state: “Education, even college, was free. So was health care.” Whoever heard of such madness? The US was even more horrified by this, and set about not repairing the country as they found it, but trying to create a neo-conservative capitalist country from scratch, whatever its history or circumstances.

One way of reducing subsidies was to cancel all state-owned companies’ bank balances, whether credit or debit, and let them start again as private companies from scratch (really this was a ‘virtue’ born of necessity: there wasn’t enough money to pay the deposits and the US feared a run on the state bank). This clean slate approach meant, as one US official pointed out, that:

the very companies that were the dogs you got to take out back and shoot, benefited the most. Who owes a bunch of money? Weak companies. Who had a bunch of money? Strong companies. So we just reversed that. It was the exact opposite of what we were trying to achieve.

The names of US personnel come and go through the book, but they fall into two broad categories: those who see the real world problems, and those who occupied an ideological bubble. Sadly the latter were in charge, from the Oval Office right on down:

A week after arriving, Foley told a contractor from BearingPoint that he intended to privatize all of Iraq’s state-owned enterprises within thirty days.

“There are a couple of problems with that,” the contractor said. “The first is an international law that prevents the sale of assets by an occupation government.”

“I don’t care about any of that stuff,” Foley told the contractor… “I don’t give a shit about international law. I made a commitment to the president that I’d privatize Iraq’s businesses.”

The picture overall is of an administration which took a country as its own playground and allowed it to deteriorate into a war zone. Chandrasekaran’s book may be partial – who knows how many interviewees he left out who thought the Americans were doing a bang-up job? – but it looks certain to become the first draft of history on this tiny part of an enormous and ongoing subject.


  1. That’s a fascinating overview of the book and having read it I’ll certainly buy it now. I think your categorisation of two types of people on the ground points up just how ideological this actually was, albeit it was a muddle-headed and obtuse ideology.

  2. I hope you enjoy it, WbS. As I mentioned above, I wouldn’t have bothered reading it but for the awards it won so if my comments have persuaded you that’s great. I thought I knew it all already vis a vis the US in Iraq, but this book has some real eye openers.

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