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Book Review: Chasing Ghosts

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Last year I received a copy of Chasing Ghosts, by Paul Rieckhoff. Rieckhoff was a Lieutenant in the Army National Guard, and served in Baghdad through 2003 to early 2004. He founded the group IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America), and now blogs occasionally at Huffington Post. Upon his return from Iraq, Rieckhoff became a strong critic of the war, both in concept and handling. Chasing Ghosts is a record of his time spent in Baghdad, of his early thoughts about the war, and of his activism in the run-up to the 2004 election.

Like several former students of mine, Rieckhoff saw Iraq between the invasion and the escalation of the insurgency. With the exception of serious eruption in November 2003, the early period of the Occupation saw relatively light violence. Rieckhoff’s account stresses how important the term “relatively” is. The amount of violence and destruction he saw is small compared to what was happening a year or two years later, but was nevertheless evident of a deeply dysfunctional political and social situation. Rieckhoff was forced, like every other American officer and soldier in Iraq, to navigate not only through a system of literal mines and traps, but also through a system of competing bureaucracies which often worked at cross-purposes. Rules of engagement were vague, and even when clear often of not much assistance. Units were restricted from operating in parts of the city not by any policy but rather because of competing chains of command. Insurgents were quick to understand and exploit these gaps, which frustrated Rieckhoff to no end.

As the wise have pointed out, Iraqis don’t tend to care for having their houses rummaged through or having them entered without notice. Then again, neither does anyone else. Rieckhoff’s job involved regular forced entry into private Iraqi homes, a duty which clearly wore on him over time. Much of what he did consisted, essentially, of police work. One story that Rieckhoff tells involves the hunt for a group of thieves in Baghdad. His unit managed to capture the thieves (bank robbers who may have had connections with the insurgency) without too much difficulty, although they did manage to annoy the neighbors. Rieckhoff and his men recovered tens of thousands of dollars, along with consumer electronics and a pair of brand new motorcycles. Unfortunately, a soldier in Rieckhoff’s unit had worked out a system, and had stolen about $30000 from various Iraqi sources. The money had been partially split up through the platoon. After being tipped off by a seargeant, Rieckhoff was forced to create a sting operation that caught the leader of the gang. Although the soldier was put in jail for awhile and demoted, he wasn’t kicked out of the Army; Rieckhoff’s chalks this up to a shortage of experienced soldiers.

After his deployment ended, Rieckhoff felt no compunctions against criticizing the war, both in conception and execution. He became a voice of some note during the 2004 election campaign, receiving some attention from the Kerry campaign. Rieckhoff wasn’t impressed with Kerry as a candidate, however. I think this was a bit of a mistake; whatever problems there might have been with Kerry’s personal approach, his policies were quite likely to be different (and better) than those of the alternative. Since the election, he’s been a strong advocate for war veterans, and remains a vigorous critic of the war. The book is well worth reading, both for a description of the early part of the Occupation on the military side (it’s a fitting companion to, say, Imperial Life in the Emerald City or Assassin’s Gate), and as a genuinely intriguing personal narrative.

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