You will not enjoy this book. It isn't possible to enjoy it. It is brutal. It is ugly. It is violent, callous, cruel, capricious, vicious. It is war.
You will not put this book down and feel satisfied. You will not feel content. If you put it down and feel you know what is happening and why, and that you have a solution, then you felt all those things before you read the book and have brought them along to your reading of it. The book offers none of these things.
If you are against the war you will probably remain against it. If you are for the war, you will probably remain for it. If you seek clarity on the war, you will continue to seek it. What do you gain from this book? The only thing possible to gain: perspective.
War Journal: My Five Years in Iraq is one man's perspective, mulled within the filter of that man's own assumptions and understandings, but it is a deeper perspective than one gets on the nightly news, or the pages of a paper, or pro and con rants on the Internet.
For the last five years, NBC correspondent Richard Engel has served in Iraq (with a year in Lebanon), heading the NBC bureau for the region, covering the war. He has seen colleagues kidnapped. He has seen colleagues die. He has barely escaped kidnapping himself. He has barely survived explosions, sniper attacks and firefights. He has seen things I will not repeat, except to say that sometimes the difference between a man and a wild dog is that a dog has the excuse and limit of instinct.
War Journal is not a pretty book, but it is a book worth reading. Engel's experiences were not limited to one side or the other. Fluent in Arabic and experienced with the culture and beliefs of the Middle East, Engel was able to pursue contacts and interviews with Sunni insurgents, Shiite militia and "official" Iraqi forces as well as U.S. soldiers and diplomats. His conversation partners ranged from Iraqi orphans to Iraqi prime ministers, culminating in a briefing with President Bush. The result for the reader is insight into many levels of the Iraq war, seeing the changing perception of it from many levels and many sides, including Engel's own.
This is very much a journey as well as a journal. In the midst of the violence and politics is a man struggling to come to terms with a world torn apart by horrors. He watches the violence dull the senses of his friends and coworkers, even as it scrapes his own soul. He reports on the strain the war places on soldiers' marriages as his own shatters. And like a doctor in a trauma ward, he moves into a realm of clinical detachment, pushing grotesqueries aside for the moment until they rise up again in the quietness of later.
Engel does not conclude War Journal with a solution, for either Iraq or himself. He ends only by wondering how the story will continue, and what will be the end purpose of it all. The book concludes with Engel back in Baghdad, there to cover what he cannot predict, wondering what it will mean for the world, himself and the people of Iraq.
Howard Shirley writes from Franklin, Tennessee.