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Monday, 30 August 2010

Review: Manhattan to Baghdad, Paul McGeough (2003)

Look at the date, now look at the book cover. Look at the book's title, now look at the scene depicted on the cover of the book. Look at the subtitle ('Despatches from the frontline in the War on Terror'), now look at the faceless young Afghani men riding on that truck in the dusty wasteland they call home. They're not riding on a horse, and at no point in this book do we see Paul McGeough (it's pronounced "McGO") ride a horse, a donkey or a ruminant.

This volume of short reports is the "director's cut" vis-a-vis the reports that appeared with his by-line during 2001 and 2002 in The Sydney Morning Herald, McGeough's employer at the time. And so, in a sense, this is the literary journalistic take on the same events that were described in those reports which are, of course, not included here for the reader's convenience. But it's not really material. The important thing to note is how early so much was known about Iraq (there were no weapons of mass destruction writes McGeough in his 2002 reports, both the ones herein and the others, those he feverishly wired back to Sydney for inclusion in the next day's newspaper).

Iraq is not the only target of McGeough's focus. There's also Afghanistan and Palestine. The man casts his net wide in his search for the definitive briefing on known, and controversial, troublespots in the Middle East. He's Johnny-on-the-spot. He's in the hot seat. He's got the good oil. But did his readers listen to him? No doubt some did. But there was, of course, that other Johnny - John Howard, the Australian prime minister at the time - who was passionately, repeatedly and deceitfully petitioning Parliament in Canberra for the right to send troops to serve, alongside those from the US, on the frontline in the Mesopotamian desert, along the banks of the mighty Tigris, and within the confines of the ancient Persian city whose name translates as "the fair garden".

As McGeough was traipsing around what was purportedly a chemical-weapons factory and finding nothing, Howard, Blair and Bush were doing their utmost to convince the lawmakers and citizens of their countries that the reports like those he sent back from the frontline were wrong. There were WMDs. They were ready to deploy within 45 minutes. Their targets were Israel and possibly Europe. All McGeough got from his visit to the plant were images of run-down fertiliser and oil production facilities. He describes them in his reports. The reports are ignored by politicians and readers. Years later, the US finally admits that there were no WMDs as they hunker down for a long struggle against a determined foe who uses improvised explosive devices and suicide vests to wreak havoc in markets and on streets the Western politicians will never have to visit. The term "collateral damage" comes into common use. McGeough never anticipated the guerilla warfare that would ensue as he raced, half-asleep, across the desert in Iraq's west toward the Jordanian border.

In Jordan he buys jewellery as a present for his wife before flying back to New York and the comforts of life in the extraordinary metropolis that serves as his base station. The first report in the book is from Ground Zero in 2001. The final report is from the same place a year later. We forget the level of emotion people operated on in those days, the high drama of foreign attack on Western soil, the tributes to firefighters, policemen and office workers - over 2750 of them - who perished in the rubble of the collapsing Twin Towers and from illness resulting from the destruction.

McGeough also visits Afghanistan, where US forces are fighting against the Taliban. After almost getting shot while riding on the back of a truck, McGeough is soon off again on another frontline adventure. But before he leaves he tells us about his fellow journalists, many of whom he has met beforehand, in other theatres of war. The same men and women travelling around the world filing quick reports from various hot-spots, hopping aboard dusty cars, boarding creaky aircraft, searching out viable power points with which to recharge their trusty laptops. It's an intimate and unforgettable tableau, and is most definitely more memorable than the action they are there to talk about. This sense of being "insiders" in an unfolding drama has an unquenchable appeal for the reader.

More important, perhaps, would have been to have stayed longer to do a sustained report that would make the reality of the fighting stronger on the page, and in the offices and homes back in the West. Harder to justify, naturally. Back home, McGeough's editors are ever hankering after the most up-to-date and topical information to serve up to their readers. And the overall impression from the book is a sort of impotent detachment. McGeough has important things to report, no doubt. There's the seeming invincibility of the Afghani Taliban, for one. There are also the empty "weapons" factories he enters and describes when he's in Baghdad. Then there are the quietly-suffering Palestinian families living near the Israeli border inside Gaza. The journalist's reports are all accurate and interesting, but the most compelling elements of the book are those that deal with his colleagues, with the logistics of transport and supply, with his encounters with armed men who could suddenly become dangerous to life and limb.

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