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Fighting Lies With Fiction

Green Zone reduces America's blundering invasion of Iraq to a generic thriller.



Green Zone directed by Paul Greengrass

Recently I received a promotional copy of Imperial Life in the Emerald City, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's best-selling nonfiction book about the botched U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003 and '04. When I first pulled it out of the envelope, though, I couldn't quite figure out what it was. Matt Damon stared at me from the cover, clad in U.S. Army gear and ready for some serious ass-kicking. now a major motion picture, read the cover copy. from the director of the bourne supremacy & the bourne ultimatum . . . matt damon . . . GREEN ZONE. At the bottom was a note identifying the paperback as a "special edition" of Chandrasekaran's book.

Now that I've seen the movie, I can tell you that its main similarity to the book is that both are set in post-invasion Iraq. In fact the paperback reminds me of those old classroom scenes where a kid hides a comic book inside his textbook—except in this case it's the textbook that's hidden inside the comic.

As director Paul Greengrass explains in his brief introduction to the new edition (the "special" part), he wanted to make a movie that would expose the huge audience for the Bourne thrillers to the real-world skulduggery by which the Bush administration sold the Iraq invasion as a hunt for weapons of mass destruction. Instead of everyman spy Jason Bourne, Damon would play an everyman soldier who discovers that his raids on supposed WMD sites are based on worthless intelligence reports. The project quickly stalled, but then Robert Bookman at Creative Artists Agency sent Greengrass a copy of Chandrasekaran's book. "For all of us involved," writes Greengrass, "Imperial Life in the Emerald City was something of a beacon that guided us on our long journey toward the screen."

Ari Gold couldn't have cut a cannier deal: Universal Pictures gets to say the movie was "inspired by" a critically acclaimed piece of journalism, and Random House gets to put a picture of Matt Damon on the book jacket. But of course this synergistic flimflam hardly compares with the political flimflam that led the U.S. into a disgraceful war, establishing a precedent for preemptive invasion and killing at least 100,000 Iraqi civilians. To read Imperial Life in the Emerald City is to be infuriated all over again by the Bush administration's arrogance, incompetence, and partisanship. The book opens with "Versailles on the Tigris," a priceless sketch of the good life inside the fortified gates of the Coalition Provisional Authority's Green Zone. Inside this cultural bubble, Republican appointees shopped, sunned themselves by the pool, and enjoyed CPA-sponsored movies, workout gyms, dance classes, and other entertainments, largely oblivious to the suffering outside the zone's 17-foot concrete walls. As portrayed by Chandrasekaran, the place was an incubator for blind ideology, wishful thinking, and foolhardy decisions and a perfect metaphor for the neocon fantasy of transplanting capitalist democracy to Iraq.

In subsequent chapters Chandrasekaran examines various aspects of the reconstruction, many of which were doomed by lack of planning, lack of foresight, inadequate funding, and unrealistic deadlines. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) manages to work two of these story lines into Green Zone, however briefly: the catastrophic decisions of CPA administrator Paul Bremer to purge Baath Party members from all levels of government, which decimated state agencies, and to dissolve the Iraqi military, which inflated the ranks of the insurgency. But what makes Imperial Life in the Emerald City an important document is how diligently Chandrasekaran covers the whole spectrum of Iraqi civil society, exposing the CPA's bungling in more prosaic matters that were mostly ignored by TV news: the electrical grid, the communications network, the hospital system, the university system, the stock exchange. These aren't exactly things Matt Damon could sort out with a burst of automatic-weapon fire.

Failure was inevitable because, as Chandrasekaran documents again and again, critical administrative posts were filled by political cronies and neoconservative yes-men without the requisite knowledge or skills. To reopen the Iraqi stock exchange, the Pentagon sent Jay Hallen, a 24-year-old Yale poli-sci grad with no experience in finance or economics. To reconstruct the university system, it sent college president John Agresto, a former colleague of Lynne Cheney and William Bennett who knew almost nothing about Iraqi education. To repair the country's ravaged hospital system, the White House sent James K. Haverman Jr., a Christian social worker whose background was in faith-based health care and whose first order of business was to launch a no-smoking campaign. The job of administering Iraq's $3 billion budget went to six young conservatives with no financial experience who'd been recruited as gofers for Bremer. After a while, the entire reconstruction effort begins to seem like a comic book where a textbook was required.

Related Film

Green Zone

Official Site:

Director: Paul Greengrass

Producer: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lloyd Levin, Paul Greengrass, Debra Hayward and Liza Chasin

Cast: Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Brendan Gleeson, Amy Ryan, Khalid Abdalla, Jason Isaacs, Said Faraj, Igal Naor, Jerry Salla, Sean Huze, Raad Rawi, Michael O'Neill, Antoni Corone, Paul Rieckhoff, Muayad Ali and Driss Roukhe

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