You know a book that begins with recounting the moments preceding a warzone ambush isn’t going to end well. That’s if you hadn’t already guessed so from the title, I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story. Or from the quote on its opening pages from Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: ‘In such dangerous things as War, the errors which proceed from a spirit of benevolence are the worst.’ Hence the reason I cracked Michael Hastings’ first book (but the second of his I’ve now read) with a healthy amount of trepidation: This book is going to completely break me.
Hastings is the journalist who recently brought us the incisive The Operators, a book based on a Rolling Stones article so explosive it saw the US’ then Afghanistan head honcho General Stanley McChrystal recalled to Washington and sacked. It’s also a book I’ve been thrusting at friends as a must-read recommendation and that had comprehensively whet my Hastings reading appetite.
So, gut-wrenchingly arduous as I knew I Love My Love in Baghdad was going to be, there was no question I was going to read it. It’s the creative non-fiction re-telling of Hastings’ love found and then lost, a tragic love story heightened by the random senselessness and futility of war.
The book centres around Hastings and his girlfriend, Andi Parhamovich, a fellow New Yorker he met on the eve of his departure to cover Iraq for Newsweek. Sick of waiting for and worrying about Hastings in the US, Parhamovich eventually found a job with a Baghdad-based NGO.
Baghdad, the third (albeit unwelcome) protagonist in this book, is a city where civilian planes make a perilous ‘corkscrew’ landings to avoid the pot shots being taken against them, and where private security tell you ‘the best time to be in a war is right at the beginning, when you can do whatever you want, before people get their shit together and start making rules’.
It’s a preposterous place where nothing makes sense and opportunistic capitalism thrives. Crazy Tony the German is the first to spot and fill the need for badge holders to house the myriad accreditation and security passes the military and civilians alike must carry at all times. His other top seller, which gets banned, is a South Park-themed mug that replaces ‘You killed Kenny, you bastards!’ with ‘You sent me to Iraq, you bastards!’
Hastings sums up both the predicament and sentiment with:
I don’t know what it is. It may be the heat or it may be lack of sleep. Or it could just be the adrenaline coming down. I have this sensation that I am seeing too many parts that don’t quite go together—randomly scattered signs of America in this completely un-American place, sun-blasted and slow-moving. I take it all in. My first real look at Baghdad, and I remember my thought to the word. What the fuck were we thinking?
Baghdad intrudes on Hastings’ and Parhamovich’s romance with its violence, its inconsiderate timing, and its love-thwarting danger. The city prevents Hastings from making it to agreed trips home or regularly pulls him away. Even when Parhamovich arrives in the city, it keeps the couple apart—she lives minutes away, but the security detail required for them to travel to one another is often too great to request or too selfish to risk and the couple spend dates such as Christmas and New Year’s so close but so far.
The city also divides them by its sheer, inexplicable insanity, which Hastings and Parhamovich must navigate and interpret daily. There’s its flawed legal system, which turns a blind eye to torturous methods of obtaining confessions and that knowingly finds innocent people guilty of heinous crimes. There are its prisons that are so messed up they’re literally leaking sewage. There are also the it’s-not-just-the-enemy-we’re-fighting moments such as the ‘death blossoms’ that occur when an Iraqi officer the Americans are training panics under attack and opens (friendly) fire wildly in every direction.
Hastings translates the army lingo with deadpan wit: ‘Our ROE is fucking retarded’ is ‘The rules of engagement, under Multi-National Force Iraq, are unsatisfactory’. ‘To quote the State Department report,’ Hastings writes: ‘The country’s “social fabric remains under intense strain”. To quote Mohammed, his ‘cultural translator’, the situation is “fucking shit”.’
Mohammed ‘struggles with the question of whether it is better to live in a world of totalitarian repression or maddening anarchy’. Earlier, Hastings writes of him:
His view of the war was a mixture of disappointment and disbelief, and now a rapidly diminishing hope. Did the Americans mean for this to happen? How could they not have a plan? He didn’t care for the new line coming from Washington, which was basically: If Iraq is fucked, it’s not America’s fault. We gave them freedom, we toppled a dictator. The ball is in their court. They must stand up before we stand down. ‘It’s your country, my friend.’ Mohammed and I find that it makes for a hilarious punch line. Accidentally blow up a house and kill four children? ‘It’s your country, my friend.’ Oops, we ended up arming Shiite death squads? ‘Sorry, your country, my friend.’
It’s this situation that Hastings is tasked with distilling for an American audience and that Parhamovich, through her work to establish democratic order and collaboration, is tasked with trying to overcome.
Other details I found eerie. The bomb squad’s officers play first-person-shooter game Halo to relax (the ‘best robot operators’ are also the unit’s ‘kick-ass Halo players’). Many of the men who would have been at the forefront of helping with Hurricane Katrina were sitting, feeling helpless, in Iraq. In a communication error, one of the men’s wife gets a call for him to turn up for duty in New Orleans.
Later, an officer writes Hastings’ blood type on a piece of electrical tape (O positive) and sticks it to the front of his flak jacket. But it wasn’t Hastings, it turns out, who needs the blood type-identifying tape. It is Parhamovich.
At one stage in the book, Hastings writes: Even as Scott [his boss] and I speak, sitting at our computers and finish up our omelettes, dozens of people are being killed or are about to be killed in this city. Could be a day when it’s over a hundred. The violence is unbelievable, unimaginable, incomprehensible.
It could be an apt description of Parhamovich’s death—one so shocking I’m still unable to fully accept. I spent the greater part of the book in a kind of second-hand hindsight willing her not to get in the car that took her to her horrific end. She emailed Hastings somewhat premonitiatively some months before about the horrors he witnesses and the effects they were undoubtedly having on him:
That’s why I can’t imagine what you see every day; the level of such extreme torture and gross indifference toward human life. And that’s why I worry about you and wonder if you are ok and how you are holding up because it is a lot to take in and you are such an empathic sponge. You absorb it all, and I know it weighs heavy on your mind and heart even if you don’t admit it. It’s hard to be a witness to human suffering and even harder to realize there is no clear plan, or even hope, to put an edit to it. Twain once said trying to establish peace is nearly impossible because you have to be able to tame the human race first, and history seems to show that that cannot be done. And particularly, in this war alone, it seems that that cannot be done.
Deeply personal, Hastings’ story is both indicative of and stands apart from Iraq. It adds to the confusion of war, but explains it at the same time. Hastings is unflinching in his examination of both Baghdad and his lost love. It makes I Lost My Love in Baghdad incredible, often squirm-worthy reading. I know more of his flaws and foibles and his and Parhamovich’s tempestuous love and her heart-wrenching death than I’d ever expected to. But Hastings’ honesty and journalistic approach make the tale more grittily visceral and more heart-stirringly powerful.
I cried hard and often as the book hurtled towards Parhamovich’s senseless end. I cried even more when the book didn’t end at her death, but continued with the days following as Hastings, in shell-shocked grief and arguable magical thinking*, fights to accompany her body back to the US.
I guess you could say that my trepidation in picking up I Lost My Love in Baghdad was well founded: This book absolutely destroyed me. But unregrettably so. I Lost My Love in Baghdad isn’t a book for public transport consumption (unless you’re not ashamed of having people see your ugly cry), but it’s one that absolutely must be read. It’s haunting and bleak and epic and unimaginable and incomprehensible and with gallows humour and observations so insightful it will leave you breathless.
*Magical thinking is a term esteemed American essayist Joan Didion used to described the detached, sometimes irrational, grief-clouded, out-of-body experiences she had in the year following her husband’s sudden, unexpected death.