Portraits of Crazyworld

The New York Times has a fine story on an artist, Steve Mumford, who’s gotten himself embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq as a combat artist. He’s been working for Artnet, which has posted a 15-part Baghdad Journal featuring Mumford’s drawings, paintings and dispatches. I’ve only looked at a couple of the more recent installments. I think they’re frank and human in a way you don’t often see in the mainstream press. In the Times story, he says his view of the war has changed. When he first went to Iraq, he thought the whole operation was a “huge blunder.” But he says he’s been won over to the view that the U.S. mission could succeed, partly by talking to Iraqis, partly by seeing firsthand what U.S. troops have been doing to fix things in Baghdad (which one Army officer he quotes calls “crazyworld”).

Despite his expressed optimism, his picture of Iraq — the violence, the apparent distrust of anything American, at this point — looks anything but hopeful. His most recent dispatch ends:

“When I get back to my hotel the following week Baghdad’s streets feel more dangerous than ever. A rocket has hit the nearby Sheraton; reporters are largely confined to their hotel rooms amid a rash of kidnappings. Only five other people are staying at the Al Fanar: an American contractor, his Iraqi wife and a British colleague, a rather mysterious Japanese woman who tells me she runs a massage parlor in the Green Zone, and a reporter, a young French woman who I occasionally spot in a headscarf, in the lobby.

“Drivers and hotel staff, with little work to do, hang out there, watching TV, while a lone macaque monkey in a small cage stares quietly out the lobby window at the street. In an effort to salvage something from this depressing scene I’d tried to arrange for this monkey to be transferred to Baghdad’s zoo, but the hotel owner refused to sell.

“For several days I stay within the confines of the security zone around the hotels, while my friends Esam and Ahmed come to visit. I’m quite sure my movements are being watched, and when I’m finally ready to leave Iraq I tell the hotel staff I’m going to visit a friend for a day before leaving town.

“However, the hotel driver, Farouk, looks not in the least surprised when I ask him to take me directly to the airport. We drive past the blighted landscape of palm tree stumps next to the highway, cut down and bulldozed to lessen the danger of ambushes. After 30 minutes we pass the first military checkpoint at the airport’s outskirts, and I breathe a sigh of relief.”

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