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Great Heart

By Leslie Thatcher

t r u t h o u t | Book Review

Gallant and intrepid, a professed atheist, and daughter of legendary reporter and Nouvel Observateur founder Jean Daniel, Ms. Daniel heads straight into the heart of darkness, looking for meaning and humanity in the midst of chaos and cruelty. Her reputation for fairness - and the valiant guarantees of her Iraqi translator - vouchsafe her the interviews with Imam al-Janabi and Emir Omar Hadid in Fallujah that open the book. The latter reveals to her that he was one of the masked assassins in the video of Nicholas Berg's beheading.

Fairness in Daniel's case cannot be construed as a failure to make judgments or to call things as she sees them: She tells one Fallujah fighter he does not look like a "religious fanatic," tells Omar Hadid that people object to the "barbarism" of decapitations. Fairness, rather, is close and sympathetic - in the true sense of the word, as she imagines herself in other's place - observation of everyone and everything she encounters: the "baby face" of the former artist turned insurgent, the "terrible calm" of the youths desecrating the contractors' bodies in Fallujah, the "charm and reserve" of Dr. Salam, the Fallujah doctor she profiled and went to visit again in London. She allows their words to resonate for good or ill in hundreds of short reported conversations that show respect for the sincerity, as well as distill the complexity, of people's motives.

The book covers Daniel's visits to Iraq - over a dozen from June of 2002 before the beginning of the war to June of 2005 - and her encounters with all kinds of Iraqis, US and other troops, contractors, and politicians. If its episodes were ordered chronologically, it would describe one long spiral of descent, from the pre-war hopefulness of Iraqis sick of Saddam to the de facto withdrawal of US troops, who by summer 2005 were so entirely separated from their Iraqi "hosts" that they had no "normal" human interactions with Iraqis.

This is a young and hopeful book: Ms. Daniel is startlingly candid about her own motives, her personal life as it relates to her reporting, the sense of personal urgency that requires her to repeatedly "face the monster that has been created." In what was, for me, the most poignant episode she reports, she arranges for a meeting between two men she deeply admires: Reserve Captain Roger Elliott, a Texas preacher in the conservative Church of Christ and sometime mayor of Hudson Oaks, and the enlightened Salafist and Fallujah native, Dr. Salam. The two men whom Ms. Daniel believes have so much in common - realist idealism, patriotism, courtesy, commitment - do not connect. But her connection with each of them, like her ability to be wholly in a war zone and still sing her toddler daughter back in Paris lullabies over her satellite phone, makes this a hopeful book in spite of the deteriorating situation it reports.

The one episode in the book I found jarring was the Jessica Lynch chapter, which includes a visit and interview with the Iraqi doctor who treated US Army Pfc. Lynch as well as a Fourth of July visit to her home town of Palestine, West Virginia. There was no acknowledgement of Lynch's ultimate heroic refusal to play along with the propaganda narrative the Pentagon had crafted about her - the only absence of generosity I noted in a book that otherwise expresses true greatness of heart: a willingness to be open, vulnerable, and exposed to reality that characterizes the "Sacred Path of the Warrior." *

Future historians of the Iraq war will regret the absence of an index or a timeline in this fine memoir that documents a number of the war's turning points and critical conversations. Daniel documents crimes of the insurgency and crimes and follies of the occupation with wide-open eyes that never turn away, and she takes no side but that of affirming life.

* Subtitle and subject of Chogyam Trungpa's classic Shambhala.

Leslie Thatcher .

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About Sara Daniel

Portrait of Sara Daniel
Sara Daniel, a French journalist, war correspondent, expert on the Middle East.

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