Every Man in This Village Is a Liar
An Education in War
Megan K. Stack
Doubleday: 258 pp., $26.95
Megan Stack never meant to be a war correspondent. A reporter for The Times, she was on vacation in Paris when, in the wake of Sept. 11, her editors sent her to Afghanistan to cover the war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. "Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War" is a book that has everything to do with what happened after, the product of nearly a decade of filing dispatches from across the Middle East. Here, Stack has written a moving and unsettling account of war reporting in the age of terror. Examining the region from the perspective of Afghan militiamen, Libyan youth, Iraqi civilians and American expats in Saudi Arabia, she rejects official explanation, looking instead to the streets of Baghdad, Cairo, Amman, Jerusalem and Tripoli to bring passion and empathy to the lives (and deaths) of people struggling in places devastated by corruption and violence.
For Stack, the violence that distorts life in the Middle East is the explosive product of sectarian division, authoritarian local governments and self-serving and short-sighted American policy. As she moves from Afghanistan in 2001 to Baghdad in 2003 to Beirut in 2005, she writes about the human cost of our invasions, as well as the price of our alliances with Mubarak, Kadafi and Saudi Arabia.
Two overarching notions drive the book. First, the war on terror "never really existed." Stack does not claim that the U.S. mishandled the war on terror, but rather that the war was an illusion from the start, "a way for Americans," she writes, "to convince ourselves that we were still strong and correct." Seen through her firsthand portraits — such as those of Afghan warlords who took American money but were more interested in fighting each other than in pursuing al Qaeda — the war on terror seems without focus or direction. It has left in its aftermath a string of broken places: Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen. Reporting from countries shattered by Islamic fundamentalism and civil war leaves Stack enraged at both American ignorance and denial of responsibility and the corruption and cynicism of many Arab leaders.
The book's second central concern is the way war transforms human experience. Stack proposes that it creates a liminal space between "surviving and not surviving." In the faces of those who have lived through suicide attacks, Israeli bombs or the Libyan secret police, she sees trauma and despair. Stack is a self-conscious narrator; even as she acknowledges the adrenaline rush of war reporting, she is honest about her place in the process as someone who can come in, "soak up the local color" and then return to the relative safety of her of hotel. But when she witnesses the aftermath of a suicide bomb detonated on an Israeli commuter bus, she no longer has that luxury. "It doesn't take long, once you have been cut by what you've seen," she writes. "It takes a lot of strength to stop. It doesn't matter anymore why you went at first; now you are bound to stay. The importance of it gets inside of you."
Whether writing about Yemen or Saudi Arabia or Iraq, Stack returns to certain common themes: the price for innocent civilians of war and endemic violence, the lives destroyed by constant fear. When she recounts the suffering of Lebanese civilians under Israeli bombing in 2007, Stack is at her most powerful. This is war reporting from below, from the perspective of those being bombed or strafed. Her stories of the old, poor and dispossessed come without euphemism, tracing a descent into the unspeakable horrors of dead and dismembered men, women and children, destroyed families and leveled villages. Israeli bombs hit hospitals in southern Lebanon in the effort to chase out Hezbollah, which was launching missiles at northern Israel and had kidnapped Israeli soldiers. But this only deepened the rage of the survivors and their commitment to revenge and radical Islam.
The suffering Stack recounts is not just physical. She tells us about Ahmed, a young Shiite in Baghdad without prospects or future, who jogs for hours across University City "until the flesh burned off his bones." And then there are the women, who are the canaries in the coal mine of Stack's book. She does a great service in connecting the daily oppression of women across the Muslim world to the larger issues of the war on terror. Where women are degraded, segregated and isolated, their condition reveals a larger truth about a society. Stack's expulsion from the "men's side" of a Riyadh Starbucks and her reminder that the Saudi local elections forbid women from the ballot box bring home the daily humiliation of Saudi Arabia's "invisible women."
In the end, Stack forces us to think about the Middle East as a whole: We can't isolate Afghanistan and Iraq. Rather, the circles of suffering and brokenness radiate out from the failure to capture Osama bin Laden in 2002 to the shooting death by U.S. forces of Stack's translator's son in 2007. "Every Man in This Village Is a Liar" is a brave and engaged critique of what U.S. intervention in the Middle East means to those living it. Stack's profound compassion leads her to hold a mirror to all those complicit, from American and Arab leaders to the foreign correspondents who have flocked to the conflict. Her keen eye for contradiction and for the human implications of policy bring her to an unsettling conclusion: There is no truth to this hologram of a war on terror — not for us and not for them.
Stone is a professor of history at Occidental College.