The author is fascinated by the juxtaposition of the personal and the public in Michael Hastings’s I Lost My Love in Baghdad.
If you are involved in any war, your immediate objective, no doubt, is to find a way to survive it. But the problem that lingers even after it is over is one of finding a way to write about war. For some, writing about war can also be a way of surviving it. This appears true of the most recent book of war reportage that I have finished reading, I Lost My Love in Baghdad. Written by Michael Hastings, a young reporter who had worked for Newsweek and Rolling Stone, it is an unusual work in that it combines a report on the American operations in Iraq with a personal account of his romance with a blond, idealistic American aid-worker. Her name was Andi Parhamovich and we learn in the first pages of the book that she was killed by insurgents in Yarmouk, a suburb of Baghdad, after a visit to the headquarters of the Iraqi Islamic Party.
How do you know it is a writer, rather than, say, a think-tank analyst or a retired general, writing about war? When you discover in what you are reading that the enemy is language itself. I liked the way in which Hastings pours contempt on the language of press releases issued by the U.S. forces, with their “stilted, half-literate mix of military lingo and public relations spin.” (Here are some of the less absurd examples: “Foreign fighter facilitators nabbed.” “Two AQI with SVESTS Killed.” “Soldiers keep route clearance vehicle going.”) His own writing stays grounded and free of any signs of self-puffery. Hastings points out that, while the U.S. PR machine struggles to compete with car bombs to get their message out, the insurgents are successful at running a TV channel showing snuff films. These snuff films show Americans being killed. “All day long, seven days a week, Americans getting blown up.”
It is not only the extremists and the hate-mongers who have damaging things to tell or show; Hastings himself, from the moment he arrives at the check-point in the Green Zone in Baghdad, has fairly candid questions about the American presence in Iraq. What is remarkable, however, is the manner in which his candour is salted with admissions of failure or lack of comprehension on his own part. Here are his opening observations: “Nothing seems to fit. 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?”
Each chapter of clear-sighted reporting on the war — and also on the conditions in which reporters work in places like Baghdad — alternates with chapters devoted to the narration of Hastings’s love-affair with Parhamovich. He had met her in New York in the days before his deployment to Iraq. In the narration of his doomed romance, there is enough space for sentiment and tears but again what is most refreshing about the story is its honesty. Hastings and Parhamovich meet for their first dinner together at a New York restaurant that he has chosen. As soon as they get inside, she asks him, “This is your date restaurant, isn’t it? This is where you bring all the girls?” He replies, “What girls? Of course not.” But Hastings is honest with his readers. He writes, “She was right, though. I’d brought three previous dates there.” This approach remains consistent throughout the book, detailing with fidelity the break-ups, the fights and, ultimately, the frustrations of living separated from each other in a highly risky war zone.
I am fascinated by this juxtaposition of the personal and the public: the private romance, both its allure and its difficulties, and, alternating with it, the world outside where bombs fell and bodies flew into the air. This juxtaposition is fascinating because it blurs the artificial boundaries between bodies that kill and the bodies that love. Also, let’s not forget how the ideology, and often the imagery, of war are sexual. In the memoirs published during the long era of wars set into process after the events of September 11, 2001, we get glimpses of sexual anxiety and violence at play in battle. I’m thinking, for instance, of Love My Rifle More Than You, a memoir by Kayla Williams, a former sergeant in U.S. military intelligence, who wrote candidly of how she was asked to humiliate a naked Iraqi prisoner in Mosul. Other works, like Erik Saar’s Inside the War, recount the use of fake menstrual blood during interrogations at Guantanamo. In the case of Hastings, however, the discussion of love, and also sex, is more innocent and even intimate. The reader experiences Andi Parhamovich’s death as a personal loss, and, on another level, as a fierce indictment of American adventurism in Iraq. In fact, the evocation of her death, particularly in the book’s closing pages, is so lyrical and imaginative that it forced me to wonder what I was doing on that day. The date was January 17, 2007. I looked in my journal and saw that I was in Elizabeth, New Jersey, on a bitterly cold day. I was standing outside an immigration prison, where the parents of a young man duped by a police informant had been arrested and taken by the authorities. Which is to say, on that particular day, in Iraq and also in a small town in the U.S., the Global War on Terror was claiming its victims.
At this point, I should confess how I came upon I Lost My Love in Baghdad. One night in June this year, my Twitter feed was suddenly filled with eulogies to a young reporter who had died young. People I admired were all paying tribute to this talented man whose life had been cut tragically short. Who was this man? He was Michael Hastings. He was the one who had written the prize-winning piece in 2010 called “The Runaway General” for Rolling Stone — it had cost General Stanley McChrystal his job as the head of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. I remembered reading the piece, and now I read it again. But a remark made in one of the obituaries took me to Hasting’s first book. I also liked the title: anyone could lose their life in Baghdad, who was this person who had lost his love? And when I began reading the book, which had been published two years prior to his piece on McChrystal, I got an idea of the man. Hard-working, chain-smoking, a former addict, wired-up and passionate, often irritable and sometimes irritating, but also always honest, even harsh.
On June 18, on the night that I discovered his name, Hastings had died in a fiery high-speed automobile accident in Los Angeles. His body had been burned beyond recognition. A few days later I began reading his book. When I came to the closing pages of I Lost My Love in Baghdad, I discovered how Andi Parhamovich had died. The insurgents had rolled a grenade under her car. The fuel tank exploded and the car caught fire. In the terrible heat, her body melted and fused into that of her security guard who had thrown himself on her to protect her from the bullets flying outside. It was difficult not to wonder, perhaps in a macabre way, whether Hastings, in his terrible, final moments, also saw that in a different place and in a different time, his death had arrived in a way so strikingly similar to that of the woman he had loved and lost.
Amitava Kumar teaches English at Vassar College and is the author, most recently, of A Matter of Rats: A Short Biography of Patna.