Just Deserts

Seven years after the Gulf War, Paul William Roberts's The Demonic Comedy draws a punch line in the sand

Roberts devotes a scant 12 pages to what he sees as he crosses through Iraq in the back of various trucks--brevity, it seems, being the better part of valor. The experience, he says, "wasn't so much anticlimax as overkill," and, truth be told, Roberts lacks the dispassion for war reporting anyway. In the early chapters of the book, the reporter's search for a shared humanity induces him to overwrite at the end of several episodes, e.g.: "Here was the real gulf in the Gulf: minds, hearts, and souls that simply cannot understand one another." (For a more muted and responsible account of the current Islamic world, and one that is unencumbered by human empathy, the reader is directed to V.S. Naipaul's Beyond Belief, published this year by Random House.)

Yet the same tendencies that occasionally betray Roberts during his first two visits to Iraq serve him well in the third act of his Demonic Comedy. This time he is not a makeshift medic but a "delegate" at 1995's "International Babylon Festival." Though this theater of self-aggrandizement is just as risible as Hussein's Nasser impersonation during the pan-Arab summit, the scenery has changed. The luxury hotels are bereft of light bulbs or running water. In one hotel lobby, well-connected peddlers hawk $2,000 gold fountain pens--looted from the royalty of Kuwait, of course--for the princely sum of $8. To deal in anything but dollars requires ungainly wads of bills: In 1990, the Iraqi dinar traded at six to a dollar. Five years later, the unofficial exchange rate is at 2,220--or even 3,000--dinars to a dollar. Roberts carries money in a shopping bag.

Ultimately, inflation is the dominant metaphor for what Roberts finds in Iraq at the close of the book. Squalor and poverty are growth industries as are menace and terror. The national football team loses with final scores that Roberts calls "awesome"--64-0, for example, against powerhouse teams like Chad and Togoland. The central bank lends at an official rate of 15 percent interest per day. A U.N. survey reports that half of all infants are born with birth defects as a result of malnutrition...while the government in Baghdad requisitions a lipsosuction machine. And at the center of this suffering is the U.S. embargo, which, as Roberts eloquently explains it, is the most gruesome inflation of all, "slowly starving 20 million people for the crimes of 2,000."

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