Giuliani Sgrena was wounded by US soldiers not long after being freed from her guerrilla fighter captors in Iraq. This incident put her on the front pages of newspapers around the world. In addition, it put her in the hospital and her rescuer six feet under. Of course, no apologies were forthcoming from the US military or Embassy. Instead, a series of excuses and lies were issued, while any evidence pointing to US culpability was destroyed. The good news is that Ms. Sgrena survived to tell her story. As my daughter exclaimed after she read the book jacket of my copy of Sgrena's story: "Man, she really had an adventure! It sounds like the Americans wanted to get her." Indeed, the story within the pages of Friendly Fire is quite an adventure. In addition, the text, just published in an English translation by Haymarket Books of Chicago, USA, is a reflection on captivity, the motivation of her kidnappers, the meaning of her journalistic work, and the situation in occupied Iraq.
Her gratitude to the forces that freed her is apparent throughout the book, as is her ambivalence about her captors. Although she never yields to their rationale for kidnapping her, she does acknowledge the tactic as one with some military and political value. Although she never seems to understand fully that all Westerners are potential hostages merely because of their nations of origin, Sgrena admits that her kidnapping was important in that it provided the Iraqi resistance with a forum to express their opposition to their nation's occupation. In addition, the response to the kidnapping in Italy provided Italians and other non-Iraqis opposed to the occupation a means to express their opposition while supporting the release of the hostages. This was best expressed in the slogan Free Iraq! Free Giuliani! that appeared in rallies across Italy. With this statement, any pro-occupation sentiment in the movement to free Sgrena was effectively sidelined.
Like many other hostage tales, there are moments of true human interaction between the hostage and her captors. Interestingly enough, but not surprisingly, some of these moments occur during various soccer matches that are watched by the kidnappers. Although Sgrena is anything but a sports fan, her Italian nationality gives her credence if only because of one of the kidnappers’ obsession with Italian soccer. She describes her discussions of religion and non-belief with the Mujahadeen holding her and their difficulty in understanding her relationship to her unmarried longtime partner. Unlike other hostage tales, especially the recent story by US journalist taken hostage Jill Carroll, Sgrena refuses to accept the rationale of the occupiers and insists throughout the text that it is the occupation that is the primary culprit in Iraq, not the resistance. The descriptions of the aforementioned conversations reminds the reader of the contradictory nature of the human condition -- warriors able to hold a woman prisoner yet curious enough about this person from another culture to converse with her and debate, even though their commanders and clerics might not approve.
As regards Sgrena's thoughts on Iraq, it is her contention that the fighters against the occupiers are primarily composed of two elements: the nationalist insurgency and the jihadists. Sgrena states that the jihadists want the US in Iraq because it gives them a front in their war on the infidels, while the insurgency wants the US and other occupation troops out so they can get on with their lives. As I write this review, the news broadcasts are reporting on a demonstration of hundreds of thousands against the US occupation of Iraq and the Israeli war on Lebanon in Baghdad. The primary component of this demonstration were Shia Iraqis that support Moqtada al-Sadr. According to the news report, US officials claim to be concerned that this massive show of strength by these Shia Iraqis could provoke attacks on them by members of the Sunni community in Iraq. While there may be some truth to this possibility, the fact that the US command is expressing concern is so transparent as to be laughable. After all, the US military and intelligence have certainly killed more of Sadr's supporters than their fellow Iraqis have. It is more likely that the US is concerned that the solidarity being expressed across religious lines and across the Arab world for the resistance of Hezbollah to Israel's onslaught will become the dominant current in Iraq. If that occurred, the resistance to the occupation would be nearly universal among Iraqis. That would spell the end of not only the occupation, but of the jihadists as well.
Of course, the Pentagon and White House (with approval from Congress) remains convinced that the situation can be remedied in favor of Washington via military means. Indeed, the commander of US Central Command, General Abizaid, went on record in early August stating that he could "imagine" the US military "winning" Baghdad. As Sgrena's book clarifies (once again), this imaginary scenario is nothing more than a pipe dream for the US generals and a nightmare for the Iraqis. As the occupation and its consequent mayhem continue no one is certain what the next phase will look like. The civil strife between various religious trends is but one facet of the aforementioned mayhem. Underlying it all is the continuing dismal state of most Iraqis' economic lives and the lack of any apparent future of peace.
Sgrena's understanding of this desperate situation and Washington's fundamental role in creating and maintaining it are the subject of much of her commentary in the book. It is interspersed with a narrative describing the physical realities of her captivity and her means of dealing with the boredom, fear, and hopelessness that are part of any imprisonment. Her journalistic abilities are quite apparent in these descriptions; one feels that they know the characteristics of the room she spent her captivity almost as well if they had seen a walk-through video of it. Her discussion of the emotions she experienced are interwoven into her story in such a way that they become like the darkness of her mask that the kidnappers insist she wear at times of their choosing. Or the daylight that we assume will always be. They exist but they do not overwhelm. In fact, that is how Sgrena tells her story. Perhaps it is her journalistic detachment or perhaps it is the only manner in which she could write it down. No matter what the reason may be, it works. Friendly Fire is more than the tale of one hostage's ordeal and it is more than just another tract on the US-created debacle that is Iraq. It is not a cry for revenge, but a tempered statement on a nation's shattered psyche and an individual attempt to share a perspective influenced by her unforeseen role in that nation's history.
Ron Jacobs is a writer and anti-imperialist. He is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground (Verso 1997)
Other Articles by Ron Jacobs
We Can See
Through Your Masks: War and the Power of Words