Set in contemporary Middle East – across the war-ravaged countries of Afghanistan, Israel and Palestine, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon, and Egypt, in the order they feature in the book – Megan K. Stack’s “Every Man in This Village is a Liar: An Education in War” is a narrative on war and humanity as much as it is a narrative on investigative journalism, and as an American journalist Stack is the nexus between these two narratives. As a citizen she sees first-hand the deleterious effects of American involvement in the region, and as a journalist she documents these effects, through violent events and heart-wrenching stories.
Seven years after the publication of the book, the narrative on war and humanity in the Middle East has not changed much. Tensions over settlements persist between the Israelis and the Palestinians, weak institutions and anarchic conditions are the norm in Libya even after the death of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the uncomfortable relationship between Saudi Arabia and the United States continues, and the war between Iranian-backed rebels and Saudi Arabia rages on in Yemen. In fact, criticisms of America’s missteps in Afghanistan and Iraq – allowing public security officers and intelligence people of the previous regime to remain in power, for instance – is echoed in other books, and in years to come the criticisms of how the United States bungled up so badly will only intensify.
And in Stack’s six years as a war correspondent, and through the book, she documented what she saw and what she experienced: trying to get quotes from the actual site and the hospital of victims after a suicide bombing in Iraq, testing the limits of the authorities and her handlers in Libya, getting caught in a demonstration in Jordan, being forced into a fight with security forces in Egypt, and travelling through bombs and human carnage in the middle of a war in Lebanon. Besides giving a voice to the victims, she also recorded the stories of the people she worked with and the people she interviewed, tallying the high cost of violence.
She summarised: “Maybe you can debate until [American involvement in the Middle East] makes sense from a distance, as an abstraction. But up close the war on terror isn’t anything but the sick and feeble cringing in an asylum, babies in shock, structure smashed … The broken faith and years of broken promises. Children inheriting their parents’ broken hearts, growing up with a taste for vengeance”.
The title, “Every Man in This Village is a Liar”, further encapsulates the difficulty of discerning between fact and fiction on the ground – “if he’s telling the truth, he’s lying; if he’s lying; he’s telling the truth” – yet in a broader sense the statement is relevant to political discourse too. What is the war on terror and the campaigns against Afghanistan and Iraq, “but a unifying myth for a complicated scramble of mixed impulses and social theories and night terrors and cruelty and business interests, all overhung with the unassailable memory of falling skyscrapers [during September 11]”. And beyond the American context, this excellent read is a timely reminder not only of our collective complicity in the face of death and destruction, but perhaps also of our potential and abilities to make a difference.