Revisiting ‘Pride of Baghdad’s’ Haunting Iraq War Allegory
The comic's disconcerting questions are worth asking again as the United States bombs Iraq and Syria
Almost a decade after its initial release, Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon’s Pride of Baghdad is still heartbreaking. The graphic novel recounts the fall of Baghdad during the 2003 American invasion as seen through the eyes of a pride of lions that fled the Baghdad Zoo.
It’s inspired by the true story of real lions that escaped during the chaos, but the comic adds a mythic feel to the story. The story follows Zill, the alpha male of the pride, the elderly lioness Safa, the idealistic Noor and her young cub Ali.
The four lions wander the streets of Baghdad as bombs fall, tanks rumble and their preconceived notions of freedom shatter.
Full confession — I’m a big fan and recently reread it. It’s one of, if not the best literary responses to the Iraq War, as well as a heartbreaking allegory of what happens when the best of intentions go wildly awry.
In a world that’s seen the Arab Spring, Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad’s brutal crackdown on dissent, the rise of Islamic State and a crisis involving millions of refugees, the pride’s search for freedom and safety feels urgent and timely.
Henrichon’s art brings the story to life in gorgeous color. From the desert sand to a lush green oasis, Iraq is depicted as a land of beauty. He slavishly studied photographs of Iraq’s architecture, and the characters themselves are distinct and personable.
The lions make their way through collapsing Baghdad in search of food and water. They meet an old turtle living in the Euphrates river, a creature old enough to remember a century’s worth of bloodshed in the cradle of civilization. “It’s about losing your wife, your kids, every worthless friend you’ve ever made,” the cranky old reptile tells the lions.
Through their journey, the lions explore Iraq’s history and see its monuments and marketplaces. They wander through the halls of one of Uday Hussein’s decadent palaces.
Think of it as a straightforward family survival tale combined with smart political allegory. But though this story is about animals … it’s not for kids. The violence is bloody and one character has a rape flashback. Nor does the story provide any easy answers to its troubling moral questions.
Can someone who’s known nothing but captivity ever truly handle freedom? What are the consequences of being free? Is it better to be fed and caged or free and hungry?
Vaughan intentionally crafted the characters to be stand-ins for different viewpoints on the war. While writing the book, he pored over blogs written by American soldiers and Iraqis, and conducted his own interviews.
Safa, the old lioness, had lived life in the wild and has the scars to remind her of the savanna’s brutality. She’s become accustomed to captivity, seeing the zookeepers as source of food and security. She represents pro-Ba’ath Party Iraqis who while perhaps not in love with Saddam, preferred the devil they knew.
Noor, the younger lioness, entered captivity at a young age and hardly remembers they wild. Growing up in a cage, she yearns for freedom and the chance to see the world outside. She represents those Iraqis who tore down Saddam’s statues, idealistic and full of hope for the future.
Zill doesn’t have strong opinions about whether freedom or captivity would be better. Ultimately, his concern is the well-being of his pride regardless of what happens. He represents pragmatic Iraqis trying to adapt to the chaos while protecting their families.
Ali, the young cub, represents the naivete and innocence of Iraq’s children, ever excited for the next adventure. The characters aren’t always likable, but they are relatable.
Recent events have infused the characters with new layers. The United States is back at war in Iraq and has extended its air campaign to Syria. But there are voices calling for sending thousands of additional U.S. troops. The horror depicted in Pride of Baghdad is a reminder of why the American public is deeply wary of getting too involved in another conflict.
And if anything, the comic’s emotional gut punch of an ending hurts more the second time around.