January 19, 2007
Books on Iraq
In preparation for teaching Ian McEwan's Saturday in my first-year class, I read a lot of non-fiction in the fall, including Fouad Ajami's The Foreigner's Gift: while it was fascinating and often illuminating, I also found it jumbled and disappointingly anecdotal when I was hoping (given the author's academic position) for more orderly analysis. Paul William Roberts's A War Against Truth is a terrible book: surely we don't need to be told that war is violent, cruel, and often tragic; we need to figure out when it is nonetheless the right, or the only, option. Roberts offers as wisdom the sophomoric statement that "the only thing war prevents is peace"--we might put on the other side of that, just for starters, that war ended the Nazis' "Final Solution," and that determined armed intervention might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives in Rwanda--and these are just the most glaringly obvious examples. The collection edited by Thomas Cushman, A Matter of Principle: Humanitarian Arguments for the War in Iraq, is by far the most thought-provoking and responsible book I've read so far on this topic; Pamela Bone's essay alone makes it worth recommending, especially in the face of the current wave of demands to pull Canadian troops out of Afghanistan. George Packer's The Assassins' Gate is very interesting but often seems slanted: when describing incidents involving both American errors of judgment and Iraqi decepton, for instance, he places all the blame on the Americans, even when he admits (as he often does) their good intentions. It's hard not to see a double standard at work: he does not seem to expect Iraqis to assist sincerely in the project of building their own free, safe society and takes almost for granted the sabotaging of reconstruction efforts, attitudes which surely are less complementary to Iraqis than the American idea (naive as perhaps it was) that they would rise to the occasion of their liberation from Saddam (the opportunities and assistance encompassed by Ajami's image of the 'foreigner's gift'). Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower was also interesting, and depressing; it helped me a lot in terms of clarifying the historical antecedents of the current array of crises, but the complex relationships between various Islamic factions and their competing interpretations of fine points of doctrine (concerning jihad, for instance) becomes almost too arcane to keep track of. At a certain point, these nuances matter far less than the results and their reception on the "Muslim street." There's a lot of public protestation about Islam being a religion of peace and about the differences between extremist (or "Islamist") versions of this faith and the beliefs and practices of typical Muslims, but until the marches in the streets are to protest, not cartoons or Papal speeches, but beheadings and suicide bombings in the name of Islam, I think my patience for such claims will continue to be limited. Reading these 'current affairs' books, which are most often by journalists rather than academics, I have been struck by the absence of systematic analysis or perspective on what often seems to be largely anecdotal material. John Keegan's The Iraq War, in contrast to these others, was clearer about contexts and historical connections and at least seemed more neutral in its presentation of events, though of course its insights are constrained by its timing (as it was published soon after the initial invasion was completed). Still, those who can't bring themselves to give credit for the ending of Saddam Hussein's appalling regime to the Americans and their allies could do worse than remind themselves by way of Keegan's book of the many reasons not just the U.S. but Iraq's neighbours should be glad to have this murderous and apparently delusional sociopath removed once and for all.