Books — Iraq

Two views of Iraq

By Lisa Parsons

As seen by a scholar and a French tour guide 

A scholar, a tourist, a journalist and a lawyer walked into a bar in the Middle East….

To understand Iraq, you need a variety of information sources. Here are two recent books presenting different perspectives, one written by a Harvard professor and one by a French tour guide. More books on Iraq will be featured next week.

Understanding Iraq, by William R. Polk, HarperCollins, 2005, 221 pages.

William Polk – professor of Middle Eastern studies, former resident of Iraq, speaker of Arabic, one-time State Department member – presents Iraqi politics from prehistory to the present in simple informative terms, framing things in ways we Americans can easily grasp – e.g. that the Tigris River is “about as large as the Missouri River at Kansas City.” He provides four maps and six chapters – “Ancient Iraq,” “Islamic Iraq,” “British Iraq,” “Revolutionary Iraq,” “American Iraq,” and “Whose Iraq?” – and repeatedly draws parallels between Iraq’s past and its present.

Its past, apparently, is a story of repeated trampling-on by outsiders – the Assyrians, the Persian Empire, the Parthians in 144 BC, the Mongols in 1258, the British in World War I (they prized the rivers as routes to and from India) and lately the U.S., among others. In particular Polk sees similarities between our actions now and Britain’s post-WWI actions in setting up a new Iraqi government: didn’t go well then; he doesn’t expect it to go well now. In both cases, says Polk, the not-going-well was because the paternalistic invading powers didn’t really permit Iraqi self-government from the ground up.

In Polk’s assessment the only hope is for us to depart Iraq as soon and as sincerely as possible, leaving the country to its own people in reality and not merely on paper. He is troubled by our hypocrisies and scandals, particularly given that Iraqis are predisposed to distrust us anyway (because of their history; because of our previous hypocrisies, e.g. regarding the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and Kuwait around 1990; and because we are outsiders who don’t even speak their language).

The ongoing war “has cost America more than one thousand lives, five thousand seriously wounded,” Polk writes. And “In the first phase, the actual invasion and aerial strikes, at least ten thousand Iraqis died and perhaps twice that many were grievously injured; property damage will almost certainly exceed $200 billion….”

The book feels a bit rushed in a few spots but perhaps the rush is excusable. It’s none too soon for us to start brushing up.

Iraq: An Illustrated History and Guide, by Gilles Munier, Photography by Erick Bonnier, Translated by David Stryker, Interlink Books, 2004, 230 pages.

Lo and behold, the country is more than suicide bombers and sand.

Gilles Munier—a, gasp, Frenchman, and he admits it—originally produced this tour guide in 2000; last year a small American publishing house updated it so that we might “consider what it’s like being Iraqi.”

Here is Iraq as a collection of places—cities, rivers, roadways; museums, mosques, cafes and ancient ruins—many shown in attractive color photos and maps. You might carefully study the chapter on Iraq’s modern political scene; you will not see the word “thug” or “cowboy” but you will see charts about the civilian costs of war and sanctions and the effects of depleted Uranium. Or you might just browse the pages about Iraq’s Christian churches; the hotel Agatha Christie frequented; Genghis Khan; underground ruins of Babylon; Jonas’s Tomb surrounded by a parking lot. The chapter on Baghdad (“City of Peace”) is most intriguing, with its blend of ancient history and modern practicalities: see a photo taken inside a functioning inn that was built in 1358.

Learn the climate and square mileage of Iraq here, but not the thoughts of its people. This is Iraq from a comfortable tourist’s point of view.

Whereas Munier’s Iraq depicts Iraq as historical wonders and innocent civilians harmed by careless American actions, Åsne Seierstad’s A Hundred and One Days (below) depicts an Iraq filled with modern potential and civilians harmed by Saddam’s stranglehold as well as by war.


A Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, by Åsne Seierstad, Basic Books, 2005, 321 pages.

On Wednesday, March 19, 2003, while everyone else was piling out of Baghdad, Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad was fighting her way in. President Bush’s 48-hour ultimatum for Saddam Hussein to leave the country or face military action was winding down.

“Reason tells me to leave the country,” wrote Seierstad. “No one can foresee what will happen, or if we will ever get out. But reason doesn’t get its message across; I push it to the side, I don’t want to think about it, I’m not able to think about it.”

She had arrived in January accompanied by Norwegian aid workers, noting that Baghdad is “like any other large Middle Eastern city – noisy, pounding and fume-filled.” The first portion of her book tells of the pre-war period, during which she was continually frustrated in her attempts to connect with ordinary Iraqis. Like all other visitors, Seierstad was assigned an official “minder” (babysitter/watchdog) who accompanied her on every excursion outside her quarters, and even then she needed advance permission to travel. Foreigners were not allowed to wander freely. Yet she makes this portion of the book highly interesting, by describing in detail the sights and sounds and her conversations with the minder, with officials, with everyone.

With A Hundred and One Days, Seierstad does exactly what journalists are supposed to do: act as our eyes and ears in a place we can’t be. Excerpted in the book are a few magazine articles Seierstad wrote for European press while she was in Iraq, but the book brings us much more. There is also one important thing it does not bring us: Seierstad’s personal political views.

Different Iraqi voices are heard, but the general impression is of a people oppressed. Cell phones must be hidden; no one dares say a word against Saddam; the party line is parroted endlessly by everyone even in the most trivial of circumstances. During the military action, “BBC, CNN and Sky News … are closely monitored. When the journalists are reporting, a minder stands nearby listening to what is being said. It is prohibited to use words such as ‘dictator,’ ‘tyrant’ or ‘brutal’ to characterize Saddam Hussein, or to pinpoint targets that have been hit. They can be no more specific than ‘a large building, close by.’” In Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, you’re either with him or against him.

Before the war we sense oppression and fear along with resignation and defiance. During the war, Seierstad experiences tumult, destruction, constant adrenaline; some Iraqis express relief and even jubilation; some express rage; many express desperate anger as innocent civilians are killed mid-stride by shrapnel. Some continue to spout the party line. Some seem to believe it.

Afterward, Seierstad expertly sums up by quoting two Iraqis, men with whom we’ve grown familiar through the 101 days. Both are weeping. One says, “This is my country…Iraq is my country! It shall not be ruled by Americans.” The other says, “I am so happy. At last! At last we are free! At last we can start living! I love America.”

Seierstad has given us a vivid, captivating account that well satisfies both our emotional curiosity and our need – as in duty – to know.

What We Owe Iraq: War and the Ethics of Nation Building, by Noah Feldman, Princeton University Press, 2004, 154 pages.

Now that we’re in this mess, what should we do?

Noah Feldman, law professor at NYU and former advisor to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, lays out his case for nation building like he’s in court or maybe law school. (Including one use of the word “usufruct.” Me either.)

Forget what you thought we should do in March 2003, Feldman says; all that matters now is what we do now. And what we must do now, for ethical and practical reasons, is put Iraqis’ interests first, regardless of whose interests we acted in when we invaded.

Feldman’s preferred view of nation building is that the occupier is holding the authority to govern in trust for the people. “To nation build successfully and ethically, we need to abandon the paternalistic idea that we know how to produce a functioning, successful democracy better than do others,” he says. We simply owe the Iraqis stability and security and a push-start down their own path to forming their own democracy.

So while, yes, we owe it to them to butt out as much as possible (as per Polk, above), we also owe it to them to stick around long enough for a workable Iraq to gel. This we failed to do in Afghanistan, he says: “You can bet that Afghanistan will remain outside American national consciousness until that country reemerges as a staging ground for terrorism.” 

Feldman nicely articulates the many dilemmas inherent in nation building. He sounds hopeful even as he acknowledges how very many mines are in this field of endeavor. Stick it out through the highly abstract Chapter 1 (lots of “scenarios” and game theory) and you’ll be rewarded with a more real-world, debate-like discussion in Chapters 2 and 3. (That’s the whole thing. It’s a short book.) Feldman advised the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq in 2003, and has a couple of stories to tell. And for a guy who uses words like “usufruct,” he’s remarkably clear-headed. Then again, maybe you have to be.

Overall: a clear, thinky discussion of how we ought to behave in Iraq, presented in the style of a colloquial lecture.

- Lisa Parsons

2005 HippoPress LLC | Manchester, NH