Shortlist Iraq: Books on the war.

Shortlist Iraq: Books on the war.

Shortlist Iraq: Books on the war.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 8 2003 5:41 PM

Shortlist Iraq: Books on the War

Slate's guide to books on the second Gulf War and the Middle East.

The slow crescendo to war with Iraq gave book publishers an opportunity to tap into readers' new interest in the region. As troop ships inched toward the gulf, writers and pundits marshaled their arguments for and against the impending conflict. We've reviewed a few of the most important here and have included one or two older books of particular note.

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The Threatening Storm, by Kenneth Pollack The "go to" book for Iraq: The Threatening Storm's clear prose has proved to be gospel for both eggheads and hawks. Pollack's painstaking case for an invasion of Iraq has won many converts to the current war, in spite of his own ambivalence toward the Bush team's enthusiasm. Ruefully setting aside policies of containment, assassination, and local insurrection as viable options, Pollack depicts the U.S. relationship with Saddam as one of mutual misunderstanding; his analysis is based on a conviction that Saddam was intent on becoming the head of a pan-Arab union. Throughout, he convincingly draws on numerous statistics, policy papers, and his own experience in the region to bolster his argument. Still, despite his suspicion of Saddam, the author is a hesitant hawk, and efforts to muster overwhelming logical force seem aimed to convince himself as much as anyone else.— E.F.

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War on Iraq, by William Rivers Pitt with Scott Ritter Essentially a long interview, this quick read is a strongly negative critique of the administration by former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter. The book aims to debunk Bush's claims that Iraq has significant weapons of mass destruction and makes dire predictions about the outcome of war, including massive civilian casualties (which has not yet been the case). In their rejection of U.S. claims that Saddam still has weapons of mass destruction, the authors count on Ritter's star power to lend credence to what is, essentially, a personal testimony. War on Iraq argues for a return to aggressive inspections and offers a plain-spoken anti-war point of view. Though they don't provide anything more than anecdotal evidence, they succeed in countering neocon arguments with reasonable objections to unilateral war. Still, this book doesn't pack the factual punch that would convert a dedicated hawk.— E.F.

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The Republic of Fear, by Kanan Makiya A comprehensive account of Saddam Hussein's regime and the Baath Party's rise to power, by an Iraqi expatriate. Although this book was first published pseudonymously in 1989, and updated in 1998, Makiya's detailed picture of Iraqi politics remains not only relevant but deeply illuminating. He effectively lays out the regime's atrocities—from laws that call for branding men on the forehead to much darker crimes in torture chambers—while offering substantive insight into the political mind-set guiding the Iraq government (including the premise that its "national authority" could never be in conflict with a section of "its own" people). The book is an academic rather than popular history, but it provides an accessible explanation of the differences among various strands of Arab nationalist thought. Though Makiya accurately writes in a preface that his prejudices "give rise to a particular interpretation of Iraqi Bathism," his erudite take on Arab populist politics is essential for anyone who wants to know what's at stake in reconstructing Iraq after the war.— M.O'R.

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The Crisis of Islam, by Bernard Lewis Lewis' polished prose sketches out the essence of Islam and its discontents for a Western audience. A short book based on an award-winning article in The New Yorker, The Crisis of Islam is an elegant discourse on religion that allows this sage elder scholar of the Middle East (Lewis is a professor emeritus at Princeton University) to examine the legitimacy of Islamic terrorists. It is reassuring to see in print—from an expert—that al-Qaida and its ilk do not espouse the true tenets of Islam. Lewis also strives to find the root source of Muslim hatred of the United States. Ultimately, he lays the blame on the hypocrisy of America's democratic idealism, which overlooks brutal and corrupt regimes like those in Syria and Saudi Arabia when convenient. Useful as a broader portrait of the cultural crosscurrents of Islam today.— E.F.

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Al Jazeera, by Mohammed el-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar This is the book to read if you want to understand why governments from U.S. to Bahrain hate Al Jazeera —and why Arabs love it. The sudden arrival of Al Jazeera on the international news scene shocked both its target Arabic-speaking audience and its Western competitors. Nawawy and Iskandar chart the tempestuous rise of the network, from an Arab perspective, explaining the revolutionary impact of its free-for-all talk shows and brazen reporting on gulf viewers used to censorship. The book's detailed business narrative is leavened with tales of Jerry Springer-style shouting matches about previously taboo subjects, such as religion and women's rights, and throughout the authors wax enthusiastic about the didactic benefits of heated debate. Ultimately, they insist, Al Jazeera's coverage can only help the region; like the network itself, the book, though opinionated, valuably highlights the gaps between the West and the Middle East.— E.F.

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The New Iraq, by Joseph Braude The New Iraq is an insider's guide to Iraqi culture and an optimistic look at its future, amiably narrated as if it were a cocktail-party anecdote. Braude's political perspective is complex—he's an American-born Iraqi Jew—but his efforts at analytical pluralism are somewhat undermined by the many narrative styles in his book: Over the course of his all-singing, all-praising panorama of Iraqi history, culture, and postwar prospects, Braude plays avuncular raconteur, motivational consultant, and ecumenical religionist. In the end, The New Iraq is a strange hybrid, ranging from a loving homage to Iraq's rich cultural history to hatred of the current regime to an almost adolescent pioneer idealism about the future. The book's many vignettes of daily life will be engrossing for U.S. readers curious about this undiscovered country, but Braude's vision for the new Iraq remains a mirage that's never fleshed out for the reader.— E.F.

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Jarhead, by Anthony Swofford A blunt, opinionated memoir of serving in the Marine Corps during the first Gulf War. Swofford, a former sniper, has written an intensely vivid battlefield account in the tradition of Catch-22. There are drill sergeants who make glossy Hollywood war films look like cinema vérité ("I am your mother and your father! … I am your nightmare and your wet dream!" one shouts) and intimate details of soldiers restlessly waiting for action, accidentally on-purpose shooting things, cussing each other, laminating pictures of stateside women, and ordering extra dog tags (a good luck ritual). Along the way, Swofford provides a troubling (and fascinating) meditation on the violence—both physical and emotional—involved in preparing men to kill on behalf of their country. This book, amped high with feeling, is often pointedly over the top: Swofford wants to drive home that in war there is no decorum. But his affecting prose brings combat much closer than any glossily produced human-interest story on CNN.— M.O'R.

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Baghdad Express, by Joel Turnipseed Like Swofford's, this Gulf War memoir came out shortly before the recent war began, though it has received much less attention. In 1990, the author was drifting around, hanging out in coffee shops, reading Plato and Thoreau, not unlike many other young Americans. Then his Marine Corps reserve unit was called up, and he was shipped to Saudi Arabia to drive tractor-trailers for the "Baghdad Express," which hauled explosives across the desert. Turnipseed doesn't share Swofford's innate fascination for violence, but even he finds that "unquestionably there was a romance to this." Though he spends too much time waxing eloquent about man's place in the world—the book is peppered with quotes from Emerson and Nietzsche—there's plenty here that's hard to forget: the author's near murder by a nihilist driver in a truck full of napalm; Iraqi soldiers avoiding U.S. soldiers' eyes as they jog, with relief, into POW camps; a Vietnam vet welcoming the author's unit back to the United States with the words, "Look at us, we're all a little bit old, and a lotta bit broken."— M.O'R.

Also worth noting are a handful of recent and forthcoming novels about the first Gulf War: Tom Paine's rollicking The Pearl of Kuwait chronicles the friendship of two Marines in Iraq, one of whom loses his heart to a young Kuwaiti princess. Andrew Huebner's We Pierce is an elegant debut about two quite different brothers—one a heroic tank commander in the first Gulf War, the other a quasi-junkie and anti-war rebel at loose ends in New York City. Last August, Gabe Hudson published Dear Mr. President, a collection of gothic and comically satiric stories that tackle everything from Gulf War syndrome to a My Lai-like massacre with surrealistic brio.