Tuesday, June 17, 2008


So I just returned from Italy - pictures to come, but at the moment I'm pleased to say that I finally finished Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilization and then, as an added bonus, managed to read all of Standard Operating Procedure on the flight back home. Who knew it would be so hard to put down?

The good parts of The Great War for Civilization so far outweigh the bad parts that I can still recommend it wholeheartedly. It feels a little slapdash at times, and the quality is not consistent, but I've come out of it with a much better, much more thorough understanding of a number of conflicts that are often mentioned and rarely explained: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iran-Iraq war, the war in Algeria, the Armenian genocide, and the first war in Iraq - Desert Storm. All of these really add up to a much better understanding of what's going on in Iraq right now.

For example, here is some information I would have liked to see explained clearly and briefly before:
  • Iraq is a majority Shi'i state.
  • Iran is a Shi'i state.
  • Saddam Hussein belonged to Iraq's Sunni minority.
  • Saddam Hussein was a relatively secular dictator, but he heavily favored the minority Sunni population and violently repressed the Shi'i majority.
  • The United States supported Saddam Hussein because his oppression of Iraq's Shi'i majority helped contain Iran. The enemy of our enemy was our friend - and Saddam Hussain was an enemy to Iran.
  • Now we want democratic elections in Iraq.
  • The Shi'i majority never had a chance to develop home-grown political parties and leadership
  • Shi'i political parties and leadership in Iraq were developed in Iran.
  • Iran has shown great willingness to extend its influence through the support of Shi'i political parties abroad - see: Lebanon.
  • The United States still hates Iran.
  • Conclusion: the US is going to have a hard time accepting democracy in Iraq.
When you really piece it all together, the cause and effect is so clear. And the more information you have, the clearer it becomes.

Maybe I could have read a handful of different books to get all the same information - but it was nice to have one big book as a starting point. And maybe I could have read something that was a little more measured or restrained in tone - but The Great War for Civilization is actually an enjoyable read, and in a book that is so long and so depressing that counts for a lot.

Standard Operating Procedure was in many ways a corrective to The Great War for Civilization. Every word was carefully chosen and the authors, Gourevitch and Morris, work hard to be dispassionate, even-handed, and give the soldiers of Abu Ghraib the chance to tell their own story without interference. At first I wished for a bit more context - I wanted to hear more about the whole conflict, and not just the prison - but by the end I was grateful that the book is so focused. It's not about the Middle East - it's about the United States - and the context is correctly a military one.

I think it would be a shame to spoil the book - and I also think it would be incredibly difficult. It has to be read to be believed. All I will say is that having read Standard Operating Procedure, I will never think about Abu Ghraib in the same way again.


Anonymous said...

Where were you hoping to see that information explained clearly and briefly? All of those bullets could have been gleaned from a few decent newspaper articles over the past few years, even tv news programs.

erin said...

That's the point - multiple articles, who knows where, over a period of years? That's not what I call easy access to clear and understandable information. That's only meaningful if you you are a regular, attentive reader over a long period of time. Personally, I find with most newspapers and magazines it's almost a waste of time to read about current events if you don't have the background to understand events as they unfold - they're too busy reporting history as it happens to stop and explain how to interpret it.

But I've only just started reading newspapers regularly, and no doubt that's part of my problem.

Anonymous said...

No, not "who knows where." Most of this could be found in the background paragraphs--those are the ones that follow the lede and first few paragraphs, which advance the story--in countless articles in a good paper like the Times. Or, in any number of Thomas Friedman's columns, for instance. It's not hard to find this sort of context; you really don't have to search for it. But, I suppose you are right that if you read only one brief article in one newspaper you happen to pick up, it is not going to have the historical context of a several hundred-page-long book. But, that's asking a bit much.