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Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History from Genghis Khan's Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation Hardcover – April 5, 2005

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First Edition edition (April 5, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060764686
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060764685
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 13.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (50 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,824,067 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. In this tightly crafted book, even the introductory note on words and spellings makes for a lesson in misunderstandings. Not only have occupying armies, officials and journalists not known the local language, Polk observes, but because Arabic is grounded in religious and historical texts, outsiders have missed the allusions that inform Iraqis' perceptions. Polk's history of ignorance reads like a portent. As the events in his history of Iraq from the Sumerians to the U.S. war of 2003 unfold in chronological order, they read like historical echoes of Iraq's present. The effect is haunting, and Polk's knack for understatement—he describes the recent American tactic of dismissing the Iraqi military but allowing them to keep their weapons as "maladroit"—only adds to the feeling of dread. But Polk, a scholar of the Middle East and former adviser to John F. Kennedy, stops just short of a fatalistic view of history. In one of the clearest prescriptions for success in Iraq yet to emerge, Polk calls for "American political courage" in allowing Iraqis to re-establish neighborhood associations to run social affairs and provide security. These associations not only inspire more genuine political participation than voting or constitutions, he says, but are a natural part of Iraqi tradition and culture. Unlike current American policy, which, he says, inadvertently invokes the post-WWI British occupation by focusing on rulers and symbols and neglecting the citizens, Polk calls attention to the reality of human relationships. With this war's death toll already at over 100,000 people, Polk notes that virtually every Iraqi has lost a parent, child, spouse, cousin, friend, colleague or neighbor. To achieve true peace in Iraq, the U.S., he argues, must acknowledge the brutalizing effect of those deaths and rebuild the trust that he thinks has been eroding for centuries. Agent, Sterling Lord Literistic.(On sale Apr. 10)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Polk's distinguished 60-year career of diplomatic and academic intimacy with the Middle East grants him unique authority on his subject and puts this book head and shoulders above other analyses. Demystifying Iraq's deep roots with deep respect, Polk addresses each chapter of Iraq's perpetually turbulent history, from the first stirrings of human civilization to Islamic empire, British colonization, secular revolution, and, finally, the current American occupation. He emphasizes continuities amid crises. "One of the most striking features of the Iraqis," he reminds us, is that "even when they forget their past, they preserve or re-create it." Others forgetting the past may repeat it, he suggests, pointing to similarities between British and American intentions. The author's memory, however, remains sharp, and his personal proximity to several key figures both pre- and post-Saddam Hussein will occasionally drop readers' jaws. Critical of "neoconservative" strategy and steeped in a half-century of cold war-era pragmatism, Polk's suggestions for the future are as nuanced as his analysis of the past. Candid, concise, and highly recommended; make a definite effort to place this in the hands of your politically- and current-events-minded readers. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

Customer Reviews

This alone makes the book well worth reading.
John Matlock
Despite this, Polk's tendancy toward political diatribe and his many unsupported claims severely detract from the work's objectivity and usefulness.
Douglas J. MacIntyre
The book gets even more interesting when Polk gives the modern day history.
Loves the View

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

48 of 51 people found the following review helpful By vabookreader on August 26, 2005
Format: Hardcover
William R. Polk's _Understanding Iraq_ (2005) makes a valuable contribution to the debate in the U.S. on the war in Iraq and the future steps to be taken. Polk's credentials are impressive, with degrees at Harvard and Cambridge, experience in the U.S. State Department, and direct, first-hand knowledge of Iraq and the Middle East as a whole. The quality of his work matches his credentials.

Throughout much of his book, he provides a broad history of Iraq from ancient times to the present. One of his main premises is that in the scope of history the Fertile Crescent, the Mesopotamian Valley, has been a region defined by internal and external conflict. He argues that repetitive cycles are evident in the broad history of the region (from the dawn of history) to the more recent history of Iraq as a nation-state the past century. He claims, for instance, that the Sumerian "lugals," literally "big man," of roughly 2800 BCE are the ancestors of figures like Saddam Hussein, the self-proclaimed "Hero President." Some of the long historical parallels Polk draws, while they interesting on one level, seem anthropologically universal in the evolution of society (and not specific to Iraq per se). Despite this, Polk's broad analysis is informative and important.

In my opinion, the strongest sections of the book are his discussions of British colonialism, the revolutionary period (after-independence), and the current period of the U.S. led Coalition Authority. Here, historical parallels are manifest. For example, Polk points out that the U.S. provisional constitution in 2004 mandating an interim provisional authority was nearly identical to the British government's mandate for occupation, delivered to the League of Nations in 1922.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By charles falk VINE VOICE on May 31, 2005
Format: Hardcover
UNDERSTANDING IRAQ is a brief, but extremely valuable, survey of Iraq's history from the prehistoric Ubaidians to the 2004 Iraq Provisional Authority. The book is divided into six chapters: Ancient Iraq, Islamic Iraq, British Iraq, American Iraq, and Whose Iraq?. The history is interlaced with William Polk's views on how current US policy interacts with that history. He is well-qualified for this task, for he has spent nearly sixty years visiting, studying, and teaching about Iraq. Polk presents a much more credible explanation of why the United States has become unpopular in the Muslim world that Bernard Lewis did in his CRISIS OF ISLAM. He is also a better writer than Lewis, marshalling his facts and opinions into crisp, orderly prose.

Polk identifies mistakes recent US administrations have made in dealing with Iraq; many of them eerily similar to those made by the Brtish during their rule under League of Nations mandate in the 1920's and 1930's. The "shock and awe" of that era was generated by "armed Fords" and biplanes. The British installed as puppet king, Faisal, a man who had never previously set foot in the country. The US selected to head the Provisional Authority, Iyad al-Allawi, who once was a senior Baathist in Saddam's secret police and then for thirty years an anti-Saddam expatriate funded by the CIA. Another grievous US mistake, according to Polk, is in creating a large, well-trained Iraqi army instead of a large, well-trained Iraqi police force. It was the British-trained Iraqi army whose revolt in 1958 led to the dictatorship of Saddam.

Anyone still doubting the old saw about the need to learn from history to avoid repeating its mistakes ought to read the letter T E Lawrence (of Arabia)wrote to the London Times in 1920. "The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it..."
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Loves the View VINE VOICE on December 5, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This is the book I had been looking for. Too may histories of this region are a catalog of battles and clashes of religions and ethnic groups which I have never heard of. As a "whole sweep" in one little book, it will not please purists. It avoids the catalog, to give us what we need to know to make sense of Iraq today.

The book gets even more interesting when Polk gives the modern day history. For instance, we learn about the rise of Saddam H. how and why Kuwait was set up.

[...] The book is designed to inform, not to mobilize.

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80 of 105 people found the following review helpful By Carl L. Chappell, Jr. on July 12, 2005
Format: Hardcover
Given the author's creditials, of which we are constantly reminded, I expected more out of this book. This is not to say it is a bad book per se. Dr. Polk does provide some excellent insights and points. Having just returned from over a year in Iraq and reading quite a bit on the subject before and during that time, I found various passages in his book that complemented my study and experiences. I would not, however, recommend this book to someone doing a casual read on the subject. Despite the title, "the Whole Sweep of Iraqi History..." merely serves to backup his critique of American policy in Iraq, particularly the alleged role of Neo-Conservatives. I don't necessarily disagree with many of his points--several are right on target--but the reader should understand that this is a book with a clear, political objective. At times the tone is shrill and his "facts" about the events of the last two years, many I witnessed, are often off. His critique of policy mistakes are generally valid, but his proposed solutions are surprisingly naive for someone with his experience with Iraq. While he is rightfully critical of the apparent ignorance of some policy makers and Americans in general about Iraq, I suspect he is guilty of the equally dangerous trap of going native and becoming too close to his subject for objective analysis. A far better book--certainly for someone just starting to read about Iraq--is "The Reckoning" by Sandra Mackey. If you only read one book on Iraq, read Mackey's not Polk's.
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