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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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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
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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 (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #528,241 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By J. Josephson on July 17, 2005
Format: Hardcover
I read a book of review of this in _The Economist_ and thought I'd give it a try. Excellent book--the history of Iraq for the person who wants to understand more of what's going on over there but doesn't have a job as a full-time historian. Enough history was covered to give you a feel for the general state of affairs in Iraq, and it gave me some insight into why things are unfolding the way they are now. I think the single most shocking thing that I learned was that the British had already been down this path before, and their occupation of Iraq didn't fare any better than ours is. Why didn't someone in charge read a couple history books?!

I found the book to be pretty well-balanced and thought the author did a good job of keeping his personal opinions out of the text. He may lean a wee bit to the left (based on some of his sources), but nobody can keep their biases completely out of their work.

The fact that the author speaks both Arabic and Turkish gives him credibility in my eyes, since I firmly believe that if you're going to even attempt to understand another culture, you really do need to learn the language.

At any rate, I think what this guy has written has far more insight and depth than anything that's come out of the Bush administration since this whole fiasco in Iraq began.
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