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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 Paperback – March 14, 2006
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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.
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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This book has several strengths in outlining Iraqi history: (1) it is brief and gives a sense of the sweep of Iraqi history in a way that can be digested well; (2) the history begins much earlier than other books on Iraqi history, going back to ancient times, about 6,000 BC; (3) it provides some context for examining the American occupation of Iraq after its invasion in 2003; (4) it is well written.
The downside is a mirror image: The historical coverage is quite brief and sometimes important events get short shrift. There is one page on the Assyrian empire, providing almost no detail. This is where other books can be more illuminating, because of their greater coverage of shorter slices of time. Books by Catherwood ("Churchill's Folly"), Dodge ("Inventing Iraq") and Tripp ("A History of Iraq") provide much more depth, albeit over more restricted time periods.
The book is organized by historical period. Chapter 1 focuses on ancient Iraq (Akkadians, Assyrians, etc.). Chapter 2 focuses on Islamic Iraq. This is the story of the rise of Islam and the split within that religion between Sunni and Shia (not told as clearly as, for example, in Nasr's "The Shia Revival"). Nonetheless, it provides context. Chapter 3? British Iraq. Here, the story of the British Mandate and its problems in trying to manage Iraq, a nation created by fiat. Catherwood's work is very good in its detailing of this era. And so on, up to Chapter 5--"American Iraq." Here, Polk examines the American invasion and its aftermath. The book concludes with a chapter that explores where we are now and where are things likely to go and what should the United States do.
So, a good brief crisply written volume. What is sacrificed? Depth and detail. But each reader will have to determine the tradeoff between these.