Iraq came into my life 25 years ago in the form of Scud missiles that arced west. I was an American student in Jerusalem at the time. I lived on French Hill with my friends, books, guitars, and future ex-girlfriends in a shared apartment.
When I think of Iraq, I think of a place. When Saddam Hussein was in charge, this was the place. There had been a war with Iran, a war with Kuwait, and now there is a war with a global UN coalition on the way. It was a place that was old and interesting, but it didn’t seem like it had anything to do with me. At the end of January 1991, the deadline set by the UN had passed, and the air war had begun. Saddam tried to get Israel to join the fight against him, hoping that it would break the coalition. In the evenings, we listened to the radio for information as we wore gas masks and kept an eye out for biological or chemical threats. We learned what black humor was and how to use it.
After 25 years, the word Iraq doesn’t make me think of a place. As soon as I hear it in a conversation, I start thinking about it. That’s because it’s no longer a place, so I think about that.
A person can let the place or the problem drift away if they want to. We are tired, and it no longer draws attention. The story of Iraq is over, we think, because we see nothing but the same thing over and over. But the story isn’t over yet. Nothing has even begun yet.
These are the books I’m thinking about when I think about Iraq and the rest of the Middle East. Those are good. Maybe it is.
The Corpse Washer by Sinan Antoon (2010)
According to Muslim tradition, the corpse washer cleans the bodies of the dead so that they can be buried. The Shias and Sunnis both do it, and the differences in how they do it are very small. It was written in Arabic by an Iraqi writer who lived in New York at the time. He left the country in 1991. He made it up himself. This book is the only one I’ve read that gets us closer to what it’s like to live in Iraq. It adds a much-needed human dimension to our understanding of what it’s like in Iraq.
The Iraq Study Group Report (2006)
Ten years ago, things were not going well in Iraq, but things have changed. As insurgents gained strength, Syria’s stability was in danger, and Iran played around with its involvement. The Iraq Study Group was set up to take a hard look at the situation and come up with a plan for the US to help. The bipartisan result was a good piece of work, and in hindsight, it looked like the only way the situation could have been salvaged.
Fobbit by David Abrams (2012)
There is the whole world. There is also the world that we would like to see. It’s a mistake for most of us to spend too much time in the other. Especially when it comes to the American public and how they think about soldiers and soldiers. When Abrams writes this wickedly funny book, he doesn’t believe in the US’s self-aggrandizing lies and the comforting fairytales that keep the country safe at night.
Strategic Intelligence and Statecraft: Selected Essays, Adda B Bozeman (1992)
One of the best people in the US to study intelligence was Bozeman. It was in 1976 that she wrote an article for the magazine Orbis called War and the Clash of Ideas. It was published in Vol. 20, No. 1 of the magazine. He talks about how ideas both form and keep communities together over time, as commitments to certain ways of living. This piece is in a collection. Some of them might not work together. Strategic intelligence is the discipline of knowing ourselves as a cultural system, seeing others on their own terms, and then designing ways to interact with them that work for the good. Unfortunately, Samuel Huntington wrote a bad book called War and the Clash of Civilisations that misrepresented this important idea.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers (2012)
This is a soldier’s story that has been made into a story and told with great power and intensity. The Yellow Birds is a heartfelt and successful way to see and write about war literature that we need. It’s also a great story that draws us in and wraps us in its own wonder.
Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq by Riverbend (2005)
Riverbend is the name of a young Iraqi woman who blogs under that name. It says, “I’m a woman, Iraqi, and I’m 24 years old.” I made it through the war. All you need to know is this: Her witty and insightful writing is a way to correct our distorted view of a world we know very little about, which is why we enjoy reading her work so much.
Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (2006)
War in the western world has been a bloody game of “capture the flag” for at least 400 years. As soon as we took the other guy’s capital city, papers and treaties were signed and terms were agreed to. Today, we are seeing the end of Western military power and its rules. We aren’t ready as a cultural system to turn that corner. This great book made it clear to me.
Nobody Told Us We Are Defeated: Stories from the New Iraq by Rory McCarthy (2006)
McCarthy was sent to Iraq as a journalist, and he started collecting stories from people who lived there. Most of the stories started in 1991, during what they called the Shaaban intifada, or “the Separation.” Far too many people write about modern Iraq and leave out this full-blown civil war. McCarty draws a long line from the wounds he caused to the next wars and beyond in stories that show how human and real people can be. His “outside-in” view of the world is perfect for Riverbend’s “inside-out” blog.
The Chilcot report
No, it’s not. No, I haven’t read it all. You won’t, either. But as the years go by, it will be one of the most important things you can learn about how the UK government and any democratic government works on a daily level. Graduate students will study these volumes for years to come, trying to figure out how these people got into this mess (2001 was not the start and they didn’t make it), how they made it, and how they left it behind. This is like the records of the Cuban missile crisis and WikiLeaks (some of which you can probably see from your window).
The Good Soldiers and Thank You for Your Service by David Finkle (2009, 2013)
If you live in the country that gave us Spinal Tap, you should be okay with things going up to 11. These books work well together. The first is a gripping story about the Iraq war from the point of view of American soldiers. It shows how every high-level failure of politics, imagination, and planning falls on the shoulders of those who can’t fix them but are ordered to. There are two stories in the second book. One is about the same people coming home, broken, and how our abandonment of them changes them and us.