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The 9/11 Reading List: Saddam's Legacy

Commentary, 9 September 2011
Tim Cross reviews 'The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein' by Sandra MacKey

Tim Cross reviews
The Reckoning: Iraq and the Legacy of Saddam Hussein
By Sandra MacKey
W W Norton, 2002

I came across the book on my return from Washington, Kuwait and Baghdad; I only wish I had seen it before I had deployed. It is a quite excellent review of Iraq. Eminently readable, easy to follow and extremely illuminating, it is one of those books that every British soldier should read before, or failing that during, his or her deployment – not unlike Misha Glenny’s ‘Analysis of the Balkans’.

Sarah Mackey is a master (or is it mistress?!) of her subject, having written many other books and articles on the Middle East. The opening chapters lay out the backdrop to the current situation, bringing to mind the Biblical stories of the cradle of civilisation, the Tower of Babel, Ur, the Jewish exile and stories from the book of Daniel. She leads us powerfully through the creation of the fledging state of Mesopotamia. Her review of the ‘human mosaic’ is clear and convincing and, whilst one could debate some of her analysis, her swift canter through several hundred years of history leads us to a very balanced view of a land that became a state but not a nation – a ‘contrived political entity with no natural centre of gravity’. The mix of urban and rural, Arab and Kurd, Shia and Sunni, Christian and Jew is riven with deep division and fissure, mostly rooted in brutality and massacre.

Whilst the book, and particularly the later chapters, is inevitably somewhat US-centric, the review of the British involvement, the period of the monarchy and the early days of the Ba’ath regime are fair and balanced. She obviously has a real heart for the Iraqi people; her style is indeed heartfelt but easy to read, and she maintains a good tempo throughout. The steady rise of Saddam Hussein in a decade of disorder sits alongside the demise of the Kings, Generals and the Arif Brothers, amidst the attempts by Nasser to unite the Arabs under his banner and the string of Arab defeats at the hands of Israel. From very small beginnings of around 5000, the Ba’ath ruthlessly and systematically consolidated its hold on power. I particularly like the way Mackey covers the aspects of tribalism within the state and links it to the new-tribalism created by the Ba’ath party around Hussein’s power base in Tikrit.

The fracture lines, externally between Iraq and the rest of the Middle East – primarily Iran – and internally between Sunni, Shia and Kurd are well developed, particularly the latter; the characters of the Bazrani and Talabani clans, and the rivalries, indeed internecine warfare between the PUK and the KDP are brought to life – they may be working closely together now but it is difficult to believe that the memories will fade easily.

All of this is good in itself, and well worth the read in its own right. But the book really comes into its own in the last one hundred or so pages.  The account of the 1990-91 Gulf War and the uprisings that follow, the draining of the Southern Marshes, the decade of decline and the rise of the despot who ‘tamed this fractured land by turning it into a prison’, are convincingly portrayed. The years of sanctions and UN Inspectors are interwoven with US-led military action. Through the pages she builds a picture of a society traumatized by two decades of tyranny and divided by too many memories of past injustices, too many wounds, to be considered a viable nation. Although she attempts to hold out hope for the future, her assessment cannot fail to leave serious questions.

Her book was published in 2002, just before the recent campaign. Acknowledging the likelihood of military intervention, Mackey is robustly honest in her concerns for what may follow. And she is proving to be right. A misconceived – even naïve – hope that Iraqi people would unite under their liberators, that they would easily and rapidly put behind them decades of distrust and internecine warfare to provide a stable and working democracy is, perhaps inevitably, coming to haunt the coalition. And her analysis of Chalabi’s role in this is pretty convincing.

No book is perfect, and there are areas of repetition and assessments that one could quibble with.  But this book is a seriously good read and a genuinely useful background analysis. I commend it to all those who have an interest in the affairs of Iraq.

Major General Tim Cross CBE
British Army and latterly Deputy Commander for the US lead Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs in Iraq until June 2003

This book review was first published in the RUSI Journal (Vol. 148, No. 6, December 2003).



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