The War We Could Not Stop: The Real Story of the Battle for Iraq edited by Randeep Ramesh. Pub: Guardian Newspapers Ltd., with Faber and Faber Ltd., London, 2003. Pp: 303. Pbk: £7.99.
One feature of modern life is a surfeit of low-quality, instant literature on any and every topic of public interest. The only difference between the lowest level of populist literature and the same levels of other media, such as the tabloid press and trash TV, is that fewer people read it. Instant histories of current events often come into this category; but sometimes, on important issues, there are works that aspire to a higher quality, to provide a genuine and useful contribution to current debates.
This book, written by a team of journalists working for the Guardian newspaper in Britain, is very definitely in the latter category. It aims to pull together, in brief and readable form, the full story of what it calls "the most controversial war of modern times". To this end it aims to provide a record of the basic facts which have all too often been obscured under layers of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda. Despite some inconsistency of quality, inevitable perhaps in a volume compiled from the work of so many people, and some major flaws (on which more later), it largely succeeds.
The material is presented in a broadly chronological order, in reasonably short chapters. It can be divided into three parts: the period running up to the US attack, the period of the war (ending with the collapse of the Saddam Hussain regime), and finally the post-war situation and a thematic discussion of major issues concerning the war.
The Guardian has long been known as a liberal, left-of-centre paper, highly critical of US imperialism. It is little surprise, then, that its understanding of the build-up to the war looks past the pat political rhetoric to the realities of the situation, providing a brief analytical overview of the campaign against Iraq from the end of the 1991 war onwards . Thus the chapter states:
The story of how Iraq 1991 led to Iraq 2003 is the story of a very American crusade. It is, at bottom, a story of how a small group of politicians, policy makers and intellectuals, who came to be known as the neo-conservatives or ‘neo-cons’, came to get their way. It is the story of how they evolved a theory of America’s place in the world that had as its first great objective the ousting of Saddam by American military might. And it is the story of how, as opportunities presented themselves and challenges arose, this small group of rich, powerful and influential ideologues seized on them to make a reality of their long-nurtured dream (p. 7.)
This clarity of understanding, and willingness to address directly realities that other Western journalists often prefer to ignore, helps make this part of the book an excellent short text (about 20 pages) on the US political background to the war. It provides a brief account of the rise of the neo-cons in US politics, with introductions to key figures such as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and J. D. Crouch, and of the centrality of the Iraq issue to their thinking.
It then goes on to discuss the evolution of the regime’s Iraq policy after Bush’s inauguration as president in January 2001, showing how he ordered bombing operations against Iraq and the training of Iraqi militias within weeks of taking office. The book’s account also confirms impressions of US opportunism after September 11, quoting a memo written by Rumsfeld that very day in which he demanded "info fast" and ordered his officials to "Judge whether good enough to hit SH at the same time. Not only UBL. Go Massive. Sweep it all up. Things related or not." (p. 18.)
The Guardian’s conclusion is that "by August 2002, the neo-cons had won. The issue now was not whether to attack Iraq, but how." (p. 22.) The Guardian thus acknowledges what commentators at the time — including Crescent International — had already recognised: that all subsequent politicking, in the UN and elsewhere, including the passing of the infamous Security Council resolution 1441 in November 2002, and the debate on a possible second UN resolution, was merely for public consumption, to create the political circumstances in which the neo-cons’ decision could be implemented. But, the Guardian explains, "The fiction that no decision had been taken continued to be well-concealed, not just from the public, but from other senior members of the administration itself." (p. 22.)
In the next two chapters, the book discusses events between this decision and the beginning of the war in March 2003, at the international and British political levels. The second chapter, called ‘Disunited Nations’, discusses the period during which Washington decided to try to get UN legitimacy for its plans, UN Security Council 1441 was negotiated, and the UN weapons inspectors under Hans Blix sent back to Iraq. It culminated in the American realization that France and other members of the UN Security Council would not approve war, and the decision to go it alone with a "coalition of the willing".
In this period, US actions were characterised by aggressive politicking against all those whose actions might make war more difficult, including Blix and his allies, and a constant harping about ‘weapons of mass destruction’, the pretext on which the US had decided to base its argument.
The third chapter, ‘Blair’s moment of truth’, discusses British prime minister Tony Blair’s struggle to gain approval for his support for Bush in Britain, despite massive scepticism among the British people and in his own Labour Party. Throughout this period, Blair claimed to be trying to rein Bush in, and claimed credit for persuading him to take the "UN route". This book presents a very different picture; when Clare Short, a British cabinet minister, recently resigned, accusing Blair of having lied to his cabinet colleagues, Parliament and the country over his Iraq policy, she cited this book to support her accusation that Blair had known from at least September 2002 that the US had already decided on war, and that all the subsequent politicking was a sham.
These early chapters on the pre-war period are perhaps the strongest parts of the book, probably because they were written with the benefit of a certain amount of hindsight and time for reflection. The main part of the book, consisting of chapters 4-11, about the progress of the war, is a much more routine account of the development and progress of the US’s invasion, and of the surrounding events, both in the US and Britain, and in Iraq. These chapters consist predominantly of journalistic reportage rather than analysis, although there is some critical discussion of certain issues, such as the changing understanding of the war in the West and the so-called rescue of Jessica Lynch. There are also sections trying to convey the reality of the war from the perspective of Iraqis.
The final section of the book (chapters 12 to 18) looks at the post-war situation in Iraq (chapters 12 to 14), and at major themes (chapters 15 to 17), including a comparison between the American and British military styles, opinion in the Arab world, military strategy and the role and experience of the media. It is in this section, more than any earlier part of the book, that the haste in which it was produced becomes evident. The quality and style of the material varies considerably; obviously different sections were written by different journalists. The analysis of Arab opinion is superficial; the discussion of military technology and strategy is uncritical and sometimes reads like the excited account of an impressed schoolboy. The section on the media is much better, considering the implications for freedom of press of the Western governments’ news manipulation and the difficulties of covering a war objectively.
The book ends with a short and confused conclusion, ‘The hot war’, which appears to have been written by someone quite different from the early chapters. The title refers to America’s determination to take on critics of ‘The New American Century’, but the chapter also accepts uncritically Western claims to have brought ‘freedom’ to Iraq, and Bush and Blair’s claims to have been fighting to rid the world of weapons of mass destruction — claims which early chapters of the book had disproved and set aside. The impression is inescapable, in this and in some earlier chapters, that the editors, under pressure to get the book to press quickly after the conclusion of the war, were simply unable to do as good a job as was really necessary; a classic problem of journalism.
The same pressure may also explain the seriously flawed figures presented in an appendix called ‘The war in numbers’. This uncritically accepts a Pentagon figure of 2,320 Iraqi soldiers killed, which is utterly ridiculous; a simple examination of the estimates being made by embedded Western journalists of bodies they had seen while travelling with US and British troops suggests a true figure many times higher than that. There is also no reference whatsoever to the countless, perhaps uncountable, soldiers who died under the massive US bombardments of Iraqi defensive positions, far from the sight of any Western journalists. It is generally accepted that at least 100,000 Iraqi soldiers died during the 1991 Gulf War; one can only wonder what the real figures for this war may be.
The appendix also lists the "maximum number of Iraqi civilians killed" as 2,325, citing the independent website iraqbodycount.net. In fact, that was the minimum figure that iraqbodycount.net could confirm at the time the appendix was prepared. As this review was being written, the site listed at least 5,531, and possibly up to 7,203, confirmed civilian deaths, and there were undoubtedly many more that were unconfirmable or unreported because they took place beyond the sight of Western reporters. This sloppy use of figures is unforgiveable, regardless of the pressures under which the book was prepared.
Overall, therefore, this book may be considered to reflect both the qualities and the limitations of journalistic analyses of current events. In its early chapters, discussing the pre-war situation with the benefit of at least some time for reflection, it cuts through a lot of the propaganda to present as good a brief analysis of the true reasons for the war as perhaps is currently possible; although one might wish that better references were given for certain information.
Later sections, written under greater pressure, become weaker and weaker, more and more unreliable. Perhaps this is inevitable in instant histories; at least this one, unlike most of the others which we can expect to hit the bookshelves soon, attempts a critical look at an on-going chapter that in hindsight may well be considered as being as central to the history of Middle East as a whole as it clearly is to the history of Iraq itself.