52B/52W, Week 10: Irak La Machine Infernale

Post by Maxime Rousseau

Photo 12-30-2013, 9 20 56 PM

Irak la machine infernale – Samir al-Khalil

Remember Derriennic from my second post? This book is his fault. As a matter of fact, many books I own are his fault: I went absolutely nuts one night with his reading list for his Middle East class, and bought something like 200$ of books on Amazon, many of them used. I feel I kinda jumped the gun too soon on some of them... I don't think I have the mental fortitude yet to attack a 1000 page brick on the history of zionism... however this one was a very concise read that I feel is generally useful for both general culture and as a part of my studies. As with the book on Lebanon, this post isn't going to be a summary of the content of the book, but rather a wider reflection on what I found interesting during my read. As a factual piece, I don't feel that this book was necessarily the best intro to late 20th century Irak mostly because of it's publishing dates back to 1991 (although most of it sounds like it was written before the end of the Iran-Irak war). This book, while passé, was an excellent read.

One thing struck me throughout is how everything I  was reading sounded so alien. It was the same kind of feeling that I had when I read that book on Khomeini I have: I had not prior knowledge of what I was reading, nothing for the new material to link up to and to construct sense. That in itself is not surprising, there are probably a lot of things that I ignore everything about. What was surprising is about this book is that it was about Irak, the super-villain from the axis of evil, the country against which the US ground the blade of it's post-Cold War foreign policy, that country that served as a theatre for what was probably the biggest war ever to happen during my teenage years. Saddam and his pitilessness, the Ba'ath and it's violence, the gassing of the Kurdes, the country's military weight, I thought I knew a couple of things on Irak. Turns out I didn't know much, because what I knew was based on events that mostly all took place post-Gulf War. I forgot, probably like others, that before the Gulf War, Irak was still a thing, albeit pale in comparison to other important countries and events at the time, most probably related to the Cold War.

This book didn't build on the prior knowledge of the Gulf War, because it hadn't happen yet. This book treats the Iran-Irak war as the end-all moment of the Irakis, and thus builds up the analysis from a much earlier historical experience than just the Ba'ath->Saddam->Iran-Irak->1st Gulf->2nd Gulfe series of events to which I was exposed in classes and books.  This deepening of the historical analysis for one is very helpful, and the insight on the relatively little known operation of the Iraki Ba'ath from an insider's perspective makes for a very interesting read.

From a distance, the historical root causes of phenomenon always appears simpler: you don't NEED to understand the Ba'ath and the founding of the Iraki regime to understand that the US kicked their asses. To understand that Saddam is a ruthless, cunning and bellicose is enough. When a subject is deemed interesting, scholarly analysis is often overabundant, but when events shrinks to insignificance and are noted in the history books, very often it is poor and historically tainted. Researchers in the field of terrorism for example seem to agree that academia is going totally nuts over the phenomenon, making complete mastery of the field a difficult task because of the sheer number of studies based on it. The sad thing about this field is that a few years from now, it is most likely that an infinitely small fraction of all that content will be considered relevant. This book was an excellent reminder that history, while in appearance based on  objective facts, is in practice subject to change.

Also interesting is the fact that the link between the Iraki Ba'ath and socialism is explored in more detailed, giving an interesting insight in how the arabs, and in a larger frame the third-world, deployed it's own brand of socialism. My curiosity has been piqued by both the theory of Franz Fanon's third-worldism and the pratical application of third-world socialism by Nyerere in Tanzania, and in that respect it was interesting to get the arab perspective on these matters. Expect more books relating to this.

Bottom line, this is very good, westerner-friendly primer to pre-90's Iraq. Tons of stuff helpful to a wider understanding of the Middle East at large is mentioned, with references mix 50/50 between arabic and english publications, which is a nice balance of stuff you can read for yourself and helpful bits cited and translated from Arabic that you'd probably never have read otherwise. It's available in french or english.