Bluenose's Reviews > The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq

The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart
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Jul 27, 2010

it was amazing

Very recent history at that. If you want even a glimmer of what Iraq is all about, read this book.

I had read THE PLACES IN BETWEEN, Stewart’s account of his lone walk across Afghanistan after his service in Iraq and it was a terrific book. It put in question some of my fondly held prejudices about Afganistan, muslims and that part of the world in general. It left no doubt as to Stewart’s ball busting nerve and his deep understanding of the people and history of Afghanistan.

In this book he has come to Iraq as a member of the British Foreign Office to help administer 2 Iraqi provinces for the Coalition (the invaders and now erstwhile rulers of Iraq). It’s a thankless, frustrating and sometimes dangerous job but he finds some measure of accomplishment in the effort to rebuild and reshape Iraq. It’s all pretty hopeless though. The coalition’s American leaders have given him and his cohorts an impossible task in trying to impose foreign political and social ideals on an ancient and well entrenched society that has been fucked around by foreigners for centuries - and that often sees foreigners as someone from the next village. Tough job. That he goes about it with enthusiasm, sincerity and great energy is amazing. It becomes clear why the country sort of worked under the dictator Saddam. Stewart seeks out the community leaders and finds a ragtag bunch of thieves, murderers, religious lunatics and chancers, each with a finely honed sense of their own importance. That’s what he has to work with and though it all ends in failure, you’ve got to credit him with doing his damnedest.

The chaos and seat of the pants strategy of the Coalition government is revealed in stark contrast with American accounts of the occupation which implied that there was a considered intelligence in the actions of Bremer and the Big American Minds around him. No such luck. They seem confused, desparate and isolated just as Stewart often does. When the Italian army which is supposed to protect him in Nasiriyah behaves like, well, the Italian army and leaves him high and dry, he has to abandon much of his work and watch it being destroyed by a small group of insurgents.

That’s the irony of the occupation. The violent factions (who Stewart tries, with some success, to enlist in the coalition’s ad hoc governance structure) are small and easily controlled by a relatively small professional army but there is nothing like a civil society in Iraq. Everything is faction and sub-factions within the factions and nothing holding them together now that Saddam is gone. His security apparatus held the country together through terror and favour and the Coalition never came up with anything to replace it.

Not that Stewart does any grand theorizing. This is an account of his experiences and sketches of the people he encountered and worked with and as such it is a brilliant and valuable book.

The Prince of the title is one of the characters he encounters and has to work with though why he rates the title I have no idea.

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