Ignorance and ideology

<strong>Defeat: Why They Lost Iraq</strong>

Jonathan Steele <em>I B Tauris, 304pp, £20</em>

In the summer of 2002 an "Iraq peace game", held significantly enough at the US Army War College, foreshadowed some of the developments that were to follow the US-led invasion. The start line was different, given that, in this scenario, the invasion had triggered a military coup in Baghdad. However, the outcome was similar in that the mutually suspicious parties and factions of "Iraqis" came together on one issue only - denunciation of the US occupation.

The collective walkout of the assorted Americans, Iraqis and Europeans all masquerading as Iraqi players in this political drama brought the game to a shuddering halt. Of course, as the smirks of some of the organisers showed, this was actually part of a larger game played by one US government agency against another. They were trying to drive home the point that, in the event of an invasion, the US would be drawn into a full-blown military occupation that would in turn create bitter and widespread opposition in Iraq.

In many respects this is the core of the argument of Jonathan Steele's impressive and powerful book. Unlike many recent books that look chronologically at the build-up to the invasion, the unravelling of the occupation and the subsequent bloody conflict, Steele's account takes a number of major themes and sees how they combined to create the current uncertain condition of Iraq. This allows him to develop a persuasive thesis about the logic of military occupation, supported by a rich array of evidence. In brief, he argues that however sensitive, culturally attuned and subtle the foreign occupiers may be - and in this case they are clearly none of these things - they are still foreign occupiers who are there because of the violence they have used and continue to use against sections of the local population.

As he shows, this brings a number of consequences in its wake: ideas about an early withdrawal evaporate in the face of concerns about the occupying power's prestige; military action to "restore order" takes a fearful toll on local civilians, costing hundreds of lives in Fallujah, Haditha and elsewhere and leading to the incarceration of thousands; resistance builds across the country, some of it armed and violent, some of it merely resentful and subversive of the order that is being imposed.

Furthermore, as Steele's account makes all too clear, the occupying power begins to think it has a right to be there and acts accordingly. The US proconsul Paul Bremer was a very public embodiment of this arrogance, but the rot goes deeper, extending upwards to Washington and London and downwards to many of the US and British personnel in their dealings with Iraqis. Partly fuelled by prejudices about Iraq's inhabitants, partly by ignorance of the history and complexity of Iraqi society, as well as by a telling, and some might argue racist, lack of interest in seriously trying to understand it, the occupiers appear to have seen the country as a means to an end, not an end in itself. It was to be made an example of, in more senses than one. If the Iraqis had the nerve to resist their remaking, then so much the worse for them.

The outcome was the mayhem of the past few years, in which it has indeed been the Iraqis who have paid in blood and shattered lives for the cruel logic of military occupation and the resistance it provoked. This is well captured by Steele in some of the most moving passages of the book, where the power of the picture he builds up through his personal encounters with Iraqis must serve as one of the greatest indictments of the whole illegal venture.

Because of this country's more meagre resources, but also because of an incompetence based on ignorance rather than on ideological fervour, the British occupation of the south came to a fairly rapid accommodation with the powerful and often murderous forces that had been busily colonising public space and institutions in Basra. This has permitted an effective exit for the United Kingdom, even if the grim legacy of its intervention will be felt for some time to come.

For the US, withdrawal is not so straightforward. As Steele points out, even if most of the wild-eyed neocons have been ditched, the American political and military authorities still see the Iraqi government as being on probation. The US having publicly redefined the conflict as one against "al-Qaeda" and "agents of Iran", its presence in Iraq is now portrayed as crucial for US security, justifying huge military bases and obliging all contenders for the White House to declare that the US must not "cut and run". This, of course, has created what Iraqi nationalists, chafing under British occupation, used to refer to delicately as al-wad' ash-shadh, or "the perplexing predicament" - that is, the hindrance to any kind of progress as long as there are, in effect, two governments in Iraq.

Charles Tripp is professor of politics with reference to the Middle East at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His most recent book is the third edition of "A History of Iraq" (Cambridge University Press, 2007)

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide