The Wars Against Saddam: taking the hard road to Baghdad
John Simpson Macmillan, 415pp, £20
Fifty pages into John Simpson's new book I found myself humming "The Twelve Days of Christmas", the carol in which each time a new line is added all the others are repeated: "Three French hens, two turtle-doves and a partridge in a pear tree". So it is with the Simpson oeuvre. The new book repeats the last one and adds a bit. Approximately 200 of the 400-odd pages in The Wars Against Saddam are taken from Simpson's 1991 book, From the House of War, an account of that year's Gulf conflict. Some parts are cut down, others reproduced verbatim. An anecdote about a trip to the front line in the Iran-Iraq war, told briefly in From the House of War, is expanded in this new book, but it turns out that it has been taken almost word for word from his 1995 account of life in revolutionary Iran, Lifting the Veil. The only difference is that the unfortunate German who dies of a heart attack is "short and stout" in that version and "large" in this one. I suspect that Simpson retells the same incident in one of his autobiographical volumes.
Most journalists - myself included - love to tell and retell war stories. We frequently ignore the eyeball-rolling gestures of old friends at dinner parties as we fling ourselves once more unto the breach. But the act of committing anecdote to paper, between hard covers, should be done just the once. Simpson excuses himself in the preface, saying that as it is too early to write a history of the wars against Saddam Hussein, he wants to write "an account of how things seemed at the time". This is his reason for trawling through past books "in search of things I wrote at the time". But a great deal is now known about the 1991 Gulf war and the sanctions that followed, and this informs our understanding of the recent conflict. Hindsight is not a distortion but a way of illuminating the past. We now understand that George Bush Sr's decision to allow Saddam to crush the Shia uprising in 1991 destroyed the trust many Iraqis had in America, and this explains why US troops were not greeted as liberators in southern Iraq last year. Simpson's brief account of the uprising at the time underplays its significance.
None the less, it makes sense for Simpson to pull together his two decades of reporting on Iraq into one volume; and, as a quick canter through the history, leavened by reportage, it works. If you want to know, more or less, how we got to where we are, this is not a bad way of finding out, and it is very readable. Simpson takes us through the lead-up to the war, including the rise of the neo-cons in Washington, providing few revelations but good colour and quotes, and occasional insightful comments. Reflecting on sanctions, he writes: "The first Gulf war was imposed on George Bush Senior, in the sense that he wouldn't have fought it if Saddam Hussein had not invaded Kuwait. The second Gulf war . . . was a matter of deliberate choice for his son, George W. But Bill Clinton, who always wanted everyone to think that his heart was in the right place, killed more Iraqis than either of them by a policy of slow strangulation." He is good at debunking the simple moral certainties of pro- and anti-war camps. But he does have a habit of writing others out of the story; for example, explaining that in 2003 Saddam Hussein chose to give an interview to Tony Benn rather than himself because the questions would be softer, he omits to add that Saddam also gave an interview to Dan Rather of CBS, whose questions were very skilful. Saddam understood that however important the correspondent, the Americans matter more than the British.
The book contains inaccuracies, presumably because it was written very fast and not edited properly. My colleague Gaby Rado of Channel 4 News is described (twice) as having died in a "car accident". Actually, he died when he fell from a roof in an as yet unexplained incident in Kurdistan. Simpson writes that Tony Blair's dossier on Iraq's weapons released on 24 September 2002 included material written by a PhD student and lifted from the internet. It did not. That was the "dodgy dossier" published in February 2003. Simpson repeats the mistake, saying that in January 2003 "a senior figure in the world of intelligence" told him Downing Street had apologised to MI6 for the "dodgy dossier" which incorporated the PhD thesis. Not possible. The "dodgy dossier" had not yet been published.
The account of what happened when US warplanes mistakenly fired missiles at a Kurdish convoy with which the BBC team was travelling is vividly told. Simpson is a decent man, and I have no doubt he is sincere when he expresses great sadness and a sense of responsibility for the death of his translator, Kamaran Abdurrazak Mohammed. He can also be self-deprecating - he shouts at a marine patrol that roughed up the BBC's Kurdish bodyguards, then writes: "What kind of a figure must I have cut, lurching around like a comic actor from an early Sixties movie, threatening US marines with my walking stick?" But the grainy cover shot of the author, dressed in flak jacket and with blood on his face, a photo "grab" of the piece to camera that he recorded on video after the attack, places him firmly at the centre of the story, not just as journalist but as war hero. Presumably, the publishers thought that Simpson's face would sell better than Saddam's as they rushed this book out as soon as possible.
Lindsey Hilsum reported on the Iraq war from Baghdad for Channel 4 News