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Book Review: Understanding Iraq by William R Polk

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This is a short (220pp), pithy, beautifully written account of Iraq and the Iraqis from earliest times to today, written by an American whose Middle East academic credentials are impressive and who was also actively involved with US Middle East policy under the Kennedy administration. He dismisses the current disastrous US/UK military action in a few short sentences: it was always about the oil.

Rather a strange experience for an Australian to read this in Australia on Anzac Day, our glorious national celebration of military defeat, and to realise for the first time that the spectacularly unsuccessful and bloody attempt by Australian troops and others to occupy Gallipoli in Turkey during World War I was a direct consequence of Britain’s decision to invade Iraq in November 1914 and a few days later to declare war on the Ottoman empire. So this current invasion of Iraq by Western forces was in fact preceded, only a few short decades ago, by another. And those two invasions were of course preceded by countless others, over thousands of years.

Did Australian Prime Minister John Howard make that historical link, do you suppose, when he decided to commit Australian troops to the Coalition of the Willing? Did he ask himself whether Australians needed another Gallipoli?

In 1914, according to Polk, British military strategists made no bones about the reason for their action: as for today, it was explicitly to protect their oil sources. Forty-odd years of uneasy British occupation of Iraq followed, until the revolution of 1958 which installed Saddam’s predecessors. Are Americans prepared for 40 years of occupation this time round, one wonders? Those who have read their history books perhaps should be.

The plain moral of Polk’s story, and its hard to disagree, can be summed up in Santayana’s familiar dictum: those who don’t understand history are condemned to repeat it… and never more so than in contemporary Iraq, home to one of the oldest civilisations on the planet and one of the newest geopolitical nightmares.

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