The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq

Patrick Cockburn’s latest book, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq opens with the following words: “It has been the strangest war.  It had hardly begun in 2003 when President George W. Bush announced on May 1 that it was over: the American mission had been accomplished. Months passed before Washington and London realised that the conflict had not finished. In fact, the war was only just beginning. Three years after Bush had spoken the US military had suffered 20,000 dead and injured in Iraq,  95 per cent of the casualties inflicted after the fall of Baghdad.” 

Even more unfortunate than President Bush’s premature declaration (and his declaration was nothing if not profoundly unfortunate), is the fact that three years after it was made Iraq is so very much further from peace than it was. Without fear of contradiction, one can state that the situation today is sufficiently poor to leave the majority of observers without any optimism that things are going to improve in the foreseeable future.

It isn’t much over a year ago that Cockburn was busy promoting his last book, The Broken Boy. That volume was a touching memoir about the author’s early years, living with his parents in Cork in the 1950s and the world’s last great polio epidemic, which struck Cockburn and some 50,000 others. In The Occupation, we are again treated to a deeply personal account of lives lived in hard times.

Although the distance in time and miles is considerable, anybody who read The Broken Boy will recognise many of the same qualities in Cockburn’s new book; the same solid research, sensitivity and understanding of the subject matter and an easy writing style, which in the case of The Occupation belies the mass of difficulties and danger involved in reporting from Iraq. At the same time, Cockburn does well to avoid any mawkishness, leaving the reader satisfied that one has read a great work rather than the ordinary and unsatisfactory efforts of many less able and less informed writers.

Cockburn entered Iraq before the US-led invasion and has reported from there since, largely for the Independent. However, where so many reports from endless numbers of embedded reporters often left one with little or no insight into the country and the conflict, Cockburn  derives  a certain authority from having been visiting Iraq since the late 1970s. This knowledge, the unparrallelled knowledge that comes of experience, is visible throughout The Occupation.

Apart from the amount of time he has spent in country, Cockburn has been studious about making his coverage as equitable as possible, interviewing Sunni and Shia, Kurds and Arabs to provide the widest possible range of views of the country today.

This dedication to the story is what allows this volume to stand apart from many others that have been penned at a safer distance. The success of The Occupation in large part derives from this strenuous effort of Cockburn’s to communicate with as many Iraqis as possible, a task that is becoming less easy as the country disintegrates.

The text covers a time period beginning before the invasion, to the failure of reconstruction and subsequent disintegration of the state, in spite of the efforts of the occupiers to force through democracy, perhaps in the hope that this would in part exonerate them of any blame for the continued failure to bring peace even in the nation’s capital.

With so many books about Iraq on the market, one has to exercise caution in selecting which  volumes  one  is  going  to  invest one’s time and money in. The Occupation is one book that I can recommend without hesitation. It is a solid and adroit portrait of a country at war written with insight and style.

Unfortunately for the people of Iraq, the story of the war is a long way from being consigned to history. Even as Cockburn continues to report from Iraq, it seems increasingly clear that mismanagement has been replaced by no management at all and while one must hope that peace and security will come to Iraq sooner rather than later at this time it is hard to see any light at the end of the anarchy. The Occupation: War and Resistance in IraqMembers’ price £14 (plus p&p)By Patrick Cockburn