Top positive review
Not shying away from complexity...
Reviewed in the United States on September 8, 2016
With the recent mess in Syria I decided it was finally time for me to become more informed about the Middle East. It is something I have wanted to do for a long time. I have felt embarrassed for a long time about my lack of understanding of the region, the cultures, the history, and the meaning of current events. I have sort of a compulsive brain so whenever I decide to study anything I generally try to adopt a systematic plan: begin with broad introductions that are “balanced” then dive into interesting details and explore more partisan viewpoints. But I decided with the Middle East to just go with my gut and start with whatever book seemed most appealing to me at the moment so I decided to begin with Dexter Filkins’s book on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
After the first couple of chapters I was worried that I had made a mistake. I could tell that Dexter Filkins was a good writer, and the narrative was going to be interesting, but it became quickly apparent that the book was going to be made up of a series of vignettes, and I was afraid that I would not get enough of the context to understand what the vignettes meant. As I went along, however, I eventually decided this was an excellent place to start precisely because Filkins does such an excellent job portraying the complexities of what actually happened on the ground.
I will just give one example. One of the stories he tells is about a doctor in a hospital in Iraq after the invasion. At the time of his visit the hospital was without power due to the war and a lot of babies were not surviving because of it. Filkins was talking to the doctor about it and the doctor was explaining how these power outtages did not happen under Saddam. Filkins wondered how many babies were dying and the doctor explained that they did not have good records anymore because without the discipline instilled by Saddam’s regime the hospital staff was not bothering to do their job. But then Filkins asked the doctor if he thought it would have been better to leave Saddam in power and the doctor said no, things were bad under Saddam, and they would eventually get better now that he was gone.
What was interesting to me about this story was that it did not fall neatly into any of the standard ideological positions on the war in the United States. It does not fall easily into the pro-war narrative of the US as liberators spreading democracy but it also does not fall easily into the anti-war narrative of the US as a colonial power that should have left well enough alone. It would be very hard for either side to use this story in their propaganda. I am convinced that the world is too complex and multi-dimensional to fit into the two-dimensional narratives we try to foist upon it and I think Filkins’s book does an excellent job of portraying the complexity without filtering it through a simplistic ideological lens.
For that reason - and also because it was just a really absorbing narrative, Filkins knows how to spin a good yarn, and there are many genuinely moving and heart-breaking stories in this book - I wound up feeling like this was actually an ideal place to begin my studies of a very complex region. I might even return to it, and read it again, once I do have more of the context just because it was such a good read.