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The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

The Student News Site of Macalester College

The Mac Weekly

Middle Eastern books to match your Middle Western education

By Alex Park

Got a budding interest in the Middle East or current affairs but not enough yet to declare your MESIC concentration? Looking to read something over Thanksgiving break that’s informative and relevant, while still managing to be actually readable? Then here are two accessible and thought-provoking works of non-fiction to stir the global citizen in you.The first of these books, Fiasco: the American Military Adventure in Iraq, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter Thomas E. Ricks, is widely accepted as the best book so far on the buildup and eventual catastrophe of the Iraq War-at least before analysis thereof falls out of the realm of journalism and into academia. At 451 pages and 438 notes (Ricks said he only made notations when the source was “particularly significant or deserving of notice”), this is a thick book, chop full of facts, figures and anecdotes. Needless to say, it’s also a very thorough account.

Ricks interviewed several hundred people-from enlisted men in Baghdad and elsewhere to top civilian and military leadership inside the Beltway-and combed through thousands of pages of government documents, some of which were only recently declassified. The resulting epic is a towering achievement of journalistic research and reporting. If you haven’t been religiously committed to newspaper coverage of the Iraq War since its inception but want to be in the know anyway, this is perhaps the best place to start.

Nonetheless, without a formal introduction and no real thesis to speak of, the book does come off like an overloaded daily newspaper article at times. The content is often very dry; the facts are typically presented just as themselves without any literary embellishment. While it’s incredibly informative, Fiasco rarely captures the novelistic clarity and historical grasp of, say, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. But it doesn’t intend to, either. As the author puts it, the book is “not an academic study written at long remove from its subject, but an attempt to write narrative history on the heels of the events it covers.”

But what the book lacks in contextualization, it wins in its immediacy. If anything is made clear from reading this, it is, quite honestly, that nothing is clear. The enveloping sense of chaos that permeates the media is just as extensive inside the military, the White House, and every other camp either involved or observing the conflict from the sidelines. In highlighting the important, though somewhat overlooked details of the buildup of the war, Ricks shows us how disaster was written all over the project from its onset.

During an address to the national conference of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Nashville, for instance, Vice President Dick Cheney is seen telling the audience that “many of us are convinced that Saddam Hussein will acquire nuclear weapons very soon.”

was the first time anyone had heard such a statement made with a degree of conviction, including President Bush. Retired General Anthony Zinni, who was for the last decade responsible for watching Iraq’s weapons development and was sitting directly behind the Vice President at the time, almost fell out of his chair.

Zinni, in particular, comes out as a fallen hero in all this. Having had a third of his back muscle removed after being shot three times by a North Vietnamese AK-47 in Danang, he entered a career as a high-ranking officer in the Marine Corps vowing to do everything in his power to prevent any young soldier from going through the same thing he did. True to his word, Zinni took it upon himself to steer the administration away from war by taking his case to the public, lobbying influential think tanks and anyone else who would hear his message. The Bush administration ignored him anyway.

Often in its starker moments, Fiasco is a tribute to the War’s failed opposition.

Fiasco is no crystal ball for the future and whatever analysis it offers will likely be replaced by far more nuanced interpretations by future scholars. But reading it will make you understand what is meant when people call journalism the “first draft of history.” By that standard, this certainly is journalism at its best, in all its rawness and confusion. If nothing else, it is a struggle to come to terms with a situation greater than anything the people currently living it can realistically grasp. Take it as a snapshot of the historical moment, and all that led into its creation. If nothing else, you’ll have a far more balanced understanding of the situation than most of those originally in charge.

For a much shorter, and even more readable window onto a storm still brewing, you might try your hand at the very recently published volume: The Iran Agenda: the Real Story of U.S. Policy and the Middle East Crisis by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Reese Erlich. Unlike Fiasco, this book does have a thesis. Simply put, it goes like this: Iran doesn’t have any nukes, and the international community should be ashamed to assume otherwise.

The evidence he cites is succinct, but damning. Starting with some anecdotal evidence about the author’s time in Iran and moving on to a thorough recap of Iranian-American relations until now, Erlich puts Western media outlets to shame in making that which has been ignored obvious, and the obvious more obvious.

For example, did you know that since 1995 American intelligence has periodically said that Iran is only five years from being capable of building a nuclear weapon? European and Israeli intelligence organizations have made similar statements, revising them every few years when the doomsday they predict fails to materialize.

On the other hand, the far less politically inclined International Atomic Energy Agency has reported for years that Iran’s nuclear program is plagued with technical difficulties, halts in production, and is basically incapable of producing the quality of uranium necessary for nuclear weapons. Their conclusion? If Iran does want the bomb, they have no idea how to get it. On the other hand, it could just be trying to diversify its energy supplies, like it says it is.

Even more shocking is the chapter titled “U.S. Tells Iran: Become a Nuclear Power.” Without breaching any classified documents or speaking with a single anonymous source, Elrich details how Henry Kissinger and various presidents, from Nixon to Ford, emphatically encouraged Iran to develop a nuclear energy program. One memo from the Ford administration noted that Iran should “prepare against the time . when Iranian oil production is expected to sharply decline”-by developing its nuclear sector.

If Fiasco helps you sort through the existing chaos of the American media coverage of the Iraq War, consider The Iran Agenda a preemptive strike on the next media milieu to come. Elrich single-handedly reveals what mainstream media outlets in the West have failed to reveal until now.

Read his work and you will understand what it is you’ve been missing.

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    Luke RobertsSep 12, 2019 at 4:38 am

    An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a co-worker who had been conducting a little homework on this. And he in fact ordered me lunch because I discovered it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to talk about this topic here on your site.

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    Bernadette KerrSep 10, 2019 at 9:57 pm

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  • H

    Heather GrantSep 4, 2019 at 10:24 pm

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