Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

Mike's Notes - An Iraq Reading List

We Foreign Service Officers are generally accustomed to reading in before a new assignment.  In a normal career span, one might have background for a particular assignment, but certainly not for every country where one works (although an acquaintance of mine did serve his first and last assignment in a North African country, where he was ambassador, but otherwise served in Japan or in Washington working on Japan policy).  Sometimes we have the luxury of being enrolled in a country-specific area studies course in conjunction with long-term language training, but otherwise we're at the library or adding to our personal book collections.


Since I've known for almost a year that I was Baghdad-bound, I've had the chance to do quite a bit of reading, with still more to do.  The problem with a high-profile, newsworthy place like Iraq, however, is that it generates a flood of books, many of them first-person accounts by journalists.  My search on "Iraq" in Amazon, for example, produced 71,715 results, while opening the Iraq sub-category in Amazon's "History" category still brought up 1,734 results.  I also looked through eight pages of Amazon reading lists tagged with "Iraq war" and found most of them to focus on the military campaign in Iraq, general Middle East issues, or the politics behind the U.S. involvement.  In my search, I did find a reading list prepared by the American Association of University Presses (AAUP) at (without "www" in front), which seemed quite good.  I thought, however, that I would provide my own reading suggestions, which would be more oriented to a foreign-service practitioner's information needs.


Despite its inflammatory title, the following book was an interesting read, and first got me thinking about serving in a post-conflict reconstruction situation.  The book has nothing to do with Iraq, but the authors served with the UN in Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Liberia.

      Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures) by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson

This appears to be part of a small genre of non-fiction writing, which includes a book by Angelina Jolie and another memoir of service in Doctors without Borders.  In the same vein, I plan to read:

      America's Role in Nation Building: From Germany to Iraq by James Dobbins


One of the earliest and one of the most recent books that I read are generally found on everyone's reading lists.

      Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

      Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks


I met Rajiv in Indonesia when he was dating an Embassy Jakarta colleague, and I always liked his reporting when he was the Washington Post's Southeast Asia bureau chief, so I naturally got his book when I was contemplating an Iraq assignment.  My FSI instructor, Jerry, who served in the Coalition Provisional Authority during the period that Rajiv covered, panned the book, but praised Fiasco, despite its critical comments.  In fact, I don't find much difference in the broad conclusions from these two Washington Post reporters.  They both cover the critical period from the U.S. intervention to the rise of the Iraqi insurgency and document some of the missteps that were made in that early period.


I also plan to read the following two books, which also appear on many reading lists and cover the same period:

      The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq by George Packer

      Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War by Anthony Shadid

I'm hoping that another book, written by a former USAID Iraq Mission Director, will yield some good lessons for me:

      Losing the Golden Hour: An Insider's View of Iraq Reconstruction by James Stephenson


The following are entertaining accounts, written from a personal perspective describing specific situations without drawing any general conclusions about the first years after the U.S. military intervention.

      Contractor Combatants: Tales of an Embedded Capitalist by Carter Andress

      Babylon by Bus: Or, the true story of two friends who gave up their valuable YANKEES SUCK T-shirts at Fenway to find meaning and adventure in Iraq by Ray LeMoine, Jeff Neumann, and Donovan Webster

      The Prince of Marshes; and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq by Rory Stewart


Rory Stewart is a former British diplomat who was the deputy in the forerunner of a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Maysan Province.  He writes in a very dry, understated style in which he describes what is happening but hardly ever reveals his personal reaction to events.  Amazon's readers give him glowing ratings, but provide mixed reviews of another Brit who served in a similar capacity in neighboring Wasit Province:

      Revolt on the Tigris: The Al-Sadr Uprising and the Governing of Iraq by Mark Etherington


One of Amazon's readers argued that Etherington created his own security risks, writing:

"I was on the site during the big battle in the book, when Etherington insisted on staying to negotiate with insurgents who weren't interested in negotiating but were buying time to dig in around us.  In fact, they were looking for hostages, preferably American.  The CPA compound was renovated at an expense of $20,000,000 but that did not include fortifications for the river bank because the governor liked the view of the river.  When the compound was surrounded by hundreds of insurgents on April 6th, that exposed flank made it possible to shell the compound at will.  I could go on but there's steam coming out of my ears right now and I shouldn't write under those conditions."


I still plan to buy the book.


After my initial reading, I circled back and tried to get a better handle on how the U.S. became involved in Iraq.  George Tenet's memoir presented him as a rather sympathetic individual and presented a credible case that he had been made a scapegoat.

      See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA's War on Terrorism by Robert Baer

      At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA by George Tenet

The 9/11 Commission report has been on my bookshelves for a while, but I'll have to crack it open soon:

      The 9/11 Commission Report: The Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (Authorized Edition) by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks


Finally, after the Iraq orientation course, I decided to read the Iraq histories that we received:

      Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan's Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation by William R. Polk

      The Modern History of Iraq by Phebe Marr

I also had a book that I had bought at Borders during one of its "buy a second book for half off" sales that turned out to be a good and well-written history of the Jewish community in Iraq and of Iraq generally after World War II:

      Last Days in Babylon: The History of a Family, the Story of a Nation by Marina Benjamin

I also plan to supplement my reading with T.E. Lawrence's classic of the British/Arab campaign against the Ottoman Turks during World War I The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.


Finally, in my Eastern European experience, I highly valued a book titled Reconstruction of Nations by Timothy Snyder, which examined the interrelationships between Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus from 1569 until 1999.  The book, expanded from a doctoral dissertation, explained where the common and different historical experiences of the four countries shaped the modern nations.  In my quick reading of Iraq's modern history, I thought that a similar approach to Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and to some extant Kuwait would have been equally useful.  All four countries existed as parts of the Ottoman Empire, their modern boundaries are a historical accident, and all dealt as Arab Muslims with Turkish and Persian coreligionists.  All the histories that I've come across, however, either deal with the Middle East as a whole, or with each country.  In the meantime, I plan to read the following new history of the U.S. involvement with the Middle East:

      Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present by Michael B. Oren