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[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on July 16, 2008
Tags: book_reviews

Rory Stewart. Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq

“Those hopeless clods, blundering into Iraq without knowing a damn thing about it. They botched an occupation which might otherwise have gone smoothly. Imagine if individuals of character and integrity, with a real understanding of the West’s colonialist history in Iraq, an understanding of Muslim sensibilities, and a bit of bureaucratic savvy to boot, had been a part of the occupation.”

Except that, of course, the incompetence of the upper management in Iraq notwithstanding, there were many people of real ability, depth and nerve involved in that adventure. Rory Stewart was one of them, and he served as deputy governor of Amarah and then Nasiriyah, both in the South of Iraq. He is also a writer of real ability. He has written a book about his experiences, the upshot of which is bleak for anyone inclined to lean heavily on the incompetence defense for the disasters of the occupation. For he seems to have gone at the work of reconstruction and occupation with great energy, skill and determination, and he left with virtually nothing to show for it. Prince of the Marshes tells his story, and tells it well.

Vera Brittain. Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925

Vera Brittain lost her young fiance in World War I, and then two dear friends, and finally her brother. In 1915, she left Oxford to work as a nurse, caring for wounded soldiers, first in Britain, then Malta, and finally France. Her account of the war, and its shattering effects on her entire generation, is powerful, bitter, and moving. At the close of the war, she resumed her studies at Oxford, and on graduating moved on to a career as a novelist, journalist, and activist for internationalism and feminism. The whole tale is engaging, and Brittain writes persuasively and incisively about her causes, especially feminism. But it is the four deaths, and the struggle that follows to accept and understand the senseless waste of talent and energy they represented, that are so moving, and that form the emotional core of the story.

This is a wonderful book, tying together the personal and the political together in way that illuminates each. I got it out of the library after reading about it here. I’m grateful for the recommendation.