Rudyard Kipling meets Dilbert in this engrossing memoir of a year’s service in Iraq by a British member of the Coalition Provisional Authority.
When 30-year-old Stewart took up his post in September 2003 as Acting Governorate Coordinator in Amara in southern Iraq, he had recently walked across Afghanistan (a trek he recounts in The Places in Between, May 2006) and done stints as an infantry officer and member of the British Foreign Service. None of this entirely prepared him for the task of nation-building in a country with a broken command-economy and a political culture consisting of competing conspiracies among tribal sheikhs, gangsters and different flavors of theocrat. The author is careful to point out the many occasions on which the expectations of the Coalition were confounded by events. Having first experimented with appointed councils, for instance, he found that only local elections gave politicians the legitimacy to act. He also learned that the Coalition’s unwillingness to use lethal force to defend property, particularly public property, was not regarded as humane restraint, but as a sign of weakness. He and his colleagues did manage to foster a sort of order in Asmara and later in neighboring Nasiriyah before the handoff of civil authority to the Iraqi interim government in June 2004, though he expresses mixed feelings about the nature of that order. Although his memoir contains some derring-do, notably at the climactic siege of Nasiriyah, this is not really a war story, but rather an account of bureaucracy punctuated by gunfire. The chapters are short, often devoted to a single meeting or conference, and each imparts lessons: how to cajole action when you are not in the chain of command, for instance, or how to make a successful budget request based on ignorance and optimism. Despite its exotic setting, the story is strangely familiar.
Will reward readers interested in the Iraq war, or disaster management, or anyone interested in taking an intelligent adventure.