A Week in Books: An unblinkered guide to Iraq

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

At a memorial meeting last week for Edward Said, the writer Ghada Karmi explained that pictures of the Palestinian scholar-activist - who died on 25 September - already have pride of place in homes in Bethlehem and Nablus. Long exile and dispossession have little to commend them. Yet, in Said's case, a people's tragedy and its global aftershocks built a bridge between a mass public and a leading intellectual. Under the pressure of history, the thinker turns icon. Unhappy the land, Brecht's Galileo warns, that has a need for heroes.

Happy lands - or complacent ones - can afford indifference to great events and their interpreters. Even extreme violence, suffered on home soil or exported in the form of war, only stirs concerned minorities. (George Bush can take comfort from that as he dodges the angry London crowds.) In Britain, at least, what swells those minorities now is the convergence of critical reportage with the culture of celebrity. Michael Moore can pack the London Palladium with his radical patter; but he clowns only to the converted. In general, Middle Britain has no especial fondness for academic analysts or radical satirists. Instead, it puts its trust in BBC foreign correspondents.

In recent years, those reporters (from Martin Bell and Fergal Keane to George Alagiah and Kate Adie) have repaid that trust with surprisingly good books. Next March, Rageh Omaar, the corporation's latest prime-time star, will join the stampede from screen to page with his Baghdad-based testament, Revolution Day. And ahead of the flak-jacket pack - in productivity and, perhaps, in popularity - lies the bulky shape of John Simpson.

The cult of personality in broadcast journalism has some manifest pitfalls (Simpson's News from No Man's Land sported his much-mocked "march on Kabul" on its cover). Of course, the reporter should never become the story. On 6 April 2003, however, Simpson had little choice. US "friendly fire" in northern Iraq killed his young translator, Kamaran Abdurrazak Mohammed (along with 18 Kurdish troops), and left the BBC's world affairs editor both deafened and peppered with shrapnel.

Given this brutal intimacy with front-line risks, Simpson's The Wars against Saddam (Macmillan, £20) impresses not so much by its urgency as its detachment. Viewers, and readers, will expect the crisp sections of witness and analysis that trace the Bush-Blair deposition of Saddam: "a small colonial campaign against a devastated enemy". He illuminates the past as well, intertwining his 20-year commitment to reporting Iraq with a history of the rise and fall of the Ba'athist terror regime, and of the foreign help that buttressed it.

His horrific narrative of the gas attack on the Kurds of Halabjah in 1988 achieves the same conjunction of vivid foreground and deep background as his post-liberation stumble around the kitschy palaces of Tikrit. Simpson always prefers to convey "how things seemed at the time", rather than gaffe-proof hindsight. Both well-paced and well-balanced, The Wars against Saddam still deserves better than a lazy "instant history" tag. The book exhibits, not bias, but a proper perspective as it compares American punitive missions with the imperial adventures of the later Victorian age. In fact, this "instant" mix offers richer flavours than many a stale academic brew.

It is, thank goodness, pretty unlikely that his admirers will begin to pin portraits of John Simpson on rag-rolled walls in Bournemouth or Norwich. Fortunately, Middle Britain currently needs not heroes, but unblinkered guides to our "savage wars of peace". It could do a great deal worse than stick with this one - for the duration.