Seeing through the fog of war

Ahistory book that presents events as a series of incontestable facts is a sword that can cut through the toughest of ideologies, forcing the reader to reevaluate the strength of his beliefs. No matter what you think about the war in Iraq, “The Iraq War” will leave you uncomfortable about the strength of your beliefs.

A respected expert on military affairs, John Keegan takes you through Iraq’s long, bloody history, starting in ancient times and leading you through the founding of Iraq, its succession of governments (changed more often at gunpoint), the bloody rise of Saddam Hussein, the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s that drained the Iraqi treasury and led to the invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Gulf War and the diplomatic maneuvering prior to the latest conflict, right up to the occupation of the country.

The actual text of the book is only 210 pages long, and Keegan writes so well that the pages fly by, even when it dives into the accounts of the invasions, when the necessary use of unit identifications and military jargon threatens to glaze the eyes of non-military readers.

The result is a history that challenges readers on either side of the conflict. Opponents of the war have to deal with the fact that that Saddam was a threat to peace in the Middle East and beyond. That he tried to develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons cannot be denied, nor that he used chemical weapons against the people of his country. He also defied for 12 years U.N. resolutions that called for dismantling of his weapons programs, and, in the end, lacked the credibility to resolve the crisis even if he wanted to.

At the same time, Keegan points out that those who favored regime change had their particular problems. While Saddam kept his WMD programs barely alive during the ’90s, they were crippled by sanctions far more than anyone — including the U.N. and then-President Clinton — realized. And the neoconservatives who believed that democracy can be transported into the Middle East have encountered enormous resistance from those who would lose power, such as the tribal sheiks and religious mullahs.

The civilian administrators who came to Baghdad after the war come in for a whacking. Keegan confirms that disbanding the Iraqi army and police forces was “a serious mistake,” causing the country to fall into even worse anarchy and delaying the reconstruction.

The only group to come out well in “The Iraq War” was the U.S. and British military, who fought bravely, improvised brilliantly at times and achieved their goal of toppling a dictatorial regime. That may offer some consolation to those whose world changed on Sept. 11.