Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq 
by Rory Stewart.
Picador, 422 pp., £17.99, June 2006, 0 330 44049 7
Show More
Show More

Not long ago I attended a lunch at which the guests were invited to discuss the Iraq debacle. It was deep in red-state America, but everybody present was an academic, and expressed due sentiments of horror and outrage. Most were also historians of empire, and started casting about for parallels. Is Iraq like Suez, some wondered? Or Cyprus, perhaps? Or is it most like India, where the British scampered away on a hastily determined timetable, keeping their hands clean of the bloodshed that followed? Nobody mentioned Northern Ireland, the place where many British soldiers serving in Iraq were trained in counter-insurgency. For my part, I was less struck by any single imperial precedent than by the historians’ insistence on the present-day relevance of their subject. That history shapes us and our world ought to appear so self-evident as to set it above tie-ins with newspaper headlines. Yet history never repeats itself exactly; and while ‘lessons can be learned’ from the past, one can always conjure a multitude of pasts to choose from.

Presents, too. A basic classroom lesson of history is that things look different depending on where you stand. Rory Stewart’s Occupational Hazards: My Time Governing in Iraq explores the history in progress of the Iraqi occupation from an unusual and illuminating vantage point. The book describes nine months Stewart spent in 2003-4 working as a deputy governor and adviser for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in southern Iraq. Books on current hot spots tend to be written by journalists; Stewart’s position as participant-observer means that he not only witnesses the chaos but has to try to do something about it. This tension, between the observing author and the active administrator, informs his account of the search for order in post-Saddam Iraq, and makes for an eye-opening and at times enthralling book.

Stewart’s stint in neo-imperial government begins with all the makings of a spoof by Evelyn Waugh. Stewart spent January 2002 tramping across ravaged Afghanistan – the subject of his travelogue The Places In Between (2004) – after which a few months back on his ancestral Scottish turf was enough to revive a yen for adventure. When the invasion of Iraq began, in March 2003, the 30-year-old Stewart sent his résumé in to the Foreign Office but got no reply; undaunted, he set off for Baghdad to ask for a job directly. He landed the position of deputy governor for the southern province of Maysan, on the Iran-Iraq border, where he would spend six months before shifting to the dangerous neighbouring province of Dhi Qar. His pre-departure training consisted of a short military course, on which a blustering sergeant warned him that, if taken captive by Iraqis, the chances were high that he would be raped. (One presumes nobody told T.E. Lawrence to ‘remember that in 75 per cent of cases when you are male-raped, you will get an erection or ejaculate. Do not worry about that . . . it does not mean that you are gay.’) In September 2003 he touched down in Basra, where he was frantically bundled into the city from the airport by a squad of bodyguards, to receive a PowerPoint briefing on his new province. A week later he reached Maysan’s capital, Amara, where, acting as interim governor until his supervisor arrived, he found himself in ‘near-absolute authority over 850,000 people’.

The Tigris cuts through Maysan, and many have located the Garden of Eden just south of its ancient marshes, home to the Madan, or Marsh Arabs. Like most residents of Maysan, the Marsh Arabs are Shia, and after the 1991 Gulf War they participated in a rebellion against Saddam. Their punishment – Saddam drained the marshes and destroyed their entire way of life – was one of the greatest environmental-cultural abuses of recent years. Wetlands became desert, Marsh Arabs became urban slum-dwellers. Today some marshes are being restored, and, as Stewart discovers, tribal affiliations remain vigorously in place. He responds sympathetically to the regional tribes – reminiscent of Scottish clans – and, as ‘Seyyed Rory’, he is treated by their sheikhs as something of a sheikh himself. The towering figure among them is a dignitary of the Albu Muhammad tribe, known evocatively as the ‘Prince of the Marshes’; the prince opposed Saddam and now provides a conservative bulwark against the Islamist supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr.

Stewart is much taken with the prince, who promises at the beginning of the book to be one of its leading figures, as well as with various other types who cross his office threshold. Yet these are more than entertaining character sketches: each visitor confronts Stewart with a fresh demand – from requests for financial support to bids for political power – and behind each demand lurks violence. Crisis erupts when the Amara police chief is assassinated one Friday morning at prayer, and Stewart must pick a successor who will be accepted by, and able to stand up to, the province’s warring factions. No less challenging is the complex process of selecting the forty members of Maysan’s new Provincial Council from among more than fifty political parties and twenty tribes. One can almost feel Stewart’s initial excitement leech out of the narrative, to be replaced by sheer adrenalin, as the bemusing novelty of his position gives way to one literally explosive situation after another.

In Amara, opponents of the new Iraqi governor stage a mass demonstration that turns violent: several Iraqis are killed by British troops, shells land near the CPA compound wall. In the spring of 2004, Stewart is in his second posting in Nasiriyah, the capital of Dhi Qar, when shells explode inside the compound. He endures four days under attack in May, penned into the compound as Italian soldiers and private security contractors fight desperately against a barrage of shelling and gunfire. They are eventually saved by the arrival of a single airplane gunship that dissolves the insurgency in a matter of hours. This episode forms both a climax and a desolate conclusion to Stewart’s stay in Iraq. Ordered to abandon the compound site, he and his colleagues grab what they can and destroy the rest, handing over ‘a bombed-out, empty shell’ for the use of Dhi Qar’s Provincial Council. One can’t help but see this as an ugly omen for the official transfer of power, a month later, from the CPA to the independent Iraqi government.

Occupational Hazards is not a political prescription; it is not a piece of punditry; it is not a satire or a polemic – and all the more stimulating and refreshing for that. Stewart’s matter-of-fact reportage coolly draws the reader into his daily chaos of flawed information and communications, of looming violence, and conflicting passions, demands and interests. To his credit, he refuses to play soothsayer; his book is a sustained rejoinder to armchair policy analysts everywhere. In a rare rant, he complains about the articles his mother sends him ‘by journalists, politicians, academics, international bureaucrats and any other amateur pundit who thought they knew about Iraq. They all agreed that those of us on the ground had not planned adequately and did not have the first clue about what we were doing.’ As Stewart shows, the CPA administration may have had its problems, but its agents were not all the bumbling, blinkered ideologues that many outsiders imagined. His American boss speaks excellent Arabic; many of his colleagues have considerable experience in post-conflict zones or in the Middle East. His own claim to expertise – ten years’ living and working across the Muslim world – has taught him the customary practices so crucial to effective cross-cultural discussion. He knows when and how often to offer his Arab visitors coffee and sweets; he sends an ox for the police chief’s funeral, paid for out of his own pocket, since he can’t bill it as an official expense. He has a big budget and soldiers behind him, to be sure, yet it is such sensitivities that actually let him get anything done.

In his foreword, Stewart lists thirty colleagues who ‘could each write accounts of the occupation which would be very different from mine’. One is struck at various points by the ways in which his attitudes as a British official might have differed from those of an American. Britain has had a long involvement in this part of Iraq. At Kut, some hundred miles upriver from Amara, more than 11,000 British Indian soldiers were besieged by Turkish troops through the bitter winter of 1915-16. Outside the city walls, numerous relief efforts were fumbled, costing more than 20,000 casualties; inside them, hundreds died before the remnant surrendered in April 1916, only to suffer a punishing captivity. Like many set-piece imperial tragedies, however, the siege of Kut became a poignant distraction from the larger success: victory in Mesopotamia, British occupation of Iraq under a League of Nations mandate, and a pro-British Iraqi monarchy. ‘We were surrounded by half-forgotten history,’ Stewart muses. He wanders into Amara’s World War One cemetery, where a grid of white crosses and an Indo-Muslim dome sit alongside a rice paddy. His distant predecessor St John Philby (father of Kim), who acted as political officer in Amara ninety years ago, still enjoys a local reputation. Another sheikh fondly remembers one ‘Mr Grimley’, who helped build a vital canal in the 1940s. ‘There are very high expectations here that the British will achieve things,’ a British colonel tells Stewart, wrapping up another PowerPoint presentation.

In contrast to the fluent technocrats and whizz kids sent out by the State Department, Stewart typifies what might once have been termed a gentleman-imperialist. He is Scottish, born in Hong Kong, educated at Eton and Oxford; he served in the Black Watch and at the Foreign Office, possesses a serious penchant for adventure – and genuine literary gifts. One could compare him with a man famous for his encounters with the Marsh Arabs: the blue-blooded, imperially-reared, Eton and Oxford-educated traveller, administrator and writer Wilfred Thesiger. Most of all, Stewart shares the passion for the ‘Orient’ that has long exerted its pull on British male travellers; it inspired his first book.

Stewart opens The Places In Between with the unassuming disclaimer that he ‘is not good at explaining why I walked across Afghanistan’. Edward Said would have explained it as a consequence of imperial power: British travellers and writers have been drawn to South and West Asia for the same reasons French ones ventured to North Africa and the Levant. To an extent, this is surely correct: imperial contact instilled both a confidence and an exoticised fascination with these regions that helps account for why British people so often turn to them for voyages of personal discovery – though more often for gap-year high jinks in India than for audacious tramps through snowbound Afghanistan. For the latter, public-school training seems to help too. It is no coincidence that travel writers on Central Asia – a list that would include the Etonians Robert Byron and Colin Thubron, the Marlburian Bruce Chatwin and the gentry Scot William Dalrymple – so often boast superior educations if not pedigrees.

Aspects of Stewart’s response to Iraq show the influence of his earlier travels. His interest in the culture of the Marsh Arabs, for instance, finds a precedent in his roamings across the tribal landscape of Afghanistan, as much a walk from chief to chief as a walk from point to point. A curiosity about empires built and lost also permeates both books. In The Places In Between Stewart traces the path of the Emperor Babur across a landscape that his Afghan companions navigate by memories of recent battles. Almost in reverse, Occupational Hazards struggles to make sense of a present-day quasi-imperial occupation in a land marked by older empires, from the Akkadian to the British.

On a few rare occasions – in a book characterised by modesty – Stewart allows himself a revealing pat on the back. He is proud of having surmounted official objections to build a compound for ten lepers; of having written to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to secure a salary for the caretaker of the Amara cemetery; and, above all, of several projects in architectural preservation and rebuilding in Afghanistan, after he witnessed the pillage of Jam, the presumed site of the medieval Afghan capital Firuzkuh (or ‘Turquoise Mountain’). Before leaving Amara he hopes to build a gate to the souk ‘as a permanent gift from the CPA to Amara, so that there would be at least one enduring trace of our presence’, but he drops the scheme when the design provided is a vulgar concoction of ‘bright modern bathroom tiles and fairy lights’. In Nasiriyah, he funds guards to protect the ancient Ziggurat of Ur. He becomes particularly invested in constructing several mudhifs, a traditional Marsh Arab hall made of reeds. (It’s a shame the book contains no illustrations, as it is hard to get a sense of what these actually look like.) Stewart does not hide his pride at the completion of ‘the largest mudhif ever built’, set in a Nasiriyah park ‘as a symbol of traditional culture’. Nor can he conceal his disgust when Sadrists later burn it down.

There is nothing offensive about these undertakings as such, nor is it wrong for Stewart to be pleased with his achievements. What is striking is how much they echo the preoccupations of 19th-century British imperial administrators, who often interested themselves in just such types of local charity, aspects of ‘traditional’ culture and architectural preservation. It is a modern version of older habits, similar in a way to the British officer Stewart meets who plans to go pig-shooting from a helicopter with the Prince of the Marshes and who notes that in the old (Mandate) days they went after pigs with lances on horseback. And there is a whiff of the old paternalism about some of these pursuits, a confidence that Western administrators are promoting the general good even when the locals don’t understand or appreciate it.

On the other hand, Stewart’s insistence on the local, material aspects of Iraqi reconstruction stands in marked contrast to the strategies emanating from the Green Zone and Washington. One could certainly cite this book in support of the idea that, while British imperialists tend to pursue larger policy objectives (however patronisingly) in accordance with perceived local precedent and custom, Americans – and this particular American-run coalition – tend to fix their eyes on the future, chanting abstract principles. Stewart neatly skewers the American ‘democracy expert’ who hosts a meeting of the local council and inanely proclaims: ‘Welcome to your new democracy . . . I have met you in Cambodia. I have met you in Russia. I have met you in Nigeria . . .’ At this point two sheikhs walk out.

Stewart begins most of his chapters with epigraphs from Machiavelli, though he does not include the Machiavellian proposition that seems most germane to the Iraqi situation: that only a strongman, a dictator, can hold things together. Is democracy the right way forward in Iraq? A heretical question, no doubt, for all those – liberal and conservative alike – who think democracy is the best form of government, tout court; but one suggested by this book. Besides, what kind of democracy would be possible or plausible? (One like the United States, with its ‘hereditary democracy’ of politicians related by blood and marriage, its low voter turnout and rampant electoral irregularities?) Occupational Hazards vividly documents the daily practical challenges of democracy-building. Even when Iraqi self-government does come, Maysan’s new Provincial Council falls short of democratic ideals. It is elected under the stipulation that 25 per cent of the seats go to women: they sit in the council chamber, silent, cloaked in abayas. Minority religious and rural groups have no representatives at all, and the voice of a ‘liberal’ middle class is absent. Whatever one may think of democracy in Iraq, Stewart justly concludes, this was not the democracy that was intended. It is not entirely clear whether his chief scepticism lies with the occupiers and their methods, or with the divided Iraqi population: he obviously has serious qualms about both.

So, if democracy-building is a dubious enterprise, or at least dubiously effective, what is a well-meaning occupier supposed to do? Stewart’s answer seems to be to assert the value of building, full stop: schools, hospitals, leper houses, mudhifs. He confesses himself to be haunted by the spectre of Mr Grimley, and by the sheikh who asks him: ‘What will you be remembered for?’ His is occupation as development work, a Peace Corps approach to intervention. (Or a nouveau military one: ‘I like a lot of the things the army does,’ an American officer remarked to me, ‘if you can just leave out the killing part.’) Of all the programmes Stewart participates in, the one that he finds works best is sponsored by the Prince of Wales, and is dedicated to teaching young people vocational skills from carpentry to computers. Stewart is currently directing an analogous initiative in Afghanistan, the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, geared towards architectural preservation. He makes a compelling case for an essentially collaborative, face-to-face approach to reconstruction, even if it can only advance through the efforts of a few individuals at a time.

The chief narrative problem with Occupational Hazards mirrors the problem with Iraq itself: it has no coherent plot, partly because the plot is still unfolding. Stewart fashions an end out of the transfer-of-power ceremony that he and his colleagues hold at the Ziggurat of Ur, a scene ironically echoing the ‘end of empire’ events in Hong Kong – only this isn’t an end to the occupation, and the occupation is not self-consciously imperial. One also senses that Stewart himself is somewhat confounded by the two halves of his participant-observer role. As a participant in the occupation, he has to have some faith in his mission – he can’t avoid it – and in the productive changes he and his colleagues strive to effect. He finds himself in the perplexing position of justifying in part something he does not appear to support as a whole: a divergence not fully resolved by the opposition he implicitly draws between Baghdad policy imperatives and provincial on-the-ground realities. As an observer, he is more plainly frustrated. There must be nothing more maddening for a traveller like Stewart than to be dropped into a stimulating environment, only to have his movements tightly restricted: he more or less cannot stir without bodyguards, and seldom if ever leaves the claustrophobic enclosure of his compound. No wonder he refuses to let people build a sniper-screen that would obstruct his rooftop view of the Tigris: it is one of his only points of contact with the Iraq outside.

One wonders whether Stewart would have written a more fluent and substantial book if he had allowed his impressions to mature further. But then, the imperfections in Occupational Hazards are more beauty marks than scars; they make this book authentic, human and immediate. That it is also conflicted only serves to underscore an anxiety about the Iraqi occupation that many readers will share. And when scholars turn from suggesting historical parallels to writing the history of the occupation itself, this fresh, first-hand record of its complexities and paradoxes will help them better represent an undertaking that, seen even in the best light, has blood on its do-gooder hands.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences