The political power of narrative
I have to confess a weakness for current affairs books on intelligence and military affairs. As a writer, I suppose I should spend my time reading the great masters, and I do when I have the energy, but I find it hard to resist books that document over and over again the resilience and bravery of rank-and-file military and intelligence personnel in the face of catastrophic political decision-making. I supposed 9/11 has made me more attuned to these issues as well.
Anyway, in the train station yesterday, I picked up The Secret History of the Iraq War by Yossef Bodansky. Overall, so far, I’d like to see more facts supporting many of his assertions–the book is not nearly as well documented as Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars–but I was really fascinated that the beginning of the book is devoted to exploring the clashing narratives at work in the Iraqi conflict. On the one side is the one familiar to us, as the Bush administration would have it told: the fight to spread democracy and respect for human rights against the spread of theocratic and jihadist Islam (and the narrative–not often referred to overtly–of the personal conflict between Saddam and the Bush family).
On the other side, Bodansky explains how both Saddam and Bin Laden have paralleled the US invasion of Iraq with the sacking of Baghdad by Hulagu Kahn in 1258. While Baghdad was destroyed, as Bodansky relates the narrative, the invasion ultimately lead to a resurgence of Islam as the invaders were worn down by a guerilla war and ultimately converted to Islam (though I haven’t found another source describing this resurgence).
The book places great importance on the clash of these narratives though, and the misunderstanding in the West of the Islamic narrative at work. I’m always looking for examples of the intersection of narrative and personal or inter/national politics, though, and this certainly shows how, in a somewhat heavy-handed way, narrative is used to political ends.