Reviewed by Tom Little
When Coalition troops crossed the border into Iraq in March 2003, it was widely accepted that their victory was assured: Saddam Hussein’s vast but under-equipped conscript army could never match the cutting-edge weaponry of the US army and their allies.
In a way, this was totally correct, as the Iraqi army collapsed and the country was “liberated” by May of the same year. Saddam Hussein was captured and executed in 2006, and macabre footage of the former dictator’s hanging seemed to show the success of “regime change” in Iraq.
However, the increasingly bloody and lawless years following the invasion came to feel less and less like victory for the western troops who spearheaded “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in 2003. Spiralling casualties, accusations of war crimes and the rising hostility of the Iraqis saw Spain, Australia, Poland, the UK and, just last year, the USA quietly cut their losses and pull out.
The conflict had a tremendous impact on domestic politics in the countries involved in the 2003 invasion: nowhere more so that in the UK, where the war (arguably) contributed to the downfall of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
It is Britain’s involvement in Iraq from 2003 until 2009 that forms the subject of Jack Fairweather’s gripping new book, A War of Choice, released in late 2011 by Jonathan Cape.
Fairweather was The Daily Telegraph’s Baghdad correspondent throughout the conflict and found himself embedded with British troops and civil servants throughout six years of conflict, witnessing first-hand the chaos, confusion, incompetence and (occasionally) heroism that characterised the UK in Iraq.
A War of Choice traces the war from Blair’s hugely controversial decision to support the US invasion until the pullout of Britain’s combat troops in 2009, and Fairweather deftly combines history, analysis and reportage to give a rational and dispassionate account of Britain’s war.
During the time he spent reporting from Iraq, the author saw the evolving tragedy of Britain’s military presence in the south of the country and the halting attempts to establish the trappings of a functioning democracy in the country.
Fairweather describes how government agencies responsible for setting up civilian rule in Iraq were hampered by pressure from Whitehall; how reconstruction efforts were fatally compromised by a greed and incompetence; and how the British military’s ultimate failure to understand Iraqis turned them from liberators into occupiers.
While A War of Choice is by no means the first book about the war in Iraq, nor even about Britain in Iraq, it is surely one of the finest. It is a compelling and sober exploration of Britain’s controversial foreign policy in the Middle East, and, most importantly, it is fantastically readable.
As the West questions its war in Afghanistan, it would do well to look at what lessons can be learned from the war in Iraq – and the fact that Fairweather even looks at British and US policy in Helmand province is testimony to this.
Although A War of Choice may prove to be uncomfortable reading for some in the UK today, it is an essential and absorbing account of one of the most painful chapters of recent British and Iraqi history.