It is not always easy to read Chaos and Caliphate: Patrick Cockburn’s review of diary entries and newspaper columns written between 2001 and 2016, taking in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. It is an uncompromising look at the misadventures and missteps made by the US, UK and other allies from the imposition of sanctions and the last days of Saddam Hussein to the fall of the Twin Towers and the rise of ISIS. But if it isn’t always easy to continue reading of the legacy of sectarian violence, suicide bombings, rapes, abductions, corruption and barrel bombings that have taken place across the region since it became the focus of ‘liberating forces’, imagine what it is like for the unfortunates who have had to live it. If they weren’t already, the motivations of the columns of people walking along the railway tracks or lining up for the boats to Europe become a lot easier to understand.
Patrick Cockburn is a journalist seemingly without peer, with a decades-long involvement in the societies he is reporting on. Perhaps he would have been the one truly ’embedded’ reporter we have if the word hadn’t been twisted around like Newspeak to mean serving up press releases from the military, but instead meant being involved and knowledge about the communities of these countries. Of course, he wasn’t the only expert pointing out that the Iraq invasion was going to prove at best a folly and at worst a catastrophe. He wasn’t the only reporter to show how the lack of coherent planning verged on a dereliction of duty, but he must have been one of the first to spot events turning against the invaders and it is chilling how often he has been proved right.
In fact, Cockburn addressed this in a recent interview with Vice, where he notes:
A lot of these things that I got some credit for forecasting were up in lights—it’s amazing that others didn’t notice.
One notable example being his contention that Assad in Syria would prove difficult to depose, which he based more on knowledge and experience, rather than wishful thinking and over-optimism. Although perhaps there are other forces at work, as he reminds us:
The foreign media have dealt with the subsequent collapse of the Libyan state since 2011 mostly by ignoring it…
Understandable perhaps, given the earlier cheer-leading as British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to stand with the country’s people as they built their democracy, that once the ‘Somalianisation’ of Libya geared up, bruised reputations may have felt it was better to maintain their silence. Cockburn’s initial skepticism through the positive spin means he is less compromised when needing to put the ‘Mission Accomplished’ celebrations on ice.
The diary entries and newspaper columns are presented in Chaos and Caliphate organised country by country, which emphasises that while there may be some countries that the reader felt reasonably well informed about, like perhaps Iraq, there are others where there are not so much holes in the knowledge as craters. Yemen, for instance, or Libya, where most of the media, when not ignoring events completely, seemed to be content with the big picture, the view from the aeroplane cockpit, while Patrick Cockburn reports from the ground up. And even issues that were covered at length at the time have lacked the analysis and focus that Cockburn delivers. The numbers are overwhelming:
The UN estimated that between six and seven thousand Iraqi children were dying every month as a result of sanctions.
Some nine billion dollars spent [in Iraq] under the US-controlled CPA in 2003-04 cannot be accounted for… (February 2005)
3,149 [Iraqi] people were killed in June alone, or over 100 a day – more in one month than the total death toll in Northern Ireland in 30 years of violence… Overall 14,000 civilians were killed in the first half of 2006. (July 2006)
Last year the violence [in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan] and in other parts of what until recently was called the North-West Frontier Province was enough to send 3.1 million refugees running for their lives. (May 2010)
The US… is spending $100 billion a year [in Afghanistan] but has still been unable to defeat 20,000-25,000 Taliban (February 2012)
ISIS… has been killing up to 1,000 people, mostly Shia civilians every month (October 2013)
Some 60,000 families or about 300,000 people have fled [Fallujah] on foot… (May 2014)
[Ramadi] used to have a population of 600,000. Now 80 per cent have fled the fighting… (March 2015)
and you find yourself looking at dates thinking, ‘Did I know about this then? Did it make the nightly news?’ And if so, ‘Did it register with me?’ It doesn’t take long before you realise how many murderous days have gone unnoticed in the West, while every 9/11 or 7/7 we expect the world to stop for remembrance. A terrorist attack in Baghdad should not receive less notice than one in Brussels, but for many reasons it does and we seem content to hardly even remark on it.
So not an easy read, by any means, and with an afterword that ties together how these multiple wars are really one large conflict, it is one that resists any temptation from the reader for easy or pat solutions. Yet if we are to try to find a way out of this quagmire where nobody can win, for an understanding of how we stumbled into it via a road paved with good intentions, Chaos and Caliphate is an essential place to start.