Before anything, I should declare a couple of interests here. I'm a former colleague of Oliver's in Baghdad, and I have also got my own book out about Iraq, which covers similar ground to his. Which, in a self-serving way, meant I was secretly hoping that this book wouldn't be much good. Alas, as anyone who's read Oliver's first book on Iraq, Black Knights, will testify, there was no chance of that. Red Zone is a superbly informative and engrossing read, be it for the Iraq anorak like myself, or for someone who knows nothing about the place and wants one single, easy-to-read book that will tell them all. Speaking as someone who's spent a lot of time there myself, I can also testify to the difficulty of the conditions under which Oliver was reporting. Most journalists pulled out when things started getting really dangerous in 2005 - Oliver, however, stuck it out, and as such has penned one of the very few accounts of the period when Iraq really went into its darkest hours. Anyway, enough from me. Read it. There a lot of books about Iraq around, but this is one of the few very good ones (apart from mine of course....)
Oliver Poole worked as a foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, covering both the invasion and the subsequent occupation of Iraq and you get a sense (although he never claims it) that there are not many non-Iraqi journalists who can bring five years of on-the-ground experience to bear when commenting on what has happened to this country.
His experience results in an insightful book on an incredibly complex situation and importantly for us, his audience, it's written in an approachable and enjoyable way. It may have been the years he spent explaining complex issues to middle-England in a couple of paragraphs, but he's also managed to make it a very good read.
The book isn't easy to categorise; it's part travelogue, part history of the war, part social commentary, part memoir and part analysis of the insurgency and the surge, but this breadth was what actually appealed to me most. Having read it I now have some insight into why it all went so wrong, and given how complex the situation has been over the last five years that's a great achievement because it's very complicated. While it's a good read, and Poole wrote for the Telegraph, this is not a middle-of-the-road book, it's challenging. It challenges preconceptions, it challenges your belief in the US and UK Governments and what they've asked their armed forces to do, as well as what's driving Islamic 'extremism'.
At this point I declare I know the author, but when I reviewed his last book online it didn't get 5 stars, but this gets the full five, because it's a very good book.
Oliver Poole, who rode into the Iraq war with a US armoured brigade and subsequently returned to live there for a few years, is possibly the only person to have witnessed both sides of the equation in such depth and detail. Red Zone gives us a passionate yet unbiased insight into one of the those rare moments in history that everyone at the time recognises as having altered its course fundamentally. This an eyewitness account of life in Baghdad in recent years, of the daily grind of surviving in a world of fear by a journalist who pulls few punches, least of all about himself, his fears and his fallibility. This is a great read - took me a weekend.
"Mr Poole's vivid RED ZONE is filled with details that are at once sad and wryly amusing ... his sense of the absurd and his ear for a quote make for a memorable account." THE ECONOMIST April 17th 2008
"Well-informed and compassionate." PROSPECT May 2008
"Poole's just-published account of his five years in Baghdad records in unflinching detail the horror of the war." BLOOMBERG May 2008
"As frightening as Baghdad was, his observations on Basra, once the prosperous "Venice of the East", make the most depressing reading. He found it riven by rival militias and corrupt officials, despite the British presence." SOLDIER May 2008
"(Poole)'s aware that talking of the Iraqi people's great triumph over adversity can be seen as an easy cliché, but insists it was his relations with those on the ground which made the unrelenting optimism being spun by many military leaders eventually impossible to bear." YORKSHIRE POST March 20th 2008