In interviews accompanying the release of his book former British Prime Minister Tony Blair repeated that history will ultimately judge him on Iraq. Yet there is always the danger that an elite's history written by those responsible for events can create its own reality. What has long been needed therefore is a people's history of the Iraq war that incorporates descriptions of ignored events and unheard voices.
Mark Kukis's book is a credible first attempt at such a people's history that "is meant to be a collective portrait of those Iraqis who endured the most trying ordeals of America's war years in Iraq". The work appears to be partly inspired by Howard Zinn, who sought to write "an American history through the eyes of common people rather than the political and economic elites".
However Kukis does not exclude the elites, his portrait is painted through the experiences of close to seventy Iraqis ranging from interim Prime Ministers and tribal sheikhs to bus drivers and underwear sellers. Each of their stories of fear, loss and violence is told within a chronology that tracks the start of the war, the fall of Baghdad, the beginning of the insurgency and the descent into civil war, before finally touching on the optimism born of the improvements in security from 2008. The chasm between the American invaders and ordinary Iraqis is explained through people's impressions of the US military arriving to the cities and towns of Iraq that are akin to that of an alien invasion. The humiliation of this invasion and the subsequent occupation is a constant thread that underlies the text. This story is told by numerous testimonies from former soldiers, in particular one former colonel in the Republican Guard who upon seeing American soldiers in his street suddenly remembers how the defeated Kuwaitis used to look at him. Others are nostalgic about the Iraq they knew before both Saddam and the occupation, one exile describing the country he returned to as "broken, destroyed and collapsed".
Kukis's interviewees offer precious glimpses into the transition between the invasion and the insurgency, such as the academic who became an insurgent leader who funded his group's activities by extorting 50% of what had been taken by gangs of looters. The man hated Saddam but felt empowered by fighting the Americans, explaining that "all my life I felt beaten down by one hand or another. And now, finally, for the first time I was hitting back". Others detail their experience travelling into Iran for months of training in the use of explosives, one man quitting after a crisis of conscience about the patriotic virtue of accepting Iranian money.
Some of the most memorable stories concern the bizarre consequences of the chaos that engulfed the country. In one such snapshot a blacksmith from Fallujah tells of how foreign fighters arrived and began to impose their own variety of religious law, including chopping the fingers off those caught smoking, refusing to allow cucumbers and tomatoes to be sold next to each other in markets and putting underwear on sheep that would protect their modesty.
The dominant narrative however is that of a 1001 tragedies. The subtleties and horrors of Sectarian strife are well told, from the Sunni bureaucrat who despairs at "thieves and illiterates" being given jobs in the new ministries, to a mother who witnesses all her Shi'ite sons being executed describing the "heaps of torn flesh, piles of brains, blood and eyes".
Kukis stories also shine a light into the evolution of the Mahdi army that is described by one fighter as "a cause, a belief and a movement more than an organisation". Stories of the organisation paying a man wounded by the Americans rent for seven months testify to their effective welfare model. However the divided nature of Iraqi society is never far from the service with others being quick to describe the Mahdi army as "losers and thugs".
Kukis admits that "no single book could ever fully capture the immensity of the war's effects on Iraqi society". Indeed history is not a process that adheres to a static deadline whereby a verdict is delivered, but is instead continuously being written.
There are indeed limits to the book, whose snapshots into complicated lives often leave the reader wanting to know much more. The author is also somewhat stifled by his inability due to security concerns to travel freely and interview a genuine cross section of Iraqi society, there is an obvious imbalance towards male interviewees for example. Nevertheless this should not take away from what is a fascinating and crucially important part of the jigsaw puzzle that is modern Iraq's history.