The Prince of the Marshes by Rory Stewart
The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq
by Rory Stewart
Harcourt. 397 pp. $25.00
Rory Stewart is a Scotsman in his early thirties, a former British infantry officer and diplomat who has recently published two books: The Places in Between (published in England in 2004 and released here as a Harvest paperback earlier this year) and now The Prince of the Marshes. The former is an account of walking across Afghanistan six weeks after the Taliban fell, the latter the story of a subsequent year’s service in Iraq as a provincial administrator for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA).
Stewart of Afghanistan and Iraq may not be so dashing a figure as Lawrence of Arabia, but he is impressive in his own right. Like T.E. Lawrence, he is a seeker of adventure for reasons that might not be entirely clear to him or to his readers, a political man moved by the critical events of his time, and a writer measuring the distance between what he has learned from books and what severe trials have shown him of hard places and hard men.
“I’m not good at explaining why I walked across Afghanistan,” Stewart writes in The Places in Between, but around Christmas of 2001, having logged twenty-some miles a day for sixteen months in a journey through Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, he heard the Taliban were history and decided to fill in the remaining gap in his trans-Asian itinerary. He had conceived this journey in the throes of antiquarian romance, fascinated by the history of the great trade route known as the Silk Road: “There would once perhaps have been lapis lazuli here, carried west from the mines of Afghanistan to make the blue in medieval Sienese paintings, and amber cut from tree fossils in the Baltic and brought east for Tibetan necklaces.” But now that he was actually in Afghanistan, the bejeweled past lost its allure, and he focused on what was right in front of him, even though it was mostly ugly and hard to bear.
The Places in Between describes a country where wolves still prowl, and where men can be worse than wolves. For his walking tour, Stewart had armed himself with a stout stick tipped with iron, but a mere stick was hardly sufficient protection against either creature. He found himself in danger time and again: young boys sicked their mastiffs on him, a local potentate laid down sniper fire at his feet, and Taliban members, full of toxic contempt for Americans and British, conducted a menacing interrogation and cowed him into passing himself off as an Indonesian history teacher. From the safety of his parents’ home in Scotland, Stewart writes what he did not dare say to his interrogators’ faces: “The men struck me as bullies with a strangled and dangerous view of God and a stupid obsession with death. I did not envy the government that had to deal with them.”
Nevertheless, as we learn in The Prince of the Marshes, Stewart proceeded to join a government that had to deal with similar men in a similar country: Iraq. In September 2003 he was appointed “governorate coordinator” for the province of Maysan, on the Iranian border; he states, probably without false modesty, that he got the job because more experienced men and women were already engaged elsewhere, or had families they did not want anywhere near Iraq.
Maysan is the legendary site of the earthly paradise known in the Bible as Eden; Stewart found it wilted and much the worse for wear. His ungainly bureaucratic title bespoke an ill-conceived and all but impossible job. Although in theory he held a rank equivalent to a one-star general’s and possessed “near-absolute authority over eight hundred and fifty thousand people,” in fact he was “almost powerless,” with no real forces to command and subject to the caprices of Iraqis and the British military alike.
Even the Iraqis working for him displayed a familiar paranoia about Western skullduggery. His chief translator tells him, straight out: “We know what games your government is playing here with oil and with Israel.” Yet the same man goes on to encourage Stewart to show strength, as he claims the British soldiers there have failed to do, and thanks him for his service. As Stewart was to learn, this mixture of distrust, hope, and even some faint esteem, in proportions varying from individual to individual and from one moment to the next, characterized the Iraqis’ attitude in general toward their liberators, whom they also considered to be “capitalist imperialist crusaders.” Stewart finds the task of governing them just as hard as he had imagined it to be during his Afghan journey.
The difficulties do seem to have been all but insurmountable. An Iraqi civil servant whose salary the Coalition Provisional Authority had increased tenfold spent almost all of it on a rented television while his sick baby went without adequate treatment. Water, sewage, and electricity services remained below prewar standards because new prosperity and freedom, which allowed Iraqis to buy those televisions or air conditioners in the first place, overburdened the existing infrastructure. Short-sighted venality undermined the long-term public good, as people toppled electricity pylons to steal the copper wire, which they smelted and sold in Iran: “They made $10,000 from 80 pylons, which cost us $10 million to repair.”
Getting the economy to work was not the greatest difficulty. Iraqis performing hazardous duty for the CPA complained of being treated like dogs. The late-night carousing of CPA administrators, soldiers, and aid workers, though innocent enough by Western standards, represented every Islamic nightmare of infidel salaciousness come alive. Arab manliness, of which grand mustaches were proud emblems, was nothing but a source of amusement to the “crusaders.” Clerical professions of faith in the compatibility of Islam and democracy butted up against zealotry in action:
While the Islamist leaders made elegant distinctions between metaphysics and virtue and constructed careful arguments about religion’s place in politics, their followers in Amara firebombed or closed all the Internet cafés, cinemas, video shops, musical instrument sellers, liquor stores, and riverside cafés. No women, even Christians or Sabians, could now appear in public with bare heads, and very few women were daring enough to wear the colored scarves and coats favored in metropolitan Iran.
Chief among the advocates of old-style religious oppression was the notorious Moqtada al-Sadr, with whose militia the Coalition forces—mostly ill-prepared Italian soldiers—literally do battle in the climactic pages of Stewart’s account. The eponymous prince of the marshes, a revered anti-Saddam guerrilla leader who had declared himself a fighter for the nascent Iraqi democracy, had by now become an al-Sadr ally, blighting the fondest hopes of Westerner and Iraqi alike. Stewart, under siege in the government compound in Nasiriyah—at this point he had become an administrator in Dhi Qar province, with a population of 2 million—launches into a comparison of the Coalition’s current situation with that of the British in Kabul in 1842.
There, the Afghan enemy had declared that if the British would only accede to a certain demand, peace would be guaranteed forever; but there was another demand to follow that one, and then still another. In the end, the Afghans guaranteed safe passage out of the country for 14,000 men, before proceeding to slaughter every last Englishman but one, whom they allowed to survive to tell the tale. Stewart in his vehemence insists the lesson applies today: “If we accept [whatever the latest ultimatum may be], we are all dead.”
In retrospect, Stewart admits to feeling ridiculous about such raging passion on his part; but he also believes that what he is saying is true. One would like to think that his two books might help Westerners given to deprecating the values of their own civilization overcome their reservations about the defense and propagation of democracy. Stewart shows us, unsparingly, a world where sticks alone are useless against wolves or men, and where prudence, will, and serious firepower are required to perform a job that must be done. Machiavelli, from whose writings Stewart mines the epigraphs that head most of the chapters in his book, is the real Prince of the Marshes here, and it is the Florentine’s severe wisdom that he unflinchingly recommends to those engaged in bringing peace to tortured lands like Afghanistan and Iraq.