Rory Stewart’s Occupational Hazards

Better late than never, I read this memoir which is destined to be a classic, surely.

Occupational Hazards
Rory Stewart
Picador, 2007
I suspect that people make up their own Rory Stewart as they go along. There’s the impish Highland laird and leader, with a wide grin and ready dirk, romantic and dashing, if doomed, in the heather. Grafted on, there’s the book-learned rapscallion who can be the courtier dallying with princes, wowing universities, playing the FCO, at the ear of premiers. Alongside that, though, there is the languidly sanguine (and even sanguinary) British imperialist, with an appreciation of the toughness that can require. There are threads of Thesiger and of course of T E Lawrence: the loner ascetic who aspires to the most hair-raising risk-taking amongst hawk-eyed tribal leaders for whom honour is worth much more than life.

When Stewart first burst on the scene, it was a relief that we could still produce men like him. In a world of sharp-suited and rough-stubbled apparatchiks, we need scholar-soldiers; adventurer-administrators; gentlemen-geeks

Much of these Rory Stewarts is on parade here. This book is an unexpected romp: every page a revelation, none of them pretending to an over-arching theme, the totality not propounding a coherent thesis, except – perhaps – that there isn’t one when you’re dealing with Iraq.

But we also get to glimpse a Rory Stewart who is something else too. He’s a natural green and a jogger. He seems quite Notting Hill in his modernity. He is occasionally lovelorn. I am not sure that he’s a feminist though: his immediate bosses in Iraq are women and though I have a feeling he admires them (one a clever American, the other a vivid Italian), one gets the impression that the more he finds people have imbibed a development agency mentality the more he thinks they are a waste of space in the middle east. One has the impression that Rory Stewart, for all his extraordinary success, doesn’t quite fit in.

I imagine each reader approaches Occupational Hazards hoping that their view of the Iraq invasion and occupation will be endorsed. Rather to my surprise, mine was, mostly. Rory Stewart is reluctant to endorse the view that the invasion went well because the US understands overwhelming force and the occupation went badly because the US doesn’t understand the subtleties of empire. He does say that occupying is “not a science but a deep art, which can only be learned through experience”.

When a Brit is saying such things it is often code for the Americans’ lack of an imperial back-story.
But Stewart also suggests that the British cock-ups on their own patch in southern Iraq were substantial and included too much misdirected activity, some of it overly optimistic about the appeal of democracy. Italian indolence proved more successful, if only because it forced the Iraqis to get on with governing themselves. Nicely, Stewart is not shy to admit this late in the book: earlier, he had implied that at the time he thought the Italians were as widely advertised by British cliché.

The book is littered with engaging moments as Stewart points out how much Green Zone thinking kept changing and was almost always out of touch. But he seems very candid as he points out how often his own thinking had to change.  He ends up believing that elections should have been held quite early on, especially locally; and that quite often “extremists” at least had the merit of being capable of imposing a necessary “monopoly of violence”.   

Stewart also notes that the vast cock-ups which happened need to be understood in the framework of all the cock-ups which were squeezed out by their occurrence. He suggests, tellingly, that many of the critics of the post-invasion failures make the same sort of error as those they criticise: namely they assume that there was at least hypothetically a good option. Rather, he thinks:

“Western efforts in Iraq were pre-figured in Kosovo and Kabul, in Parthia and Bosnia. We were crippled by who we were, but we were defeated by Iraq itself”.

He seems to be saying that even Machiavelli would have been stumped by the Iraqis. He admires the idea of Machiavellian princes:

…. informed, charismatic, intelligent flexible and decisive, supported by their own populations and powerful enough to fundamentally reshape alien societies. In fact there are no such Machiavellian princes. If they emerged our societies would not support them; and even if they existed and won support, they would not be able to succeed in Iraq.
In short, we have lost the bottle for serious work in the imperial garden, and Iraq wouldn’t have been a good candidate anyway.     

I think Rory Stewart is a romantic idealist in the sense of liking an old image of British imperialism: that, by its lights, it was usually pretty fair. He notes how this story bobs up quite often in modern Iraq. He comes across old boys who remember various British colonial officers with some respect, just as he notes that the Iraqis nurture memories of their forebears having killed their share of British Imperial forces in World War 1 (about 92,000 according to Wikipedia, most of them Indian). He seems to like the way British colonialist visitors such as Sir Leonard Woolley cared abut the archaeology and ethnology of their patches. In his own turn, he is able to tell Iraqis the real history of the Ziggurat of Ur, about which they were profoundly ignorant. 

Stewart is not overly modest. He drops in touches here and there which let us know that he is remarkable, often with a little coating of self-deprecation. He meets a local dignitary:

After a month I could cite the names of a hundred local leaders and forty different tribes and parties. I was, therefore, frustrated to find another sheikh whom I did not know.

In one wonderful moment, in a public meeting, Rory Stewart and a local leader have a stand-up row. The Sheikh is demanding that the British should behave like a government, forcefully; Rory roars back that the locals need to “act like men, for a change” and take responsibility for their own security. It seems, frankly, about the heart of the matter. The nice invaders could not bear to impose the amounts of injustice firmness would have required. The locals wanted security more than fairness but couldn’t get themselves organised to provide it. Stewart says: “No one was really afraid of the police, and the police were afraid of nearly everyone”. He meets an Iraqi who has almost all the qualities admired in the West, but was short of an armed militia, ruthlessness and recklessness. Useless, then, implies our hero.

Stewart is also quite proud of his own courage: as a shot rings out in close proximity, he is certainly not the first to dive for cover. Even so, he has the required wryness:

The Arabs, who had made no attempt to take cover, looked on pityingly.

One gets a strong sense that Rory Stewart empathises with those of his countrymen who went before him into Iraq, and with the Iraqis they met there in the last century. He loves the place and its history. I imagine he was rather proud when he found himself assuring an Iraqi that such and such a thing would happen and was asked, apparently without irony:

“Is that an Englishman’s promise?”

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Publication date

09 October 2010