Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War,
Profit and Conflict. Edwin Black. John Wiley & Sons. 496 pages.
Automobile magnate Henry Ford once famously declared ''History is
bunk.'' At best, most Americans cast a skeptical eye on history. Though
many regard the study of past events, policies and people as a burden
reserved for sometimes reluctant students, academics and Jeopardy
contestants, thoughtful people understand that if the lessons of
history go unheeded, they're bound to be repeated.
Presently, the United States is an occupying power in Iraq. Despite
real or imagined intentions and declarations, one has a feeling that
not enough attention has been paid to anything beyond recent history in
that country. That's unfortunate, but it still isn't too late to pick
up Edwin Black's powerful new study of Iraq's place in the world.
When analyzing world events, it's always wise to follow the money.
Had anyone bothered to delve into the history of the region originally
called Mesopotamia and known as ''the cradle of civilization,'' a
panorama of rising and falling civilizations, rulers, invaders and
exploiters would be obvious. The present situation is merely the latest
example of attempted commercial and political exploitation of the area
by foreign powers. But most every such endeavor was aided and promoted
by natives, too.
Black's prose is solid and evocative throughout. His taut
description of the atrocities visited upon the region's Moslems, first
by each other, and later, Genghis Khan's Mongols, is vivid and
chilling. For those interested in business history, his study of the
relationship between commercial and political interests, especially the
company that eventually became British Petroleum, is well worth the
price of admission. There's also ample material to draw from to
consider the future path of Iraq.
A large portion of the book is, unsurprisingly, devoted to oil. Its
exploitation in Iraq, beginning in the late 19th century, was fomented
by the growing use of internal combustion engines in Europe and North
According to Black, bitumen -- as it was called -- was known to
exist throughout the Middle East since time immemorial. At first
regarded as a nuisance, its development as a fuel suddenly made it a
valuable and coveted resource. Foreign governments, especially Britain,
Germany and Turkey, exploited the new-found demand for oil and
exercised political and military authority to secure their stake.
Black credits the current enlightened management of British
Petroleum for extraordinary openness in allowing him full access to its
historical records. The company was a powerful economic and political
force, and its cooperation with the author is quite remarkable. Its
treatment of the Iraqis, though consistent with the ethos of its day,
was cruel and abusive.
But it was just the latest chapter in the ongoing story of Iraq's
subjugation by a succession of foreign powers that continues through
the present, according to Black.
Black's last book, War Against The Weak, was an exhaustively researched exposˆ© of the pseudo-science of eugenics. In a way, it was a prequel to his earlier work, IBM and the Holocaust,
which revealed the secret history of the quintessential American
company's role as a facilitator of the Nazis' ``final solution.''
The new book has little in common with its predecessors except for
one important thing: Black is committed, if not obsessed, with
hyper-intensive research and documentation. His books are copiously
footnoted and referenced. Given the seriousness and scope of the
subjects, this is an absolute necessity. Had Black, for example, not
had thorough substantiation for his book on IBM's collaboration with
Hitler, the firm's lawyers would have had a field day. One or two
errors would render the entire work unreliable. But to get the facts --
the reality -- is critical if one is to learn and act upon the lessons
of history. The alternative is unacceptable.
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