In January 2002, Shortly after the fall of the Taliban, Rory Stewart walked across Afghanistan. The young Scotsman traveled mostly alone, without escort or ammunition, chose the more difficult northern route, and took his trip during the brutal Afghan winter. Throughout his journey knowledgeable people continually advised him: "You will die."
He did not. He lived and went on to write of his journey in "The Places In Between," a splendid tale that is by turns wryly humorous, intensely observant, and humanely unsentimental.
One would imagine that it would be hard for Stewart to find an equally bracing topic for his second book. Not at all. In fact, by comparison to the task Stewart takes on in The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, walking across Afghanistan in winter seems a rather minor accomplishment.
In 2003, after coalition forces invaded Iraq, Stewart was asked by Britain's Foreign Office to be the chief administrator of Maysan, a province in the marshlands of Iraq. It was a daunting assignment, particularly for a 30-year-old who spoke no Arabic, even one who had served both in the British military and in two foreign embassies, and also walked across Asia (in addition to Afghanistan).
But Stewart accepted. He recognized, of course, that postinvasion Iraq "would remain, for some time, chaotic, corrupt and confusing." But he asked himself, how hard could it be "to outperform Saddam?" He would soon find out.
Anyone looking for any kind of assurance that things in Iraq are heading in a positive direction should not pick up this book. The story that Stewart tells would often be quite funny – for Stewart is a skillful director of farcical scenes – did we not know that it were true. That knowledge quickly sends the farce spiraling downward into tragedy.
Stewart's team worked on hundreds of projects worth millions of dollars. They built clinics, schools, water networks, and tried to refurbish ministry offices. They also labored to plant the seeds of democracy, to help Iraqis appoint officials, and to lay down the rudiments of civil law.
The result of most of their labor was conflict and confusion. They saw their appointed officials assassinated and their funds poured into the wrong pockets. The tasks they took on were vastly beyond their capacity to handle.
"Every new project brought more problems," Stewart writes. "Eight civil affairs officers, even with considerable help from the NGOs, could not fully monitor and manage two hundred construction projects. There was an everpresent risk of inefficiency and corruption."
On the political side, it becomes abundantly clear to Stewart and his colleagues that they cannot possibly grasp the multiplicity of the divisions and conflicts among Iraqis. They encounter feuds and hatreds going back centuries.
In addition to ancient divisions, they meet with a confounding proliferation of new groups sprung up just since the ousting of Saddam. "There were more than fifty Shia political parties in the province, most only two months old," Stewart writes. The Iraqis themselves cannot keep track.
The de facto boss of the region is the so-called "Prince of the Marshes," Abu Hatim, an aristocratic tribal leader. The prince can maintain order but dealing with him means accepting brutal, autocratic methods. Most of the other potential candidates for local leadership are clerics or semiliterate tribesman.
All members of an Iraqi middle class, as far as Stewart can determine, have already fled. Two of the few he meets come to him earnestly quoting George Bernard Shaw and proposing a culture magazine for young Iraqis. It's one of many scenes that leaves the reader poised midway between laughter and tears.
Trips to central authority in Baghdad provide little relief. There, Stewart rubs shoulders with contractors wearing T-shirts with captions like, "Who's Your Baghdaddy?" and eats peanut butter imported by Halliburton at great expense. He hears the American governor of a Sunni region report, "If we wanted to destabilize the country we couldn't have done a better job."
There is the occasional bright spot (the surprising success of the projects undertaken by the Salvation Army, a jobs program proposed by Prince Charles), but these are overwhelmed by disasters like a protest turned fatal and Stewart's last stand under siege in his final office in Dhi Qar. (One of the most memorable scenes in the book occurs when one of the leaders of that attack tells Stewart how much he likes him. Stewart, stunned, reminds this Iraqi that he was trying to kill him a few weeks earlier. His attacker grins and replies, "Ah, Seyyed Rory, that was nothing personal.")
"The Prince of the Marshes" is a thoroughly readable book, its darker dimensions occasionally leavened by details such as the excellent cuisine produced by the Italian troops who even built their own pizza ovens. But in the end there is no escaping the conclusion that seems to have come too late to benefit any of the Westerners involved. Stewart summarizes, "Occupation is not a science but a deep art that can only be learned through experience."
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.