One of the things in this globalised age that mystifies me is banking. Deposit a cheque in Euros or
dollars, and it takes three weeks to clear. Take the Eurostar to Paris, and in St Pancras, staff at Foyles bookshop are unpacking Tony Blair’s memoir A Journey. Four days later, in the cramped paper shop in the Eurostar departure lounge at the Gard du Nord, a shelf holds Mémoires by Tony Blair. You’d think if publishers can manage simultaneous translation for a book that’s 624 pages, a cheque in Euros could clear in a couple of days. It’s not the suspicious time lag in banking, but the organisational achievement of a publishing project that interests me.
In the same week that the last American combat troops left Iraq, ending the war that cast Mr Blair into a historical tragedy that he will spend four chapters and the rest of his life trying to defend, his book came out in Britain, France, Germany (Mein Weg: Autobiographie) and the USA (A Journey: My Political Life), beside the Kindle edition and audio CD (abridged) read by the author. What a feat of planning. What a triumph of logistics and timing. It makes you that if publishers had been in charge of organising Iraq after the invasion, they would have known the terrain, have foreseen the need for translators and Arab speakers.
The most disturbing account of those tragic, anarchistic days was a BBC investigation in 2007 called No Plan, No Peace. Former American ambassador Barbara Bodine, given the job of helping to reconstruct Iraq, told the interviewer the plan to rebuild Iraq was so vague that those in charge of reconstruction relied on the 1994 Middle East edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook for inform-ation on the economy and the Government and the addresses of important buildings and embassies. The out-of-date guide provided by the Pentagon was all they had as Miss Bodine and her colleagues spent days wandering the streets of Baghdad in search of the politicians needed to help in the mission of restoring order.
The slapstick nature of these revelations quickly turns to horror when the cost of the war and the criminally naïve way it was entered into are counted: the thousands of soldiers, American and British, killed; the tens of thousands injured with horrific wounds; more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians killed and a generation of Iraqi children traumatised.
In the photograph on the book’s cover, Tony Blair looks like a haunted man. Gen David Petraeus, describing the stain of Abu Ghraib on America’s reputation as ‘non-biodegradable’, could have been talking about Mr Blair’s reputation. A fugitive in his own country, he will spend the rest of his days in an inner exile. His is a legacy of grief. So much was squandered in this war. And who benefited? Al-Qaeda, who had no presence in Iraq before the invasion. Iran, which used these years to rev
up its capacity for producing a nuclear weapon. The ‘special relationship’ between American and Britain, once inviolable, but now as vulnerable as vehicles hit by IEDs.
At the Gard du Nord, I skimmed Mr Blair’s book before buying the International Herald Tribune. As the Eurostar sped across the flat French countryside, I read an excerpt from an article by Andrew Bacevich, an international relations and history professor who trained at West Point, served in Vietnam and the first Gulf War and whose son, also an army officer, was killed in Iraq in 2007. ‘Common decency demands that we reflect on all that has occurred in bringing us to this moment.’
Reflection is the very least we owe the soldiers we sent to this war. It’s also the only way we can avoid repeating the tragedy that will shape the long century ahead.