Title: Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS
Author: Joby Warrick
Winner of Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction (2016)
If you had asked me, even now, before I read this book, why exactly the US was fighting in the Iraq War, I and probably many, many other people would probably say something along the lines of fighting over oil, or idk trying to find weapons of mass destruction or finding Bin Laden or something..I have even less knowledge about what ISIS is. What exactly is it?
And then this book came along and when I finished reading, I realized just how ignorant I was about this entire conflict and how important it is even now in 2016.
This book is separated into 3 parts. The first follows Zarqawi, one of the earliest founders of ISIS and how he amassed such a cult following. The second follows Iraq and the war and how the chaos, instability and tension allowed Zarqawi to manipulate and send the countries into more chaos and the last part is about the subsequent leaders of ISIS and how it continues to be a prevalent and deadly force in the Middle East.
The narrative style of this book is very much like Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. What keeps it from being just a book about statistics on how many people died and blah blah blah or a dry history textbook that will just fly over your head is the touch of humanity that Warrick infuses into the story. He follows the people like Zarqawi, Saddam Hussein and other radicals, the individuals behind ISIS and the Iraq War, and delves into their personalities and their histories which makes you invested in their motivations even if they are terrible in their executions.
“Zarqawi had no capacity for warmth or nuance. The man with the scar did not smile. He did not return greetings from prison employees, or engage in their small talk.”
Warrick explores how religious fanaticism and liberal interpretation of religious texts
allowed Zarqawi and other charismatic leaders to feel justified in their rampant killings. In many ways, this book is a character study. It’s almost like you’re reading a fictional biography until you remember these people are real people and that’s probably the scariest part.
Then again, the even scarier part is the part that we, as the US had and has in this ongoing war in the Middle East. Because the US is to blame for a lot of it which is difficult to express because I wouldn’t like to think of the US like this. The one example I found particularly haunting was the Abu Ghraib prison in 2003 where US military personnel systematically tortured, raped, sexually abused, and humiliated Iraqi detainees under Executive Order. The epitome of hypocrisy..
But I think more than that, if this conflict is about anything, it is about the often complicated and frustrating ways that cultural and political differences allow people to dismiss other countries and to pretend that their way of living is better than all others.
For years afterward, when CIA officials would dissect the mistakes of the war’s early months, some would marvel at the improbable confluences that enabled Zarqawi [one of the early leaders of ISIS] to achieve so much [bombings and killings] so quickly.
Richer, deputy director of the CIA, would later say,“The rain and sunshine were the ineptitude of the provisional authority and U.S. misunderstanding of Iraqis and their culture.”
All of this sounds dense but the book delves into this long and traumatic history with ease. It is both accessible and compelling (it reads a lot like a thriller) without skimping on the details of why this conflict is so important to not only the Middle East but to the US as well. Even if you are totally new to this material, I don’t think you’ll find it confusing. It also remains, on the whole, unbiased, and provides countless first accounts and evidence to give the reader enough information for him/her to formulate personal opinions. This book is still extremely relevant especially concerning the Syrian refugee crisis, our demonization of an entire race/religion based on a few radicals (Orlando shooting) and even as recent as May 2016, there have been killings on behalf of ISIS. The least I could do was to become educated on it.
I really stepped out of my comfort zone with this book and this time, it really paid off. I learned a lot and from that alone, I think it probably will end up in one of my favorite books of 2016. I highly recommend this.