The Book that Should Be on President Bush's Reading List

News Abroad

Timothy Stewart-Winter is a Ph.D. Candidate in American history at the University of Chicago. His dissertation is on lesbian and gay politics in Chicago since the 1960s. He has taught an undergraduate course at the University of Chicago on "War, Gender, and Sexuality in 20th-Century America." He has an article forthcoming in Gender & History called "Not a Soldier, Not a Slacker: Conscientious Objectors and Male Citizenship in the United States during the Second World War."

"If we lose Iraq, we lose the Middle East." These words, which could have been spoken by a Republican member of Congress today, are in fact spoken by a character in Sam Greenlee's 1976 mass-market paperback novel Baghdad Blues. The novel's main character, Dave Burrell, is an African American from Chicago, a trained Arabic speaker, and part of the small enclave of American diplomats stationed in Baghdad during the July 1958 Iraqi revolution that brought Abdel-Karim Qassem to power.

Baghdad Blues, which I recently found in a used bookstore and bought for three dollars, deserves a place alongside Camus's The Stranger on President Bush's vacation reading list. The back cover describes the protagonist like this: "Dave Burrell is a young recruit officer in the U.S. Information Bureau who admires the rebels and secretly supports their views. His white colleagues, champions of the Iraqi government, are too busy drinking martinis and being 'liberal' to care." It is as if "Shaft" has been set down in Paul Bremer's Green Zone.

The United States did, in fact, in Greenlee's book as well as in real life, "lose Iraq" that summer of 1958: the American-supported Hashemite monarchy, installed in the aftermath of the longstanding British occupation, was overthrown by a military coup with strong popular support among Iraqis. This revolution worried the Eisenhower administration, which saw it as a signal of growing enthusiasm across the Middle East for the potent mixture of Arab nationalism and anti-colonialist views promoted by Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The author's better-known 1969 novel, The Spook Who Sat By the Door, dealt with a black CIA agent who uses his spy training to start a revolution in the streets of Chicago and other U.S. cities. Greenlee was, like the main character in Baghdad Blues, a black Chicagoan who worked during the 1950s in the Middle East for the United States Information Agency (which becomes the book's "Bureau").

The book is at once a Cold War spy novel, a sendup of American diplomatic blundering, and a pointed brief for solidarity between black Americans and colonized peoples around the world. Burrell says this about his colleagues who work for the CIA: "They all want to be James Bond, are told to be Casper Milquetoast, and very often wind up being Walter Mitty, and sometimes the daydreams creep into their real lives."

The book's first theme is the deep-seated racism of white American diplomats, which Burrell finds applied just as casually to the Iraqis within whose society they have carved out an elite world of foreign diplomats and spies. During his Arabic language training in Arlington, Virginia, he finds that he cannot be served in the corner drugstore with his white colleagues. Instead, he takes a bus to the Department of State cafeteria in Washington. "I remember thinking as I passed the Lincoln Memorial," he observes, "that Virginia was quite a place to teach a nigger about Communist tyranny."

On the receiving end of an endless stream of racial slights, he is asked repeatedly to comment on diplomat Ralph Bunche and other accomplished black Americans. Even as they draw invidious distinctions between "desert" and "city" Arabs, Burrell's white colleagues claim that Arabs are too primitive to share their own white racial liberalism. Meanwhile, it turns out that his job within the American propaganda machine is not only to persuade Iraqis that King Faisal II is their friend, but also to downplay American racism, and thereby help win over the world's "non-aligned" peoples.

The second main theme of Baghdad Blues is the hypocrisy and paranoia of American Cold War policy. The overarching American fear in 1958 was that the Iraqi revolution was a harbinger not only of surging Arab nationalism, but of diminished American influence in the Middle East relative to the Soviets. A visiting American "cultural attaché," condemning the recent coup, declares, "The Reds intend strangling us, and they don't care how long it takes. If they can take and hold Iraq, with its large oil reserves, well… "

No matter, of course, that the Iraqi revolutionaries have shown no interest in Communism. This Cold Warrior views everything through a lens of a Manichean struggle between freedom and Communist-supported tyranny. With the Nasserite triumph in Iraq, this American sounds like Rick Santorum decrying "Islamo-fascism": "the Communists will at last have a foothold in this area. They could spread their influence to the surrounding countries: Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait. Mesopotamia has always been the keystone to the Middle East."

Greenlee was writing at a time, in the aftermath of the American adventure in Vietnam, when such "domino" theories had lost credibility among Americans. Yet a reading of Baghdad Blues in 2007 reminds us that events in the intervening years—notably, the founding of Al Qaeda on the late Cold War battleground of 1980s Afghanistan—have helped usher in a period with more similarities to the Cold War than we often acknowledge.

The name of Saddam Hussein, who was consolidating his power in Iraq in the mid-1970s, appears nowhere in the book, although a small African American press re-released the book in 1991, prompted by the first American war in the Persian Gulf, under the misleading title Baghdad Blues: The Revolution That Brought Saddam Hussein to Power. (This is a bit like calling the First World War the revolution that brought Hitler to power—true only if one takes a rather unusually long view of events.)

At the novel's conclusion, the small band of American diplomats is in retreat from a violent, chaotic Baghdad. "We drove across Queen Alwiyah Bridge, renamed Freedom Bridge," says Burrell, "and I looked at the low Tigris, almost as much sand showing between its banks as water. Upriver was the bridge where the bodies had been hung from the lampposts." Our present debacle in Iraq, one is reminded, takes shape neither on a blank slate, nor across a backdrop of ancient and simple sectarianism, but on a landscape scarred by more than a century of European and American involvement.

Greenlee gives his protagonist a perspective of the Iraqi landscape that is deeply shaped by the radical internationalism cultivated by an age of decolonization. Reporting on the Americans' surprise at the Iraqi coup, Burrell concludes, "Only a bunch of white folks, so hung-up on always being right about everything, so hung-up on themselves, could have been surprised about what had happened. The signs had been everywhere, and it really took talent to avoid them, to turn the facts into something entirely different."

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Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

In contrast to many other HNN pages, the review article is much more interesting, informative, and sensible than most of the comments. I would be more inclined to recommend Nixon's resignation speech, as reading for George W., but Baghdad Blues is a good suggestion too.

Hassan El Menyawi - 6/12/2007

As a Middle East expert, I would say that Mr. Timothy Stewart's piece is not only relevant during a period of aggressive Middle East interventionism on the part of the US government, but more than that, represents a brilliant analysis of its importance--perhaps uncovering a jewel for those interested in the study of Western intervention in post-colonial Middle East. It turns out that while teaching Iraq in my Middle Eastern studies course, students seek books that can provide analogues to Iraq as points of inspiration. These include such examples US's intervention in Vietnam, France in Algeria, Russians in Afghanistan. However such study often represents inexact simulacra. I believe that Mr. Stewart has found an interesting book for students to contemplate contemporary Iraq on its own terms.

Arnold Shcherban - 6/12/2007

How well do you know Russian language
and Pasternak's poetry, not mentioning the understanding of Russian national psyche to claim that <Pasternak doesn't deserve the Nobel Prize>?

Joseph Mutik - 6/9/2007

The 20th century had James Joyce, Andre Malraux, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Andre Camus, etc. ..... etc.
If Pasternak is a great novelist, for you, I suggest you to improve your reading list. Reader's Digest isn't the appropriate way to decide who is a good writer!

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 6/5/2007

Nobody can evoke pathos like Pasternak. I consider him the best novelist of the 20th century.

Joseph Mutik - 6/5/2007

Of course the citation adds his "lyrical poetry" to his novel in the "great Russian epic tradition" and his only epic novel is his "Doctor Zhivago" which is a lousy soap opera. Without the cold war political controversy Pasternak doesn't deserve the Nobel prize.

David Simpson - 6/5/2007

The Nobel prize is given to writers not works, and was given to Pasternak not "Doctor Zhivago." The Nobel prize committee citation mentioned both his poetry and epic novels. So maybe not the best example after all.

Joseph Mutik - 6/5/2007

The best example is "Doctor Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak. This novel is a quite lousy soap opera and it received Nobel prize for literature for political reasons. Pasternak was a great poet and writer but "Doctor Zhivago" isn't his best writing.

Joseph Mutik - 6/5/2007

Mr. Stewart-Winters writes:

"Baghdad Blues, which I recently found in a used bookstore and bought for three dollars, deserves a place alongside Camus's The Stranger on President Bush's vacation reading list."

From this quote one can understand that "The Stranger" has some kind of political relevance in the context of the Iraq war and that, maybe, the two books are in the same literary league.
Mr. Stewart-Winter recognized his mistake and explained it in his message above.
The way the reference to "The Stranger" is worded in the article, without the year old context, produces a very humorous result. Some bigots used my messages to express their bigoted way of thinking and total lack of sense of humor.

Cary Fraser - 6/4/2007

The bigoted reaction to the essay - and the book itself - tells us more, unfortunately, than we really wish to know about the authors of the comments. The essay and its author offer an interesting perspective on a book that may merit closer examination than it has hitherto received. Mr. Stewart-Winter should be complimented on his essay.

Jeffery Ewener - 6/4/2007

Oh, be nice!

Matt O'Connor - 6/4/2007

Thanks to Timothy Stewart-Winter for spotlighting "Baghdad Blues." I had never heard of it before reading Mr. Stewart-Winter's essay, but its contemporary relevance seems self-evident.

And to the likes of Jonathan Baum & Joseph Mutik: while you certainly are entitled to attack intelligent criticism of American foreign policy catastrophes (and do so in true knee-jerk fashion if you wish), could you at least refrain from bestowing your homophobic diatribes on the rest of us?

Timothy Stewart-Winter - 6/4/2007

When the White House released George W. Bush’s vacation reading list in August 2006, the inclusion of “The Stranger” by Albert Camus was widely reported in newspapers across the country.

Numerous commentators discussed the perceived ironies of Bush’s selection of the Camus novel, both online (e.g., Salon, 8/11/06; Slate, 8/14/906) and in print (New York Times, 8/16/06; US News & World Report, 8/20/06; New Yorker, 8/28/06; New Republic, 9/4/06). Asked to comment on the matter, White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters, “He found it an interesting book and a quick read. I don’t want to go too deep into it, but we discussed the origins of existentialism.”

Although I made no particular claim concerning the relative merits of the Camus and Greenlee novels, readers may be interested to know that Greenlee was awarded the London Sunday Times book of the year award for 1969 for “The Spook Who Sat by the Door,” which was translated into six languages. He also received the United States Information Agency’s meritorious service award for bravery during the 1958 Baghdad revolution.

Jason Blake Keuter - 6/4/2007

Looks like a quasi-literate version of Shaft

Fahrettin Tahir - 6/4/2007

The author is simply saying that the Americans bungle in parts of the world they don't understand. This is a simple fact of life. I might add, when they see that things don't work out as they planned, they develop rascist theories about irrational moslems.

Timothy Stewart-Winter - 6/4/2007

The context for my reference to The Stranger" was that, in August 2006, White House staffers released Bush's August vacation reading list, which included the Camus novel "The Stranger." Numerous commentaries were published in newspapers and online about the irony surrounding Bush's selection. Among many other examples, see the articles published on Slate on 8/14/06, on Salon on 8/15/06, in the New Yorker on 8/28/06, and in Maureen Dowd's NY Times column of 8/16/06.

bill mcclure - 6/4/2007

Man, do I feel as if I have been put in my place. Please be sensitive, my insight is not as keen, I suffer from a small, puny brain. It's hereditary. But I am not so slow as not to take good solid advice. So off I go to a therapist since describing The Stranger as a political allegory is clearly a screaming need for psychoanalysis. I wish I was stable. Perhaps someday I can read political essays and opine on the sexual proclivities of the author. One can only hope.

Joseph Mutik - 6/4/2007

The background is Algerian because Albert Camus was born there. If you see anything political in this book you should consult your shrink.
This book is about a random irrational action. Actually a French is executed for killing an Arab and not the other way around. Anyway, why bother, your mind is set. You are not even bothered by the fact that a great literary work of the 20th century is compared with a cheap spy story.

Scott H Bennett - 6/4/2007

I do not know Timothy Stewart-Winter, though I have read parts of his 2001 Swarthmore College BA thesis: "Manning the Home Front: Gender, Citizenship, and Conscientious Objection during World War II." It is an outstanding piece of archive-based cultural history. Until Stewart-Winter's HNN article, I was not aware of Baghdad Blues, but I intend to get a copy and read it this summer.

--Scott Bennett

bill mcclure - 6/4/2007

The persuasiveness and sheer mental genius of these arguments really shines through. Mr. Stewart-Winter will certainly feel the deserved scolding justly heaped upon him. I am in awe of the angle of attack - don't respond to the subject of his essay but instead use barely veiled homophobia to let him have it. Kudos, really, a top notch job, I must say. I mean, sure, the essay had nothing to do with sexuality but let's get it in there to reveal exactly the true conspiracy afoot. And Camus' The Stranger? What does a book about a the effects of colonization and subsequent civil war on a country with people of color have any similarity to do with another book about the effects of colonization and subesquent civil war on a country with people of color. Nothing! That's right, zero. I can't see a correlation, either. It simply must be about sex and beheading! How dare Mr. Stewart-Winter write about pulp fiction and its analogies to current events. Look at him expressing his opinions, like we live in a country that supports that craziness or something. I am so relieved that we have all taken the high road here and not bothered to lower ourselves in order to debate the merits of the author's argument and that our reactions haven't exactly proven his point. I mean, how rude. I'm white. I get it, man. I know this article isn't about American foreign policy in Iraq and it is all about something nefarious and taboo. We'll smoke him out. Keep up the good, noble work people.

Joseph Mutik - 6/4/2007

... the author of the article is a closet S.M. and he likes the end of the book with a guillotine execution.
Anyway Albert Camus compared with a cheap spy story shows a very peculiar literary taste.

Jonathan Baum - 6/4/2007

This is what happens when a person whose area of expertise is homosexuals in Chicago tries to give advice on matters of national security. Waste of time and space.