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Posted on Mon, Oct. 25, 2004


Edwin Black paints detailed portrait of Iraq

'Banking on Baghdad' analyzes the relationship between commercial and political interests in Iraq.


Banking on Baghdad: Inside Iraq's 7,000-Year History of War, Profit and Conflict. Edwin Black. John Wiley & Sons. 496 pages. $27.95.

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 America.

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.

To receive business book reviews by e-mail or join the Business Monday Book Club, e-mail Richard Pachter at rpachter@herald.com. For more business book columns by Richard Pachter, go to Herald.com and click on Columnists.

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