So what's been on the menu? Well, it's all factual stuff at the moment, and for the sake of brevity, I will discuss just two items.
1. Winston's Folly: Imperialism And The Creation Of Modern Iraq by Christopher Catherwood
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wishes to have a greater understanding of Iraq - how it came to be and why it is an issue today. Catherwood's research is thorough and comprehensive, delving into Winston Churchill's archives to piece together the events the culminated in the formation of Iraq. A desperation to save money, the failure of the US to take up post-WWI mandates, fear of the Turks, and a whole litany of other factors and errors culminated in the Iraq we know today. Catherwood's highly speculative afterword (as acknowledged in its very title!), although written in March 2004, is just as relevant now, in light of the Iraqi election. Catherwood notes that the most important factor for any new government is legitimacy as a government not seen as legitimate in the eyes of the people cannot adequately function. No Iraqi government has been seriously legitimate, lacking the support of the majority of the population, and any new one is going to have a hard time gaining legitimacy as the nation is so ethnically and religiously divided. A Shi'ite government may have majority support, but that majority is most certainly not a large one, and Catherwood raises the very valuable point that any government may seek legitimacy by turning on Washington and London to show that it is independent rather than a puppet of Bush, Blair, and Co. We in the West will interpret it as ingratitude while those actually in control will be attempting to prove they are not bound to anyone and can function with legitimate freedom.
But ultimately, it is the mistakes of the post-WWI period that will likely lead to Iraq's downfall. The arbitrary borders imposed on the land contain a number of rival groups that, as can be seen, are not necessarily willing to form a unified national government, and the Western presumption that a sense of Iraqi nationality will over-ride ethnic and religious differences seems to be misplaced. However, while a split between the Sunni and Shi'ite areas may be reasonable, the artifical borders of the region mean that Kurdistan is split across international boundaries and that makes establishing a country for the Kurds all the more difficult. It doesn't help that they live around a bunch of people who hate them, particularly the Turks. Of course, at the end of the day, oil will become a determining factor in Iraq and anyone expecting peace should stop holding their breath now.
2. 1421: The Year China Discovered The World by Gavin Menzies
I am about a hundred pages into this book and I must say that it is absolutely fascinating. I know precious little about Chinese history and this book may have just inspired me to learn more. Much of the author's assumptions thus far have been interwoven with historical fact and he has yet to present much evidence in favour of his argument that a gigantic Chinese fleet discovered Australia, the Americas, and circumnavigated the globe, but I am sure that will be coming soon. The beginning sections, after all, are simply placing the book in context, explaining the conditions of the time in both China and the world.
One interesting point the author makes is that the Chinese were centuries more advanced than Europe, a rather backwards civilisation yet to reach the Renaissance, and in light of the world dominance that Europe has now gained, it got me thinking about how the future will look in 500 years and who will dominate. I feel we are all trapped within our own time, looking back on history and believing we have reached the pinnacle of advancement. This is, of course, false, but one distinguishing factor of today's world is that we have mapped the globe and there are no more continents to discover. I wonder how this will influence the balance of power over time. How will it shift and how drastically will it differ from the past?
Another interesting point is the destruction of knowledge. Much of what the author presents in 1421 is based on evidence such as shipwrecks and uneathed artefacts, as the written accounts of the travels - along with much other knowledge - was burnt within the next couple of decades. I cannot fathom such behaviour. It has happened a lot in the past, often at the hands of people wishing to suppress knowledge that will threaten their own authority, and while that may be classed as motivation, I find it intolerable and incomprehensible why anyone would destroy valuable records of what has occurred. Then again, I am the type of person who hoards knowledge of all varieties and views it as immensely valuable and worth protecting at all costs. It would be interesting - and quite probably scary - to learn how much truth today is destroyed. We don't think that sort of thing continues to happen, but you can't hear everything when you put your ear against a stubbornly closed door.