In The Kurds, journalist and filmmaker McKiernan offers a gripping tale of travel among the Kurds of northern Iraq, Turkey, and, briefly, Iran. Based on trips taken over fifteen years, his anecdotes give depth and perspective to Kurdish society. He augments his narrative with historical background. In describing the origins of the Kurds, for example, he relays not only the local Kurdish explanation that they are descended from the Medean Empire (seventh century B.C.E.) but also the scholarly debate which pours cold water on that myth.
McKiernan's tale begins in Iran where he headed at the behest of a nongovernmental organization to assist Iraqi Kurdish refugees fleeing the 1991 uprising. He relates a midnight interrogation by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards while the hotel manager, "a Kurd in a police state," looked on, "a look of embarrassment on his face." Over the next chapters and years, McKiernan shuttles between Iraq and Turkey where he meets local Kurds, as well as officials and others. Importantly, he traces the evolution of the Kurdish issue in Washington, recalling how in 1992 Kurdish officials such as Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani—Iraq's current president—had difficulty getting meetings at the State Department.
It is easy to romanticize the Kurds—the perennial underdogs who have overcome great odds—and too many journalists do so. But McKiernan does not, nor does he whitewash Kurdish history in Iraq. He addresses the 1994-97 internecine civil war in which Talabani and his rival, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) president Masoud Barzani, sent each other's supporters to mass graves. He also describes the KDP obsession with spying upon and controlling foreign press and visitors.
Such balance, however, does not extend to the Turkish Kurds. McKiernan's account oozes with antipathy toward Turkey. He wrongly calls Kurds "second class citizens" in Turkey, ignoring that presidents, foreign ministers, and scores of parliamentarians have been Kurdish. Lack of education and the urban-rural divide better explain the social differences in Turkey than ethnicity. Too often McKiernan uncritically accepts the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) narrative, though many Kurds consider it a terrorist group.
The second half of The Kurds discusses the 2003 Iraq war. McKiernan captures the atmosphere of anxiety that Saddam might again launch chemical weapons against the Iraqi Kurds. His provides a gripping account of the assassination attempt on PUK prime minister Barham Salih. He describes how Iraqi Kurds would sell stories about weapons of mass destruction to U.S. reporters willing to pay for them. This raises an important but unaddressed question: How much of what entered U.S. news accounts originated with Kurdish political parties?
McKiernan's writing is eloquent, but uneven analysis weakens his narrative. That U.S. government officials cite the open press in speeches should not lead to the conclusion that they derive their information from newspaper stories. Conspiracy theories lace his account, such as the silly idea that the Pentagon hid the death of U.S. servicemen during the 2003 war. While a frequent theme of Baathist propaganda, such cover-ups are impossible given soldiers' parents, wives, and children, as well as the U.S. government's pension system. It is unclear how representative McKiernan's encounters are, or whether he reinterprets or revises observations in order to appear more astute. He appears to exaggerate Kurdish-Shi‘i distrust. Analogies to American Indians and false predictions of civil war cheapen what is ultimately a good read but an uneven account of an important time and region.