2024 Political Writing Book prize finalist

The Achilles Trap

Steve Coll

Published by: Allen Lane

The Achilles Trap is a rigorous, expertly controlled account of what Steve Coll calls the “march to disaster”: the US’s decades-long dealings with Saddam Hussein, characterized by fateful miscalculations and misunderstandings on both sides – a “cascade of errors”, as Coll puts it – and culminating in the catastrophically misjudged American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. A staff writer at the New Yorker and author of several previous books about US involvement in the Middle East, Coll traces the vicissitudes of the US’s relationship with Hussein from his rise to power in 1979 and inauguration of Iraq’s secret nuclear weapons programme, through the precarious collaboration forged with the Reagan administration during the Iraq-Iran war, to the decisive unravelling of relations after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the ensuing botched efforts of the CIA to covertly overthrow Hussein. Partly based on 2,000 hours of Hussein’s taped meetings with advisers – which the US discovered during the invasion and some of which Coll accessed by suing the Pentagon – Coll’s intricate, absorbing narrative illuminates the role of political folly, hubris and naivety in a region that continues to be roiled by devastating conflicts.
Lola Seaton, Orwell Prize for Political Writing judge 2024