Book review: Policing Iraq: Legitimacy, Democracy, and Empire in a Developing State, by Jesse S.G. Wozniak

Mathieu Deflem
University of South Carolina

This is a copy of a review of Policing Iraq: Legitimacy, Democracy, and Empire in a Developing State, by Jesse S.G. Wozniak, published in Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books, 2021. 

Also available online from the publisher.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2021. Review of Policing Iraq: Legitimacy, Democracy, and Empire in a Developing State by Jesse S.G. Wozniak. Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books, September 2021, online,

The causes and consequences of the military invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition of forces in 2003 remain in need of careful scrutiny and thorough analysis. Various components of the Iraqi war and its aftermath have received more or less attention, but many of the public discussions have obscured rather than illuminated relevant realities because they were rooted in strongly held and ultimately blinding ideological beliefs, unhindered by any adherence to logic or the systematic study of facts. Social scientists can and must do better than that, and some of them indeed have. This book by Jesse Wozniak in this respect alone provides a most welcome scholarly contribution by offering an in-depth analysis of the reconstruction of police forces in selected parts of the developing Iraqi national state.

The centrality of police as a primary institution of any normalized society that has established, or wishes to acquire, a modicum of peace can in no rational way be denied. And yet, the study of police, criminal law, and criminal justice is often seen, and all too readily accepted, as secondary to analyses focused on presumably broader and weightier concerns such as politics and economy. Such an implicitly reductionist perspective of the regulation of law and order, however, is seriously deficient and would not even be able to reveal what policing fundamentally is, let alone how policing is practiced and develops in any specific historical and jurisdictional context. As such, the value of Wozniak’s study must be recognized as making a useful contribution to our evolving understanding of post-invasion Iraqi society and one of its constituent parts.

How does Wozniak approach the question of policing in Iraq since the invasion? A key strength of this study is its methodological foundation in a series of detailed ethnographic investigations courageously undertaken by the author. All the more remarkable is that Wozniak undertook this study without the support from any granting agency. The completion and publication of this work with a major university press shows how irrational rejections in academia can be. Concentrated in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah between the years 2011 and 2017, Wozniak primarily studied day-to-day interactions at a police training academy and related places such as courthouses. In addition, he conducted multiple qualitative interviews, organized two surveys, and analyzed various related written documents. The author’s language skills served as a much needed and critical asset to assure close scrutiny of the subject matter.

The analysis is presented logically in various thematic chapters. Following a theoretical chapter and preceding a methodological appendix, Wozniak successively explores the reconstruction of Iraq, the daily routines of police trainees and their motivations to join the police, relevant legal conditions and conduct, and a broader look at US-led interventions in the Iraqi reconstruction process. The findings are generally presented in intelligible and sufficiently detailed ways, providing many insights into an important aspect of Iraqi social life, one which we would otherwise not know in nearly as much depth and breadth. As such, this book provides for very useful reading for anyone interested in post-war Iraq, policing in developing societies, as well as important aspects of military and political history. This interest should apply to anyone interested in Iraq specifically, but should also extent to scholars who study other, both similar and dissimilar, states and societies.

Yet, there must be more than good data alone in any social-science study as our attention should also go to the theoretical elucidation of findings and their framing in a specified analytical model. On these fundamental matters, I take issue with almost every single aspect of Wozniak’s work. All too often, I am concerned, Wozniak’s arguments will sound reasonable all too quickly and especially by those who already think to know what policing might be about even when they have never pondered on its role. But, in all candor, Wozniak’s choice of theory is rationally unfounded, poorly developed, and incomprehensibly weak indeed.

It is false, as opposed to true, that police is intimately related to politics. Historical evidence alone justifies calling into question the supposed political nature of policing. Historically, along with the differentiation of police from the military, the police function has developed in such a way that it separates itself from any political goals to become defined as a social institution. In autocratic regimes, such as in Iraq during the Ba’athist rule under Saddam Hussein, by contrast, police typically remained very tightly related to military and political power. Thus, the very foundation and objectives of the move towards establishing a normally functioning police, exemplify the essence of a democratic nation and a normalization of society. Studying modern policing, the emphasis must shift to society. Such an effort need not and should not involve driving the state out or leaving the state behind, but instead should place both policing and the powers of the state in their proper contexts. For indeed, unlike certain misperceptions that remain all too common among social scientists outside the fields of criminal justice and criminology, the police function develops under the auspices of various public bodies of governance, but is in its development not necessarily exclusively directed nor tightly controlled by governments that are at the center of state power. The essence of police is its function as an institution that serves societal goals, not its supposed role as an apparatus of the state.

In light of these observations, it is truly surprising that Wozniak holds on to the notion that the police would be “the frontlines of the state” (p. 2). Admittedly, Wozniak confesses to his theoretical bent proudly, clearly, and explicitly, specifically in terms of Gramscian neo-Marxism, so that his work is easy to criticize for its all too apparent flaws. And Wozniak is systematic in his approach as well as he persistently holds on to his ill-fated theoretical viewpoint. Thus, we read, by example, “punishment is inherently a political question” (p. 18), when it is obvious that it is not and that punishment is so much more. The same applies to police. Related to the political reduction of police is an emphasis Wozniak defends to focus on police reform in terms of neoliberalism and even empire. He can therefore theoretically, but not by reason of fact, invoke capitalism as a relevant force. Thus, the twin devils of politics and market are invoked to unframe policing and ultimately fail to reveal its societal role. Intellectual leanings aside, the theoretical choices of Wozniak are more than a little surprising in the light of the drastic changes Iraqi police institutions have undergone since the dark days of Saddam Hussein.

A small note is in order, finally, about the methodological appendix that is included. While it contains some useful if rather obvious insights on the practice and value of ethnographic research, its inclusion in this study has a somewhat perverse quality to it as well. Not content with explaining how he did his research and the reflexivity that is involved, in writing the appendix Wozniak unreflectively also places himself next to his subjects, ostensibly as yet another victim of dire circumstances. Would he assume his quest for academic work to be in any way similar to young Iraqis’ difficult choice to join the police? Surely not, but with self-ascribed heroism nonetheless, Wozniak labels his work as ‘conflict research’ that would have been conducted as ‘gonzo sociology’. Perhaps a traditional view of accounting for variation in reality would and should have been plenty.

In sum, this book provides a useful contribution to the literature by presenting a study of police reform in an Iraqi region that is scholarly in nature rather than normative or technical. The ethnographic data provide a unique glimpse into a Kurdish region of Iraq and its dealings with the evolving role of police. The writing is engaging, just as one would expect from a study that is largely based on ethnographic data. Sociologists, criminologists, and other social-science scholars and students will therefore find much food for thought in this book. The book may be at its most valuable in relying on a variety of data collection methods and the various findings that are presented as a result. As police forces are commonly very protective if not outright secretive of their inner workings, any study of police that is revealing in an empirical sense performs an intellectual role as well.

But theoretically this work has, in my mind, little of serious value to contribute. Its analytical underpinnings are weak, misguided, and, worst of all, in danger of being too quickly accepted, especially by those who share similar misconceptions in the study of other institutions and developments in society outside of the realm of police and criminal justice. Of course, Wozniak might counter-argue and suggest that his perspective is one among several and that theoretical debates are not easily resolved. If so, fair enough, were it not for the obvious failings of any theory of policing that non-ironically references Marx in the 21st century and that does so, moreover, with virtually no reference to extant theories in the sociology and criminology of policing. At the very least, a measure of modesty as well as realism would have been in order for Wozniak in developing his study. In so doing, Wozniak might have taken policing more seriously, himself (along with Gramsci and Marx) perhaps a little less so.

See related publications on policing.