Operation Ajax: A Guest Review

As you know, I am an English teacher, and while I love helping all disciplines discover graphic novels to help teachers teach certain subjects or reach certain kids, my love is English. However! There is a group of teachers that is close to my heart, and that group is Social Studies teachers. I guess you can say that I feel a connection to them since we all basically teach reading and writing, and as the graphic novel/comics industry keeps making amazing non-fiction texts, I will continue to develop those bonds and relationships.

With that said, I am thrilled to bring you yet another amazing guest review! This review comes courtesy of Kate Schwartz-Jakocko, a high school Social Studies teacher here on the South Side of Chicago. Dig it because you know it’s good; share it because you dig it!

Here it is:

In George Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address, Iran was infamously named as part of the so called “Axis of Evil” catapulting Iran to the center of international scrutiny. As Iran’s nuclear ambitions became a concern to both the US and the broader international community, the diplomatic and political history of Iran and the U.S. became starkly relevant. This is a problem because, in general, the U.S. electorate is woefully ignorant of the critical events that have transpired between the two nations from the post-World War II era to present day. In order to understand the current diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and Iran, it is imperative to understand the historical context.

I was thrilled to see this important but often overlooked slice of history as the subject of Operation Ajax: The Story of the CIA Coup that Remade the Middle East. The book is a well-researched, thorough, accurate, and concise presentation of complicated and interwoven politics of Britain, Iran, the U.S., and Russia. The book deftly portrays the relationship between a cast of international characters, politicians, and religious figures while simultaneously contextualizing each nations’ motives within the framework of the Cold War. This is no small task, and it is well done.

I think the presentation of this history in particular, lends itself well to a graphic presentation for a few reasons. Many of the people crucial to the story (primarily Mohammad Mossadegh, the Shah Reza Pahlavi and other Iranians) are largely unknown to Americans. By having strong artistic portrayals of these important figures, they become more memorable. I find that when students of history have no framework or schema in which to place historical actors, the names become simply interchangeable and arbitrary. Operation Ajax allows the reader to match a face with a name, making these individuals more “real” and vibrant.

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Further, any non-fiction historical account of Operation Ajax I have encountered is written in a detached, third person, objective style. While this is format is perfectly adequate for someone with either strong non-fiction reading skills or a passing familiarity with protracted Middle Eastern politics, it can be an intimidating style for someone who might just want to learn a little about Iran. Operation Ajax provides the middle route: all of the relevant history with none of the barriers. For example, after the Iranians take control of the oil industry from Britain, Britain places a strict embargo on Iran. Embargoes always mean food shortages and lack of medicine and other vital provisions. In three powerful panels, a scene of two mothers arguing over how to feed their children communicates the reality of life under an embargo much more vividly than a more “typical” non-fiction account ever could. And if the reader understands embargoes, the depiction of the scene does not detract, but rather, enhances empathy for the complexity of life for ordinary Iranians in the early 1950s.

The marriage of non-fiction to the format of graphic novel eliminates the third person voice and puts the historical actors in first person. The tense shifts literally from past to present and gives the story urgency and immediacy. The story unfolds before the reader with a sense of suspense. The book reads like a piece of historical fiction, allowing the reader see a more full and vibrant depiction of Iranian, British, and American actors. Operation Ajax takes a complicated but important event, and makes is easy to understand through both remarkably direct writing and bolstered by graphic depictions.

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This book and topic should be part of any social studies class as a crucial piece of international politics and as vital background information to the Iranian Hostage Crisis. In 1979, when Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran, Americans were confounded and completely surprised by Iranians’ anger. Americans didn’t understand why Ayatollah Khomeini was calling the U.S. “the Great Satan.” In my classroom, the students read a short but dramatic description of the embassy being overrun. I then pose the questions, “Why did Iranian students do this? What were their motives? Why were they so angry at the United States?” Operation Ajax provides some of the answers: In 1953, the CIA (and MI6) covertly overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government under the false guise of communist fears, reinstated an increasingly corrupt and repressive Shah who was a puppet of the West, and most importantly, allowed Britain to maintain control of Iran’s oil. Students could easily answer these questions from reading selected chapters from Operation Ajax or, better yet, using their phones or tablets.

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Cognito Comics has put together a truly impressive, fully interactive app of the 210 page comic. There are declassified CIA documents, related news footage from the time period, and the entire stunning graphic novel at the students’ disposal. Using these sources, students will understand both why the U.S. orchestrated Operation Ajax, why the Iranian’s detested it, and how it served as a catalyst for the Hostage Crisis some two decades later. The students will be using inquiry-based learning with a variety of multimedia, the interactive graphic novel, interesting primary sources, and sound historical information to further their understanding. Not only is it fascinating, but it allows for innovative and sound lesson design.
Operation Ajax: The Story of the CIA Coup that Remade the Middle East cogently outlines the seeds of discord between Iran and the U.S.. The diplomatic strides currently being made between the two nations are a major source of contention or celebration (depending on your politics) in Washington, D.C. and will play a prominent part of the upcoming presidential election. Students need to understand the historical background and context to accurately form an opinion on this foreign policy matter. Operation Ajax provides an irresistible format in both digital and print media to help students of history ascertain a deeper and multifaceted understanding of international politics.

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