Weapon of mass instruction

The Assassins' Gate
June 9, 2006

Alex Danchev examines a searing account of US recklessness towards human life in the aftermath of the Iraq War

The Assassins' Gate is a mosaic of many tragedies, large and small. One of them is the tragedy of Drew Erdmann, a thirtysomething State Department official seconded to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad in the role of senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. In this Orwellian world, provisional authority exceeds paper ministry. Erdmann was in effect acting minister.

Passionately committed to the project of reconstruction, he gave his all to the job. One day, on a visit to the campus of Baghdad University to meet the people from Unesco, his military escort was shot in the head at point-blank range. He died before they could reach the hospital. That evening, Erdmann tried to clean the bloodstains from the car with detergent. Determined to go back to the campus the following day, he had to request an escort from soldiers in the dead man's unit. More deaths swiftly followed. The Florida National Guard were not equipped to cope with daily life in downtown Baghdad.

Erdmann returned, reluctantly, to Washington. Before he left, the president of Baghdad University told him that he was a good man. The compliment was well earned. Erdmann was eager, perhaps overeager, but he was not one of the new zealots, as George Packer calls them, dangerously ignorant and invincibly self-righteous, sure of themselves, sure, too, of their "clean hands", in the words of the original "Quiet American" of Graham Greene's creation. Fifty years on, Pyle the innocent, Pyle the earnest, Pyle the engagé , resonates still. "Perhaps I should have seen that fanatic gleam," rues Greene's narrator, marooned in Vietnam, "the quick response to a phrase, the magic sound of figures: Fifth Column, Third Force, Seventh Day. I might have saved us a lot of trouble, even Pyle, if I had realised the direction of that indefatigable young brain." Saigon spoke eloquently to Erdmann in Babylon.

Poignantly enough, Erdmann's doctoral dissertation examined the idea of securing political ends by military means. One of his favourite books was Marc Bloch's soul-searching "Statement of Evidence" on the French collapse of 1940, Strange Defeat (1948). He had it with him in Baghdad. His attention was riveted by two passages that he underlined for himself and then for Packer. In a magnificent summing-up, Bloch examines his conscience. "The real trouble with us professors is that we were absorbed in our day-to-day tasks. Most of us can say with some justice that we were good workmen. Is it equally true to say that we were good citizens?"

That question haunted Erdmann, and it haunts this account of America in Iraq. Erdmann the citizen wanted to do good by America and Iraq. Erdmann the historian manqué wanted never to write a statement of evidence called Strange Defeat .

The other passage from that book became the leitmotif of Packer's quest for understanding. "The ABC of my trade consists of avoiding big-sounding abstract terms," Bloch reflects. "Those who teach history should be continually concerned with the task of seeking the solid and the concrete behind the empty and the abstract. In other words, it is on men rather than functions that they should concentrate their attention. The errors of the High Command were, fundamentally, the errors of a specific group of human beings."

Packer went to war, which is to say to peace or what passed for it, in that spirit. He made his first visit to Iraq in summer 2003, soon after a bomber-jacketed George W. Bush had declared "mission accomplished". At that stage, nothing was fixed, Packer felt; everything was still in flux. Iraq itself was a contested concept. So was the liberation-turned-occupation.

"The arrival of the Americans and the British in 2003 freed Iraqis from Saddam but not from their own suspicions and grievances and fears. It was a victory of foreigners, and the occupiers wondered why they were greeted with prickliness instead of mere gratitude. Liberation was, in a way, humiliating, and the almost two years that followed brought new calamities.

On election day (in January 2005), the foreign troops were nowhere to be seen, and when Iraqis went to vote, the achievement was finally their own."

Packer is a sensitive observer. As a writer, he cultivates a transparent style that looks like no style at all, a difficult trick to work. As a reporter he is all ears. "What's the best thing about Saddam being gone?" he hears one of Paul Bremer's press aides badgering a doctor, on a fleeting visit by the American plenipotentiary to a hospital in the town of Diwanyia. "I can't understand your question," the doctor replies. The question is repeated. "Only one, I think only one," says the doctor. "Only the free talking. Only only only. But no doing. No doing."

Packer was hooked. He kept going back, as he says, because he wanted to see past the abstractions to what the war meant in people's lives. "The most important struggles were the ones going on in the minds of Iraqis and Americans alike." He would try to get an inkling of the interior life. The Assassins' Gate is a book about the struggle to make sense of things - the struggle for meaning.

It is a reporter's book - Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker - a book of individual stories like Erdmann's, and vignettes like the Iraqi doctor's, woven together from his dispatches in the magazine. Occasionally the stitching shows, but not very often. As reportage, it is exemplary. As witness, it stands comparison with We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families (1998), on the Rwandan genocide, by Packer's New Yorker stable mate Philip Gourevitch; or, in a different register, Dispatches (1977), on the Vietnam War, by Michael Herr. These books have entered the cultural bloodstream. The Assassins' Gate is destined to do the same. It may grow -already there is a brilliant pendant, "The lesson of Tal Afar" - but it will surely last. It is perhaps the only book yet published on the Iraq War and its degrading aftermath about which one could be so confident. The winning combination of personal veracity, intellectual honesty and moral clarity is a remarkable achievement: all the more so before the dust has settled. If this is journalism, it puts us professors in the shade.

The work has a documentary flavour, but it is uncommonly reflective. Reading Packer is refreshing, even inspiring, because of his self-examination. Unlike so many of his subjects, it seems, the author has an open mind. At the outset, heavily influenced by the oracular Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya and the hot gospeller of liberal interventionism Paul Berman (both personal friends), Packer finds himself an uncomfortable supporter of the war. "The Administration's war was not my war - it was rushed, dishonest, unforgivably partisan, and destructive of alliances - but objecting to the authors and their methods didn't seem reason enough to stand in the way. One doesn't get one's choice of wars. To give my position a label, I belonged to the tiny, insignificant camp of ambivalently pro-war liberals, who supported the war by about the same margin that the voting public had supported Al Gore."

Three years, one book, and no body counts later, his position had changed. "I came to believe that those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence. Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive."

Like Graham Greene, Packer is curious to know what his characters are reading. In Kirkuk, he notices a 24-four-year-old lieutenant with a shelf full of Kurdish and Iraqi history in his tent, a book about Algeria's recent civil war and Four Hours in My Lai . In Bremer's huge, high-ceilinged office deep in the fastness of the Green Zone, Packer finds the bookshelves nearly bare. "Rudolph Giuliani's Leadership stood on one shelf, and a book about the management of financial crises on another, near a box of Raisin Bran." The foot soldiers come out well in this account. The High Command does not.

"By relying on second-hand evidence one is bound to lose something of the truth and much of the human atmosphere. But no man exists who can claim to have witnessed everything at first-hand, or to have had all the knowledge available. The most we can ask is that each shall say frankly what he has to say. From a comparison of particular sincerities, truth will eventually emerge," Bloch concluded. Packer says frankly, that is his virtue. The Assassins' Gate has a ring of truth and a deal of human atmosphere. The first draft of history is here.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University, and co-editor with John MacMillan of The Iraq War and Democratic Politics .

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

Author - George Packer
Publisher - Faber
Pages - 467
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 571 23043 1

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