Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq
by George Packer (FSG, 2005)

I have to admit, I started reading this book with a great deal of skepticism, given the effusive praise from Christopher Hitchens in a plug on the back. Others also told me that Packer is a "liberal hawk" who originally supported the war. But if so, he's come a long way.

Packer's views on the war are not Hitchens'. Moreover, he takes on the ideological hybris of the neocons in a manner that is quite nuanced, fair, and critical. For that reason, it is more than a deep, first-hand account of the on-the-ground reality gleaned from numerous visits to Iraq (where he describes an increasingly dangerous atmosphere), but more interesting as a sweeping analysis laden with probing encounters with key neocon thinkers, including Perle, Paul Berman, Robert Kagan, and various Iraqi exiles.

The result is a solid description of how delusionary the leading advocates of the war are.

While comparisons with the Vietnam War are fraught with obstacles, if I were to suggest a book to compare this one to, it might be The Best and the Brightest, except that Packer lacks Halberstam's probing descriptions of the inner workings of key players -- e.g. the Office of Special Plans and Cheney's cabal. Nevertheless, he makes up for that with searing and deeply probing examinations of key ideologues, young CPA bureaucrats detached from the reality outside the Green Zone and occupation authories and soldiers who can't afford the luxury of that distance.

A friend of mine suggested he didn't see much point in the description Packer includes of his visit to the father of a dead soldier, out in Iowa, but I think it works well against the abstractions of the neocons, which he puts at the center of a searching examination of the big question: WHY? It is therefore easy to understand how the father would not arrive at the same criticism of the war that we are left with, since that would mean his son's death was meaningless.

And yet, the sad thing is that very well may be the case.

Packer is also simply a damned fine writer, which makes even those parts that you don't seem to learn much that is new (esp. after reading a few other books on Iraq) still rewarding.

So, if you want to read just one book, consider this one. (Esp. since it's not quite as dated as Christian Parenti's The Freedom, which was a solid piece of reportage on the early occupation.) I haven't yet read Anthony Shadid's book (which is supposed to be a good explanation of the war from the perspective of the Iraqi people), Baghdad Burning, or David Enders' book, Baghdad Bulletin. But if they are all good, I think it would be for different reasons.