Book: The road to hell

The road to hell

In the definitive book about the Iraq war, liberal hawk George Packer tells the whole story of America's worst foreign-policy debacle -- and reveals how good intentions can go terribly wrong.

By Gary Kamiya
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Oct. 7, 2005 | Most of the American left lined up against the war in Iraq. But some did not. Among the liberal intellectuals who supported the invasion was George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker. His new book, "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq," proves that holding strong opinions about a subject does not prevent a journalist of integrity from reporting the truth, even if it flies in the face of what he had believed. "The Assassins' Gate" is almost certain to stand as the most comprehensive journalistic account of the greatest foreign-policy debacle in U.S. history.

A funny thing happened to Packer: He went to Iraq. Reporting is a solvent that dissolves illusions quickly if one has an open mind, and Packer brought that and much more. His first-rate reporting from occupied Iraq, and his superb work covering the corridors of power in Washington, offers an extraordinarily wide-ranging portrait of the Iraq war, from its genesis in neoconservative think tanks to its catastrophic execution to its devastating effects on ordinary Americans and Iraqis. Anthony Shadid, in "Night Draws Near: Iraq's People in the Shadow of America's War," offers a deeper portrait of the Iraqi people, but he does not have Packer's majestic scope. "The Assassins' Gate" is the best book yet about the Iraq war.

Packer's intentions were indisputably good. A man with a finely developed moral sensibility -- perhaps too fine -- Packer never pretended to know that he was right about Iraq. Although he accepted the most dubious and risky motivation for the war, the hubristic dream of implanting democracy by force in the Arab world, his real passion was to liberate the Iraqi people from a loathsome tyrant. He disliked and feared the Bush administration, and ended up throwing the dice on the war more out of hope than certainty.

"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," he writes. "I wanted Iraqis to be let out of prison; I wanted to see a homicidal dictator removed from power before he committed mass murder again; I wanted to see if an open society stood a chance of taking root in the heart of the Arab world. More than anyone else, Kanan Makiya guided my thinking, and I always found it easier to imagine a happy outcome when I was within earshot of him."

As much as it is a history of the war itself, this book is a history of the war of ideas around it. For Packer himself, the two key figures in that war were the Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya and the cultural critic and New Republic contributor Paul Berman. Of the two, Makiya is by far more important. He serves as the moral center of the book, embodying the idealism and illusions that Packer himself held. If Makiya appealed to Packer's heart, Berman excited his brain. In many ways, some of them unacknowledged, "The Assassins' Gate" is the story of Packer's disillusionment with the ideas of both men.

Packer is a rare combination: an excellent reporter, a sophisticated analyst and a fine writer. He was also ubiquitous. No other journalist can match the breadth of Packer's Iraq coverage: He interviewed neocon war architect Richard Perle and talked to ordinary Iraqis after Saddam's fall; he covered a surreal prewar London meeting of Iraqi exiles swarming around Ahmad Chalabi and wrote about a dedicated U.S. Army captain trying to mediate disputes in a Baghdad slum. Reading "The Assassins' Gate" is like being escorted through the corridors of the Pentagon, the lounges of right-wing think tanks and the dangerous streets of Baghdad by a fearless and curious essayist, one simultaneously alive to intellectual nuances and to the human tragedies and triumphs he observes.

Salon.com Books | The road to hell


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