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George Packer, The Assassin's Gate, 22/2/06

From: Max Dunbar's Book Reviews
Category: Art
Date: 22 February 2006


George Packer

The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq

‘Since the invasion, we have continued to argue, and we will go on arguing for years to come. Iraq is the Rashomon of wars.’ True. Even the drop of the country’s name will galvanise any pub. Mention it and voices raise, drinks spill, fists bang on tables- three years on, the war retains all its room-emptying power.

Packer does a good job of picking through Westerners’ tangled attitudes to the conflict. For thirty years our view on foreign policy has depended on whether we remember World War Two or Vietnam- the Good War, or the Bad War. If you follow the Good War, the West represents the light of freedom, overthrowing tyrannies all over the world and greeted by grateful natives with shining eyes. If you follow the Bad War, it is a imperialist force determined to siphon up the economic resources of other countries and spread a McDonalds hegemony across the globe. In the Good War, the West’s enemies are totalitarian evildoers who can strike anyone at any time. In the Bad, they are a heroic resistance trying to defeat aggression at massive odds.

These two narratives help to understand the confusion over the rights and wrongs over the Iraq attack. In the end Iraq became a blank canvas, a mirror for our obsessions. Pro-war commentators grappled for a reason why, if America was now into spreading democracy, it still supported the dictatorships of Uzbekistan and Pakistan, while the British antiwar movement tied itself in knots trying to explain how the courageous, anti-imperialist insurgency could be killing trade unionists, socialists and aid workers. The problem for both sides was that they had achieved a monstrous separation from those that they claimed to represent. It could be seen when Bush’s preferred candidate, Iyad Allawi, got only 18% of the vote in the elections of January 2005, but this separation was most profoundly illustrated by London’s pre-invasion peace march. Leftwing hawk Nick Cohen picked up on it in his book Pretty Straight Guys:

An anomalous figure stood alone in the crowd. Sama Hadad was a refugee from Iraq and was demonstrating against the demonstrators. ‘Everyone here is wrong,’ she said. ‘Everyone here has a moral duty to call for the removal of Saddam Hussein and for a just and democratic Iraq…. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are dying.’ ‘I know,’ [Tony] Benn interrupted. ‘Because of sanctions.’ ‘No, no, not because of sanctions, because of Saddam,’ she cried.

To read The Assassin’s Gate is to have your mirror shattered. Its title comes from one of Saddam’s many self-aggrandising monuments, and to read of the brutality of this genuinely fascist regime- the torture, the ethnic cleansing, the use of rape as a judicial punishment- it becomes no wonder that Iraqis would welcome an American invasion, even one as criminally incompetent as this has been. (And yes, the support given to Saddam by the West, including his famous meeting with Donald Rumsfeld, is also discussed here). Packer also tears up the antiwar myth that Iraq was some beacon of secularism in the midst of a fanaticised Middle East: in fact, its civil society subscribed to a conservative Islam. As ever, women were the losers, facing arranged marriages, honour killings and ‘virginity exams’. Packer tells a story of a group of women who made the mistake of applying to present on Uday Hussein’s television station: ‘Uday raped the girls one after another, then threw them out on the street, drugged, with a wad of cash, which is how Raghda was found by the police. When she told them her story, they gave her a beating and then brought her to the Medico-Legal Institute.’

Packer’s reporting has been criticised for being too pessimistic about the future of Iraq. It’s true that he becomes more and more disillusioned on each return visit, but I feel that, having been to Iraq instead of just talking about it, the author should be given some slack on this one. You can’t be immune to pessimism when you are dealing with the human cost of warfare, as Packer’s portrait of Chris Frosheiser, a registered Democrat who lost his son in Iraq, shows. In a lesser journalist the grieving father would be reduced to a tool that confirmed the necessity of a Good war or the evils of a Bad one. But Packer gives us a complex man struggling to make sense of a complex world.

The book excels when it brings the idealism of Paul Wolfowitz and Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya into contact with eyewitness, everyday life in Iraq. The Assassin’s Gate is almost like a novel in the way it evokes the tensions and boredoms of a warzone- checkpoints, explosions in the night, traffic control, the maddening bureaucracy and subterfuge needed to even get a few cans of beer. There are far too many people in the debate who seem to be for war simply for the sake of having a war, and they need to read this- simply to feel the clash between laptop strategy and the sweaty, grinding realities of postwar life in Iraq.

Current affairs are not the ideal for book form: generally politics changes so fast that by the time a book is written, printed, distributed and published, the situation has defied the writer’s analysis to the extent that he looks completely stupid. This fate hasn’t fallen on Packer: he doesn’t have all the answers, he’s just reporting what he sees. Iraqis have been to the polls twice since his book left off, and despite the chaos, the violence and the shame, I hope that the vision of Kanan Makiya is the one that is realised- it would be, as he says, the triumph of hope over experience.

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