The soldier memoirs communicate the palpable tunnel vision of the occupation. Jason Christopher Hartley, author of Just Another Soldier, describes the difficulty of locating the people who are taking shots at their patrols in Baghdad. Colby Buzzell, author of My War: Killing Time in Iraq, describes the daily mortar shelling of the American base in Mosul, more a nuisance than anything else because the shells are so poorly aimed. Buzzell, the most charming and funny of the memoirists, imagines the Iraqis “doing this illegal deed in a hurry and scared to death the entire time, yelling at each other in Arabic to ‘hurry the fuck up!’ because every time we got called out to try to catch these sons of bitches and turn them into martyrs minutes after they mortared us, they were always gone like the wind.”
The invisibility of the enemy is in direct proportion to the narcissism of the Americans. Crawford’s unit hangs out at the base, lifts weights, takes steroids, goes on patrol, checks e-mail. The Iraqis they shoot are mainly civilians. Buzzell checks e-mail, works out (“The only thing that sucked about the gym is that whenever we received a mortar attack, the gym people would freak out and close the gym down, always right in the middle of your workout”), and tries to read as much as he can—he is stymied in this by his roommate, Sergeant Horrocks, who is always talking. (The situation is resolved when Horrocks gets a PlayStation.) Hartley, for his part, when he’s done watching all the DVDs he can watch, decides to start a blog.
That’s when the war really gets going for Hartley, because he becomes an embattled blogger: His commanding officer gets mad, the guys in the unit don’t seem to like him. Things are tough—even a weeklong leave at Camp Chili’s, the Army’s vacation spot in Qatar, brings no relief. “Forget what you may think about pass being a time to relax,” Hartley tells his readers. “It’s just as stressful as not being on pass, because all that matters is getting laid.” Buzzell, too, starts a blog, though he is a much more cheerful character, and no one seems to mind. And yet what could more accurately describe the atomization, the loneliness, the sheer weird Americanness of this war than this need to get online and post your thoughts? “Fighting in Iraq was an incredible experience for me,” writes the self-actualizing Hartley. “But the worst part was being surrounded by so many assholes.” Anthony Swofford, the author of the remarkable memoir Jarhead, about the first Gulf War, says something similar: His fellow Marine snipers were “assholes,” perhaps, “but with [the sniper battalion] you were at least assured that the assholes could kill the enemy with one bullet from a thousand yards.” One thousand yards: ten football fields. Modern American combat is set up in such a way that neither side will ever see its killer’s face. The difference is that Swofford’s ground war lasted from February 23 to March 3. This latest war was declared over on May 1, 2003, and on June 28, 2004, and on January 30, 2005. It is still not over.
In The Assassins’ Gate, the most complete, sweeping, and powerful account of the Iraq War yet written, George Packer tries to see, to really see, how this all happened and what has happened since. His war begins not in an Army recruiter’s office or in the Kuwaiti desert, but in the coffee shops of Cambridge and the late-night diners of Brooklyn. It is in Brooklyn that the wonderful essayist Paul Berman, whose Tale of Two Utopias described the surprising continuity between the anti-American student uprisings of 1968 and the pro-American grown-up revolutions of 1989, develops his impassioned, eloquent, intellectual justification of the invasion of Iraq. And it is in Cambridge that the Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya, author of two powerful, sensitive books about the crimes of the Baath regime, convinces Packer that the human-rights interventions of the nineties—Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo—should include Iraq.
And then Packer goes to Iraq, and all these ideas shatter against the reality of the deteriorating situation. The tale of his disillusionment is slow, eloquent, but if you’ve been following the news, unsurprising. The remarkable thing is the way in which the Iraqis he meets write a sort of war book in reverse: A great many of them genuinely wanted the U.S. to invade. They are struggling for a better life, and they believe, when Packer first arrives in the wake of the American forces, that the Americans might provide it. “When I met him,” he writes of a forensic pathologist who spends much of his time determining whether murdered women were virgins, “Dr. Shaker was looking for a change in his life.” They are all, movingly, like this: the Kurdish translator, once tortured by the Iraqi intelligence services, who is also secretly Jewish (“He wanted to live [in Israel], to marry an Israeli and raise Jewish children. Nothing could have set him more apart from other Iraqis”); the young woman who wants to be liberated, as a citizen and as a woman and as a human being, but does not know how. (“She wanted to travel, but she was too frightened to go into town and set up an e-mail account at an Internet café. The pressure of her yearning filled the room.”) The Americans Packer describes—the historian turned nation-builder, the soldier turned nation-builder—are also all like this, hopeful not only that Iraq will change and prosper but that the experience of this change will give a shape and meaning to their lives. It is heartbreaking to read, because we know how it will end.