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Last Exit to Baghdad

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Iraq has become a defining moment for Packer as well, and he quickly begins to suspect that things will not be as easy as his friend Makiya, who told President Bush the troops would be greeted with “sweets and flowers,” had suggested. The country the liberated Iraqis have inherited is in much worse shape than anyone imagined. “One of the first things that struck me in Iraq was the look of the faces,” Packer writes.

Compared with the Jordanians on the other side [of the border], who after all were brother Arabs and probably members of the same border tribe, the Iraqis looked poor and beaten down. . . . Iraqi men always turned out to be at least a decade younger than my first guess, and this became a sort of bleak joke. I once rode in a taxi—the usual wheezing orange-and-white metal oven—and the driver asked my age. When I told him, he said, “Forty-two? Forty-two?” He drew the number with his finger on the dashboard, thinking he must have misunderstood my English. “Forty-two?” He pointed at the digital clock on the dash, which read 5:41. “This forty-one. You, forty-two?” Finally accepting it, he said in wonder, “You are beautiful.” I knew what was coming next. “Me, forty-three,” he said. It was my turn to be shocked—I’d figured him for at least sixty. I told him that he was beautiful too, but he wasn’t having any of it. He pointed at the grizzled beard and mass of wrinkles on his face. “Iraq no good.”

This is a magnificent scene. Packer is not the first to notice that Iraqis are beaten-down and haggard. Jon Lee Anderson, in his very fine The Fall of Baghdad, introduces a character in his mid-fifties who “looked at least ten years older.” But Anderson is an anthropological journalist, a collector of stories and types, a taker of the long view, whereas Packer, everywhere he goes in this book, asks the same questions: What is happening? What will happen next? Was it right to invade Iraq? Was it right? He never gets any answers, but because he keeps asking, and keeps going back, the characters in his book develop, return, advance, fail. The middle 200 pages of The Assassins’ Gate are like a great big-picture realist novel, from the top American administrator on down, and though Packer never quite says as much, the portrait he paints of Iraq in the year and a half after the invasion is full and vivid and utterly, utterly damning.

Seymour Hersh and many others have been describing the dysfunctionality of this administration for years, but never have the implications of Rumsfeld’s and Cheney’s bullying, and Bush’s ignorance, been so clear. Packer is furious at the failure of anyone in government to think beyond the fall of Baghdad. He is furious at Rumsfeld’s criminally low troop levels, at 135,000 soldiers barely larger than the Greek expedition to Troy, and approximately one-quarter of the number provided for the first Gulf War. “There weren’t enough troops to provide a token presence along Iraq’s borders,” Packer writes. “There weren’t enough troops to prevent militias from gaining control of entire provinces. There weren’t enough troops on the major highways. . . . There weren’t enough troops to allow [Coalition Provisional Authority] officials to do their jobs.” Above all, he is furious at the inability of the war planners to adjust to bad news—to the point where, reading this account of the months leading up to the war, one finds the dictator in Baghdad wisely spreading munitions throughout the countryside while the president in Washington refuses to hear criticism of his policies and isolates himself dangerously from reality. “In Washington there had been no plan for a guerrilla war,” Packer writes about the reaction to the insurgency. “A guerrilla war would change all the calculations about the military presence in Iraq; and so there was no guerrilla war.”

This refusal to see is everywhere, is infectious, and leads to the closest thing to an explicit admission by Packer of having been mistaken about the Iraq adventure. It comes while he is meeting again with Makiya in Baghdad in mid-2003, listening to him talk about the cleansing power of memory, of the monuments he hopes to build for the victims of Saddam’s terror even while the American occupation spirals toward civil war. Packer finally grows impatient. These sentiments, he writes, “sounded abstract and glib amid the daily grinding chaos of the city, and they made me angry at him and myself—for I had had my own illusions.” He says no more, and because of his insistence on the incompetence precisely of the execution of the war rather than the concept of it, and his apparent continued support for some alternate war that never actually happened, Packer has been accused by the left of practicing an “incompetence dodge”—right war, wrong methods. And this is true as far as it goes. But in looking honestly at the situation on the ground, Packer has done something more valuable than write the tale of his own disillusionment. He has depicted in stark colors the disillusionment of an entire nation. By the end of the book, all the people who’d had great hopes for the Americans no longer do.


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