And now what? Colby Buzzell, who keeps an iPod in one of his empty ammo pouches and listens to his own soundtrack of the war, eventually gets so bored that he starts reading in the Stryker armored vehicles in which he and his unit patrol Mosul. One of the books he reads there is George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. He enjoys the parts where Orwell chases after Fascists with his bayonet.
Homage to Catalonia is, as it happens, the model for Packer’s Assassins’ Gate. In Packer’s version, the Iraqi citizens hope for democracy and American normalcy in the way Orwell’s Catalonians hoped for self-government and workers’ control; the Iraqis are betrayed by the neocons just as the anarchists were betrayed by the Stalinists. But Orwell never forgot what he saw in anarchist-run Barcelona. “There was much [in the life of the city] that I did not understand,” he wrote, “in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.” It is impossible to read Packer’s book and not be devastated by the hopes vested in us, our Army, and our awful, corrupt, willfully blind, and criminal regime. These hopes were worth fighting for—really fighting for, with the full armature of international institutions, proper planning, respect for the laws of war—but we have not proved capable of doing it.
And if these memoirs are an accurate gauge, we must stop trying right away. By the end of each of their tours, the soldier memoirists are increasingly demoralized, isolated, and angry at the people they have come to liberate. “This first terrible postmodernist war cannot be told in any of the traditional paradigms of the war novel or movie,” the literary theorist Fredric Jameson wrote of Vietnam, pointing to Michael Herr’s Dispatches as a book that took the new paradigmatic American weapon—the battle chopper—and fashioned from it a prose style. The new weapon of this American occupation is the Stryker in which Colby Buzzell sits and reads his Orwell, listens to his iPod, and occasionally peeks out to man, sometimes a little blindly, his M240 Bravo machine gun. The much more porous Humvee is anathema to Buzzell, and really the Stryker’s only competition is the laptop, with its DVD player, on which Buzzell finally gets to see the men who mortar their compound every day—one of the Iraqi translators working at the base picks up a training video from the insurgency in town. Instead of the frantic, fearful mortarmen he’d imagined, the video “showed three Iraqi men, all wearing black ski masks, laying out the mortars all nice and neat and all in a row in broad daylight. It showed these masked mortarmen taking their time prepping the mortar tube and getting the mortars ready with no feeling of being rushed or any fear whatsoever of being caught or blown to bits by nearby U.S. forces. Then the camera pans onto our forward operating base, where you can see the water tower, chow hall, and guard towers. . . . They patiently fired seven or eight mortars, and then they stopped and slowly packed up their equipment, and then they all drove away in an old beat car.”
On December 21 of last year, a few months after Buzzell went home, the mess hall at the other major American base in Mosul was attacked by a suicide bomber. Twenty-two people were killed. Insurgents were able to film the explosion and then drive around the perimeter of the base filming the aftermath. In their own bit of narcissism (they call it propaganda), they posted the video on their Website that week.