Last Exit to Baghdad

Photo: Benjamin Lowy/Corbis

The music plays throughout the day, Hendrix, the Stones, the Who, music from a different war.”
—Anthony Swofford, Jarhead, describing the day Iraq accepted terms ending the first Gulf War.

All war books are the same and tell the same story. Leaders promise glory and gold; young men heed their call; and then they are gassed, or have their arms blown off and their faces burned, and they watch their friends die, their skulls torn apart—and then they themselves have to kill in turn.

But wars are different even if the books remain the same, and as the books about this new war begin to come out—the soldier memoirs appearing in one batch this fall, exactly a year after the first books by embedded journalists and military historians—we can begin to see, in their very slight differences from the war books of the past, the particular outlines of this lonely, episodic, very dirty war.

In The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, John Crawford, who spent a year in Iraq with his National Guard unit, has produced what is essentially a Vietnam memoir. His elegiac, earnest prose, some of it quite good, is in an emotional key borrowed from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. There is an understated sadness, a soldierly stoicism, and some bitterness at the Army chiefs. Here is how a few of the stories end:

• Crawford’s unit befriends an Iraqi shopkeeper, who tells them stories and sells them trinkets; later, he gets into a misunderstanding with a different unit and is shot dead.
• Crawford’s wife complains on the phone that she’s just spent all day cleaning up after his dog. Crawford, exasperated, replies that he’s spent all day cleaning up human brains—his unit shot up a car that had taken a shot at them.
• Crawford relieves the boredom by befriending an attractive young Iraqi woman; they flirt on the street corner. One day he goes to her house and finds that it’s been burned down.
• Two of Crawford’s platoon mates get shot at point-blank range while on patrol in Baghdad. At the end of the story, the company receives a speech: “They told us to persevere and stay strong. Every soldier is important to the chain of command, and they were suffering right beside us. It was a good speech, but when the time came, neither the chaplain nor the battalion commander could remember the names of either of our soldiers who were hit.”

It really could be Tim O’Brien except for one key difference. Note how Crawford says “hit” rather than “killed”—because despite the proximity of the shooter, one soldier’s vest stopped the bullet cold, while the other, shot in the throat and suffering massive blood loss, was evacuated and saved. “The Things They Carried” is a story about soldiers marching through Vietnam, carrying their memories and sometimes, often, getting killed; in Crawford’s Iraq, even during the insurgency phase of the war, it is the Iraqis who are doing most of the dying.

And it comes out of nowhere, this death, whether Iraqi or American. As the American tanks with their thermal sight and scope technology made their way to Baghdad, Iraqi soldiers and civilians found themselves getting cut into ribbons by tanks they couldn’t even see. Under the occupation, things are more intimate but equally invisible. Crawford describes an incident in which three Iraqis start arguing within sight of the night patrol at an American base in Baghdad. Two of the Iraqis pull guns on the third and then, a moment later, one is dead, the other badly wounded, American bullets pouring from the sky like righteous lightning bolts.

On the other side, insurgents fire rocket-propelled grenades and then melt into the crowd; they place “improvised explosive devices” by the side of the road and then detonate them from a mile away with a wire or by dialing the number of a cell phone whose vibration causes the artillery shell to explode. The artist Steve Mumford’s beautiful watercolor paintings of the war, one of which was on the cover of this month’s war-themed Harper’s and which are collected in his Baghdad Journal, show in floating brown, orange, and the occasional bright red and blue the scenes that he witnessed in Iraq: They are almost all waiting scenes, or police scenes, scenes of boredom. There is hardly any combat, no battlefield; there are only Americans on patrol, trying to bait the insurgents into firing on them, and occasionally, in the oppressive heat and boredom, booking a hooded insurgent back at the base. The paradigmatic image of Vietnam was Eddie Adams’s terrible photograph of a Vietcong soldier being shot directly in the temple, the grimace on the man’s face in plain, direct sight of the camera; the paradigmatic images of this war have all been of men wearing hoods.

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.

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.

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.

Works Discussed
Colby Buzzell
My War: Killing Time in Iraq.
Putnam. $25.95.
358 pages.

John Crawford
The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell: An Accidental Soldier’s Account of the War in Iraq.
Riverhead. $23.95.
219 pages.

Jason Christopher Hartley
Just Another Soldier: A Year on the Ground in Iraq.
HarperCollins. $22.95.
336 pages.

Steve Mumford
Baghdad Journal: An Artist in Occupied Iraq.
Drawn and Quarterly. $34.95.
224 pages.

George Packer
The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $36.
480 pages.

Last Exit to Baghdad