September 1, 2005: Headlines: COS - Togo: Iraq: Journalism: Columbia Journalism Review: Togo RPCV George Packer writes The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq in October
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September 1, 2005: Headlines: COS - Togo: Iraq: Journalism: Columbia Journalism Review: Togo RPCV George Packer writes The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq in October
Togo RPCV George Packer writes The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq in October
Packer's year in Togo left him with a lingering horror of his own ignorance. He is deeply preoccupied with middle-class American cocoons - with how easy it is to know almost nothing about certain kinds of human struggle. But he is also fixated on a second kind of ignorance: he worries that, once we finally open our eyes to suffering, we won't know what to do about it.
Togo RPCV George Packer writes The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq in October
Sep 1, 2005 - Columbia Journalism Review
PROFILE UNFINISHED WARS IN HIS NEW BOOK ON IRAQ, GEORGE PACKER TARGETS IDEALISTS AND HIS MOST PERSISTENT FOE - HIMSELF THE ASSASSINS' GATE: AMERICA IN IRAQ by George Packer Farrar, Straus and Giroux 352 pp., $25
This past February, just after finishing his fourth stint in Iraq for The New Yorker, George Packer moved into a cabin he shares in western Massachusetts. He had forty-four notebooks and a pile of interview transcripts. When he emerged in April, he had written a 160,000-word manuscript.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq in October. (It has been rushed through production to keep pace with the dozen other Iraq books that will appear this fall.) In his Brooklyn neighborhood in mid-June, Packer seems slightly manic, as if he's still coasting on the energy that carried him through the book's composition. He has a bland, boyish face and disarmingly gentle eyes, which probably serve him well as a reporter. It can take several minutes to realize how much skepticism and sheer ferocity he brings to a conversation.
Over the course of an evening, he gets calls from one of his Iraqi translators, who is in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship; from a filmmaker he met in Baghdad who has just finished a documentary about private contractors in Iraq; and from a close friend covering the elections in Iran (where it is 4 a.m.). Packer conveys real sorrow and anger when he talks about what he has seen in Iraq. But he also - inevitably - carries the peculiar euphoria of a war reporter embedded in a community of spirited colleagues, people who speak scraps of ten languages and who go without sleep for three days at a time.
Seven years ago, when Packer was thirty-eight, almost no one would have pegged him for this role. At the time, he barely thought of himself as a reporter. (He sometimes still resists that thought.) He was living outside of Boston, writing novels, personal essays, and occasional dispatches from Africa. He was starting to assemble Blood of the Liberals, an impossible-to-categorize family history- cum-political treatise. His work was well regarded, but did not come close to paying a living; he supported himself by teaching writing courses at Harvard and Bennington. Then, in the summer of 2000, he gave up on fiction, and Baston.
He moved to New York, and within two years he had become a prolific contributor to The New York Times Magazine and Mother Jones; in May 2003, The New Yorker hired him as a staff writer.
With The Assassins' Gate, Packer hopes to extend a certain tradition of long-form journalism. The book is not a compendium of magazine work; only one of its twelve chapters was lifted whole cloth from a New Yorker article. It weaves together thickly detailed stories of Americans and Iraqis - some of them hopeful, some of them desperate - in the pre- and post-Saddam landscape. Packer wanted to write a narrative in the vein of Joseph Lelyveld's Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White or Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Stories from Rwanda.
He does not claim to have succeeded, but his aim was to create a narrative voice that could tell vivid human stories while simultaneously leading the reader through complex political and historical arguments and leaving room for curiosity and ambivalence. "That narrative voice doesn't emerge by talking about yourself," Packer says. "It emerges by - in a way, by how strong an observer you are, and by how strong a thinker you are."
In Iraq, he found plenty of occasions for curiosity and ambivalence, and some of those occasions cut close to the bone. Packer is not only a narrative journalist; he is also sometimes a pundit and a polemicist. He is among the small band of left-liberal intellectuals who strongly supported the Clinton-era military interventions in Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. After the September 11 attacks, he assembled and edited The Fight Is for Democracy, in which he and nine other liberal writers tried to define a foreign policy that would transcend (as they saw it) Republicans' arrogance and leftists' facile dovishness.
The book was not well received on the Left. Last year in The Nation, the foreign-policy analyst Anatol Lieven denounced Packer and his allies, accusing them of helping to build the climate that led to the Iraq invasion. Their "encouragement of a messianic vision of the United States and its role in the world," Lieven wrote, "fuels self-righteous nationalist extremism in America itself."
Packer was never a vocal proponent of the Iraq war; he often describes himself as having been "barely for the war" at its outset. Still, he was supportive enough that he has felt personally stung by American crimes and follies there. (At the same time, he believes that a quick withdrawal of U.S. troops now would probably do more harm than good.) The Assassins' Gate, in any case, contains relatively little explicit punditry, and one wonders whether Lieven and other skeptics will view the book's muted argumentative style as a virtue - as a space in which readers can draw their own conclusions - or if they will view it as a fudge.
Packer's characteristic restlessness has led him, not for the first time, to tear up his habits and assumptions. The question is whether his book - a dense stew of storytelling, history, and personal reflectioas - will find an audience at a time when Iraq's condition is still bloody and deeply unsettled.
When Packer arrived in Iraq for the first time, in July 2003, he had no itinerary and only two contacts, both of them low-level officials at the Coalition Provisional Authority. But during that first summer, with Baghdad violence at a relatively low pitch, Packer found it easy to meet people. He had worried that Iraqis would shy away from Western reporters, "because the press was a new thing, and because talking to foreigners was an absolutely fatal thing under Saddam. Instead, it was the exact opposite. This desire to talk was palpable. I think now it's receded, and fear and perhaps disappointment and even disgust have set in with some people."
The central Iraqi figures in The Assassins' Gate include Sheikh Emad al-Din al-Awadi, a Shiite cleric in Baghdad who salvaged prison files that the Baathists tried to burn during the invasion. (Families then came to his impromptu archive as they tried to learn the fates of loved ones who had disappeared during the 1990s.) There is also Baher Butti, the chief psychiatrist at a long-term psychiatric hospital that was thoroughly looted after the fall of Baghdad; 600 patients simply walked away. (By the hook's end, in early 2005, Butti and his wife are deeply disgusted with the American presence - but also counting on Americans to forestall a theocratic Shiite regime.) Luna Dawood, who worked as an accountant in Kirkuk in the 1990s, played a small bureaucratic role in Saddam's displacement of Kurds from that city.
Now she is obsessed with how she might make amends, and afraid that Kirkuk will be consumed by civil war. A young computer programmer named Aseel, whose last name Packer has withheld for her safety, passionately supports the invasion - but also wants to leave Iraq.
Throughout his project, Packer's method was to seek out points of contact between Americans and Iraqis. Among his mast important sources was Captain John Prior, a twenty-nine-year-old Army company commander from Indiana who was stationed in a slum in southern Baghdad. Prior's roles included building a neighborhood sewage system, patrolling for insurgents, and - most important for Packer's purposes - serving as liaison with the new neighborhood council.
In Packer's telling, Prior emerges as extraordinarily resourceful and decent. Packer says Prior, like some of his other American sources, was among "the best that we have to offer, I think. But I also don't think that in doing that, in choosing to spend time with them, that I was tipping the scales too far in the direction of boosterism." The true limits of America's venture in Iraq, Packer believes, could only be tested by studying the experiences of people with the determination and goodwill that the Bush administration claimed to embody. "I knew that it would be easy to find people who were clueless," he says.
Over time, of course, reporting from Iraq has become almost untenable. On his two most recent trips, Packer spent relatively little time in Baghdad, and concentrated instead on the marginally safer cities of Kirkuk and Basra. "Because of the dangers," Packer says, "it's almost reverted to the embed model. That's the only way to travel, to be around the Americans in a way that isn't going to get you shot at. And what that obviously means is, with a few exceptions, less and less time is spent with Iraqis."
Packer believes that some press critics have been too quick to condemn the compromises that American reporters have made in Iraq. Last year, on the letters page of The New York Review of Books, he got into a spiky exchange with Michael Massing (who is a contributing editor of CJR). Massing, in Packer's view, had used too broad a brush when he argued that embedding tends to corrupt journalism. Packer insists that he saw very little cowardice - physical or intellectual - among his colleagues in Iraq. "The people I kn\ow there are not in thrall to the administration line," he says, "and they're not in thrall to the military line.
They are in some ways taking unreasonable risks. They were having to improvise and find all sorts of imaginative ways around the fact that your very presence anywhere was a risk to yourself and to the people around you."
Mark Danner, a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley who has reported from Iraq for The New York Review of Books, says that terrorists and apolitical kidnapping rings have made "the process of information-gathering in Iraq constrained in a way that, if not unprecedented, is very unusual. It means also that when you speak to Iraqis, you're putting them in danger." Danner tends to agree with Massing, however, that American reporters in Iraq have faced serious structural barriers, and that they should be more candid with readers about them. The press could do more "to break through the proscenium," Danner says.
Reporters could be more explicit, for example, about the ways in which insurgents rely on media spectacles. "When you see TV footage of the aftermath of a car bombing, you see a close-up," he says. "But when you're actually there, you see forty television cameras and dozens of reporters. It's like the scrum outside the Michael Jackson trial."
Packer's own lowest moment came in March 2004, after the small, obscure Mt. Lebanon Hotel was bombed. Packer was staying in a similar small hotel, and he decided that for safety's sake, he had better grit his teeth and check into the highly fortified, media- heavy Palestine Hotel. He had become friendly with the night manager and the security guard at the small hotel. "We had trouble looking each other in the eye when I left," he says of the manager. "I just had this feeling that this was a very bad move. It meant something - not to be too dramatic, but it meant that something wasn't working out in Iraq, and, no doubt, versions of this were happening all over the country, with journalists, with aid workers, with officials, with soldiers."
The last ten days of the trip were almost a total lass for Packer because he found the atmosphere at the Palestine so depressing. "The problem with being around other journalists," he says, "was that you tended to talk about the dangers. It almost started getting passed around like a virus. And it became its own reality." The one redeeming element of Packer's time at the Palestine was relaxing with his new bodyguard, Emad Hamadi, whose former employers included Saddam Hussein and his son Uday. After weeks of debating life-and- death questions with devout Iraqis and earnest Americans, Packer says, "It was a great break from all that to be with a guy who was just about saving his own skin, and finding women, and finding a job, and drinking.
And telling jokes. He was the source of a lot of jokes."
In 1982, when Packer was a senior at Yale, he didn't see himself trading dirty jokes with a dictator's former bodyguard. He had grown up in an academic family, and he expected to become a professor of literature. His mother, Nancy Packer, was for many years the director of the creative writing program at Stanford University. His father, Herbert, taught at Stanford Law School during the 1960s, and was a prominent liberal proponent of criminal-law reform. Herbert Packer became embroiled in arguments with student radicals at the end of the decade. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1969, and committed suicide three-and-a-half years later, when George was twelve.
During his last semester at Yale, Packer decided to postpone graduate school (forever, as it turns out) and enlisted in the Peace Corps. He was sent to rural Togo, where he taught English in a small schoolhouse. If he had expected relief from the academic treadmill, he didn't exactly find it. He left Africa six months early, exhausted, with a stinging sense of how narrow his California boyhood had been.
On his way home - Packer tells this bit of personal history with a touch of embarrassment - he stopped briefly in Barcelona, where he happened to buy a copy of George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia. It was a revelation. "I discovered," he says, "that there was this whole kind of writing that I didn't know about, that I'd never read, which was the personal essay. I guess I had had the idea that a writer wrote fiction. And then this other kind of writing became known to me. Using the first person, using fact and experience to get at something beyond the facts."
Back home, Packer found himself adrift and alienated from American comfort. He moved to Boston - "almost at random," he says - and found work as a carpenter's apprentice. In the evenings, he started to shape his Togo experiences into essays. Within a few years, he had stitched fourteen of those essays into a book, The Village of Waiting, which Vintage published in 1988. It was warmly reviewed and sold respectably.
But the next step did not come easily. Between 1988 and 2000, Packer published two novels. The Half Man, published in 1991, is a Graham Greene-inflected thriller that drew partly on a long sojourn Packer had made in the Philippines and Cambodia. Central Square, published in 1998, is an expansive story of racial identity and middle-class numbness in Cambridge. Except for some dispatches from Haiti and Ethiopia he had published in Dissent magazine (where this writer was an assistant editor from 1995 to 1999), Packer avoided reporting, in part because he was afraid of putting himself at the mercy of tone-deaf editors.
"The obvious path open to me was to become a journalist, and to use my essay and nonfiction skills as a journalist - I just resisted it," he says. "I was afraid it would submerge my voice and my interests."
Finally, in 1997, he took a half-step toward reporting: He started to put together the eccentric memoir Blood of the Liberals, which is, in part, an elegy for the lost world of his father's generation of rational, procedural, Adlai Stevenson Democrats. It is also an elegy for the very different lost world of his maternal grandfather, George Huddleston, a fiery populist congressman from Alabama in the early twentieth century. (Among other things, Huddleston was an ardent opponent of American entry into World War I. On the floor of the House in 1917, he proclaimed: "War is a hideous nightmare. It is never justified except in a clean-cut, single-hearted defense of national honor.
It is never to be waged to vindicate abstract rights or technical principles.")
And then, just when Blood of the Liberals was published in 2000, Packer took the plunge. He moved to New York and soon found work writing for magazines. One of his first major pieces was to profile the New York City schools chancellor Harold Levy for The New York Times Magazine. He discovered, somewhat to his surprise, that he loved the routine of walking to the Board of Education at dawn, then shadowing Levy through his daily agenda. When it came time to draft the piece, however, he hit some stumbling blocks. "That's where some of the frustration came in," he says. "Because you're under a different discipline when you're writing for a magazine like the Times Magazine.
They wanted certain things in there" - statistics, secondary sources, other voices - "and I understood the need journalistically. But from a literary point of view, they didn't make the piece sing." This was only the third profile Packer had ever written. "The formulas and the strictures didn't come entirely naturally. I'd say that the last four years has been me trying to get comfortable in this form. While discovering that it's a wonderful, wonderful form, because it puts you out into the world."
With The Assassins' Gate, Packer was able to release himself from those formulas and strictures. As he assembled his material in Massachusetts this winter, he was determined not to be too bound by his New Yorker dispatches. Those pieces "were a great trove of scenes and characters and experiences," he says. "But I had to almost tear them apart and reassemble them. Because only in a few cases could more than a few pages be sort of lifted out and transplanted into the book. Otherwise you lose the freedom and the narrative - the texture that you gain in a book. It starts to fade out."
A case in point is the book's fifth chapter, where the action shifts from the terribly bungled prewar planning in Washington to Packer's first on-the-ground experiences in Iraq. Here we meet Baher Butti, Sheikh al-Awadi, and several other figures who appeared in Packer's first two New Yorker dispatches. But in the book, the narrative's sequence has been radically reordered, and - to a much greater degree than in the magazine pieces - the reader is brought inside Packer's head as he wanders through his first weeks in Baghdad, unsettled and confused. This is accomplished without any narcissistic thumb-twiddling, and the effect is strong.
In The New Yorker, Packer says, the writer's voice is expected to carry a solid authority; but in the book, he was able to switch to a personal essay mode, and here, he says, he was "better able to capture those moments of uncertainty, those moments when you realize that your preconceptions were wrong."
At a restaurant in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, not far from Packer's apartment, the conversation has wound its way around to the Iraqi exile Ahmad Chalabi. In December 2002, The New York Times Magazine sent Packer to London to cover an American-sponsored conference of Iraqi exile activists. Packer had extensive access to this circle, in part because of his longstanding friendship with the dissident writer Kanan Makiya (they lived near each other in Cambridge during the 1990s). Makiya and Chalabi have sometimes been closely allied, but during the London meeting Packer quickly soured on what he calls "the Chalabi cult."
In London, Packer recalls, "I would find myself talking to an American, and even bef\ore the name Chalabi had come up, I could just tell - almost by the rhythm of the sentences and the intensity of the stare - that I was in the presence of a member of the cult." Packer finds it ludicrous that some people close to the Bush administration wanted to install Chalabi (who had not set foot in Iraq since 1958) as prime minister immediately after the invasion; and he finds it risible when such people argue that if only that plan had been followed, the post-war period would not have been so calamitous.
"Based on what? He was like an escape clause - we're going to get out of here because of Chalabi. It was a way to shirk responsibility while claiming to have the best of intentions."
"Based on what?" is the type of question that Packer often asks these days. In his post-Iraq mood, he is quick to pounce on wishful thinking, both among neoconservatives and among members of his own circle of liberal hawks. During the months after the September 11 massacres, Packer spent many evenings at cafs on this stretch of Smith Street with the writer Paul Berman (who would later publish Terror and Liberalism), obsessively talking about how democracies should respond to Al Qaeda. Packer still treasures the memory of those conversations, but he fears, as he writes in the new book, that they took place "at an extremely high altitude of abstraction." He worries that he and Berman, like the Chalabi cultists, hadn't done much to ground their notions in the hard soil of reality.
(Berman will join Packer here later tonight, in fact. They will argue about the war until past 1 a.m., sometimes brilliantly, sometimes like an old married couple who have been through the same territory once too often.)
When he prepared to go to Iraq for the first time, Packer tried to discard most of his own ideological apparatus. "There was a certain kind of thinking and pontificating that made me deeply suspicious," he says. "Because all too many people inside and outside government were doing it, and continued to do it long after their pontifications had been exploded. And almost viscerally, I thought, I don't want to sound like that. It's too serious and complicated. And I guess I felt - I hope I'm not, you know, mussing the elephant in the room here - I think I approached this inductively, that I went from particular to particular to particular and gradually learned to generalize.
Because I just saw so many train wrecks of generalization, all over the landscape."
The early chapters of Packer's book, which chronicle the intellectual prehistory of the Iraq war and the Bush administration's catastrophic failure to plan its aftermath, are long catalogues of Pollyannaish hopes. (A typical sentence: "Hitchens looked forward to drinking champagne in Baghdad with his Iraqi comrades by Valentine's Day 2003.") In conversation, Packer does not exempt himself from the indictment. "I was just ignorant, as almost everyone was ignorant, about what we were getting into," he says. "I may have now moved rather far to the other side in being extremely cautious about people's pronouncements, and the sound of wonderful words, and good intentions substituting for good policies."
But Packer remains as committed as ever to the principle of liberal interventionism, even if in a highly chastened form. "You can't lose that impulse entirely," he says, "or else you become Henry Kissinger." And he continues to insist that too many leftists are making facile apologies for bin Ladenist terrorism. In the Iraq case, he finds it difficult to have conversations with people who won't say forthrightly that they hope the insurgent movements will be defeated. Despite all the Americans' misdeeds, he says, "This is a war between people who cut heads off and torture - and I don't mean Lynndie England torture - and who want Sunni power or Islamist power, and all those flawed, imperfect, possibly corrupt Iraqis who want something like a normal life.
I have absolutely no trouble figuring out whose side I'm on. The problem is us. The problem is, we're there too. And what is our presence doing? Is it making matters better or worse? For me, that's always been the big question. Not whose side to be on, or even to question whether there are sides worth taking. I am absolutely sure that there are. In a way, it's a more basic and practical question."
Given how concerned Packer is with such arguments, it is startling that the only antiwar figure who appears even briefly in The Assassins' Gate is Eli Pariser, a MoveOn organizer. Early in the book, Packer provides a long and reasonably sympathetic sketch of neoconservative foreign-policy intellectuals (several of whom are skewered in later chapters). But he does not give analogous treatment to people who argued and campaigned against the war. They are a sort of ghost at the banquet here. Packer's frustration with such people - his dislike of having conversations with them - apparently extends from his private life to the book itself.
Packer's year in Togo left him with a lingering horror of his own ignorance. He is deeply preoccupied with middle-class American cocoons - with how easy it is to know almost nothing about certain kinds of human struggle.
But he is also fixated on a second kind of ignorance: he worries that, once we finally open our eyes to suffering, we won't know what to do about it. His work is thickly populated with clumsy do- gooders. In Central Square, a social worker glibly coaches a woman to stand up to her abusive husband; the husband responds by beating his wife to the brink of death. In a 2003 article in The New Yorker, Packer told the tale of a Staten Island man who hoped to build prosthetic limbs for child amputees in war-ravaged Sierra Leone. After months of squabbles over logistics, resources, adoption, and cultural imperialism, the plan was drastically scaled down.
The man's brisk New York pragmatism, Packer writes, "left him at a loss about how to proceed in Freetown, among people who needed far more than limbs.'' The hapless officials at the Coalition Provisional Authority in The Assassins' Gate stand in this same line.
Those two fixations are obviously in tension with each other. Packer despises posh American cocoons, but he also fears becoming a Mrs. Jellyby who lurches around blindly trying to fix the world. When Packer writes punditry in which those twinned themes are brought out explicitly, his voice sometimes has a tinny, hectoring, from-the-pulpit quality. (In a post-September 11 essay, Packer confessed his hope that the attacks "would punctuate a bloated era in American history and mark the start of a different, more attractive era.")
But when he couches his voice within long narratives about other people's lives, as he has done in The Assassins' Gate, Packer's ambivalent and restless approach to the world can be extremely powerful. The accretion of details in the book is consistently moving and provocative, sometimes in ways that Packer's magazine work is not. By the end of his first trip to Iraq, after having spent long weeks with Sheikh al-Awadi and Captain Prior, Packer knew that he was onto something. "I took almost a pleasure in watching my preconceptions start to crumble," he says. "I knew that, even though personally and politically that's a painful thing, as a writer it's where the action would be."
Packer's restlessness has led him to tear up his habits and assumptions.
'The obvious path open to me was to become a journalist - I just resisted it.'
'Based on what?' is the type of question Packer often asks these days.
'I was just ignorant, as almost everyone was, about what we were getting into.'
David Glenn is a staff reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Sep/ Oct 2005
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