Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Packer on Iraq

George Packer attempts to frame the America-Iraq marriage/wrestling match at the present moment, with reference to history. It's a good try, veering from personal tales to meta-narratives. Overarching it is the pain of missed chances and failed dreams:

The American invasion of Iraq was, above all else, a revolution in the lives of Iraqis. Their institutions, their everyday routines, their futures, their sense of order were all turned upside down. This revolution, which is still ongoing and will play out for years to come, was the opening of a prison. When they staggered out into the light, most Iraqis didn’t know where they were, what they wanted, even who they were, and the Americans who had so quickly and casually broken down the gate were standing around as if they had never even considered what to do next. The Americans were nominally in charge—the Iraqis expected them to be, and after the first few weeks of paralysis, the Americans flung themselves into a flurry of activities befitting an occupying power—but it was all illusion. No one was in charge. By the summer of 2003, when I first went to Iraq, it was clear that a void had opened up and the best-armed and most ruthless groups had moved in. Although it went through many phases and assumed a variety of forms, the process of mutual disenchantment between Iraqis and Americans began early. It was this process that interested me most about Iraq, because it went to the human heart of the matter: the experience of suffering, hope, illusion, need, violence, and disappointment that transformed both sides and made the war so painful for each.

Matt Yglesias, while seeming to agree with the essay overall, objects to the framing of it, at length:

Note that even in Packer's somewhat tendentious accounting, there's no actual parallelism here. War supporters, invested in the idea that they were right when they were, in fact, wrong blinded themselves to actual developments on the ground in Iraq. War opponents were, by contrast, what? It's hard to say. Not blinded by denial that terrible things were happening in Iraq. But, I guess, not affected by these terrible happenings in the way Packer thinks would have been appropriate? Insufficiently surprised that a war they'd always regarded as ill-advised turned out to be ill-advised? It's not clear.

As we go deeper, this continues to be the pattern.

I would say Packer's language is itself an artifact from the thing he is trying to describe. He has seen the elephant, and he is trying to describe it to the room-full of blind men. He knows what he is trying to say here is important, and he wants it to be heard. But he knows -- as he writes -- that the people he is trying to talk to have powerful filters already in place to shunt aside things that don't support their view of America in Iraq. And so he's got to quickly prove himself to both war supporters and anti-war folks by rattling off their passwords and shibboleths.

In hopes both won't tune him out. As Yglesias notes, Packer does better with one side than the other, when it comes to details, probably because that's the side he knows better and sympathizes with. Certainly it's the side Yglesias sympathizes with. But I think the effort Packer makes is more notable than the skill with which it's done.

To me, Packer's biggest vision problem is not that he's trying to write with a fairness he doesn't quite feel. It's that he's a journalist. Which lets him see the elephant, but not other elephants, so he doesn't know what kind of beast it is. And he mistakes the commonplace for the unique. Into his observations about Iraq, he mixes things that are true of all wars, such as the homefront's inability to really comprehend what soldiers are doing or enduring, or the phony logic and purpose of a war as it is presented in the media.

These may be clichés for anyone who has spent much time in Iraq, or in any country at war. And yet here at home they have been almost impossible to convey. In the United States, the war is an abstraction that routinely shades into caricature. For all the television news coverage, Americans have the slimmest sense of what the war actually feels and looks like — crumbling deserts, blasted buildings, angry crowds, random firefights. ... If you think of World War II or Vietnam, a dozen photographs immediately come to mind. But Iraq has not been a photographer’s war. What are its iconic images? Digital snapshots by military policemen in Abu Ghraib, footage of beheadings posted by jihadis on the Web. There was no shortage of superb photographers taking extraordinary risks in Iraq, and perhaps time will sort from their work a handful of images that will define this war in the same way that, for example, Robert Capa’s photographs of Omaha Beach and Nick Ut’s of children fleeing napalm defined earlier ones. But almost five years into this war, there is only blank space where America’s picture of Iraq should be.

But as veterans of those earlier wars will tell you, those earlier pictures weren't their war, either. To Packer, a handful of "Life" magazine photos = World War II, because he never was in World War II.

Packer's other short-sighted moment, I think, comes when he writes about "A falsely justified and poorly waged war," and describes Iraq as "a folly and a failure of the kind that happens once every few generations and leaves consequences for generations to come." That may be true. but it doesn't distinguish Iraq from any other war in American history. Every point about "folly and failure" that someone could choose to make today was made in the past, and with as much justification.

Just read Civil War soldiers' accounts of the clothes and weapons they were sent into battle with (not to mention the total absence of an ambulance service or military nursing staff); read about the bumbling military leadership, from corrupt Secretaries of War ("He wouldn't steal a hot stove ...") to glory-addled brigadiers who got their units shot to hell.

In World War I, former president Teddy Roosevelt blasted the White House for sending America's military to war without sufficient equipment, and for putting the nation in debt. "We paid the price later with broomstick rifles, log-wood cannon, soldiers without shoes, and epidemics of pneumonia in the camps. We are paying the price now in shortage of coal and congestion of transportation, and in the double cost of necessary war-supplies. We are paying the price and shall pay the price in the shape of taxes and a national debt at least twice as large as would have been the case if with forethought and wisdom we had prepared in advance. We have paid the price in the blood of tens of thousands of gallant men."

America has never gone into any war prepared for the war it thought it would be fighting, much less the one that actually happened. The average soldier or sailor always manages to jury-rig what he needs (Confederate cavalry wove saddle blankets out of Spanish moss) and partisans of the war-making administration praise "Yankee ingenuity," while opponents decry a "rush to war."

As for "falsely justified," the universality of that is something I've emphasized so often it's almost become a theme here. To many Americans, the defining feature of the Iraq War is that the explanation for it started out being about one thing and ended up having goals we never signed on to. To them, that is the horrifying and overriding fact.

I'm willing to bet, if you come back in 100 years and histories still are being written in the West, that fact will hardly be noticed.

Browsing through history books convinces me that the Bush Administration's publicly stated goals at the beginning of the Iraq War remain much more consistent with the post-war reality than typically is the case.

A quibble with the Mother Country over a petty tax of three pence a pound on tea becomes the birth of a nation. A boundary dispute with Mexico over a few square miles of Texas scrub becomes a land-grab of a third of a continent and keeps the valuable port of San Francisco from defaulting to British hands. A dispute with Germany over unrestricted submarine warfare becomes "making the world safe for democracy."

The reverse also is true. What seems, after the fact, to be the great justification for a war turns out to be something that did not figure among the stated reasons for starting it. Study World War II today and you'll get a big unit on the Holocaust. How odd, then, to discover it played no part in the justification for the war at the time. Lincoln freed the slaves. But the American Civil War began as an constitutional chess match and an attempt to enforce U.S. authority in certain forts and arsenals, and to collect the tariff in Southern ports. Lincoln publicly disavowed any intention to free a single slave.

By comparison, this was one of our more "honest" wars.

Of course, all these ultimate outcomes were in the minds of somebody somewhere in a place of power at the time the wars began. Certainly the more radical American revolutionaries were angling for independence from the first bullet. But to draw the bulk of the country they needed to hold John Dickinson and the other moderates on the platform by making a general appeal to the rights of British citizens (as most Americans still felt themselves to be). I have no doubt Lincoln desired to see slavery ended (and the free blacks shipped off to Santo Domingo), but he knew the average Northerner never would fight in that crusade, and in fact the Southern secession presented an immediate economic and political crisis that forced his hand in spite of his personal philosophy.

All wars are so much alike that to compare them in detail sheds but little light. Still, a little familiarity with history does disabuse one of the sort of sham shock some people seem to feel on entering a war down one hole and coming out another. What? You mean the causus belli wasn't ironclad?

Packer's piece is a good read, and a sobering one, no matter who you are. He describes the feeling of emptying his words into the chasm -- not only between the two realities of the war in the minds of the people at home who never see it, but between both of them and the actual experience of Americans and Iraqis in Iraq.

Once, after a trip to Iraq, I attended a dinner party in Los Angeles at which most of the other guests were movie types. They wanted to know what it was like “over there.” I began to describe a Shiite doctor I’d gotten to know, who felt torn between gratitude and fear that occupation and chaos were making Iraq less Islamic. A burst of invective interrupted my sketch: none of it mattered—the only thing that mattered was this immoral, criminal war. The guests had no interest in hearing what it was like over there. They already knew.

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