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George Packer: The Assassins’ Gate

I’m watching Generation Kill and wanted some more background, so I picked up this book on Juan Cole’s recommendation. Packer says he supported the war “by about the same margin that the voting public had supported Al Gore,” and there is an “I wuz duped” tone to the book that helps reinforced the voices of the dozens of individuals quoted and mentioned who actually tried to improve the situation rather than give people the results they wanted, and who were marginalized or fired for their troubles.

But it also occasionally brings out a defensive side of Packer, who spends a few pages pointlessly attacking antiwar protesters for being naive.

The movement’s assumptions were based on moral innocence–on an inability to imagine the horror in which Iraqis lived, and a desire for all good things to go together, for total vindication. War is evil; therefore, the prevention of war must be good.

Now really, holding the protesters to some pure ideological standard is absurd. The point of protesting wars is, namely, to protest, not to propose: an act of disagreement when no other power is available, by joining up with whatever strange bedfellows are available to oppose them. Plenty of them had read Kenneth Pollack’s damn book (now out-of-print but readily available for $0.01), found it unconvincing, and decided that no, war in Iraq was still a bad idea, perhaps by the margin that Gore lost to Bush. Plenty of them had supported military action in Afghanistan and/or Bosnia. Plenty of them, including many of the organizers, fairly loathed ANSWER for being pointlessly annoying and divisive. So what? All protesters have are numbers, which are still a poor substitute for actual power.

Packer’s feels like a justificatory posture. If he couldn’t have seen through the smokescreen, then others did not either; they opposed the war for the wrong reason, ignoring Saddam Hussein’s horrible crimes and pushing pure isolationism. Against them he mentions the general populace:

And so the American people never had a chance to consider the real difficulties and costs of regime change in Iraq.

Despite the best efforts of the media and the government to disguise such, there was no shortage of information out there for those who choose to look for it that described exactly these difficulties and costs. (Even Walter Pincus and Dana Priest brought some warnings to those who read past the first page of the Post.) No one should be making excuses for “the American people,” and certainly not from ignorance. We all have blood on our hands, George. Own up.


  1. i think we talked a bit about this book once before.

    the irony is that packer is incredibly nuanced when it comes to the ideologies of the right… one of the things i found most useful about the book was the time he took ironing out the history of neo-conservatism, and how it differs from other forms of right wing politics. he maintains a peculiar affection for wolfowitz, unfortunately, which adds considerably to the “wuz duped” side of his position. i’m with you on that one. still, i think his faux-innocence gives the book an interesting angle— at least for someone like myself who oppossed the war unambiguously. packer’s bizarre— and occasionally reactionary— enthusiasm for intervention overlaps nicely with a lot of the individual profiles he gets into in the second half of the book.

    i’ll be curious to hear your take on generation kill… i just finished the second chapter. it’s getting better, but i’m not sure i’m 100% sold on the boys-club-chit-chat side of it. at its worst, i imagine dickheads quoting all the wrong tidbits, like generations of assholes have for 30 years with apocalypse now…

  2. I do like the book, but there’s not much for me to say about the rest of it than “Yeah, it’s good, and it seems authentic.”

    Yes, Packer sympathizes far too much with Wolfowitz and even more with ex-leftist Paul Berman (he doesn’t mention Hitchens much though!). He does point out a few shifts in Wolfowitz’s thinking for the sake of expediency, though. But these people barely have the intellectual brainpower to be credible even before they start lying about Iraq; whatever his problems, George Kennan was far more circumspect and knowledgeable than any of the neocons.

  3. packer actually just blogged about hitchens:


    worth reading. agreed about the credibility of people prior to the invasion. in fact, it makes me question packer’s overall worldview.

    still, i wish people i agree with more conclusively would write as well as he does. i’m reading naomi klein’s “the shock doctrine” right now, which makes a lot of unsettling, convincing points… but also conflates neocons, free market idealogues, libertarians and (oddly) jeffrey sachs into one big, amorphous right-wing monolith. if she spent more time with the specifics of the frameworks she’s rejecting, the book would cut much deeper in parts. it’s still well worth a look though.

  4. I saw the first episode of Generation Kill— which I found to be OK.

    On the issue of blood on our hands, I think that just as it’s very easy to speak platitudinously about Saddam being a monster therefor invasion, it’s equally dishonest to talk about blood on American hands.

    You recommend looking at the facts— so do so. Who’s doing the vast, vast, majority of civilian killing in Iraq? It’s not the American military. It’s two religious groups who have been killing each other since the 7th century.

    This was always boiling beneath the surface in Iraq. The only reason it didn’t boil over was because Saddam ran a brutal, oppressive regime over the majority of his people— because he knew what the consequences of allowing them political and even to a degree physical freedom would be.

    American invasion or not, this level of violence would have happened between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq. The only difference is that without the invasion we wouldn’t have heard about it and wouldn’t have cared about it.

  5. I’ll let Packer, whose own sense of guilt suffuses the book, and not just in the excuses above, speak for me:

    “I came to believe that those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence. Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. For this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive.”

    Likewise, Josh Marshall in February, 2003:

    “If we could turn back the clock a year and we had the choice of a) doing exactly what we’ve done or b) waiting a year or two for a more favorable moment or until a new team was in place who knew what they were doing, I think option ‘b’ would unquestionably be the better choice.

    “Unfortunately, we don’t have that choice. The administration has already done massive damage to our standing in the world. And they’ve managed to create facts on the ground — intentionally and unintentionally — which make pulling back arguably more dangerous than pushing ahead. The question is no longer what the ideal thing to do is. It’s more aptly described as which of the really bad alternatives is best to choose given the jam the administration has backed us into.”

    Do I believe that some of the accountability for this negligence devolves on to the citizens collectively? I do.

  6. Well, Mr. Waggish. A strange point you’re making, by offering these quotes. In the above quote by Packer, he says that the “criminal negligence” and heedlessness of people in charge made a “difficult undertaking” into a deadly one.

    Is this for real? Since when is a war— by definition a deadly “undertaking”— ever considered to be not deadly and just “difficult”? Was Packer expecting that the Iraqi army or sectarian insurgents meet American soldiers with a mean face and challenge them to a “difficult” game of backgammon?

    Of course there was going to be death. It was war. There is a question of how much civilian death was caused by the US. But this needs to be considered in context. First is the context of how killings of civilians by American soldiers occurred— were they massacres? illegal use of weapons? killing of unarmed civilians who didn’t present danger? Or were they the factors of war? Were they caught in crossfire? How many civilians were actually caused by American fire?

    Second, there’s the context of the previous regime. How many deaths, how many cases of torture, how much disease, how little freedom would have ensued in another 20 to 30 years of Saddam Hussein’s regime?

    Bear in mind that aside from the arbitrary political killings, Hussein directed a war that led to the deaths of roughly 300,000 Iraqis, and nearly 1,000,000 Iranians. He invaded a neighboring country. He gassed an ethnic minority. And these were his early years. In other words, the context is not just Saddam Hussein’s past but, given the patterns, his would-be future.

    It’s very nice for Packer to allege or allude to “criminal negligence” committed by “the people of highest responsibility”. But what does that mean? What exactly are the laws of war that were broken, what occasions were they broken on? what international investigatory body has produced evidence of crimes of this nature? And who exactly are these people of highest responsibility? and when did they issue orders to commit “crimes of negligence” (whatever that means)?

    There of course were breaches. But an overriding trend of proven war crimes? I never read about it— though heard much rhetorical shouting about it. And many fables about so-called massacres (e.g. Haditha) that never actually happened.

    As for Marshall’s quote— another big surprise: that war is choosing between bad alternatives. Very illuminating. Very illuminating to observe that once a war is begun, the better strategy is to pursue it and not abandon it. He’s quite the war historian.

    It’s interesting that no one mentions numbers. No one likes to speak— anymore— about the rate of change in military and civilian deaths. Probably because they’re on the ebb. The number of women entering civil life. The number of new schools. Regardless, the citizens of Iraq voted for their government for the first time in history. They are able to make choices— and may be able to continue to do so.

    I should mention, at the end, that I vigorously opposed the war when it was started. I never voted for Bush, never supported him (and still don’t, really). However, the facts are the facts. Sound judgment on issues of this complexity requires cool heads that can see above partisan prejudices. Packer and Marshall, in Mr. Waggish’s quotes, provide only nebulous platitudes to express nothing more than political taste.

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