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Mon March 6, 2006
The Assassin's Gate: America in Iraq
George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, was at first a proponent of the war, a supporter who wanted to see the Iraqi people freed from the terror and sadism of their homicidal maniac tyrant president. George Packer is a whole lot less optimistic now than he was before the invasion.
By Don Noble
It would be tempting but too easy to say that The Assassin's Gate is an anti-Iraq War, anti-George Bush book. George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, was at first a proponent of the war, a supporter who wanted to see the Iraqi people freed from the terror and sadism of their homicidal maniac tyrant president.
Packer felt that democracy could be achieved in Iraq, that the nation, however arbitrarily cobbled together from Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis, could be kept together, that democracy in Iraq might spread to other Middle-Eastern countries, and that a free Iraq might help in achieving a peace settlement between Palestinians and Israelis.
George Packer is a whole lot less optimistic now than he was before the invasion.
This is a sad story. Advisors like Paul Wolfowitz, now generally reviled by at least half the American public, actually had some idealistic, humanitarian motives, it seems. America had been too passive in the first Bush administration and in the Clinton years, the liberals too isolationist. We could and therefore should bring our values to the rest of the world, as we should have in Rwanda and sooner, more forcefully, in Bosnia and Kosovo.
Packer, who served in the Peace Corps in Africa in the 1980s, agreed with Wolfowitz, like him a disappointed liberal.
A former member of the Socialist Party, Packer has written of his political roots in his memoir, Blood of the Liberals (2000), in which he tells the story of his grandfather, George Huddleston, who represented Birmingham in Congress from 1915 to 1937. A populist, Huddleston fought the Bourbon Democrats, the greedy corporate big mules, every step of the way, earning the title of "The Little Bolsheviki" in the regressive Birmingham News. (Congressman Huddleston was only five feet five.)
Even though he was the grandson of a populist and the son of a Kennedy-era liberal lawyer, Packer supported the war, more as a global interventionist humanist than as an isolationist liberal. He went to Iraq over and over, getting to know Iraqis in their homes and seeing with his own eyes how the United States conducted itself in that country. He learned that the U.S. government was wrong about almost everything.
We won the war faster than we thought we would. We used only about 125,000 troops, enough to win the war but too few to keep the peace, and so immediately following the invasion there was no security, and chaos and looting ensued. Perhaps Donald Rumsfeld was not upset when the Baghdad museum of antiquities from the world's oldest civilization was emptied by looters, but the Iraqis were. It meant that chaos was loose in the land.
An old Iraqi saying goes, "Better forty years of dictatorship than one day of anarchy." Because there was to be no despised "nation building," there was no plan to maintain security after victory. The Iraqi army was disbanded, without pay, and sent home. The top four levels of the Baathist Party were fired from their jobs, when one level would have done it; it was impossible to have any white-collar job, including that of seventh-grade math teacher, unless you were in the Party.
Packer also came to know Mr. Chris Frohiser, father of Private Kurt Frohiser, killed in action. Mr. Frohiser is understandably proud of his son and wants Kurt's death to have meaning, that is, for the U.S. adventure in Iraq to produce historically valuable results. Packer thinks that, possibly, it still might, but that the odds are long because of our leadership.
We must, he says, change the way we run the war, the way we behave in Iraq, but "Character is fate. What prevented any of this from happening was the character of the president. Bush's war, like his administration, like his political campaigns, was run with his own absence of curiosity and self-criticism." Never to admit that you have made a mistake is a certain recipe for stubbornness, intransigence, and, in this case, failure.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.