The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq
By George Packer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25) I know. I'm sorry. It seems like every book review, every film review, everything in the media these days is related to Iraq. But let's face it: Bad news is always more important than good news, and never more so than during wartime. This latest Iraq War tome incorporates dispatches you may already have read from New Yorker staff writer George Packer. Those were depressing enough. In longer form, mortared with additional detail and research, they're more depressing still. They also test your tolerance for the sort of spin-the-neocon Beltway reporting that, frankly, puts me to sleep. I'd be happier reviewing a new Cameron Diaz movie every week, but she's not the one who said Saddam's smoking gun could be a mushroom cloud, so again we're forced to contemplate this war's tangled roots and deadly fruition. Let's skip Packer's D.C. villains, shall we? Bush, Cheney, Condi, Wolfie . . . the lot of them. I've read enough, and so have you. Packer is much more interesting with the Iraqis who do—and do not—know a lot about their birth country, and the Americans struggling to learn the lay of the land there. In Baghdad, post invasion, post spider hole, the neocons' promised "reverse domino effect" of liberalization and democracy throughout the Middle East meets a very different reality. The Iraqi intellectuals and exiles Packer interviews, displaced by Saddam's 1968 coup, simply can't conceive of how those hard intervening decades warped their countrymen. "Backwardness is flourishing here," Packer is told on arrival. He compares ordinary Iraqis to characters in an Italian neorealist movie—they all look decades older than they are. Paranoid rumors, not crisp PowerPoint presentations, are the gospel of the street. Packer meets an ambitious young Shiite woman who has learned English from Nicole Kidman and Sharon Stone movies, but such DVD patriots are sensibly afraid to venture outside their homes. A good job for an educated Iraqi physician is to check the hymens of women—alive and dead—to ensure their virginity, lest disgrace be brought upon their families. (Honor killings are on the rise, as are rape and kidnapping.) Packer is sympa-thetic to the U.S. soldiers and bureaucrats— most of them likely Republican in outlook— who are patrolling these mean streets. He admits to having once been pro-war, to having shared their idealism. Never mind Judith Miller and the WMDs; liberating Iraq from a madman seemed like a logically defensible argument. But then Packer is confronted with soldiers who can't tell friend from foe: "How can you tell them apart? The same guy that waves at you can shoot you with an RPG." When he gathers a group of grunts in a tent, their blue-collar wisdom makes you want to weep. How is it that our leaders can't see Iraqi factionalism so clearly as this African-American GI from Texas? "I don't see us changing hundreds of years of religion," he says, "and I don't see us bringing democracy to the region. I just don't. We might be here 10 years—depends on the casualties, the body bags coming home." That's the maddening part to Gate: It's a waste of breath now to question the war's rationale or deplore the leaders who got us into this mess. That's behind us. We need to listen to these average Americans and Iraqis who are actually fighting and dying in the conflict. Back in D.C., Packer suggests, the original plan may have been nothing more than "remove the tyrant and then walk away." On the front lines, however, in the media context of Gunner Palace and Jarhead and War Reporting for Cowards and Love My Rifle More Than You, that plan has hit the fan. You want all these books and movies and reviews to stop? Packer writes, "America's fate is now tied to Iraq's," meaning still more will be written even after the last body bag comes home. BRIAN MILLER George Packer will appear at UW HUB Auditorium, noon Wed., Nov. 16; and at University Book Store, 7 p.m. Wed., Nov. 16. Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager's Story
By Said Hyder Akbar and Susan Burton (Bloomsbury, $24.95) Remember Afghanistan? You know, the country we bombed during the months after 9/11 in an attempt to nail Osama bin Laden? That was in the days when the rest of the world still had our back, before we all got distracted by that other war against that guy with the mustache. If, like so many other Americans, you've forgotten about the war-torn former home of the Taliban, Said Hyder Akbar's book-length expansion on the essays he recorded for NPR's This American Life is a fascinating, eminently readable reintroduction. His memoir begins in summer 2002, when 17-year-old Akbar traveled to Afghanistan to join his father, who had returned to his native country after the fall of the Taliban to work as President Hamid Karzai's spokesman. (Akbar's family moved to the United States when he was 2.) Over the course of that and the next two summers, the author accompanied his father, tape deck in hand, first in Kabul and later in the border province of Kunar. His narrative tells a larger story through a smaller one: The political/social/cultural story of the country is perceived through Akbar's unique and somewhat Westernized perspective as an insider with family connections to the government. You won't get many fancy turns of phrase here (co-author Susan Burton serves more as an editor). You'll just get a simple, deeply personal view of a devastated country, from hard numbers (e.g., the international community has pledged $30 billion to rebuild Iraq and only $13 billion to reconstruct Afghanistan, though the nations have similar populations) to social insights about the meaninglessness of terms like "freedom" and "democracy" in the face of nonexistent infrastructure. Come Back isn't flawless—the absence of any female perspectives is a particularly glaring omission among Akbar's travels—but it's honest and more insightful than anything you might read in Time or Newsweek. And when soldiers and civilians are dying by the thousands in overseas wars while the U.S. government insists everything is going according to plan, honesty and insight are nothing to scoff at. PATRICK ENRIGHT Foolproof presents Said Hyder Akbar at Town Hall (1119 Eighth Ave., 206-325-3554, $5–$10), 7:30 p.m. Tues., Nov. 15.