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The Iraq War in The New Yorker

The New Yorker 2-12-06

Originally featured in The New Yorker

The Iraq War began ten years ago this week—on the evening of March 19th in the United States, which was the morning of March 20th in Iraq. A few days earlier, in a Comment for the March 17, 2003, issue called “Attack Anxiety,” Hendrik Hertzberg wrote about the uncertainty with which most people regarded the coming war. There were some, Hertzberg wrote, who were absolutely sure about either the wisdom or the folly of invading Iraq. Most people, though, held their views “in fear and trembling, haunted by the suspicion that the other side might be right after all.”

In the American “homeland,” the anxiety that this crisis is provoking is physical (a dread that, for obvious reasons, is perhaps stronger in New York and Washington than elsewhere), but it is also intellectual. The divisions are profound, and the most agonizing are not between people but within them.

Many people wrestled with the question of whether or not to go to war—including The New Yorkers editor, David Remnick, in a February 3, 2003, Comment called “Making a Case.” But the Iraq War never really tore the country apart in the way the Vietnam War did. Its agonies tended to be private rather than public; often, they were hidden away. To read The New Yorkers writing on the war is to learn about the quiet questioning of soldiers and their families; about the hidden tortures inflicted in America’s secret prisons; about the muted disagreements within the military, of which ordinary citizens were supposed to remain oblivious. “It was always hard to picture the place,” George Packer wrote, in 2005; “the war didn’t enter the popular imagination in songs that everyone soon knew by heart, in the manner of previous wars… The war’s proponents and detractors spoke of the conflict largely in theoretical terms: imperialism, democracy, unilateralism, weapons of mass destruction, preëmption, terrorism, totalitarianism, neoconservatism, appeasement. The exceptions were the soldiers and their families, who carried almost the entire weight of the war.” Americans, on the whole, regarded the war from a distance that wasn’t merely physical but mental, emotional, even moral.

In Iraq, of course, the war was in the streets. In a series of riveting articles from around the time of the invasion, Jon Lee Anderson wrote from Baghdad about the first missile attacks and the aerial bombardments, the siege of the city, and, eventually, the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In “The Collapse,” from the April 21, 2003, issue, Anderson described the sights and, especially, the sounds of the war as he had absorbed them from a balcony at his hotel, which was located across the Tigris from Saddam Hussein’s Republican Palace:

The battle … had a symphonic quality. Much of it was boom and bang—heavy concussive thumps from tank fire and bombs, the ripping bursts of rockets—but there was also a rhythmic noise, like a huge steel drum being pounded, and, frequently, a great grinding sound. The light clatter of automatic-weapons fire joined in now and then underneath it all.

That afternoon, Anderson visited a busy city street where four houses had been destroyed by a missile. The residents of the street gathered next to a huge crater, “about thirty-five feet deep and sixty feet across,” where the houses used to be. “A men wept inconsolably in the arms of another man,” Anderson wrote. A neighbor remembered seeing “a yellow missile, about the size of a date palm, crash and explode in a white light.” The attitudes of the people Anderson met were consistently complicated, and surprising. “I think this is from God,” a woman said, showing the inside of her father’s badly damaged house. “I think maybe God wants us to suffer this. I am satisfied.” (“I took her to mean,” Anderson wrote, “that she was thankful that no one in her immediate family had died, and that she bore no hatred toward anyone for what had happened.”) As the war progressed, Anderson continued to report from Iraq, focussing on the Iraqi point of view. In 2004’s “The Uprising,” he wrote about Moqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army; in 2007’s “Mr. Big,” he Profiled Iraq’s President, Jalal Talabani.

Before the war started, it had seemed fairly comprehensible: the goal was to topple Saddam, find his weapons, and leave a more democratic government behind. But in the days, months, and years after the fall of Baghdad, the Iraq War became extraordinarily complicated and obscure. Much of The New Yorkers coverage followed the American military as it tried to make sense of a war that hovered on the edge of senselessness. In “The Stovepipe,” Seymour Hersh wrote about the process of intelligence-gathering; in “War After the War,” George Packer wrote about the chaos of the occupation and reconstruction. Peter J. Boyer’s “The New War Machine,” Jon Lee Anderson’s “Inside the Surge,” and Steve Coll’s “The General’s Dilemma” explored the war’s strategic complexities. Raffi Khatchadourian’s “The Kill Company,” about a group of soldiers who, perhaps confused by unclear orders, murdered a number of Iraqi civilians, explores the burdens placed upon soldiers by counter-insurgency. “The 101st Airborne’s base of operations in Iraq was in Tikrit,” Khatchadourian wrote, “and its offices were divided into two wings”:

one was devoted to operational matters, such as raids to kill or capture insurgents; the other was focussed on civil and legal affairs. Someone had posted a sign reading “Carnivores” over the entrance to the operations wing, and a sign reading “Herbivores” over the other entrance. Though intended as satire, the signs reflected a deep division. Military operations aimed at crushing Iraqi resistance were poorly coördinated with civic efforts aimed at encouraging democracy and reconstruction.

For individual soldiers, this meant “struggl[ing] to find the right balance between lethality and restraint.” In part, that was a tactical struggle, to be overcome by training. But it was also a moral struggle—one that haunted many soldiers while they were in Iraq and after they came home.

The war in Iraq had already become defined by another moral struggle—this one about prisoners and torture. In a series of articles that appeared in May of 2004, Seymour Hersh wrote the first detailed accounts of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. His articles, “Torture at Abu Ghraib,” “Chain of Command,” and “The Gray Zone,” were based in large part on photographs and internal Army documents obtained by The New Yorker. In one of the documents, Major General Antonio M. Taguba described what he called the “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” at Abu Ghraib. The abuses, Taguba wrote, included

Breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees; pouring cold water on naked detainees; beating detainees with a broom handle and a chair; threatening male detainees with rape; allowing a military police guard to stitch the wound of a detainee who was injured after being slammed against the wall in his cell; sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick; and using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee.

The articles ignited a debate not only about the morality and legality of America’s interrogation policies but also about the competence of the people in charge. In order to escape the stains of Abu Ghraib, the war’s managers had to deny knowing about what was happening on the ground. And yet, Hersh concluded, the roots of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal lay “not in the criminal inclinations of a few Army reservists” but in decisions made at the White House and the Pentagon. It wasn’t just a moral outrage but a legal one: in “A Deadly Interrogation,” Jane Mayer explained how the legal infrastructure for torture had been constructed after 9/11. (It’s a subject Jill Lepore revisited just last month, in “The Dark Ages.”)

As The New Yorker tried to make sense of the war, it published pieces devoted to the experiences of individuals and their families. In “Lost Son,” from 2005, Calvin Trillin met with the family of National Guardsman Brian Slavenas, a gentle giant from Illinois who died when the helicopter he piloted was shot down in Iraq. Slavenas, who was thirty, was a multifaceted man: a powerful weight-lifter and a gifted pianist; a skier and a chess player. After his death, Trillin writes, his parents were left with the unnatural task of deciding how to remember him: as a soldier who died for his country, or as a civilian who was swept up in the current of war. George Packer’s “The Home Front,” also from 2005, tells the story of Chris Frosheiser, a father trying to make sense of the death of his son, Kurt, in Iraq. Chris was haunted by questions about the point of the war. Did his son die for something meaningful, or for nothing at all? He wrote Packer an e-mail that asks many of the questions the rest of us asked, and, in some cases, are still asking, about the war in Iraq:

A better Iraq? Is it possible? Why did we go into Iraq? What justifies our remaining? American lives have been lost, precious lives, for what? Can something be achieved that is worthy of the sacrifice? Are there things not known to anyone other than the President and his advisers?

And yet, he concluded, “most of the time none of this matters to me. I want my son. My son.”

George Packer’s “Betrayed,” from 2007, follows several Iraqis as they face the often terrifying consequences of working with Americans in their homes and neighborhoods. One man, a twenty-nine-year-old doctor named Othman, worked as a translator for foreign journalists until he began to feel that the work was attracting attention and becoming too dangerous. Othman’s brother was rounded up by the Mahdi Army and shot in the head; he survived and lived at home, but was left “blind, deranged, and vengeful.” Later, his two teen-age brothers were kidnapped by Sunni insurgents; “Choose where you want us to throw the bodies,” they said on the phone. Eventually, after Othman told the kidnappers that he, too, was a Sunni, the boys were released. Othman had been hopeful about the war, but the chaos afterward made him deeply pessimistic. Everyone he knew was fleeing Baghdad. He explained to Packer the unfathomable choices he faced:

move his parents from their house (in an insurgent stronghold) to his sister’s house (in the midst of civil war); move his parents and brothers to Syria (where there was no work) and live with his friend in Jordan (going crazy with boredom while watching his savings dwindle); go to London and ask for asylum (and probably be sent back); stay in Baghdad for six more months until he could begin a scholarship that he’d won, to study journalism in America (or get killed waiting). Beneath his calm good humor, Othman was paralyzed—he didn’t want to leave Baghdad and his family, but staying had become impossible. Every day, he changed his mind.

“It’s sad,” Othman said of his dwindling hopes for his country. A friend, Laith, who also worked with Americans, was more forthright: “I feel like we’re standing in line for a ticket, waiting to die.” They had become, Packer wrote, part of the American legacy in Iraq: “thousands of Iraqis who, because they joined the American effort, can no longer live in their own country.”

Dexter Filkins’s “Atonement,” from October of 2012, looks at life after the war. It follows a veteran, Lu Lobello; one day in a firefight in Baghdad, Lobello and other members of his unit ended up shooting a carful of Iraqi civilians, some of whom died. Lobello managed to track down one of the family members, a woman named Nora, through Facebook, and asked for a meeting. “I just think that talking to you guys will help me out so much. I know it seems really selfish. I hope it helps you, too, but really I can’t—I can’t go on not trying to say hello to you.” By grieving with the family he hurt, Lobello hoped, he might be able to make sense of his own actions, and to see a future beyond them.

And some of The New Yorkers best writing about the war has been by soldiers themselves. In June of 2006, in a feature called “Soldiers’ Stories,” the magazine published a selection of letters, e-mails, journal entries, and personal essays by soldiers in Iraq. One letter, from Captain Ryan Kelly to his mother, begins this way:

The worst thing here is not the searing heat or the cold nights. It’s the waiting. Waiting for the wind to stop blowing and the sand to quit grinding against your skin. Waiting for a moment of privacy in a tent packed with seventy other men, in a camp packed with seven hundred other tents, in a base packed with fifteen thousand soldiers, all looking for a clean place to go to the bathroom… Waiting for the bone-rattling coughs from dust finer than powdered sugar to stop attacking you lungs. Waiting for the generals to order the battalion to move north, toward Tikrit, where others—Iraqis—are also waiting; waiting for us.

You can read all of the stories in our archive. And here on, you can look at photographs of the soldiers, and listen as they read their writing aloud, describing the war in their own words.

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