Over Here: Iraq the Place vs. Iraq the Abstraction

One day in the summer of 2004, while I sat in the western Baghdad studio of Radio Dijla, Iraq’s first all-talk station, listening to a deputy interior minister being interviewed, a man named Haithem called in. His story sounded garbled and frantic: late at night bandits had forced him off an unlit highway overpass, destroying his car, crushing his chest against the steering wheel, and shattering his leg. After twelve hours, American soldiers found him under the highway and called the Iraqi police, who stole his money and gun before loading him into an ambulance. The next day I went looking for Haithem in a modest neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. He lay sweating in a dark room, a radio and phone by the bed, sunlight burning around the window curtain. There was a towel wrapped around Haithem’s waist, and his bandaged knee was held in traction by metal pins and a primitive sack of bricks, sand, and lead weights that hung from a wire over the bed frame. It looked as if torture, not healing, was going on in Haithem’s room.

As it happened, the same leg had been fractured by Saddam’s secret police in 1992. This latest injury seemed to have broken Haithem’s will; he said that he’d attempted suicide by sticking his finger into the power strip on the floor. “I have no manhood right now, I can’t feel my manhood. I’m asking you through the spirit of brotherhood to help me find compensation. I’m desperate—I have three children, how can I raise them, what can I do for them? I took money from my brother for cigarettes—it’s killing me to say this. I don’t want to go to charities as a beggar. I want to be a human being, and I want a human being in front of me who can give me my rights. I want any person to come and help me just like the Americans did—just for anyone to come here and help me as a human being.”

As for the American soldiers, he was still marveling at their kindness. This was his second encounter with Americans; the first occurred a month earlier and did not go well. On that night, he had been careening down a side street at high speed when a Humvee emerged from the darkness. Unsurprisingly, Haithem ended up on the ground with soldiers screaming at him. But the Americans who heard his cries from under the highway were different; they offered him water and spent an hour dressing his wound. “This latest accident changed everything for me. I understood not everyone is the same. The soldier who treated me—the last thing he said as they put me in the ambulance was, ‘Don’t cry, you won’t die,’ and he wiped my tears. I never got the name of the soldier, and I’m sorry about that.”

In Haithem’s telling, the story became a parable of how some things had changed in Iraq while other, more fundamental truths had not. Ordinary Iraqis could now complain to a deputy interior minister on a call-in radio show, and the official might order his men to follow up; but the police were as corrupt as ever, the hospital care just as indifferent. Americans had humiliated Haithem and Americans had shown him humanity. But the Americans could not give Haithem the justice he craved. There would be no happy ending for him.

The Iraq War introduced entirely new kinds of cruelty to the world, so it’s strange how many of my memories are of kindness. I often think of Abu Malik, a bearded, imposing man, his leather coat buttoned tight across his chest. Abu Malik would have been a frightening sight at a militia checkpoint in Sadr City, but whenever I came to stay with friends at the New York Times compound on the east bank of the Tigris, where he was chief of security, Abu Malik threw his arms around me, kissed my cheeks, and told me, in the openly tender way of Iraqi men, how much all the security guards had missed me. The last time I saw Abu Malik, a family I knew in Baghdad had just received a death threat and was trying to find a safe route out of their besieged neighborhood and then out of the country. Abu Malik, whose house was near the family’s, got on the phone and offered these complete strangers safe passage to the airport.

I think of Muna, a social worker whose husband disappeared under Baath Party rule. In early 2004, she began a weekly therapy group in an abandoned building. Her patients had all been punished by the former regime and a judicial system that indelibly marked the bodies of army deserters, non-voters, and those who spoke ill of the authorities. Some had their ears sliced off, their tongues cut out, their hands severed; others had their faces tattooed with derogatory symbols. They all called her “Mama” and she called them “my sons.” “Even the child on the street looks at them and makes fun of them,” Muna said. “This is a great humiliation for a human being. If he were dead it would be better. If his son asks him, ‘What happened to your ear?’ what is he supposed to say? If he wants to marry a girl, her family will say, ‘We can’t give you our daughter—you’re a criminal.’ For one and a half hours they talk and cry, until they get relief. Then they all laugh together.”

Finally, I think of Steve Miska, an Army lieutenant colonel. On his second tour, as the surge got under way, Miska was in command of a small base in an old Shiite neighborhood in northern Baghdad. The area had fallen largely under the control of the Mahdi Army, and Miska’s troops spent much of their time going house to house in search of fighters and weapons. But Miska also spent a lot of his time—more and more as his tour ground on—arranging passage out of the country for the unit’s Iraqi interpreters. The interpreters constantly received death threats, and once the Americans were gone, they would be easy prey. Miska understood that their fate would, in a sense, be a verdict on the war, and he likened his effort, which involved running a gauntlet of Iraqi insurgents, Jordanian border officials, and American bureaucrats, to an “underground railroad.” A few of the interpreters even managed to get visas to the United States.

In wartime Iraq, perhaps in most wars, viciousness and generosity were never far apart. The menace in the streets of Baghdad was always overwhelming—the suspicious piles of roadside garbage, the dark sedans casing other cars, the checkpoint that wasn’t there thirty minutes ago, the hard stares in traffic, the hair trigger of American gunners, the heedless SUV convoys, and the explosions that always seemed to happen three streets away. In this national ruin, any act of kindness, even as small as offering someone a ride, created solidarity. You were always meeting someone who had run out of options, and someone else who would risk far more to help than he would in normal times. Perhaps it was part of their culture, and perhaps these were not normal times, but Iraqis lacked the sense of shame about heartfelt declarations and naked emotions that people in more secure, better functioning places possess naturally. All of this made them harsh and lovable, and it was possible to spend an hour with Haithem or Muna, or to see Abu Malik once every six months, and feel that more human business had been transacted than over a hundred New York lunches or dinners. The same was true of soldiers with whom I would have had nothing to discuss back at home. Without these connections, Iraq would have been unbearable.

I linger on these memories because they capture something elusive and hard to describe that was nonetheless a signature of the war. 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.

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. The image of Iraq is flickering and formless. Each year of the war seems like the last, and the patrols and meetings with Iraqis that soldiers conduct every day don’t make for good television ratings. With the exception of Falluja, there have been no memorable battles. The mundane character of counterinsurgency, the fact that journalists have become targets, and the media’s sheer lack of imagination have combined to make this most covered of modern wars one of the least vivid. Iraq is more remote in our consciousness than Vietnam ever was. It has been strangely difficult for Americans even to picture the place. I’ve been asked more times than I can remember, “What does it look like over there?” 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.

The problem here is not entirely visual. Iraq’s remoteness also derives from the politics of the war, and from the political culture of contemporary America at war. The fighting only ever affected a tiny fraction of the public directly. The administration, which never leveled with the country about the potential costs and risks of the enterprise beforehand, tried to keep the war quiet by declaring victory prematurely, refusing to allow pictures of flag-draped caskets arriving at Dover Air Force Base, keeping silent when large numbers of soldiers were killed. The all-volunteer military bought the administration a year or two of goodwill before public opinion began to turn. The façade collapsed when the nation began to realize, around the time New Orleans was under water, that the war was going badly. There was no reason to follow the president into the mouth of hell, and public support, which had always been thin, disintegrated
almost overnight.

Unlike Vietnam, where the arguments became truly poisonous only after a few years of fighting, the Iraq War was born in dispute. The administration’s deceptions, exaggerations, and always-evolving rationales provoked a counter-narrative that mirrored the White House version of the war in its simple-mindedness: the war was about nothing (except greed, empire, and blind folly). 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.

So the lines were drawn from the start. To the pro-war side, criticism was animated by partisanship and defeatism, if not treason. This view, amplified on cable news, talk radio, and right-wing blogs, was tacitly encouraged by the White House. It kept a disastrous defense secretary in office long after it was obvious that he was losing the war, ensured that no senior officer was held accountable for military setbacks, and contributed to the repetition of disastrous errors by the war’s political architects. Meanwhile, the fact that the best and brightest Iraqis were being slaughtered by a ruthless insurgency never aroused much interest or sympathy among the war’s opponents. The kind of people who would ordinarily inspire solidarity campaigns among Western progressives—trade unionists, journalists, human rights advocates, women's rights activists, independent politicians, doctors, professors—were being systematically exterminated. But since the war shouldn’t have been fought in the first place, what began badly must also end badly.

Each side picked and chose from its own catalogue of facts, and one’s opinion about everything from body armor to body counts was decided accordingly. This exposed journalists covering the war to the never-ending wrath of one side or the other. A friend who went in with the Marines during the assault on Falluja in November 2004 paused one night in an abandoned house, with mortars landing outside, and downloaded his e-mail using a satellite modem. Pro-war readers had filled his Inbox with angry complaints that he was concealing the progress of the Marines—the “mainstream media” was too lazy and unpatriotic to get off its ass and go find the war. Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham accused journalists of missing all the good news because they never left their hotel rooms. (Paul Wolfowitz said something similar; afterward, he issued his first and only apology of the Iraq War.) Press critics on the left made essentially the same charge from the opposite end: Michael Massing of the New York Review of Books argued in 2004 that journalists echoed the official line because they were too frightened, linguistically incompetent, or incurious to go out and talk to Iraqis.

The Iraq War had its share of bad or indifferent journalism. But there was a huge distinction between the failure to expose the administration’s falsehoods prior to the war and the effort to report the truth in Iraq once it began. The press redeemed in Baghdad what it had botched in Washington. If the names of the war’s best reporters aren’t widely known today and will never be recalled alongside their legendary predecessors in Vietnam, it’s partly because the public—especially the portion of it that generates and consumes opinion on a regular basis—is less susceptible to the power of complex facts than it was in 1963.

The Iraq War coincided with a revolution in technology that allowed soldiers to disseminate digital images of missions within hours of completing them, a cable network to provide around-the-clock criticism of a rival network’s war coverage, and reclusive twenty-somethings to register their reactions every seventeen minutes on their blogs (and become influential commentators at the same time). The flood of information and commentary resulted in an intense, irritable, balkanized view of the war, but not a clearer view. The same combat that partisans waged over impeachment and the Florida recount found its latest battlefield in Iraq, where the American political debate was largely irrelevant and quickly became an impediment to understanding.

Two concurrent examples from the summer of 2007 offer case studies. First, a soldier on a base in Baghdad writes a pseudonymous dispatch for The New Republic that describes minor atrocities committed by him or others in his unit—mocking a disfigured woman in a dining hall, wearing a piece of a child’s skull on his head, running over dogs while out on patrol. Pro-war journalists and bloggers deride the piece as fraudulent and anti-military; officers in Iraq join them. The magazine reveals the identity of the soldier, provides a bit of corroborating evidence, and hunkers down. The pro-war side keeps firing away. The magazine eventually concedes; it cannot stand by the
soldier’s writings.

Second, two center-left think tank analysts return from a trip to Iraq and declare in an op-ed that the surge has produced military successes. Within minutes of being posted online, the op-ed appears in my e-mail Inbox courtesy of a White House political strategist. By the next morning, anti-war journalists and bloggers are in full cry, deriding the piece as credulous, dishonest, and self-serving. Republican politicians, including the vice president, celebrate the op-ed; pro-war journalists and bloggers denounce the denouncers.

Readers who believed the first story refused to believe the second. Readers who believed the second refused to believe the first. In a sense, they believed or refused to believe each story before it was published, even before it occurred. There wasn’t a moment’s pause to digest information, much less to weigh facts dispassionately; objectivity wasn’t even an aspiration. What mattered was whether the facts supported the theory or not. Throughout the opinion classes, the impulse to keep a little part of the brain open to inconvenient facts seemed to have been extinguished. In magazine offices, bloggers’ bedrooms, Hollywood studios, and the White House, a fantasy war was underway, a demonstration of American virtue or a series of crimes against humanity—both of them self-serving fictions.

Anyone who bothered to read The New Republic or op-ed accounts knew that each probably contained a kernel of truth. War coarsens soldiers; almost two divisions’ worth of combat power makes a difference. These claims are not extraordinary, except to highly educated people engaged in furious verbal combat eight thousand miles away. I find this even more depressing than the thought of Bradley Fighting Vehicles running over stray dogs.

Philip Carter, an Army captain whom I met in Baquba in 2006, wrote of The New Republic’s soldier-correspondent, “Anyone who finds Beauchamp’s story incredible merely because it’s upsetting has no idea what war can do.” But Carter went on to say:

The Beauchamp dispatches show the extent to which the discourse over Iraq has been poisoned and how quickly the left, the right, and the military were willing to go to the mat to defend their version of what is—or what they thought ought to be—true. No one cares anymore about the troops, the truth of their reports from Iraq, or the serious issues of professional journalism associated with a series of this type. The troops have become pawns in this debate; their stories a kind of Rorschach test that reveals more about how we view the war than its reality on the ground.

The tone of Carter’s piece was revealing. It lacked the fury of the partisan arguments over Iraq. This was not a sign of his indifference—just the opposite. The noise of the polemics betrayed how little the polemicists had at stake.

The Iraq War has had only the slightest effect on American culture, including pop culture. No war anthems have caught on; neither “Ballad of the Green Berets” nor “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin'-To-Die Rag” has been revised for Iraq. (Neil Young’s record, “Living with War,” enjoyed a brief vogue, mostly among fans well beyond military age.) Iraq makes a short appearance in Ian McEwan’s novel, Saturday, when a father and daughter argue over an anti-war demonstration in London; Nicholson Baker’s thin novel, Checkpoint, is an imagined dialogue in a Washington hotel room between two old friends, one of whom is obsessed with a shooting incident at an American checkpoint in Iraq and considers assassinating President Bush. In each novel, Iraq is only a distant rumor, quickly dispatched. Saturday doesn’t pretend to be about the war; Checkpoint, which does, is an emission of toxic political gas, not an attempt at genuine engagement. As for movies, the best American works are two documentaries by filmmakers who, at considerable risk, spent a great deal of time among Iraqis and created intimate, subtle portraits against the backdrop of war: Laura Poitras’ My Country, My Country and James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments. Both films earned critical praise and prize nominations, but nothing resembling their visions appears in the more widely-distributed feature films about Iraq.

Several films about the war have been released over the past year, all of them “based on actual events.” The Situation, which didn’t receive wide distribution, tells the story of a young American journalist who falls in love with an Iraqi photographer and attempts to untangle what happened when U.S. soldiers pushed two Iraqi suspects into the Tigris River. In the Valley of Elah is set entirely on the home front: the hard-bitten father of a soldier whose unit has just returned from Iraq learns that his son has gone AWOL and conducts his own investigation, which leads to shattering discoveries about the son, his son’s buddies, and the war. And Brian de Palma’s Redacted revolves around the most heinous incident of abuse by American soldiers in the war, the rape of an Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her family. The movie, which purports to tell the story “authentically” through a variety of verité camera lenses, indicts the media for its supposed complicity in war crimes. De Palma told a press conference at the Venice Film Festival that his intention was to end the war by showing images that, in his telling, no one in America sees. “The movie is an attempt to bring the reality of what is happening in Iraq to the American people,” he declared. That reality turns out to be an aesthetically self-conscious snuff film that mixes fact with fiction and makes no attempt to get the details of Iraq right.

Two of these films do have merits—In the Valley of Elah features an affecting performance by Tommy Lee Jones, and The Situation, written by Wendell Steavenson, a British writer who spent over a year in occupied Iraq, contains two more or less recognizable Iraqi characters. But the films also present the war as incomprehensible mayhem, and they depict American soldiers as psychopaths who may as well be wearing SS uniforms. The G.I.s rape, burn, and mutilate corpses, torture detainees, accelerate a vehicle to run over a boy playing soccer, wantonly kill civilians and journalists in firefights, humiliate one another, and coolly record their own atrocities for entertainment. Have these things happened in Iraq? Many have. But in the cinematic version of the war, these are the only things that happen in Iraq. At a screening of The Situation, I was asked to discuss the film with its director, Philip Haas. Why had he portrayed the soldiers in cartoon fashion, I wondered. Why had he missed their humor, their fear, their tenderness for one another and even, every now and then, for Iraqis? Because, Haas said, he wanted to concentrate on humanizing his Iraqi characters instead.

It’s curious that the Vietnam War, during which some Americans demonized soldiers, generated a number of movies that depict military personnel as thinking, feeling human beings, capable of committing terrible deeds but also possessed of insight, sorrow, and even redemption. Iraq, the war in which everyone loudly supports the troops, has produced a film genre that systematically dehumanizes them. I doubt these filmmakers truly regard American servicemen as moral degenerates. Instead, they treat soldiers as abstractions, empty canvasses on to which the filmmakers can project their own fantasies about the war. And because filmmakers believe the war, with its shifting and mendacious rationales, its rabid politicization, and its extreme violence, to be about nothing, the soldiers in their movies must also be filled with nothing. The G.I.’s don’t find their belief in the mission undermined by incompetent leadership, their empathy for suffering Iraqis worn down by frustration, their best efforts gone to waste. They are killing machines that destroy and are destroyed.

A falsely justified and poorly waged war hardly deserves the excuse of good intentions. Iraq was a folly and a failure of the kind that happens once every few generations and leaves consequences for generations to come. The war swept up millions of lives, changing them in ways that were impossible for anyone to predict. In the summer of 2003, Iraq was volatile and fluid, and no one who knew anything knew what would come next. Some Iraqis spoke of a better future coming in six months or a year. Three years later, the better future had receded far into the distance: hunkered down in Baghdad or exiled in Damascus, Iraqis spoke of fifteen years.

By then the war was not about nothing. No war ever is. I don’t know where Haithem and Muna and the others are today—some of them might well be among the Iraqis I know to be dead—but for them, the war had a meaning. It meant a chance to live a decent life, something that had never been remotely possible and remains a dream even today. The war began as folly; it became a tragedy when the hopes and lives of Iraqis and Americans began to be expended by the thousands.

“I can never blame the Americans alone,” an Iraqi refugee named Firas told me in early 2007. “It’s the Iraqis who destroyed their country, with the help of the Americans, under the American eye.” To gain this wisdom, Firas had to lose almost everything. What would it take for Americans to understand what Firas already does? A recognition that Iraq was everyone’s loss, whichever side you were on.

George Packer writes about foreign affairs for The New Yorker. He is the author of The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq.

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