On August 31, a Shiite religious procession was crossing a bridge over the Tigris River in Baghdad when the crowd was panicked by rumors of a suicide bomber. In the ensuing stampede, between 800 and 1,000 people were trampled to death or drowned, most of them women and children. Yet the American press, preoccupied with Hurricane Katrina and numbed by regular reports of Iraqi massacres, barely noted the deaths of a quarter as many people as had perished in New York on September 11. How did things get so bad in Iraq?
It sometimes feels like half the books on the nonfiction table at Barnes & Noble are devoted to this question - and several subgenres have already emerged. There are the armchair-general books, which argue from first principles and historical examples about American imperialism. There are the soldiers' memoirs, which give a gritty, narrow picture of life in uniform. The most useful, and in a way the most honorable, is what might be called the second draft of history: frontline journalists expanding their original reporting to offer a fuller, more nuanced account of life in postwar Iraq.
Three new books by Iraq reporters are worth reading together for, despite all their differences in political assumptions, journalistic style, and range of experiences, they paint a remarkably similar picture of what happened in Iraq. Aaron Glantz's "How America Lost Iraq" is sharply limited by its author's naivete and far-left ideology. Anthony Shadid's "Night Draws Near" is a vivid portrait of the actual lives of civilian Iraqis. George Packer's "The Assassins' Gate," the most ambitious of the three books, joins street-level Iraq reporting to a sophisticated critique of the civilian and military failures that preceded and followed the decision to invade.
All three of these reporters agree that the American invasion remedied a terrible evil and promised a brighter future for Iraq. That promise began to erode as soon as the Americans arrived in Baghdad, on April 9, 2003, and failed to prevent looting or restore electricity. It almost collapsed in April 2004, when the Sunni uprising in Fallujah and the Shiite uprising in Sadr City showed how deeply the country had rejected the American presence. In their accounts of the year in between, the three reporters offer a grim story of good intentions and bad planning, Iraqi pathologies and American fecklessness.
Aaron Glantz went to Iraq as a 27-year-old reporter for the Pacifica Radio network. His "How America Lost Iraq" (Tarcher/Penguin, 320 pages, $23.95) is valuable mainly because of its frankly ideological approach. He is not a very experienced reporter - he focuses too much on his own feelings of alienation and anxiety, he is judgmental, and he tends to accept anti-American allegations at face value. (Visiting a Sadr City hospital during the Shiite uprising, he is allowed to interview only one patient, yet writes, "I felt sure that none of the boys in the hospital were fighters.") But to anyone who supported the war on principled liberal grounds, the arc of his story presents a depressing challenge.
When Mr. Glantz arrived in Iraq at the end of April 2003, he bore a clear mandate from Pacifica: Discredit a war the left had rejected from the beginning. "They were seeking stories of American brutality and economic exploitation," he writes. "The idea was to debunk the images of 'liberation' being shown on TV in the U.S. and replace them with those of 'occupation.'" Admirably, Mr. Glantz reported the actual stories he found in Iraq - above all, the relief of a people freed from Saddam Hussein. He quotes the impatience of a colleague with their editors' politics: "You know, it is always America that is the bad guy, but here you have one of the worst dictators in the history of the world killing millions of people. And what do they say? They defend him."
Yet, by early 2004, Mr. Glantz was able to relax back into his old preconceptions about the evil of America's role in Iraq, and this provides perhaps the clearest judgment on U.S. failures. After the terrorist bombing of a Shiite religious celebration in March 2004, which killed some 150 people, Mr. Glantz writes: "I don't think the U.S. government bombed the Ashoura celebrations. But what's interesting to me is that these people no longer see Americans as their protectors but as their oppressors." Similarly, Mr. Glantz does not sympathize with the Sunni-Baathist insurrection in Fallujah, but he is clearly gratified to be able to report on the civilian casualties inflicted by the Americans: This is the kind of story Pacifica had in mind all along.
Anthony Shadid, a Pulitzer Prizewinning correspondent for the Washington Post, puts the Iraqis themselves at the center of "Night Draws Near" (Henry Holt, 448 pages, $26). One of the few American reporters who can talk to Iraqis without a translator - his grandparents were Lebanese immigrants, and he speaks fluent Arabic - Mr. Shadid was able to immerse himself in the private lives of a wide range of civilians. Yet what he has to report is seldom surprising because the suffering of civilians in wartime is the oldest of stories. Like any invaded city, Baghdad is full of innocent, apolitical people who suffer for the crimes and mistakes of their rulers. "We get hurt," says Hussein Abdel-Hadhim, a father of two whose apartment building was destroyed by an American bomb. "We are the simple people who get hurt. The government doesn't get hurt, but we end up getting hurt."
It was not during the invasion, however, but after, when the Americans had established their Green Zone in the heart of Baghdad, that Mr. Shadid's subjects really begin to suffer. The American failure in Iraq, especially in the first weeks, is primarily one of omission. The "Shock and Awe" bombing campaign destroyed Baghdad's electrical grid, but the Americans did not restore it, even as summer temperatures soared to 130 degrees and the city was left without air conditioning and refrigeration. The U.S. and British forces easily scattered Saddam's soldiers, but after the government, army, and police were decapitated, there was nothing to put in their place. Mr. Shadid shows the ramifications of these failures through the lives of ordinary citizens, who were almost universally happy to be rid of their murderous tyrant, but who quickly became discouraged by the anarchy that followed.
More, they became suspicious. "Is it believable," one man asks Mr. Shadid, "that America, the greatest nation on earth, can't bring order to a small spot on the map?" It was easier to believe that American mistakes were part of a master plan. The most disheartening fact in "Night Draws Near" is the deeply rooted paranoia and passivity of the Iraqis, which quickly destroys the sanguine American belief that an Iraq without Saddam could simply govern itself. Stemming from a traditionally tribal, authoritarian culture, and just emerging from decades of Stalinoid to talitarianism, the Iraqis that Mr. Shadid writes about are given to the most sinister kinds of political fantasy. At one Sunni mosque, he is handed a flier that declares: "The goal of the infidels, after stealing our wealth, is to remove us from our religion by force and all other means, so that we become a lost nation without principle, making it easier for the Jews and Christians to humiliate us."
The flip side of this paranoia, of course, is an exaggerated sense of helplessness, an expectation that every good - from electricity and clean water to democracy and prosperity- can only come as a gift of the ruler. Hume Horan, a State Department Arabist, complains that "They're hoping for a deus ex machina, which is Uncle Sam." Or as one Iraqi tells Mr. Packer: "We don't hate them because they are Americans. It is because they are the superpower, but where is the super power? Show it to us."
This is a question the reader ends up asking as well. How is it that the military could seem so omnipotent during the brief invasion, and so helpless during the lingering occupation? The answer can be found in George Packer's "The Assassins' Gate" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 480 pages, $26), the best book yet written on the Iraq war. Mr. Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, began working on it well
before the invasion began - attending an Iraqi National Congress meeting in London, interviewing government officials in London and intellectuals in New York.
In the first, and least convincing, part of the book, Mr. Packer explores the politics of the decision to invade Iraq. Even though he is alert to it, he cannot avoid the common intellectual's trap of overestimating the role of ideas in politics. Thus he spends many pages tracing the ideological affiliations of the neoconservatives in the Bush Administration, all the way back to the Committee on the Present Danger, Leo Strauss, and even Leon Trotsky. The problem with this - aside from the fact that the ideas, Strauss's in particular, are travestied - is that the actual decision to go to war was made not by William Kristol and Robert Kagan but by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Mr. Kagan is surely right when he tells Mr. Packer that "September 11 is the turning point. Not anything else."
The decision to invade always relied on what the philosopher Bernard Williams called "moral luck." That is, it could not be determined a priori if the Iraq war was right; only afterwards, when its results were known, could it be judged good or evil. For Mr. Packer, who places himself in "the tiny, insignificant camp of ambivalently prowar liberals," it is passionately important that his decision to support the war, against many of his instincts, be vindicated by the conduct of that war. That passion is what motivates his close dissection of the bureaucratic maneuvers leading up to March 2003.
Mr. Packer demonstrates beyond a doubt the administration's failure to plan for the inevitable postwar occupation. The resistance to imagining a long occupation, which would have slowed political momentum for the invasion, meant that the American military arrived in Iraq unprepared for the task that faced it. Mr. Packer uncovers a document called "A Unified Mission Plan for Post-Hostilities Iraq," marked "Initial Working Draft" and dated April 16, 2003 - a week after Baghdad fell. A young occupation official, Drew Erdmann, had to use a Lonely Planet guide to draw up a list of Baghdad sites to be protected from looting.
Mr. Packer writes brilliantly about the way these mistakes ended up costing lives. Unlike Mr. Shadid, he reports on the experiences of American soldiers and civilian administrators, whose frustration mounts in direct proportion to that of the Iraqis. Even Captain John Prior, the deeply admirable rifle company commander in the First Armored Division who Mr. Packer shadows on his patrols, ends up sharing his troops' consensus that "Iraqi men were unreliable, didn't tell the truth, couldn't think rationally, never showed initiative." And if the best soldiers were so discouraged, it's no surprise that the worst, with the tacit permission of their superiors, took out their anger or sadism on helpless prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
What do these books tell us about the future of Iraq? Their focus is on the first year after the American invasion, when power was lodged in the Coalition Provisional Authority. None spends more than a few pages on the sequel - sovereignty was returned to an interim Iraqi government in June 2004, and elections were held in January 2005. Mr. Packer's epilogue on the election day holds out a very slender hope when he witnesses the enthusiasm of people voting for the first time in their lives, despite the threats of terrorists. The images of voters displaying inky forefingers were some of the first good ones to emerge from Iraq since the toppling of Saddam's statue, almost two years before.
Yet the moral luck of America's Iraq war has yet to be decided. The insurgency continues unabated, with murders and suicide bombings every week. The U.S. military is still in Iraq, and shows no sign of being able to leave anytime soon. Iraq could yet become Afghanistan, a failed state terrorized by warlords, or it could become South Korea, an authoritarian state on the road to future prosperity. The only certainty found in these three books is the one Mr. Shadid voices, as he watches the first American troops rolling into Baghdad. "Even then, I had a feeling that I would be covering the repercussions of this event for the rest of my career."