It’s been eight years since the beginning of the American military theater in Iraq. If you don’t know anyone in the military and rely on the media for your truth, it’s easy to forget that there still is a war going on over there. The facts get blurred with the next headline. How and why the war came to be gets buried in the landfill, along with old newspapers that contained its storyline.
George Packer’s “The Assassins’ Gate” brings the reality of the war back to light. It is an interesting mix of genres. Part history, travelogue, investigative journalism, and polemic, the author is able to mix these disparate tones with a seamless narrative taking a broad view. He compiles vast data into something digestible and comprehensive. His narrative begins with the history of neoconservatism and its roots, and how it led the United States’ eventual involvement in Iraq. He describes the myriad of motives that compel the actors and players to take action they do in that country. The timeline reads like a spy novel except it is real, and the author’s summary makes the chain reaction sound so incredible it can’t be made up. It is like reading intelligent gossip. Chapters such as the geopolitical involvement of Iraqi exiles in Western foreign policy, and Shia tribal leaders versus former Baathist Sunnis, also take this tone. Packer is a master in making the minutiae of politics seem exciting.
Into this backdrop of political chess games and endgames are the pawns of people trying to make a life, one way or the other. This is where the author excels in his story, for while his political narrative is like a good Robert Ludlum novel, he is able to bring the human side to the war without being too emotionally removed or too sappy. The author interviews individuals like coalition military men on the ground, everyday Iraqis in many settings, and an American father who lost his son in the war, just to name a few. All these players are woven into the fabric of the war without unraveling the tapestry. Far from making it too confusing, the many interviews lend a texture to the military theater that tends to be missing from sound bites in the evening news or ranting bloggers who never visited the country.
War is a ripple effect that influences and touches many people. The longer a war drags on, it seems, the more likely it is relegated to nothing more than an abstract issue of foreign policy. It may become easy to forget war’s long-term consequences, or how far reaching those consequences are. “The Assassins’ Gate” is a wide-angle view of a war which reminds us how long war’s hand stretches. The book is a vivid narrative of the human drama that results when the halls of government decide to play with the lives of others, and how real that drama is.