The Assassins’ Gate

THE ASSASSINS’ GATE….I’m reading George Packer’s Assassins’ Gate right now and can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s an absolutely stunning portrait of how we ended up in Iraq, what happened once we got there, and why things unfolded the way they did.

Blog readers know a fair bit of this history already from magazine articles and newspaper reporting, but as I was saying a few days ago, the only way to really know a subject is to read a book. It’s true that most of us don’t remember everything we read in books, but that’s not the point: only when you get the whole story, in all its glorious detail and told all at once, do you really get a narrative sense of what happened. That’s what Packer has done in Assassins’ Gate.

I’ll have more to say about this over the next few days, but for now I’d just like to mention one thing. I’ve seen a lot of lefty critics who have hammered Packer because he supported the war and, in their eyes, hasn’t been forthcoming enough about admitting that he was wrong about that. Michael Hirsh led the charge in these pages a couple of months ago. I have three words for these critics: get over yourselves. Perhaps someday we’ll ship Packer and his fellow liberal hawks off to reeducation camps and force tearful confessions of doctrinal error out of them, but for now partisans on both sides could do worse than admit that the world comes in shades of gray and neither success nor failure in Iraq was quite as preordained as you might think. A little bit of difficulty figuring out where you stand on the war isn’t quite the moral failing some seem to think it is.

But however you feel on that score, don’t let it stop you from reading Packer’s book. It’s fascinating, authoritative, maddening, and gripping all at once. What’s more, it’s about all we’ve got. I spoke with Packer on Thursday because I was curious about his sourcing for a few of the things he wrote about, and during the conversation I asked him if he knew of any similar books that had been written by confirmed right-wing war supporters (Packer himself is merely a self-described “ambivalently pro-war liberal”). Given all that’s happened, I wondered if any of them had undertaken a similar effort from a conservative point of view. He said no, he hadn’t seen one.

I guess that’s no surprise. Any detailed look at the war is unlikely to be a happy experience for conservatives. In the meantime, this effort from an ambivalently pro-war liberal is the best we have so far. Very highly recommended no matter what you thought of the war in the first place.