by Peter Walsh
“Collective intelligence has no relationship to the stupidity of crowd behavior.” — Pierre Lévy, The Collective Intelligence
The day before the New Hampshire primary, I went with a friend to hear George Packer, author of The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq, speak at Dartmouth College.
I knew George twenty years ago, when we both worked for Harvard and he was part of that old Cambridge literary culture, which has vanished as completely as Hazen’s, rent control, and the Orson Welles Cinema.
George was interested in unfashionable things in those days: the fate of Africa (his first book was about his Peace Corps service in Togo), the U.S. role in Haiti, the roots of liberalism. At Dartmouth in 2008, though, his subject was Iraq, and he complained that the subject, a hot one in the last two election cycles, seemed suddenly A.W.O.L. during the current presidential campaign.
George Packer — a star contributor to the rapidly growing literary sub-genre
the Iraq War has become for the better class of journalists
This wasn’t entirely true. At the very moment Packer was speaking, former President Clinton was across town, claiming that Barak Obama’s holier-than-Hillary position on the war was a “fairy tale.” The next day, Clinton’s spouse, Hillary, defied the polls and upset Obama to win the New Hampshire primary.
Coincidence? Possibly. But every presidential candidate is using Iraq as a campaign club of one sort or another. Some, like Libertarian Republican Congressman Ron Paul, had vaulted from obscure maverick to household name by bucking the Republican conventional wisdom on Iraq, a trick pulled by other mavericks, like Howard Dean, during the last election cycle.
What had fallen off the agenda, though, was any talk about how the war was actually going to end.
The Republican victor in New Hampshire, John McCain, spoke vaguely about a draw down coupled with a military commitment of a hundred years or so. During the last Democratic debate her own victory, Hillary Clinton proclaimed “So it’s time to bring our troops home and to bring them home as quickly and responsibly as possible and unfortunately, I don’t see any reason why they should remain beyond, you know, today. I think George Bush doesn’t intend to bring them home, but certainly I have said when I’m President I will. Within 60 days, I’ll start that withdrawal.” And when would that withdrawal end? Perhaps the twenty-second century?
A shape-shifter war that directly harms only a tiny percentage of Americans and which the Chinese and Japanese seem willing to fund with a bottomless credit card may just be too useful to give up. As my companion pointed out, with cable news and the internet, nowadays you can dial up any version of the war that satisfies your political taste. Or just turn it off altogether.
And it’s not just Americans. The Iraqi conflict supplies Islamic radicals with a powerful recruiting tool, gives Palestinians a free advertising campaign for how the Israeli-American alliance is the new Crusade, promotes Iran to a regional superpower, serves European Ameri-sceptics with another example of transatlantic folly, and, according to little-noticed Washington hearings, lavishes corrupt Iraqi officials with an endless supply of cash, diverted from American-funded reconstruction projects. The lights may not be on in Baghdad but Iraqi-held Swiss bank accounts are all aglow.
If Viet Nam was the first television war, black and white and gritty, Iraq has the saturated, cartoonish tones of a video game. As Packer pointed out, this time there are no award-winning photographs to spotlight the conflict.. Photographing wounded or dead soldiers in Iraq now requires a written release. Photographing coffins on the way home is forbidden.
And, unlike in Viet Nam, searing images of suffering innocents play almost no role in American public sensibilities. Video of injured Iraqis is virtually banned from the airways by popular consent— viewers complain and threaten to change channels. When Arabic-language stations focus on civilian casualties, they are condemned as “propagandistic.”
So what reaches American audiences is fleeting and shot from a distance. The violence in Iraq is sometimes graphic but somehow always unreal.
As a political game, Iraq is a conflict with no direction and no end, played out in a bleak, pixilated landscape, in which friend and foe are drawn by the same animator. There are no front lines, only cinematic battles which resolve nothing. After each skirmish, the sides total up their points and press the restart button.
That reset button is useful, too, in explaining the war into the background. The weapons of mass destruction don’t turn up? Try bringing democracy to the Middle East. Democracy stuck in the sand? We’re keeping the terrorists there so they don’t hit us at home. The button works just as well for the opposition, when it needs to explain what “ending the war means.” Apparently it does not mean cutting off the funds, the congressional action that finally wrapped up Viet Nam. The apparent improvements brought about by the “surge” have reset the war to a less urgent concern for just about everyone.
Eight years ago, around the time he threw up Cambridge for New York City, George Packer was a mid-list author whose earnestly written books, all of them more-or-less autobiographical, earned mostly mixed reviews and only modest sales. But his 2000 effort, Blood of the Liberals, which sold a bit better, was widely praised for its unorthodox combination family saga, personal memoir and political soul-searching. Appearing in the darkest days of American liberal self-flagellation, the book helped Packer polish his journalist-narrator-hero persona, inspired by George Orwell’s Spanish Civil War narratives. When the Iraq War came along a few years later, the formula finally clicked.
Iraq may well have rescued Packer’s career. His reporting from the conflict quickly earned him a coveted staff position on the New Yorker, which published the stories that eventually became The Assassin’s Gate, which itself joined the rapidly growing literary sub-genre the war has become for the better class of journalists. If he wasn’t quite yet a household world, Packer had definitely entered that small, elite group of the “serious” and the “important.”
Packer’s sales have been once again less than spectacular (his dense, personalized narrative tells a lot more about the war than most Americans will ever want to know, especially about the Iraqis themselves). But the publication of Assassin’s Gate got him something much more valuable — plaudits from highly-placed pundits, plugs from prominent U.S. Senators, a slot in the New York Times’ notable books list, and the envious praise of brand name journalists.
This is the sort of thing you can dine out on for the duration, or at least as long as the subject fills a good-sized auditorium on a college campus.
Now Packer has recycled his Iraq material into another literary enterprise— a play, Betrayed, based on his conversations with Iraqi’s who have supported American efforts. It opens next month in New York. Can a war that serves so many so well ever end?