THE ASSASSINS' GATE: America in Iraq

Article excerpt

THE ASSASSINS' GATE: America in Iraq, George Packer, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005, 467 pages, $26.00

The nominating committee for the inaugural Michael Kelly Award (a $25,000 award given in memory of Michael Kelly, the first American reporter killed while on assignment in Iraq) predicted that 20 years down the line, scholars searching for a definitive account of the troubled aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq would no doubt turn to George Packer. That was in 2004, and the nomination was for Packer's "War After the War," which appeared in the 24 November 2003 issue of The New Yorker magazine. Packer, however, was only a runner-up for the Kelly prize.

Today The Assassins 'Gaie, Packer's super chronicle of the continuing bureaucratic and military struggle in Iraq-which includes much of his reporting for the New Yorker but goes far, far beyond that-is already being cited as the most comprehensive if not "the" definitive examination of what turned into chaos for both victor and vanquished following the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Journalism being instant history, Parker does a mind-boggling job at what he does best: on-the-spot reportage, trenchant interviews assembled from all ranks of military and civilian society, compellingly drawn personalities, a look at the complicated psychology of Iraqis themselves (a surface never scratched in invasion planning), valuable background information and some lifting of rocks to shine daylight on the murky history of neo-cons.

Yet in the final analysis, the author leaves a major gap for future historians to fill. The unanswered questions persist: Why did the self-serving word of certain exiles weigh so heavily with the U.S. administration?

Why a rush to judgment that excluded, for example, opinions such as those of Army Chief of Staff General Eric K. Shinseki? Were weapons of mass destruction a red herring from the very start? Why was such a far-reaching foreign policy initiative undertaken with planning that excluded all unwelcome opinion? Why did the administration not admit to initial mistakes, and recalibrate?

The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), created in early 2003 by President George W. Bush, may have been relegated early to the dustbin of history (its conclusions were not even sent to Washington), but its unheeded analysis offered an eerie look into the future: "History will judge the war against Iraq not by the brilliance of its military execution, but by the effectiveness of the post-hostilities activities."

Shinseki's testimony on the military requirements he perceived necessary to secure Iraq and rebuild the country was mocked by his civilian boss, the deputy defense secretary and ranking neo-con, Paul D. WoIfowitz. Packer writes that "it was Wolfowitz who ended the one serious public discussion of the fundamentals of the war plan before it had even begun .... His message to Shinseki was a message to everyone in and out of uniform at the Pentagon: The cost of dissent was humiliation and professional suicide."

Poignantly, Packer points out that "Wolfowitz, like nearly every other architect of the Iraq war, avoided military service in Vietnam, in his case through student deferments. …