From the Publisher
“The most complete, sweeping, and powerful account of the Iraq War.” —Keith Gessen, New York magazine
“A deftly constructed and eloquently told account of the war’s origins and aftermath . . . Packer makes it deeply human and maddeningly vivid.”—Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Authoritative and tough-minded.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“A book that is not only relevant but discerning and provocative. [Packer] offers the vivid detail and balanced analysis that have made him one of the leading chroniclers of the Iraq war.”—Yonatan Lupu, San Francisco Chronicle
“The great strength of George Packer's book is that it gives a fair hearing to both views. Free of cant—but not, crucially, of anger—Mr. Packer has written an account of the Iraq war that will stand alongside such narrative histories as A Bright Shining Lie, Fire in the Lake and Hell in a Very Small Place. As a meditation on the limits of American power, it's sobering. As a pocket history of Iraq and the United States' tangled history, it's indispensable. As an examination of the collision between arrogance and good intentions, it could scarcely be improved upon . . . In short, The Assassins' Gate is a book every American needs to read.”—Tom Bissell, The New York Observer
“The best book I read in 2005." —Stephen Elliott, LA Weekly
"A brilliantly reported analysis of the war in Iraq."—GQ
"Masterful . . . Packer's sketch of the prewar debates is subtle, sharp and poignant . . . His reporting from Iraq was always good, but the book is even better, putting the reader at the side of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, watching helplessly as the wreckage unfolds at his feet."—Gideon Rose, Washington Post Book World (cover review)
"Packer provides page after page of vivid description of the haphazard, poorly planned and almost criminally executed occupation of Iraq. In reading him we see the staggering gap between abstract ideas and concrete reality."—Fareed Zakaria, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)
In his authoritative and tough-minded new book…the New Yorker writer George Packer reminds us that the decision of the Bush administration to go to war against Iraq and its increasingly embattled handling of the occupation were both predicated upon large, abstract ideas about the role of America in the post-cold war world…What The Assassins' Gate may lack in freshness…is more than made up for by its wide-angled, overarching take on the Iraq war and Mr. Packer's lucid ability to pull together information from earlier books and integrate it with his own reporting from Washington and Iraq.
The New York Times
Packer's sketch of the prewar debates is subtle, sharp and poignant. His book truly picks up, however, once the wheels of history have been set in motion. Writing with barely suppressed fury and continued bafflement, he describes how the great and noble enterprise he supported is inexplicably handed over to those least qualified to make it work…Packer relates all this clearly and briskly, painting moving portraits of both Iraqis and Americans while skillfully guiding the reader through the intricacies of colonial administration, Iraqi ethnic politics and Beltway skullduggery. His reporting from Iraq was always good, but the book is even better, putting the reader at the side of Walter Benjamin's angel of history, watching helplessly as the wreckage unfolds at his feet.
The Washington Post
It is extremely uncommon for any reporter to read another's work and to find that he altogether recognizes the scene being described. Reading George Packer's book, I found not only that I was remembering things I had forgotten, but also that I was finding things that I ought to have noticed myself. His book rests on three main pillars: analysis of the intellectual origins of the Iraq war, summary of the political argument that preceded and then led to it, and firsthand description of the consequences on the ground. In each capacity, Packer shows himself once more to be the best chronicler, apart perhaps from John Burns of the New York Times, that the conflict has produced. (I say "once more" because some of this material has already appeared in the New Yorker.) A very strong opening section traces the ideas, and the ideologists, of the push for regime change in Iraq. Packer is evidently not a neoconservative, but he provides an admirably fair and lucid account of those who are. There is one extraordinary lacuna in his tale-he manages to summarize the long debate between the "realists" and the "neocons" without mentioning Henry Kissinger-but otherwise he makes an impressively intelligent guide. Of value in itself is the ribbonlike presence, through the narrative, of the impressive exile Iraqi dissident Kanan Makiya, upon whom Packer hones many of his own ideas. (I should confess that I myself make an appearance at this stage and, to my frustration, can find nothing to quarrel with.) The argument within the administration was not quite so intellectual, but Packer takes us through it with insight and verve, giving an excellent account in particular of the way in which Vice President Cheney swung from the "realist" to the "neocon" side. And then the scene shifts to Iraq itself. Packer has a genuine instinct for what the Iraqi people have endured and are enduring, and writes with admirable empathy. His own opinions are neither suppressed nor intrusive: he clearly welcomes the end of Saddam while having serious doubts about the wisdom of the war, and he continually tests himself against experience. The surreal atmosphere of Paul Bremer's brief period of palace rule is very well caught, but the outstanding chapter recounts a visit to the northern city of Kirkuk and literally "walks" us through the mesh of tribal, ethnic and religious rivalry. The Iraq debate has long needed someone who is both tough-minded enough, and sufficiently sensitive, to register all its complexities. In George Packer's work, this need is answered. (Oct. 15) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
What a mess! That is Packer's analysis of America in Iraq. He summarizes the political and intellectual basis for the U.S. presence there as emerging from the neoconservative thinking of Paul Wolfowitz, Robert Kagan, Richard Perle, William Bennett, and other Bush administration figures. He also points to the justification embedded in Arab tyranny, weapons proliferation, strategic threats to oil, the weakness of Democratic party leadership, and security for Israel. Political philosopher Leo Strauss is characterized as the intellectual spinal cord of the Republicans, in neat contrast to Packer's implication of the lack of intellectual capacity or practice by members of the Bush administration. Packer (staff writer, The New Yorker; Blood of the Liberals) moves the focus in the second half of his work from Washington to Iraq to record the experiences and thinking of the lower-level administrators and soldiers as they apply neoconservative policy. Although it has been said that truth is the first thing to disappear in war, Packer meets head on the failings of Washington policy as implemented by those administrators and soldiers on the ground in Iraq. This disturbing and thought-provoking work is recommended for all libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/05.] Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-This well-researched, articulate, journalistic account details the United States ideology that fomented the war in Iraq that began in the spring of 2003, the planning (actually the lack of it) that went into dealing with the country after Saddam Hussein's expected fall, and the consequences of marrying political ideology to military strategy and the treatment of intelligence. A longtime, well-read student of modern Iraq, Packer writes from personal observation and interviews with decision makers or their staff, and he knows the territory. He has previously written several articles for The New Yorker that reflect some of the conclusions drawn in this book, but most of it is fresh. He was definitely a supporter of this war for many years before March 2003, in large part because he knew many Iraqi migr s and refugees, and despised Saddam Hussein and the Baath party that supported him. Packer concludes: "The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. For this reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive." Students who want a balanced account of this war and its consequences would do well to read this book.-Alan Gropman, National Defense University, Washington, DC Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
"Iraq," observes New Yorker staff writer Packer (Blood of the Liberals, 2000, etc.), "is the Rashomon of wars."Which is to say, no one can be sure why the U.S. government decided to invade Iraq: Ask any given official, get a different reason from the one offered by the office next door. Yet, to judge by its intellectual architects, the war is on at least one level a war of ideas: Here were men such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and Robert Kagan, informed not only by the neoconservatives of the 1960s but, perhaps more importantly, by the communist Trotsky, transposing his permanent revolution onto an Islamic battlefield. Interventionist and even imperialist, these men (and a few women) had little pull with a GOP in opposition to the sort-of-interventionist Bill Clinton, which expressed that opposition by urging America isolationism; it was the task of the neo-neocons to "take over-or take back-the Republican Party. Then, in a few years, the nation. After that, the world." The brilliant geopolitical technocrats in their ranks had their chance once George W. Bush got into office, Packer observes, though Bush had non-intellectual reasons of his own for wanting to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein. Six days after 9/11, Bush declared, without evidence, that the Iraqis were involved; given events, no evidence was necessary, and so Bush ordered the American army in Afghanistan, where the terrorists were, to transfer their attention to Iraq, saying, "Fuck Saddam. We're taking him out." Enter a new breed of ideologues, such as Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who, Packer shows, have no ideas but bad ones. Exit the intellectual architects. Enter kid soldiers with ideas of their own abouthow to conduct a war; says one to a prisoner, "I will fucking kick your ass. I will cut you up." Exit the anti-Saddam resistance within Iraq, which has a new enemy. As memorable as Michael Herr's Dispatches, and of surpassing immediacy.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from The Assassin's Gate by George Packer. Copyright © 2005 by George Packer. Published in October 2005 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
in the shade of a high sandstone arch, a Bradley Fighting Vehicle and a platoon of American soldiers from the First Armored Division guarded the main point of entry into the vast and heavily fortified Green Zone along the west bank of the Tigris River, where the Coalition Provisional Authority governed occupied Iraq. When I arrived in Baghdad in the summer of 2003 and first saw the arch, I mistook it for one of the city's antique gates, built during the time of the caliphs to keep out Persian invaders. The American soldiers referred to it by a name that seemed to have come straight out of the Thousand and One Nights. They called it the Assassins' Gate.
Early every morning, before the sun grew dangerous, crowds of Iraqis gathered at the Assassins' Gate. Some were job seekers; others were protesters carrying banners"Please Re-open Our Factories," "We Wish to See Mr. Frawley." Demonstrators brought their causes here and sometimes turned into rioters. A man handed out copies of a table printed in English and Arabic and titled "The Names of Victims of execution of my family." Many people carried letters addressed to L. Paul Bremer III, the top civilian administrator in Iraq. With the old order overthrown, the Baath Party authorities purged, and the ministries stripped bare by looters, most Iraqis didn't know where to take their grievances and petitions, where to unload the burden of their personal histories. So, like supplicants to the caliph of ancient Baghdad, they brought them directly to the front gate of the occupation. But few Iraqis had the credentials to enter the Green Zone, and interpreters at the gate were rare. The Iraqis stood on one side of coils of concertina wire, gesturing and trying to explain why they needed to get in; on the other side stood Americans doing twelve-hour shifts of checkpoint duty in body armor, keeping them out.
One day in July, a tiny woman in a salmon-colored veil stepped out of the crowd and thrust a handwritten letter up at me. She was a schoolteacher, about thirty, with glasses and thick white face powder and an expression so exaggeratedly solemn that she might have been a mime performing grief. The letter, which was eighteen pages long, requested an audience with "Mister respectable, merciful American ambassador Pawal Bramar." It contained a great deal of detailed advice on the need to arm the Iraqi people so they could help fight against the guerrilla resistance. The teacher, who was well under five feet tall, wanted permission to carry an AK-47 and work alongside American soldiers against the beasts who were trying to restore the tyrant or bring Iranian-style oppression. She showed me the fake gun permit drawn up to illustrate her desire. She had left her position teaching English at a girls' school in the Shiite slum called Sadr City, rather than submit to the dictates of the radical Muslims who had taken charge after the overthrow of Saddam and ordered the staff to poison the girls' minds against the Americans.
"In the beginning, the Americans treat Iraqi people well," the teacher said. "But later, because Iraqis are beasts, they attack Americans and kill them, and this will affect Americans' psychology badly and so they live in more isolation from Iraqi people." She had informationit came from the most reliable source in Baghdad, she said, the children in the streetthat the tyrant and his followers were cutting off the heads of Americans (this was almost a year before the first known beheading in Iraq). The stories had made her ill. She was having trouble sleeping, she said, and had all but stopped eating.
A man with a cane hobbled over from the line. His left hand, wrapped in a bandage, was missing the thumb. He explained to the teacher in Arabic that his father had been killed by a missile in the Iran-Iraq War, that he had been paralyzed in a car accident while fleeing Kuwait at the end of the Gulf War, and that at some point he had lost the piece of paper entitling him to hospital care. Now that the Americans were in charge, he felt emboldened to ask for another copyand so he had come to the Assassins' Gate. The man, unshaven and wretched looking, began to cry. The teacher told him not to be sad, to trust in God, and to speak with the American soldiers at the checkpoint. He shuffled back into line.
"Please, sir, can you help me?" she continued. "I must work with Americans, because my psychology is demolished by Saddam Hussein. Not just me. All Iraqis. Psychological demolition."
Our conversation was brief, and it would have been briefer if my driver and translator, both of whom thought the woman completely insane, had succeeded in pulling me away at the start. Months later I saw her again: Somehow she had landed a job translating for the American soldiers who inspected IDs and searched people entering the Green Zone through another checkpoint. She had grown fat and acquired a pair of designer sunglasses.
I seldom think about Iraq without remembering the schoolteacher standing outside the Assassins' Gate, the abrupt intensity of her stare and speech, the sense that there was madness and truth in her all at once. That first summer after the Americans arrived, Iraq has the heightened, vivid, confused quality of a dream, washed in the relentless yellow sunlight. The hesitations and niceties of normal life dropped away. Something extraordinary was happening. No one knew what it was or how it would go, but it mattered more than anything and there wasn't much time.
Later on I learned that I'd been wrong about the Assassins' Gate. It wasn't ancient; Saddam built it some years ago in grandiose imitation of Baghdad's classical entrances. It wasn't even the Assassins' Gatenot to the Iraqis. The name drew blank looks from them, and then annoyance. They called it, more prosaically, Bab al-Qasr, the Palace Gate, because the road that passed under the arch led to Saddam's Republican Palace, a mile or so away, where the occupation authority had its headquarters. "Assassins' Gate" came from the nickname of the soldiers positioned there, who belonged to Alpha Company: A for Assassins, like "Kilory was here." It was an American invention for an ersatz Iraqi monument, a misnomer for a mirage. Iraqis complained about the way the U.S. military renamed their highways and buildings and redrew their district lines. It reminded them that something alien and powerful had been imposed on them without their consent, and that this thing did not fit easily with the lives they'd always known, it pulled and chafed, though it had also relieved them of a terrible curse. The mesh demanded judgment and patience from both sides, and already in that first summer these were in short supply.
The name "Assassins' Gate" stuck with the Americans in Iraq, and eventually with some of the Iraqis, too. The original assassins were twelfth-century Muslim heretics; they were said to consume hashish in gardens of earthly delights before going out to kill, and they made murder such a public spectacle that it became a form of suicide as wellthe assassin set upon his target at noon Friday in the mosque with a knife, knowing he too would die. Over time in Iraq, as the violence surged, and the Assassins' Gate disappeared behind watchtowers and concrete blast walls, and everything began to deteriorate, the name came to fit in a peculiarly evocative way. I imagined a foreign traveler walking under the glare of the sun through the front gate of an old walled city, believing that he was safe and welcome in this unfamiliar place, not knowing that hidden dangers awaited him just inside. At other times, it was the foreigner I saw as the assassin, taking aim from his perch high up on the arch.
The road that led America to the Assassins' Gate is long and not at all direct. The story of the Iraq War is a story of ideas about the role of the United States in the world, and of the individuals who conceived and acted on them. It has roots deep in history, yet there was nothing inevitable about the war, and the mere fact of it still sometimes astounds me. During the nearly interminable buildup to war I never found the questions about it easy to answer, and the manner in which the country argued with itself seemed wholly inadequate to the scale of what we were about to get into. I first went to Iraq, and then kept going back, because I wanted to see past the abstractions to what the war meant in people's lives. Nothing, I felt in that summer of 2003, was fixed yet. The most important struggles were the ones going on inside the minds of Iraqis and Americans alike. The war's meaning would be the sum of all the ways that all of them understood one another and the event that had thrust them together. In the end it would come down to just these encounters, millions of them, like the one at the Assassins' Gate.