The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq

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Overview

Named one of the Best Books of 2005 by The New York Times, The Washington Post Book World, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New York Times Book Review, USA Today, Time, and New York magazine.
 
 The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq recounts how the United States set about changing the history of the Middle East and became ensnared in a guerrilla war ...

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Overview

Named one of the Best Books of 2005 by The New York Times, The Washington Post Book World, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, The New York Times Book Review, USA Today, Time, and New York magazine.
 
 The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq recounts how the United States set about changing the history of the Middle East and became ensnared in a guerrilla war in Iraq. It brings to life the people and ideas that created the Bush administration’s war policy and led America to the Assassins’ Gate—the main point of entry into the American zone in Baghdad.
 
The Assassins’ Gate also describes the place of the war in American life: the ideological battles in Washington that led to chaos in Iraq, the ordeal of a fallen soldier ’s family, and the political culture of a country too bitterly polarized to realize such a vast and morally complex undertaking. George Packer’s best-selling first-person narrative combines the scope of an epic history with the depth and intimacy of a novel, creating a masterful account of America’s most controversial foreign venture since Vietnam.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Journalist George Packer mixes vivid on-the-ground reporting with pointed political analysis in this discerning account of America's involvement in Iraq. What separates Packer's book from a spate of look-alikes is the author's own personal epiphany. He describes in lucid detail how a war he originally supported turned into a doomed venture; along the way, he provides an intriguing history of neo-conservatism, which he sees as a horribly misguided ideology that aggressively promotes American ideas as doctrine to be enforced worldwide.
From the Publisher

Praise for The Assassins' Gate:

"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)

Michiko Kakutani
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
Gideon Rose
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
Publishers Weekly
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.
Library Journal
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.
Kirkus Reviews
"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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374530556
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 9/19/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 512
  • Sales rank: 320,915
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

George Packer

George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of several books, most recently Blood of the Liberals (FSG, 2000), winner of the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Award. He is also the editor of the anthology The Fight Is for Democracy. His reporting from Iraq won an Overseas Press Club award. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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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.

Prologue

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 information--it came from the most reliable source in Baghdad, she said, the children in the street--that 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 copy--and 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' Gate--not 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 well--the 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.

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First Chapter

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.

Prologue

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 broughtthem 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 information—it came from the most reliable source in Baghdad, she said, the children in the street—that 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 copy—and 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' Gate—not 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 well—the 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.

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Reading Group Guide

Coast-to-Coast Acclaim for The Assassins’ Gate “A book every American needs to read.” —The New York Observer

“The richest, most unsettling synthesis of reporting and careful thinking to come out of either Washington or Baghdad about the conflict.” —The Baltimore Sun

“Absorbing . . . Packer provides page after page of vivid description of the haphazard, poorly planned and almost criminally executed occupation of Iraq.” —The New York Times Book Review

“Using on-the-ground reporting and a talent for storytelling, [Packer] offers the vivid detail and balanced analysis that have made him one of the leading chroniclers of the Iraq war.” —San Francisco Chronicle

About This Guide The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading of George Packer’s The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. We hope they will enrich your experience of the history and frontline reporting presented in this unsettling portrait of war.

Introduction Providing unprecedented insight into America’s most controversial foreign-policy decision since Vietnam, The Assassins’ Gate recounts how the Bush Administration set about changing the history of the Middle East and became mired in brutal guerrilla warfare in Iraq. During four tours on assignment for The New Yorker, award-winning reporter George Packer observed firsthand the complex struggles of soldiers and civilians from myriad backgrounds. Bringing to life the people, ideas, and history that led America to the Assassins’ Gate—the main point of entry into the American zone in Baghdad—Packer reveals the gritty realities of nation-building and insurgency in a war that followed none of the preconceived scripts. The result is a masterwork of journalism, providing answers on a subject seldom addressed with clarity while raising important new questions about the future.

Questions for Discussion 1. What wisdom is revealed in the book’s epigraph, written by a Syrian diplomat and poet?

2. The book’s prologue describes the crowds that gather at the Assassins’ Gate and gives the history of the gate itself (built by Saddam Hussein as an imitation of antiquity). In what way is the gate a metaphor for the current situation in Iraq, and America’s role in the world?

3. George Packer offers a history of not only the creation of Iraq but also of American foreign policy in the twentieth century, including portraits of the original neoconservatives. Which aspects of this history were most surprising to you? What should world leaders have learned from this history?

4. Discuss the men who advocated invading Iraq early on, such as Robert Kagan and Paul Wolfowitz. Is there a common denominator (idealism about democracy, flexing a military muscle) in their rationales? According to Packer’s account, why was George W. Bush so determined to topple Saddam’s regime?

5. Chapter three begins with Kanan Makiya’s decision not to participate in the State Department’s Future of Iraq Project. Were his views about the war misguided? What does his story say about the opinions of exiles?

6. What did you discover about the Coalition Provisional Authority by reading about administrators such as Andrew P. N. Erdmann, whose story opens chapter four? What drives Drew, Meghan O’Sullivan, and the numerous other men and women like them who hoped to build representative government in Iraq?

7. Chapter six describes the transition of authority from Jay Garner to Paul Bremer, who soon issued the uncompromising Debaathification Order. Do you believe that the flourishing insurgency is the result of Paul Bremer’s inexperience, or would the situation have decayed just as much under Jay Garner?

8. How does the rebuilding of Iraq compare to the rebuilding of Japan, Germany, Bosnia, and other postwar scenarios in history? To what degree should the current turmoil in Iraq be attributed to the era of T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) and British colonialism? What did you make of the Iraqis who told George Packer they thought the British were better than Americans at being occupiers?

9. Packer observes the problem of unproven accusations, paired with a thirst for vengeance, permeating many of Iraq’s factions. What does it take to overcome such deep-seated cultural attitudes?

10. Are looting, sabotage, and the general chaos of Iraq purely a result of too few American troops being sent to move the country from Phase III to Phase IV (combat to stability operations)?

11. Chapter eight introduces Aseel, a progressive Iraqi woman who asks, “Do you think my dreams will come true?” How would you respond to her question?

12. The Assassins’ Gate provides considerable insight into Iraqi attitudes toward sexuality. What accounts for the obsession with the virginity tests for women? In what way do these attitudes exemplify other aspects of Iraqi culture? Will these attitudes ultimately undermine any hope for peace or human rights in the region?

13. Discuss the experience of journalists as described in The Assassins’ Gate. What did you discover about the process by which Packer gathered his facts, and the variety of backgrounds among his translators? How has the prevalence of journalists from around the globe, combined with technologies that allow soldiers and civilians to e-mail personal observations to their friends back home, changed the face of war? How has coverage of this war, in which journalists have become targets, compared to the Gulf War, and to Vietnam?

14. In what way does the story of Private Kurt Frosheiser speak to the schism between those who support and those who decry the war? What did you make of the vast differences between the way Kurt’s mother and father reacted to his death?

15. In the long run, what will the social repercussions of the invasion be, for both Americans and Iraqis? What might the various figures mentioned in the book say if Packer were to interview them again in twenty years?

16. Do you think American troops will ever leave Iraq altogether? If so, when and how?

Further Reading A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America’s Intelligence Agencies, by James Bamford; My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope, by L. Paul Bremer III; Squandered Victory: The American Occupation and the Bungled Effort to Bring Democracy to Iraq, by Larry Diamond; Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, by Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor; Cruelty and Silence: War, Tyranny, Uprising, and the Arab World, by Kanan Makiya; Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq, by Kanan Makiya; American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, by Kevin Phillips; Understanding Iraq: The Whole Sweep of Iraqi History, from Genghis Khan’s Mongols to the Ottoman Turks to the British Mandate to the American Occupation, by William R. Polk; The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq, by Rory Stewart

About the Author George Packer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of several books, most recently Blood of the Liberals (FSG, 2000), winner of the 2001 Robert F. Kennedy Award. He is also the editor of the anthology The Fight Is for Democracy. He lives in Brooklyn.

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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 14, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    This book reminds me of "From Beirut to Jerusalem" by

    This book reminds me of "From Beirut to Jerusalem" by Thomas Friedman. I simply didn't want to put it down and its 480 pages flew by. I expect Packer's masterpiece will stand the test of time and soon be considered a classic as well as required reading in regards to the Iraq war. It is carefully researched and well written.

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  • Posted October 28, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    If you want detailed information on the "war" in Iraq - READ THIS

    I picked this up because it was regarding the "war" in Iraq and I wanted to read up on it. I didn't believe anything I was being feed by the media so I started reading for myself. This book is written by a journalist who has actually been to Iraq and seen it for himself. He does not fill this book with his own opinions and his own assumptions but rather gives the reader the information in almost third person so the reader can make their own decision.<BR/>I would highly recommend this book to anyone who questions the Iraqi "war".

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2006

    Assassins' Gate Clears Up Mystery That Is Iraq War

    Since it all began, the Iraq War has been one that has slowly fallen apart due to a mass of different reasons. Whether it be the questionable reason for starting the war or the unsuspected rise of insurgencies after the major fighting was said to be over with, it has been a war that has many questions surrounding it. But George Packer puts together a great documentation of how it all came to place in The Assassins' Gate. Being absolutely packed with details, the book never fails to give the reader too little information or opinions for that matter also. It also paints a great picture of what life is like over there for both soldiers and every day civillians through many of the stories that were told in the book. It covers an almost exhausting amount of topics while going through the book but never fails to leave an important detail out that tops it off for the reader. Things like that and the importance of the war in our time makes this book something that anyone who likes a challenge and wants to know the facts should read. It's a great portrayal of past, present, and future Iraq and digs deep into American politics at the same time. A must-read for the up to date citizen.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2006

    Insightful...

    Packer does a really good job in this book. What I really enjoyed was, how he explained the evolution of the neoconservative political thought that lead to the decision of war. It has been hard to me to figure out why our country made the decisions to fight especially since it has become obvious the reasons given were exaggerated to persuade the public. Through Packers discussions with mid-level bureaucrats and random Iraqis, as well as his own thoughts, he does a great job explaining the complexities of Iraqi society, that were drastically overlooked, as well as, the failures in prewar and early invasion policy that has lead us to where we are today. Overall, I highly recommend this book to anyone asking the question: Why?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2006

    Mr Packer takes you where you probably haven't been

    Assassin's Gate is a very good book. Through interviews with Americans and Iraqis at many levels of society, Mr. Packer provides a multidimensional view of the war. His own preconceived notions were shattered by the chaos and poor planning that he witnesses in the Bush administration. Yet he sees a verve and vision in the average GI Joe that still finds a purpose for fighting this poorly equipped and planned war. After reading it, I felt I understood the dimensions and ambiguities of the war far better and recommend it wherever your views or opinions lie on the political spectrum

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2006

    An Intelligent Look at the Iraq War

    Going into this book with some trepedation I found this book to be extremely poignant. You need to go in with an open mind otherwise you will never be able to look at all the sides presented to you. The author's ideas are intelligent, factual and elequently written. If you are looking for another unique side to this war, pick The Assassins' Gate up.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 7, 2006

    Heard it all before!

    One big rehash of the already published New Yorker articles, that can all be read online by the way. It is entertaining but chock full of partial conspiracy theories. Nothing new you haven't already read or watched.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2005

    Disparity Between the Bush Administration's Abstraction and the Reality in Iraq Chronicled in Penetrating Detail

    Having just read the superb book, 'Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy' by Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, I am beginning to understand how effective the prevailing neoconservative thinking has been in directing the Bush administration. That it has reaped a succession of political victories seems to be coming to a disastrous end with our lingering presence in Iraq. Within this context, New Yorker staff writer George Packer has written a powerful, warts-and-all account of the Iraq war that exposes a devastating lack of planning on the part of the Bush administration to bring resolution to the most nebulous of conflicts. From the current regime's perspective, the whole purpose of the war is the post-war re-shaping of Iraq. However, as State Department and Pentagon officials raised warnings about the intractable and costly lessons learned by the Clinton White House in Bosnia and Haiti, the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld seem doomed to repeat history no matter the cost financially, physically and emotionally. Packer confirms many of the points raised by Mark Crispin Miller in last year's 'Cruel and Unusual: Bush/Cheney's New World Order', specifically that the Bush administration has been tapped by God to lead a journey to spread American democracy to countries they deem unenlightened. Through his informative tome, Packer has invoked a theme that especially resonates now - the fatalistic difference between abstract terms and concrete realities that defines current policies from Washington in regard to Baghdad. Packer uses an idealistic Iraqi exile as his protagonist for key parts of his book, his friend Kanan Makiya. Under the nom de plume of Samir al-Khalil, Makiya was one of the first to alert the rest of the world to the barbarism of Saddam Hussein's regime in the late 1980's. In fact, he accomplished such an effective clarion call for action that Dick Cheney cited Makiya as one of the Iraqis who had assured him that Americans would be welcomed as liberators. Ironically, many of his fellow Iraqis branded Makiya as an out-of-touch naïf, and Packer reports on this disparity firsthand. In devastating detail, the author then broadens the context of this difference to the entire landscape of Iraq, especially the tragedy of errors that the US occupation has brought to the country. He should know since he had been a news regular in Iraq before and during the conflict. Before 9/11, he chronicled the intellectual arguments of neocons and Iraqi exiles as they won the fight to take on Saddam, and he was there in Ramadi and Fallujah as the US soldiers fought with dwindling force in capturing Iraqi hearts and minds. Similar to what former CIA official Michael Scheuer wrote in his illuminating 'Imperial Hubris: Why the West Is Losing the War on Terror', Packer confirms that the Bush administration has a fanciful notion that democracy would somehow be a panacea in Iraq and that they continue to display the imperialistic hubris of knowing what is best for Iraq's future. Tellingly, however, they have made no plans to secure this vision for Iraq, as evidenced by Donald Rumsfeld's indifference to peacekeeping or nation-building efforts. Rumsfeld continues to deny the scope of the current insurgency, and additionally, the failure of Paul Wolfowitz proves the shakiness of the neocon vision. One of the brutal ironies out of Iraq, according to Packer, is that the Bush administration came to power dismissing nation-building but has wound up mishandling many of the same long-term infrastructure problems in Iraq that it is now mishandling in New Orleans after Katrina. Watching the disparity unfold in Packer's account makes for surprisingly suspenseful reading, at least when the book doesn't infuriate with its various exposés. For instance, the lesson of the resurgence of the Taliban and the recent London bombings provides proof that Osama bin Laden has succeeded in tunin

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2005

    'No One Loves Armed Missionaries'

    This book purports to explain the current mess in Iraq and the genesis of US involvement through a series of vignettes and observations. The book consists of an elaboration on a series of articles contributed to 'The New Yorker': he has been a columnist for the magazine since 2003. The book weighs in heavily on conspiracy theory, postulating that a cabal of 'neocons' eventually (in effect) 'hijacked' the benighted Bush Administration into invading Iraq. Packer tends to invoke 'Trotskyism' as a motive force, though precisely how an ultra-leftist and historically anachronistic program of 'permanent revolution' obtains in a neo-conservative construct was not specified. Packer has the cloying tendency to proffer tragic and semi-tragic vignettes as broader symbolic roadsigns on the trajectory to chaos and political ruin in Iraq. If only the US had absorbed the folk insights of the masses, he seems to say. Finally, however, the book does illustrate the complexities of establishing a democratic regime in Iraq, which is evidently the current mission of the Bush Administration. Those who subscribe to this concept would do well to recall that, as Robespierre remarked in 1792, ¿No one loves armed missionaries.¿

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2005

    The Best Book Ever About Iraq and Our Administration

    Not only clear, shaded, factual and elegant --but BIPARTISAN. A must read for anyone interested in what really happened and why.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2005

    Illuminating, if you are up for it...

    This isn't a book for conspiracy theorists, rabid Bush-haters or anyone else who is too close-minded to look at the Iraq situation from a scholarly, three-dimensional viewpoint. If you are ready to move past the rhetoric about 'war crimes' and the flimsy Vietnam analogies, this book is both highly useful and incredibly thoughtful

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 14, 2005

    Nothing good or noble here

    This is a rehash of his New Yorker articles, and they were the disgrace of the New Yorker. Like the invasion of Vietnam by the US, but much, much worse, the Iraq aggression is not a mistake or something that went astray - it was a war crime. It was precisely the war crime people were hanged for at Nuremberg.

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    Posted April 6, 2009

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    Posted September 8, 2012

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    Posted October 25, 2012

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    Posted April 1, 2010

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    Posted May 2, 2011

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    Posted November 11, 2008

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