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"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 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.
“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.
Posted February 14, 2013
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 28, 2008
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".Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 28, 2006
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 19, 2006
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?Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 27, 2006
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 spectrumWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 12, 2006
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 7, 2006
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.
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Posted December 20, 2005
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 tuninWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 18, 2005
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.¿Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 28, 2005
Not only clear, shaded, factual and elegant --but BIPARTISAN. A must read for anyone interested in what really happened and why.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 20, 2005
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 thoughtfulWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 14, 2005
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 6, 2009
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