The Assassins' Gate: America In Iraq, by George Packer

Read it and weep: mistakes, crimes and an elegy for lost illusions
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The Independent Culture

Sometimes, those who were right all along about an act of folly are best advised to listen in humility to the disillusion of those who thought it a good idea at the time. The invasion of Iraq was both a mistake and a crime, but there were good reasons to support it - just not enough. George Packer's book about the Americans in Iraq is a fine one, because it is an elegy for lost illusions.

Packer was one of those who thought the Saddam regime so intolerable that he was prepared to flout international law to see it deposed. He was never a neocon, but thought they were reasonable men who might be on the side of the angels. He was a close friend of exiled Iraqis such as Kanan Makiya and, like them, thought the fall of Saddam would be one of those dawns in which it was blessed to be alive.

He writes well about that idealism and those misconceptions. He comments that the race to war coincided with a new film of Greene's The Quiet American, and he did not see the prophetic irony.

Packer has spent much time in the wreckage that used to be Iraq, and his book conveys the pity of it. Intelligent women who spent the latter years of Saddam's regime of machismo and rape afraid to leave their houses are now imprisoned there by Islamist vigilantes for whom female intelligence is surplus to requirement. Plump young men are growing their beards and becoming aficionados of Judaeo-Masonic conspiracies and beheading videos. The electricity hardly works, and nor does the sewerage. And when, in one of the few moments of hope, people turn out in the face of threat to vote, they opt for godliness over competence.

This book is clear where the blame lies, placing it fair and square with Bush, Rumsfeld and Cheney. America's leaders had no great interest in the welfare of the Iraqi people and thought they could be liberated on the cheap; when the regime crumbled, they felt vindicated and regarded the collapse of law and order as a mere consequence of freedom.

They lied to the people about WMDs; they treated Iraq as a source of profit for cronies; but above all they lied to themselves about the practical consequences of what they were doing. Iraqis are dying; young American soldiers are dying; and, as yet, no one in Washington has paid a price.

This is a bitter book that could not have been written as sincerely by someone who was right all along - the sort of book that helps to ensure that people won't be fooled again.