Friday, December 18, 2009

Searching for nuance

We live at a time requiring full-time vigilance to stay out and front and not be buried by the avalanche of information rolling down media mountain. Many choose to go under, swamped by secondary squalls of reality-based television, ideological axe-grinding passing as hard news, and others fixate on professional sports.

While the United States has now poured 900 billion dollars into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I'd hazard a guess that fewer than one in 10 Americans could provide you with little more than cursory information and surface noise on either country. I think it would be rare, or even impossible to glean any geopolitical understanding on U.S. involvement in either country from the man on the street, Mr. Joe Sixpack, a close friend of Sarah Palin.

I've been similarly guilty on not really involving myself much beyond cursory details when it comes to our policies in the Middle East, and specifically the two countries where our country's foreign policy has been focused since 2001. Reaching around and patting myself on the back, I have at least read a few books and the occasional essay and investigative piece about military and civilian life on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While it's convenient, I guess, depending on your political leanings, to chant either, "Bush lied, and people died," or to embrace some variation on "drill, drill, drill," as a subtext to removing ourselves from foreign wars for oil, if you in fact hold to that theory, the truth about ME geopolitics is significantly more nuanced than that, I think.

When I first saw George Packer's The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq in CD version at the Maine State Library, my first reaction was, "No--not interested in a book on Iraq." Packer, someone that I've come to know and respect from his essays in The New Yorker, is a solid journalist. Subsequent visits eventually saw me taking the CD package down off the shelf and reading the cover copy.

I'm now in my second week of listening to the lengthy book, 480 pages, and in its unabridged form on CD, it is nearly 20 hours long, which is on the high end for audio books. I'm glad I decided to give Packer's work on Iraq a shot.

The book's strengths, in my opinion, are the persons, opinions, and institutions that Packer covers. While some have panned the book, most of these critics (like this one) were the kind that attempt to run everything through an ideological blender during their evaluation process. I used to be one of those people. Over time, I've tried to back away from a strict anti-war bias about this conflict, and given the resources, and American lives spent, in what has become a case of nation-building, the most extensive, in fact, in our nation's history.

While the usual cast of characters show up: Bush, Cheney, Paul Wolfiwicz, Donald Rumsfield, and other A-list political figures and members of the administration in power at the time, Packer also highlights some lesser known, but just as important people. Packer's work is brimming with rich profiles of the people on the ground, and those most affected by the day-to-day realities of the war, and subsequent occupation. None is fuller than his narrative portrait of 29-year-old (at the time, in 2003) Charlie Company Captain, John Prior. When Packer writes about Prior's high-minded leadership, and how this young man from rural Indiana, making $53,000/year, while leading 150 men/woman through daily danger, it makes you appreciate the committed people that by-and-large make up the U.S. military.

Prior, like many commanding officers in Iraq, did much more than lead troops in battle. He also was tasked to oversee opening up open-sewage sludge lines, garbage pick-up, power restoration, and a slew of other tasks that were way more than any of these leaders bargained for. It didn't help matters, as Packer details that the boots on the ground were continually hampered by Donald Rumsfield's irrational belief that this was a war that could be waged on the cheap.

I highly recommend Packer's book, as well as just about anything else he writes. In an milieu where there are fewer and fewer journalists working the long-form narrative essay that is Packer's specialty, he continues to be one of the best.

If you're looking for one book to invest time in reading (or listening to) in order to expand on news accounts, and give a broader understanding of the entire U.S. enterprise, as well as one that dispels many myths about the Iraqi people, the CPA, and other entities, then this would be a good one. A word of caution--if you're a Bush apologist, or are looking for simplistic takes on the complexities that make up military endeavors, look elsewhere.

This review was more in line with my own sentiments about the book.


pokane said...

Glad the State Library has provided you with a challenging audio book. We try to select unabridged non-fiction audios covering a wide variety of subjects and point of view. Unfortunately there will be very few if any additions to the collection in the next six months but as you know you can borrow titles from all over Maine with your Maine State Library borrowing card.
Reference Coodinator

Jim said...


I love the services that MSL provides and it's one of the perks of my job--I usually get a chance to stop in Augusta weekly and load up with reading/listening material.

Not having a local library in the town where I live, the MSL is always a visit I look forward to.

Additionally, the staff is always friendly and welcoming, also.

Book lover