Complexity, Intellectuals and Iraq
George Packer has an amazing essay in the debut issue of the revamped World Affairs foreign-policy journal. Summarizing it is beyond my abilities, so just read it. But the gist is that most Americans have a reductive view of Iraq that can’t account for the complexity of the country. Our understanding, and what facts we emphasize, tracks with whether or not we think the Iraq war was just or wise. I don’t really disagree with that. But something about the piece rubbed me the wrong way. (Full disclosure: Both Packer and WA’s editor, Lawrence Kaplan, are friends of mine. Kaplan has also commissioned a piece from me.)
A falsely justified and poorly waged war hardly deserves the excuse of good intentions. Iraq was a folly and a failure of the kind that happens once every few generations and leaves consequences for generations to come. The war swept up millions of lives, changing them in ways that were impossible for anyone to predict. In the summer of 2003, Iraq was volatile and fluid, and no one who knew anything knew what would come next. Some Iraqis spoke of a better future coming in six months or a year. Three years later, the better future had receded far into the distance: hunkered down in Baghdad or exiled in Damascus, Iraqis spoke of fifteen years.
By then the war was not about nothing. No war ever is. I don’t know where Haithem and Muna and the others are today—some of them might well be among the Iraqis I know to be dead—but for them, the war had a meaning. It meant a chance to live a decent life, something that had never been remotely possible and remains a dream even today. The war began as folly; it became a tragedy when the hopes and lives of Iraqis and Americans began to be expended by the thousands.
“I can never blame the Americans alone,” an Iraqi refugee named Firas told me in early 2007. “It’s the Iraqis who destroyed their country, with the help of the Americans, under the American eye.” To gain this wisdom, Firas had to lose almost everything. What would it take for Americans to understand what Firas already does? A recognition that Iraq was everyone’s loss, whichever side you were on.
This isn’t wrong. But what does Packer’s insight get you? Less vitriol, sure. More complexity, definitely. And those are good and worthy things. But I don’t know anyone who says the war was about nothing . Rather, journalists, intellectuals, veterans, etc., have spent years trying to understand just what the war is, was, and will become.
And to do that, you kind of do have to privilege certain facts. For instance — and I’m trying to make this as value-neutral as I can — the U.S. has promoted a quasi-official militia force of 80,000 mostly ex-insurgents; and the U.S. also says it wants the Iraqi government to possess a monopoly on violence. Both statements are true. But the first is clearly more significant than the second. Perhaps Packer is simply saying that we should caveat our assessments more thoroughly. And that’s, again, generally wise. But there comes a point when all the caveating and the complexity becomes a dodge — a way of avoiding the big picture of what needs to be done. If you’re pro-war, I’m not sure it’s inappropriate to say, "I believe the necessity of the war overwhelms the mistakes that the U.S. has made, so I’m not going to emphasize those mistakes." Similarly, if you’re anti-war, I’m not sure it’s inappropriate to say, "I believe the the folly of the war overwhelms the positive things the U.S. has done, so I’m not going to emphasize the positives."
Perhaps this is a mistake on my part. Maybe I’m apologizing for intellectual dishonesty. That’s not what I mean to do, but maybe it’s the net effect of my contention. And Packer’s essay is filled with legitimate, insightful points. (Caveated enough for you?) But judgment does involve discriminating between significant and insignificant things. A brief in favor of complexity, nuance and suppleness can fall victim to a kind of vanity, where one believes that not rendering judgment is evidence of a commentator’s superior virtue. The Iraq war is too important for that. Packer is offering a valuable corrective to the sin of self-satisfaction, but maybe the corrective needs some correcting as well.