Philip Bennett -- What We Don't Know About Iraq

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By Philip Bennett
Sunday, March 15, 2009

What do Iraqis call the war that is now entering its seventh year?

If you can't answer that question, it's not because you haven't been paying attention. In this country, the Iraq war has been an American story. It was born inside the Beltway. Its costs in suffering have been most visible to us at gravesides across the United States, or in the wards of Walter Reed. A growing library of histories of the war chronicles battle after bitter battle between factions of official Washington, skirmishing over ideas, strategy, about how we got in and how to get out.

As the war has gone on, Iraqis' stories have been overshadowed by the towering drama of our own experience. The imbalance struck me as I recently read and revisited some of the best books to grow out of American journalism on Iraq since the invasion began on March 19, 2003. They are rich in raw, unblinking dispatches from alongside U.S. troops and investigative digging into the thinking of U.S. leaders -- overall, a remarkable record of a continuing conflict. But they also reflect how frustration and isolation, including the isolation of journalists, have reduced Iraqis to a narrow cast of supporting roles: ungrateful partners, untrustworthy supplicants, invisible enemies and unreadable victims.

With U.S. forces set to withdraw from Iraq over the next 18 months, does it matter that we know so little about how Iraqis have understood and lived through the war? The invisible connection between the overlapping experiences of Americans and Iraqis -- and the blame, estrangement and hatred that has choked the air between them -- impairs our ability to see what will happen next. It also means that as U.S. officials apply the lessons of the Iraq war to strategy in Afghanistan, they risk missing a central part of the story.

Tom Ricks's new book, "The Gamble," shows how difficult it is to line up Iraqi and American views of the conflict, and of each other. In a sequel to his best-selling "Fiasco," Ricks, formerly The Post's chief Pentagon reporter, provides an inside account of how Gen. David H. Petraeus resurrected the Iraq war from a seemingly lost cause in 2006 and made it the more stable military situation it is today. At the heart of Petraeus's success against insurgents, Ricks writes, is the general's determination, with the help of 30,000 additional U.S. troops, to win over the Iraqi population, to demonstrate that "the people are the prize."

It's a powerful case. Yet there are scarcely any Iraqis at the center of Petraeus's world (or in "The Gamble," whose "cast of characters" lists just two: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr). The general's "eclectic" brain trust includes a British pacifist and an Australian counterinsurgency ace -- but no Iraqis. (His translator and personal liaison to the Iraqi government is Sadi Othman, a Palestinian born in Brazil and raised in Jordan). The tribal leaders who are converted from enemies to allies -- and lend their 100,000 fighters to the anti-al-Qaeda cause -- are presented as unknowable archetypes. U.S. commanders and soldiers report a warming of Iraqi hearts and minds and credit the change to the U.S. approach, but we have to take their word for the depth of this transformation. We don't know firsthand what Iraqis ultimately make of the surge and whether the stability it has brought will help build a new nation or just an express lane for the American exit.

There's nothing unusual about American journalists focusing on Americans at war, especially on military and civilian leaders weighing truths and consequences for millions of lives. You have to read deep into the Library of America's 1,700-page anthology, "Reporting Vietnam," before Vietnamese civilians or insurgents step out of the chorus and become individual subjects. In Iraq, chasms of language and culture have affected those chronicling the war as much as those fighting it. At the same time, there have been strong incentives to excavate the facts about the Washington end of the war. Not least has been some reporters' and editors' motivation to go back and do the job of holding the government accountable in ways that were missing, and might have mattered, before the war started.

The depth and drama of several journalists' books about Washington at war have given them heightened impact, beyond the good reporting in newspapers and magazines that preceded them. Bob Woodward's trilogy on the Bush White House, followed last year by a fourth book, "The War Within," extracted from the secretive administration scene after damning scene of a government's rush to disaster. Copies of "Fiasco" and "Cobra II," by Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, seemed to be standard issue in officers' quarters across Iraq. In "Imperial Life in the Emerald City," his devastating 2006 portrait of the Green Zone, The Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran wrote the definitive account of the early phase of the occupation, corrupted by ideology, incompetence and arrogance.

From the first days of the invasion, however, correspondents struggled to construct a common narrative for Iraqis and Americans. "The most important struggles were the ones going on inside the minds of Iraqis and Americans alike," wrote George Packer of the New Yorker in "The Assassins' Gate," published in 2005. "The war's meaning would be the sum of all the ways that all of them understood one another and the events that had thrust them together." Packer's book, reported mostly in 2003 and 2004, shows how the story might have looked. His accounts of Iraqis reveal the things they carried, including their "psychological demolition" under Saddam Hussein's tyranny and their disorientation after the invasion. He got close to some Iraqis who professed a "middle level of mind" -- a moderate space between religious and secular certainties -- that seemed to promise an alternative national identity. But it was not a hope, or line of inquiry, that would hold.

It's now clear that we owe an enormous gap in our understanding of Iraq to the violence unleashed in early 2004, when kidnappings and beheadings, hundreds of suicide bombings and street fighting forced Western reporters to end the serendipitous daily contact with Iraqis that had produced the most telling stories. As The Post's foreign editor at the time, I started asking fewer questions about our coverage and constant questions about our reporters' safety. The media withdrew into armed convoys and hid behind blast walls, or abandoned the country altogether. (The Post and others stayed.) As Dexter Filkins of the New York Times, who emerged in those years as the premier combat journalist of his generation, wrote: "Iraq disappeared for us then, and it never came back."

In his 2008 book, "The Forever War," Filkins writes that there "were always two conversations in Iraq, the one Iraqis were having with the Americans and the one they were having with themselves." The exceptions in nearly every book are the conversations -- complex, edgy, intimate -- between correspondents and their Iraqi translators, drivers and guards. These relationships aren't simple; they are layered with suspicions, conflicting loyalties and the tension that comes from putting your life in the hands of someone you don't completely understand. But they also carry the mutual debt of shared experience. And, for the most part, they work.

For Filkins, most Iraqis lived in "the world we never saw." What he saw more closely than other reporters was the jagged end of the mission. He was present in Fallujah during the 2005 assault by 6,000 soldiers and Marines, and his brutal writing on this and other battles burns through the barriers of language that protect us from the truth of combat -- that nothing is more senseless, or more meaningful. Filkins reports about more than fighting. But his book is an example of how much of Iraq comes to us by way of American soldiers. The view they provide is emotionally draining and provocative, inspiring, banal, funny, heroic and tragic all at once. In her 2007 book, "The Long Road Home," Martha Raddatz of ABC News reconstructs almost minute by minute the 2004 battle for Sadr City that marked U.S. forces' baptism into the muck of counterinsurgency. In last year's "Big Boy Rules," Steve Fainaru of The Post uncovers the abuses inflicted by and upon the forgotten American fighters, the private security contractors who have done the work of an understaffed military while living beyond even the war's legal and moral horizon.

But in these impressive tales of sacrifice, the closer we get to the Americans, the farther we are from the Iraqis. U.S. troops under fire in Sadr City struggle to distinguish "good Iraqis" from "bad Iraqis" before blasting away at everyone to save their own lives. If seduction was a theme of the Vietnam tragedy, in Iraq it seems replaced by repugnance, with an acrid distaste seeping into encounters between Americans and Iraqis. For the Iraqis, the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib seems to have been part of a national humiliation; Petraeus saw the scandal as a significant strategic setback that needed to be reversed. Over and over, Americans have seen themselves paying with blood to give the Iraqis "a chance to do the right thing," as one colonel tells Filkins. Over and over, the Iraqis disappoint. As Ricks reports, many soldiers view "the biggest threat to American aspirations" in Iraq as being "the Iraqis themselves."

Today, Iraqis are the anonymous authors of their own history. As the U.S. withdraws, the course of "Iraqification" will depend partly on how Iraqis reveal and resolve their own versions of the last six years. American journalists should once again take up the mission of reporting their stories as increasing security makes that possible. Public interest in these stories may have disappeared, but their importance hasn't. The lessons of the Iraq war, including making "the people the prize," are now migrating under Petraeus's command to Afghanistan, another country of strangers.

Anthony Shadid, The Post's Baghdad correspondent, tells me that Iraqis have called the war by different names over the past six years: ghazu or "invasion"; sometimes "the events"; occasionally "sectarian war"; and most often, and most hauntingly, suqut -- simply "the collapse."

Shadid's 2005 book, "Night Draws Near," remains the richest attempt I've read to track the journeys of Shiite and Sunni Iraqis, farmers and doctors, insurgents and agnostics through the ambiguous terrain of their internal conflicts and the war outside. (It's also the only book in my stack that has a photograph of an Iraqi on the cover.) Shadid is back in Iraq after several years away; I hope he revisits these people.

The defining quotation of the Iraq war -- "Tell me how this ends" -- was posed by David Petraeus to Rick Atkinson of The Post on the road to Baghdad during the invasion. Years later, it has acquired a connotation that Petraeus perhaps didn't intend: Tell me how this ends for us, for the Americans. Re-reading Shadid's book, I came across the Iraqi coda, written on almost the same day in the diary of a 14-year-old girl named Amal Salman: "What's going to be the future of Iraq? Can it be good? No one knows."

Petraeus's question and Amal's are tied together, just as the events of the past six years will forever bind their countries to one another.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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