Book World Live: The War Over the War

George Packer
New Yorker Staff Writer; Author, "The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq"
Monday, February 11, 2008; 12:00 PM

Readers joined New Yorker staff writer George Packer on Monday, Feb. 11 at noon ET to discuss the debate in Washington among government, military and intelligence officials about what course to follow in Iraq, as well as his new book and play, "Betrayed."

Packer will be participating Tuesday night in Book World's dialogue on the War on Terror.

The transcript follows.

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Packer is the author of a half dozen books; has contributed numerous articles, essays, and reviews on foreign affairs, American politics, and literature to the New York Times Magazine, Dissent, Mother Jones, Harper's, and other publications; has taught writing at Harvard, Bennington, and Columbia; and served in the Peace Corps, in Togo, West Africa.


George Packer: George Packer here. Hi everybody.


Hartford, Conn.: Hi, George. Would it a fair analogy to compare Donald Rumsfeld to Douglas MacArthur in Tokyo during the the Korean War? Both men manipulated intelligence, were surrounded by yes-men, and cut off all contradictory debate and seemed to be in a different world than what was happening on the ground. Rumsfeld was in Washington running the war, and Mac was in Japan and I believe only visited Korea briefly. Is the comparison a stretch.

George Packer: You know more about Korea than I do. What you say is true of MacArthur was certainly true of Rumsfeld. Look at the front page of today's Times: a highly critical RAND study of the postwar planning for Iraq -- commissioned by the Army in 2005 -- was suppressed, in all likelihood for fear that it wouldn't please the civilian boss. The failure in Iraq was made of up hundreds of such decisions. The phrase "dereliction of duty" (the title of Col. H.R. McMaster's study of the joint chiefs of staff during Vietnam) comes to mind. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq -- perhaps there's always an impulse to manipulate intelligence and shut down critical points of view. What's required to overcome these very human tendencies is honest leadership.


Washington: It doesn't make sense that Iraqis who worked for the U.S. government have to leave the country to apply for resettlement in the United States. Why do you think we have made it impossible for them to apply for asylum or refugee status in Iraq?

George Packer: Excellent question -- one that I've asked of many U.S. officials, including in Iraq. The answers come down to that ill-defined, all-explaining thing called "security." Perhaps there's a fear that the Green Zone would be overrun with visa applicants. Perhaps the "optics," as they say in government, of Iraqi employees in the Green Zone lining up to be resettled in the U.S. wouldn't look good. I think it all goes back to a sense that to facilitate this process would be a kind of admission of failure. But it's hardly unprecedented -- we've done "in-country processing" of refugees in other countries. By the way, legislation recently passed by Congress strongly urges the administration to start receiving applications in Baghdad; we'll see if it happens. But you're right: it's an intolerable burden to force our employees to flee the country, try to talk their way into Jordan or Syria, and then wait for months for an interview while burning through their savings.


Peaks Island, Maine: In your opinion does the Iraq refugee situation get the press it deserves? To what extent do you believe the approximately 4 million displaced Iraqis will return to their homes? To what extent will those who never return be a source of instability in Iraq and in the region?

George Packer: It gets fitful press attention. It's not a simple or eye-catching story. The refugees are living in crowded apartments in Amman or Damascus, not in sprawling camps, and the internally displaced Iraqis (who make up about half the 4 million you cite) live in areas that are, like most of Iraq, dangerous for Western journalists to visit. I read and hear of hundreds or even thousands returning to Iraq. It's impossible to confirm any number, but anecdotally I hear from friends that the returns are based on financial necessity at least as much as the recent improvement in security. It took a lot for middle-class Iraqis to pull their children out of school and abandon their homes, and it will take a lot for them to return. I expect this refugee crisis to continue for years, and if it continues to be neglected by governments and international institutions, it will be a strategic problem, threatening host governments and bringing Iraq's sectarian conflict to neighboring countries. The Middle East already has at least one group of radicalized refugees.


Washington: Mr. Packer, Can you please tell us something about your play (and book), "Betrayed"? What inspired you to write it? How different is it from the account that appeared in the New Yorker last year?

George Packer: The play draws a good deal of dialogue from the interviews I did in Iraq, Jordan, Syria and Sweden for the article of the same title that appeared in the magazine. After finishing the article I felt that there was still more to say about these Iraqis who worked with Americans and are on the run. Their language, their inner lives, the small details of their experience -- the kind of music they listened to in order to learn English, their shifting opinions about their American bosses, the jokes they tell to stave off despair -- all of this needed a different form than journalism. I wanted to bring audiences as deeply as possible into their lives, to make the Baghdad of these Iraqis real. That pointed in the direction of theater.


Bethesda, Md.: There's a line in "Betrayed" in which your character Adnan says: "All the sacrifices, all the work, all the devotion mean nothing to you. We are still terrorists in your eyes." That seems to be the point doesn't it? That in the end, people who work for and with the U/S. get screwed because we don't really care. They're Iraqis, and their world is totally alien to us. More to the point, while they're fighting and dying, we just go on living the high life over here. Just like "Hotel Rwanda."

George Packer: There's a bit of "Hotel Rwanda" in "Betrayed" -- you're right. The Green Zone and the U.S. embassy are almost designed to keep out the unwelcome news of danger and death that these Iraqis bring. To keep doing their jobs, U.S. officials almost have to keep themselves from seeing and hearing. But I met some officials who have made an effort -- in a few cases a heroic effort -- to pay attention and move the bureaucracy on behalf of their Iraqi staff. My play includes one such character. I know a few officials who have reached the point of despair -- because the bureaucracy remains more or less indifferent. This is institutional, not individual, failure.


Philadelphia: Mr. Packer -- I am a big fan of your work. However, a good friend of mine from Nigeria was rather horrified at your portrayal of Lagos. Shortly after, she sent images from her art exhibition, and it seems closer to New York or any other mega-city than the sort of metropolis of doom you described.

George Packer: There is an extremely sophisticated side to Lagos -- a highly educated, artistically gifted and very tiny class of Lagosians who are as at home in New York and London as in Lagos. The other 99 percent of the city's population lives in slums with almost no services and scrambles for existence like the poor in Dickens's London or Jacob Riis's New York. They were the subject of my piece.


Tampa, Fla.: In your book, "Assassin's Gate," you made a terrific argument that the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War amounted to criminal negligence. Do you think there is any chance of charges being brought against any of them if the Democrats take office next January?

George Packer: I don't think there will be criminal charges brought against senior officials, nor do I think there should be unless American laws have been broken. The appropriate penalty for the criminal negligence involved in botching a war is political, which means elections.


Arlington, Va.: Re: Your play -- will it come to Washington? Is it just New York? Any hope it will be made into a movie?

George Packer: Thanks for good hopes. There's talk of bringing "Betrayed" to Washington, perhaps for just a single performance, perhaps for a run. Stay tuned. Also talk of a movie, but nothing on the table.


Kennebunk, Maine: Thoughtful Americans from both camps, for and against the Iraq war, are all concerned that chaos will ensue if/when the U.S. military leaves Iraq -- and there seems to be little substantive information in the mainstream press about what the actual scenarios might be post-U.S. occupation. Could you close this information gap a bit by laying out he various arguments for leaving and for staying and the merits and problems of each?

One of the fears I hear voiced most often, which seems to make people favor a continuation of American military involvement, seems to be that Islamic terrorists will take control of Iraq if we leave, and launch more terrorist attacks against the U.S. from this base. Others in the U.S. believe that it is our very presence that creates conditions more favorable to attacks against the U.S. ... Could you speak directly to these opposing points of view?

George Packer: These are excellent questions -- the questions that every presidential candidate should be forced to answer and answer again, in detail. The discussion of Iraq on the campaign trail amounts to either "I'll end the war" or "I'll win the war," neither of which is satisfactory or realistic.

Your questions demand longer answers than I can give here. Last September I had a piece in the New Yorker called "Planning for Defeat" that is -- or was at the time -- my best shot. The short version is that all the strategic questions are versions of your very good point that terrorism can gain strength both from our departure and our indefinite stay.


Munich, Germany: As was asked on Tom Ricks's chat last week, why aren't more Iraqi translators, whose lives are in danger in Iraq, being helped and encouraged to relocate in the U.S. to work as Arabic translators there? Also, how does the situation for translators in Afghanistan compare to Iraq? Shouldn't the U.S. and NATO be taking a closer look at how to better utilize these translators rather than leaving them to rot or die at the hands of terrorists?

George Packer: Excellent idea. Why don't we make a deal with Iraqis to work for the U.S. for one or two or three years in Iraq and then be fast-tracked to American citizenship, perhaps requiring them to do some kind of government service such as you suggest? The situation of the translators in Iraq (I don't know about in Afghanistan, but I hear that it's similar, on a smaller scale) is a microcosm of the war: no planning for contingencies, willful denial of hard realities, a focus on "strategic communications" instead of strategy, wishful thinking. I've heard of Iraqis who managed to make it as refugees to the U.S. and immediately found their services in demand as high-paid employees back in the Green Zone in Baghdad -- the city they fled in part because the U.S. didn't give them enough protection there. At a certain point it's impossible to explain.


Washington: Hi George. What are the works (fiction and nonfiction) since Sept. 11 that you think best captured the spirit -- or dispirit -- of the times? And a related question: Is your play fiction or nonfiction?

George Packer: Thanks for the question. I think, for various reasons, that narrative non-fiction has been the best form for capturing these extraordinary years. There have been a few Sept. 11 novels (no real Iraq novels yet that I'm aware of) but fiction -- at least in its contemporary American form -- is about something other than history, and has a hard time telling stories against that vast and dramatic canvas. I can't think of a better book than Lawrence Wright's "The Looming Tower." Several Iraq documentaries, especially "My Country, My Country" and "Iraq in Fragments," bring the war to life in a remarkable way. Few feature films have been very good ("A Mighty Heart" was an exception). My play draws on reporting I did for a New Yorker article, and in the version now playing in New York I'd say about a quarter of the dialogue comes from interviews. But it's a work of imagination -- as any play has to be.


Philadelphia: What is your sense of the role of the private security contractors who were able to protect American interests in Iraq without fear of prosecution? I know some soldiers in Iraq who believed they were fighting their own separate, personal war, and that it was not coordinated with military efforts. What is your perspective on their role?

George Packer: They haven't really protected American interests in Iraq. Keeping their "clients" alive at any cost -- even if ten or twenty Iraqi civilians have to die as a result -- is ultimately bad for American interests. I don't think any security jobs in a war zone should be done by private contractors, for just this reason -- their motives are not those of the military or of the U.S. government.


Peaks Island, Maine: Where do you stand on the question of whether the current relatively low level of violence (although seemingly now less low than it had been in recent months) is more analogous to a hurricane's eye or its trailing edge?

George Packer: I think of it as a pause, maybe even a long pause. An Iraqi friend recently wrote me: "There is a fire under the ashes." That must be translated from the Arabic for "a hurricane's eye."


George Packer: Thanks for the questions. If you're in New York, come see "Betrayed" at Culture Project, 55 Mercer Street.


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