The Magazine

Darkness at Noon

A premature report from Iraq.

Oct 6, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 04 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Tell us something about Chalabi that we don't know. Chalabi has become a cliché in the West--"gamesman, exile, idealist, fraud"--and his prewar influence along the Potomac has been wildly exaggerated by critics of the Iraq war. Filkins, too, engages in a bit of historical silliness by writing that "Chalabi had persuaded the American government to go to war to topple Saddam. Then Iraq imploded, and the super weapons Chalabi assured the United States were there never turned up."

George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, George Tenet, and Kenneth
Pollack--the former Clinton administration official who wrote the most influential book arguing for war against Saddam and who spent much of the 1990s trashing Chalabi's intelligence value and his efforts to get the United States to support a "rollback" guerrilla campaign against the Baathist regime--formed their reasons for eliminating Saddam without any help from the Iraqi "Proteus." Anyone who thinks Chalabi conned Paul Wolfowitz (who grew cool towards Chalabi before the Iraq invasion), who then conned Rumsfeld into the Iraq war, should not be allowed to drink, drive, or watch a PG movie. I have a strong suspicion that Filkins, like his colleague John Burns, supported the war in 2003. Was Chalabi a pivotal influence on them? Unlikely.

Talking about Chalabi is a litmus test for writers, a way to gauge how far they have moved from the antiwar rhetorical swamp that has made far too many gifted intellectuals and reporters sound like Frank Rich. Anyone with a literary itch ought to want to look at Chalabi. He is a voracious intellect who was never completely at home in the West, even though most of him is of Occidental manufacture. More than any other big-paper reporter, Filkins tries to give Chalabi-in-Iraq his due:

No Iraqi leader worked harder than Chalabi. Many of them worked for a few hours in the morning and slept away the afternoons. Many of them, as the chaos deepened, returned to exile. Whenever I went to Chalabi's house, night or day, I found him working, often on the most mundane aspects of public administration.

Filkins ultimately finds Chalabi, like Iraq, unknowable: too many doors, too Levantine, too big an IQ that allowed him to play politics and people like "three-dimensional chess," leaving normal humans wondering whether they'd been "conned and charmed into submission."

This is a pity. There is a bit too much of this Iraq-is-an-Oriental-labyrinth in Filkins's writing. It is part of his sense of hopelessness. Knowing Iraq is certainly hard, vastly harder than trying to understand a Western country at peace. But Iraq is no different from any other land: With the right tools and patience, one can pry it open. Americans got into a mess in Mesopotamia in part because American generals like John Abizaid and George Casey bought into the notion that Iraq was too complicated for Americans to understand, and that we always do more harm than good by trying to insert ourselves more deeply into Iraqi society. Perhaps not coincidentally, this view rescued the U.S. military from having any responsibility for the bloodbath that was occurring outside of America's heavily fortified bases.

Chalabi is no different than Filkins. In March 2003 they both started a crash course on Mesopotamia. What makes Chalabi a magnetic character is that he's actually more open, more accessible, more comprehensible, and even more truthful than most in explaining what he has learned. Chalabi would probably not admit that he is a student: He always wants the observer to believe that he is the baptismal font. Kanan Makiya, the chronicler of Baathist totalitarianism and Arab intellectual decline, believes that Chalabi might possibly have held Iraq together in 2003-04 if both he and the Americans had acted more wisely.

I'm not convinced--Chalabi probably couldn't win an election in Iraq even if he were the only man running--but Makiya's point that Chalabi was perhaps the only Iraqi who potentially had the skills, intellect, international ties, and all-critical family connections to process all that was going on is probably more true than false. Filkins deserves credit for trying to understand this radioactive personality; I just wish he'd been less conventional about it.

With all his literary problems, Filkins is still well worth reading. And for those who want to digest an eyewitness rendering of the savagery and sadness that befell Iraq between 2004 and 2007 (and all of us should) there is no more upsetting account published. Filkins was scarred by Iraq: A young Marine lance corporal, William Miller, died helping him and a colleague get a photograph of a dead Iraqi, quite likely saved Filkins's life in the process, and Filkins can't shake the guilt and fortuity surrounding the corporal's death. His spiritual wounds haunt the book and certainly make it, at times, a compelling read.

No other writer has been as sardonically descriptive of Iraq's unbelievable routine bloodletting: The scattering of eerily life-like severed heads and intact spinal columns of suicide bombers, and the lexical creativity required to deal with all this killing:

The insurgents were always looking for a new and improved way to deliver a bomb. First came the car bombs, then the suicide bombers, then the car bombs driven by suicide bombers. Every time the insurgents figured out a new delivery system the Americans gave it a new acronym. Or most of the time. Car bombs, for instance, were VBIEDs, pronounced VEE-BID, for Vehicle-Born Improvised Explosive Device. Suicide bombers were called SVBIEDs, for Suicide Vehicle Born Improvised Explosive Device. I never heard the acronym for suicide bombers on bicycles; they rode them into weddings and funerals. The insurgents hid bombs underneath dead animals, especially dogs. No acronym for that. And then they strapped bombs to dogs. Live bombs to live dogs. That would be DBIED, or Dog-born IED. Also, the D could have stood for Donkey, when they tied bombs to donkeys.

Filkins ran incessantly along the Tigris in Baghdad, at considerable risk to himself, to escape from the boredom of the claustrophobic, heavily guarded Times compound and, no doubt, to sweat out the ugliness and demons that inevitably become the bedrock of the mordant humor that sustain life in surreal circumstances. It's a good bet that, no matter where Filkins goes in the future, he will be forever running in Baghdad.

This was his war, and there is no chance in hell that it will ever let go of him.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD.