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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Why has modern Iraq produced such barbarism? Is it just its passionate embrace of imported national socialism, or is it something deeper? The Fascist French pre-empted and surprised German Nazis with their enthusiasm for the Final Solution, but it's pretty difficult to imagine the French, even at their very worst, executing the Holocaust from scratch. In the 1930s and '40s there was something special about the Austrians and Germans. If Iraqis now have a higher savage quota than most, if they can't recover because of tribalism or religion from Baathist totalitarianism, then the enormous American effort to bring representative government to Mesopotamia would appear to be doomed. The stunning success of the surge is just a respite.

Surrounded by a daily symphony of suicide-bombers, Filkins by autumn 2006 appears to have lost hope. He doesn't anticipate that al Qaeda's excesses will change the sympathies and calculations of Iraq's pro-insurgent Sunni community; he does not really see the rise of the Sunni "Awakening," or the weakening of anti-Sunni Shiite anger after the Shiite victory in the Battle of Baghdad during 2006 and 2007. He cannot envision General Petraeus's surge and how it will propel all the other factors into a startling reduction in violence and tepid-but-intensifying late-night inter-communal negotiations.

In discussing the tactics of an idealistic American colonel, Nathan Sassaman, a tough and rule-bending commander who was reprimanded by Lt. General Raymond Odierno for allowing his men to go too far with the use of "non-lethal" force, Filkins suggests that, by 2006, nothing militarily can be done to save Iraq. He worries, then, about "not only what the Americans were doing to Iraq, but what Iraq was doing to the Americans."

Filkins has the bad luck to bring out a book of such unremitting darkness when rays of light are appearing. Yet Filkins could have rapidly inserted a closing chapter making a more nuanced somber assessment of where Iraq might go--and suggesting more strongly that it may be Afghanistan, not Iraq, that will be forever at war. He recently published a long, sensitive essay in the Times about how disorienting it was to be back in Iraq where violence had dropped by 90 precent. Filkins was "jarred in the oddest way possible: by the normal, by the pleasant, even by hope." Until the trip this summer, too late to send revisions to the publisher, Filkins just couldn't quite believe that evil had not triumphed.

Filkins isn't an ideological antiwar reporter, always trying to set the stage to prove a point, so it's difficult to know what he is trying to say since he is such a visual journalist. Photo-journalism--of which Filkins's is the print equivalent--isn't a nuanced art; graphic war photography unavoidably renders even "the best of wars" into a losing cause.

Filkins tells us he filled up 561 notebooks that, in some fashion, went into this book--which probably would have been much deeper if he'd filled up far fewer. He constantly touches on intriguing men and women who cry out for more time and homework. (In particular, religious Iraqis quickly come into view and just as quickly vanish.) He isn't comfortable with religious Muslims, which puts him in the company of most Western journalists.

The Forever War would be much better at describing what makes Iraqis and Afghans tick--and the odds of eventual national salvation and peace--if its author had been able to spend more time with men and women who think about God as much as they think about anything else. It's not a question of empathy--Filkins appears to be an empathetic fellow--but of personal preferences, patience (talking to the devout takes a lot more time than talking to the less faithful), and, perhaps, personal security.

Filkins does better with Ahmad Chalabi, the most notorious secular Iraqi. He spends more pages on Chalabi than he does on any other individual because he knows that Chalabi is an excellent vehicle for prying into post-Saddam Iraq:

Chalabi was someone whom I never missed a chance to follow around. It wasn't just that he was brilliant, or nimble, or ruthless or fun. When I looked in Chalabi's eyes and saw the doors and mirrors opening and closing, I knew that I was seeing not just the essence of the man but of the country to which he'd returned. L' état, c'est lui. Chalabi was Iraq.

Well, then, give us more.