THE PLANK FEBRUARY 14, 2008
It's in the maiden issue of World Affairs, edited by my friend and former colleague Lawrence Kaplan. As with his New Yorker writing on Iraq, Packer's account is keenly observed and very affecting. This passage captures the piece's sensibility:
Perhaps it was part of their culture, and perhaps these were not normal times, but Iraqis lacked the sense of shame about heartfelt declarations and naked emotions that people in more secure, better functioning places possess naturally. All of this made them harsh and lovable, and it was possible to spend an hour with Haithem or Muna, or to see Abu Malik once every six months, and feel that more human business had been transacted than over a hundred New York lunches or dinners. The same was true of soldiers with whom I would have had nothing to discuss back at home. Without these connections, Iraq would have been unbearable.
I have a slight quibble with Packer's implicit equivalence (at times) between opponents and proponents of the war, especially the way they deal with the other side, but the basic point--about the unreality of this actual place called Iraq--seems pretty on target to me:
For all the television news coverage, Americans have the slimmest sense of what the war actually feels and looks like—crumbling deserts, blasted buildings, angry crowds, random firefights. The image of Iraq is flickering and formless. Each year of the war seems like the last, and the patrols and meetings with Iraqis that soldiers conduct every day don’t make for good television ratings. With the exception of Falluja, there have been no memorable battles. The mundane character of counterinsurgency, the fact that journalists have become targets, and the media’s sheer lack of imagination have combined to make this most covered of modern wars one of the least vivid. Iraq is more remote in our consciousness than Vietnam ever was. It has been strangely difficult for Americans even to picture the place. I’ve been asked more times than I can remember, “What does it look like over there?” If you think of World War II or Vietnam, a dozen photographs immediately come to mind. But Iraq has not been a photographer’s war. What are its iconic images? Digital snapshots by military policemen in Abu Ghraib, footage of beheadings posted by jihadis on the Web. There was no shortage of superb photographers taking extraordinary risks in Iraq, and perhaps time will sort from their work a handful of images that will define this war in the same way that, for example, Robert Capa’s photographs of Omaha Beach and Nick Ut’s of children fleeing napalm defined earlier ones. But almost five years into this war, there is only blank space where America’s picture of Iraq should be.