The Limits of Empathy

Brian Cook

There’s a lot to like about The Assassins’ Gate, George Packer’s sober meditation on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. For starters, Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker, differs from his fellow liberal hawks in that his book is based on on-the-ground reporting, and therefore manifests an empathy for its subjects. 

He’s at his best when detailing the systematic and, worse, arbitrary sadism meted out to Iraqis during Saddam’s reign. His e-mail correspondence with the father of a U.S. solider killed in Iraq does more to convey the choking grief of bereaved families than 100 candlelit vigils. And – during the early stages of the occupation, when it was still safe for Iraqis to talk to Westerners – Packer interviewed an astonishingly wide swath of Iraqi society. The conversations make for a damning indictment of the occupiers’ feeble attempts to win hearts and minds,” as we see hopes thwarted and frustrations allowed to fester. 

The Assassins’ Gate also provides the most comprehensive examination thus far of the White House and Pentagon neocons who planned (and pushed) for the war. Although Richard Perle tells Packer that there’s no intellectual history” of the war, over the last decade, a bevy (or, if you prefer, a cabal) of these American Enterprise Institute scholars” left behind a trail of policy papers and journal articles advocating for regime change.” As Packer studiously parses his way through these documents, as well as the internecine struggles within the Bush administration, he creates a clear and informative chronology.

That said – and that is quite a bit–The Assassins’ Gate contains much to dislike, and, oddly, its considerable deficiencies intertwine with what makes the book compelling. For Packer’s empathy is not just limited to those victimized by the occupation – it also extends to the administrators and soldiers doing the occupying. Without this empathy, he likely would have never gained access to those he quotes, nor would they have felt comfortable enough to speak as forthrightly as they do. But all too often, Packer treats these responses with a consideration they do not deserve. 

Not that Packer is uncritical. He and the people he quotes are often very critical of the administration’s incompetence and detachment. But this criticism occurs in a framework that assumes the United States is in Iraq for the benefit of the Iraqi people. It is an assumption, which, in the parlance of our times, is wholly faith-based.

A representative example is Packer’s conversation with Brad Swanson, a Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) staffer working on private-sector development.” Swanson attributes the CPA’s failings to groupthink,” which Packer describes as a uniform mind-set that takes hold of any hermetic hierarchical institution.” Swanson says people were so concentrated on the tasks at hand that no one asked whether the CPA had any business writing codes for Iraq that created a 15 percent flat tax, transparent accounting procedures, and new banking and commercial laws.” All these things were great laws,” Swanson tells Packer, but they just had no application in the real world.”

But as Naomi Klein noted in her September 2004 Harper’s article, Year Zero,” these great laws” did indeed have an application in the real world, being unprecedented in their generosity to multinational corporations.” For Packer, the idea that the CPA was designed to devote its time and generosity to multinational corporations instead of the Iraqi people is inconceivable.

Another unquestioned wisdom today – on both sides of the aisle – is that we must support the troops.” Now I wouldn’t suggest the poor teenagers toiling in 140-plus temperatures be castigated as lackeys of imperialism. But I also wouldn’t classify, as Packer does, our soldiers’ conclusions that Iraqi men were unreliable, didn’t tell the truth, couldn’t think rationally, never showed initiative,” as hard-learned home truths.” And I wouldn’t quote without comment, as Packer does, one soldier’s belief that the depressing part” about Abu Ghraib was its effect on everyone else, not what actually happened.” Such sentiments explain a lot about why the occupation is not proceeding as planned.

In fairness, Packer doesn’t whitewash the brutality of some U.S. troops, and he also records U.S. soldiers behaving incredibly cool-headedly under ridiculously trying circumstances. One of the most inspiring and exemplary is Army Capt. John Prior. But at one point, he tells Packer, In my heart I believe everybody’s American.”

If even the best among us is so unreflectively hubristic, Packer’s conclusion that the Iraq war was always winnable; it still is,” suggests that he too is believing with his heart, instead of thinking with his head.

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Brian Cook was an editor at In These Times from 2003 to 2009. He now works on the editorial staff of Playboy magazine.
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