The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq
by George Packer (Togo 1982–83)
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
September 2005
467 pages

    Reviewed by Ken Hill (Turkey 1965–67)

    “A RUEFUL LIBERAL HAWK explores the road to war in Iraq and its chaotic aftermath” is The Washington Post subtitle for its very positive review of The Assassin’s Gate. Both the Post and The Economist ponder the lack of a clear conclusion from the author, George Packer, about the efficacy of the war.
         Mr. Packer’s thoroughness and objectivity, however, give this book a consequential and important status. Based on his reporting for The New Yorker, The Assassin’s Gate captures the essential aspects of the Iraq conflict through the stories, thoughts and feelings of people entwined in the war; protagonists and victims, Americans and Iraqis, major and minor, the author effectively avoids preconception.
         The Assassin’s Gate is superbly written, provocative and probing, illuminating and compelling. Most impressive to me is how it personalizes the Iraq experience — just what we’d expect from an RPCV. It’s a fascinating and enjoyable read that invokes much thought and reflection. It lingers.
         As a Washingtonian — and opposed to our Iraq policy — I was particularly intrigued by Mr. Packer’s revelations about the decision process within the Bush Administration which took America into this war. The Assassin’s Gate adeptly chronicles the ideological preconceptions, faulty assumptions and the lack of open and informed deliberation by the Bush Administration in crafting the Iraq policy and garnering support for it.
         The book reveals the misinformed and opaque interplay between the various conspirators — neocon and traditional right-wingers — and the resulting twisted and faulty war policy. A textbook on how important public policy should not be crafted.
         For example, the feckless architects of the Iraq war assumed no need for a strategy and resources to secure Iraq and its assets, protect its people and help build a viable state after the fall of Saddam. In the rush to war, therefore, no plan was developed. It was assumed that once Saddam was toppled everything good would automatically happen and a democratic Iraq would emerge naturally. Opposing views were simply not solicited nor tolerated.
         The tragic (and predicted) result was that “liberation” became “occupation” and millions of Iraqis who might have reveled in the overthrow of Saddam were quickly disillusioned. Tragically, Iraqis, American soldiers and Marines and American influence around the world continue to pay the price of this incompetence. Meanwhile, the real fight against terrorism withers and the Bush apologists thrash about in denial and controversy.
         Much has transpired in and about Iraq since The Assassin’s Gate was published earlier this year. One suspects that Mr. Packer might now have reached a conclusion about the war. The question lingers but only adds to the appeal of the book. Its currency is actually enhanced as events unfold!
         Much else recommends this excellent work! One can only hope that Mr. Packer will next focus his enviable reporting skills on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is there and in Central Asia, I suggest, that the war on terrorism must ultimately be fought and won. Iraq may well prove to be a disastrous diversion.

    After his Peace Corps service Ken Hill was a staff member who left the Peace Corps in 1975 to pursue his own business interests. In the mid-90s he and his wife Winnie (Nepal 1966–68) returned to Peace Corps where Ken was Country Director first for the Russian Far East, then Bulgaria and Macedonia. In 1999 he was made Chief of Operations for Peace Corps programs in Europe, Asia and the Middle East and was appointed Chief of Staff of Peace Corps during 2001. Ken is now an independent consultant, and semi-retired. He is also the Chair of the Board of Directors of the National Peace Corps Association.