This gets at the great twin tragedies of the prosecution of what used to be known as the War on Terror in Iraq. The first is that Iraq was extraneous to that war, such as it was, extraneous to the American effort to combat international violent movements like Al Qaeda. By insisting on the stridently irrelevant war in Iraq, America invented a worse enemy than it could have imagined, a perfect fever dream of our fears and shame. This brings us to the second tragedy, which is that our fever dream has hardly affected us. For numbers of people profoundly affected, the recent attacks in the West, while spectacular, have been insignificant when compared with the Islamic State’s effects in the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, North Africa. Make no mistake, the real toll of the Islamic State is on those it claims are its natural constituency. The group has killed and immiserated infinitely more Iraqis and Syrians, including Sunni Muslim Iraqis and Syrians, than it ever could Westerners.
Tell us about your decision to develop your magazine feature into this book. What do you hope the book can achieve?
On the practical and intellectual levels, I left Mosul, in May 2017, with whole notebooks full of material that had not gone into my articles. I also left the country with a passel of burning questions about the history of the city, of Iraq, of religious revolution. On a more personal level, I will make the unseemly move of quoting myself again. “I got a monthlong visa” to Iraq in 2016, I write in the book. “I ended up staying the better part of a year. Only later did I understand why. It wasn’t just to see the jihadis up close or to cover a war or to prove my mettle. No, the main impulse, I realized, many months into the battle, was a certain guilt. Shame, even. Though I never said it aloud to an editor or anyone else, maybe never so much as thought it explicitly, I knew I had to do penance. I had to do penance for being a coward and a hypocrite. I lived in New York in 2001, just out of college, and, at my first real newspaper job, I covered the destruction of the World Trade Center. I should have found a way to go to Afghanistan after that. I wanted to. A braver voice in me did, anyway. But I was too scared. Two years later, after attending one antiwar rally and writing some faintly damning things about the Bush administration, I watched American troops roll into Baghdad and Mosul from the comfort of my living room. Americans and Iraqis died in the hundreds, then the thousands, then the tens of thousands, as Iraq was torn apart and tore itself apart. I was still a journalist, a conscience-stricken one, I liked to think, and I could have, I should have, gone to Iraq, but didn’t. Later, I took to reporting on war and conflict in other parts of the world, but still I avoided Iraq. Maybe I was still too scared, maybe too embarrassed about what my country had done there. But how do you write about war as an American and not write about the American war of your time? As an American writer of my age, how do you not face Iraq?”
Verini’s book will take its place on the shelf of English-language works on the violence that followed Iraq’s post-invasion spiral. And because talk of books set in the wars in the Middle East since 2003 can be less robust than many of us would like, I’ll note that in my own stacks “They Will Have to Die Now” will find a home beside Rania Abouzeid’s “No Turning Back,” Sinan Antoo’s “The Corpse Washer,” Ahmed Saadawi’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad” and another on my fall reading list, Alia Malek’s “The Home That Was Our Country.”
For shorter reading, this week you might also consider Thomas Gibbons-Neff’s brief essay “A Marine Looks Back at his Battles in Afghanistan” and Fatima Faizi and Mujib Mashal’s “For Afghans Scarred by War, ‘Peace Can’t Bring My Love Back’ — more writing, like the books above, generated far from the Pentagon’s public-relations mills.