The origin story that James Verini tells about his new book, They Will Have to Die Now, is about guilt—his guilt for not having gone to Iraq earlier. On 9/11, in his first newspaper job, he covered the collapse of the Twin Towers. He writes that a couple of years later, he “could have, should have, gone to Iraq but didn’t.” He was, he says, “too scared.”
It’s just as well that Verini waited until 2016 to “face Iraq” and start reporting on what he calls the central American war of our time. For one thing, obviously yet still shockingly, even arriving 13 years late, he didn’t miss it. For another, he eventually learned a key lesson for a reporter: being scared doesn’t make you the wrong person for the job. Verini’s deeply reported, beautifully written first-person account results from many months on an extremely dangerous assignment. To cover the pivotal fight to dislodge the Islamic State, or ISIS, from Mosul, a city of one million to two million people in northern Iraq, he embedded with Iraqi government troops, who, for all the years, money, and lives that Washington spent training them as U.S. proxies, tend to be cheerfully uninterested in basic force-protection measures such as setting perimeters and overwatch points.
Arriving late also means seeing the conflict with fresh eyes. Many American journalists of my generation who shipped out to Central Asia and the Middle East after President George W. Bush’s declaration of the dubiously named “war on terror” are now pushing two decades on the beat. The intervening years have brought distance—even freedom, if one dares use that Iraq-war-tainted word—from the post-9/11 confusion in which “America, in its fear, in its shame,” as Verini writes, attacked Iraq. The original sin of the U.S. invasion and the mistakes of the occupation that we reported on are now, while not beside the point, almost as distant from today as the Vietnam War was
Loading, please wait...