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Fear and Loathing in Mosul

They Will Have to Die Now:
Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate
by James Verini
Norton, 2019, 304 pages

This past December I stood on a rooftop in the center of the ancient Nabi Jarjis neighborhood in Mosul. Coalition bombing runs during the October 2016 to July 2017 battle to retake the city from ISIS had left large sections of the area leveled. The home I stood on had only recently been reconstructed by the United Nations Development Program, which is rebuilding fifteen thousand homes in the area. In the utterly shattered building next door, I could make out Ottoman-era brickwork exposed by the bombing. Nearby, the re­mains of an eleventh-century mosque. Across the river, the site of a destroyed seventh-century mosque beneath which ISIS fighters (of all people) had dug tunnels and discovered Assyrian artwork from the seventh century B.C. To walk through the city was to come into physical contact with centuries and millennia past, exposed not by careful archeological work, but by the blunt instruments of war.

Later that night, my appreciation of this complex layering of past and present deepened as I reread They Will Have to Die Now, report­er James Verini’s superb account of Mosul and the fall of the Islamic State’s caliphate. Verini covered the brutal battle to retake the city with almost suicidal courage. He could have easily written a book anchored in the tactical advances of the army, letting us observe one neighborhood falling after the next, chronologically, until it all ends in a sorrowful but narratively satisfying victory amidst the ruins of the ancient city. But that kind of neat beginning, middle, and end would be false. At this point, in Iraq, any war narrative with a neat beginning, middle, and end is a lie. Thus Verini gives an account not simply of the battle, of the complex interplay of political factions, ethnic and religious groupings, military technology, foreign influence, and the sheer weight of violence and trauma, but also of the historical fault lines that are the true narrative of this war, peeking up from below.

Mosul’s history goes back at least six thousand years, a fortress city (muswila, one of its earliest names, literally means “western fortress”) later raised to prominence as a temple city of the Assyrians. Verini makes much of that mixture of military and religious purpose marking the city, and his account of the Assyrian kings is concerned less with the rise and fall of empire than with the way war-making figured as a sacred obligation. “I made their gullets and entrails run down upon the wide earth,” brags a typical cuneiform inscription from an Assyrian king, “My prancing steeds harnessed for my riding, I plunged into the streams of their blood as into a river.” In the Assyrian worldview, “the state was also the cosmos, the realm of holy order. Outside was chaos, unformed, unholy . . . it was the responsibility of the Assyrian king to carry on the work of creation, to perpetuate the order the gods had introduced at time’s beginning. He did this through combat.”

One of the pleasures of Verini’s book is watching how he takes this notion, at first presented as an exotic and atavistic grotesquerie, and traces its changing forms to the present day. We hear echoes of Assyrian kings not only when we learn of Saddam Hussein embracing an Islamic-inflected postcolonial nationalism and commissioning a Koran written in his own blood, but also when we learn of the British Royal Air Force’s insistence, during its cruel 1920s campaign in Iraq, that “bombing from the air is regarded almost as an act of God to which there is no effective reply but immediate submission.” Verini takes us from ancient Assyrian carvings to medieval Islamic wars, from Mosul’s biblical cameos to the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, with sacralized violence always somewhere in the background.

The Rise and Fall of the Islamic State

The American invasion of Iraq, though, sparked an obsessive and paranoid style in jihadism that brought this religiously inflected view of violence and state-building to its peak. Traditional religious au­thorities, unable to cope with the apocalyptic image of a hostile world overrun with infidel forces, were overturned. Jihadis like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS, promoted a revolutionary and highly individualistic version of Islam, a turn Verini posits as akin to a hyper­violent Protestant Reformation. “Next to faith, there is nothing more important than repulsing an assailant enemy who ruins the religion and the world,” Zarqawi wrote in Our Creed and Methodology, “There is no condition to jihad.” As our seemingly jealous presi­dent once complained, “We are playing by the rules, but they have no rules.”

Intriguingly, though, in Mosul, the group initially modulated its violence in a bid for public support. Readers used to the West’s often lurid and shallow news coverage of ISIS (coverage Verini accuses of existing “somewhere on the same spectrum as the Caliphate’s own blood-porn”) might be surprised to learn that when ISIS took the city of Mosul in 2014, life got better—especially if you were a Sunni, preferably male. Nevertheless, ISIS started with a soft approach. They hired garbage collectors, lowered rents, fixed sewers, opened markets, tried to cut down on corruption. “People thought it was a revolution,” a Moslawi told me this December. “Many people joined Daesh in those months,” he said, using a common term for ISIS, “but then reality came, and there were only two ways out. Either you die fighting, or Daesh kills you.”

Of course there was brutality in those initial days, too. But from a certain perspective, the brutality seemed a wash. Early on in They Will Have to Die Now Verini tells the story of Abu Fahad, whose extended family is a recurring thread throughout the book and a win­dow into life in Mosul before the battle and after. Abu Fahad, a nurse and pharmacist, is an educated and eloquent man who’d prefer to leave Mosul behind and live in America. His daughter speaks openly of politics and religion, loves Ryan Reynolds, admires Hillary Clin­ton, and thinks Donald Trump is a hateful buffoon. Verini asks them about life under ISIS and is shown a video of a mentally disabled boy who’d defied curfew and was shot by a sniper, his corpse left outside for days. But then Abu Fahad switches to a story from 2006, and he describes what happened when he drove with his wife toward a checkpoint manned by Kurdish and American soldiers: bullets crashed through the window; he was dragged from the vehicle and beaten unconscious. When he came to, he found his wife’s corpse. And when he reached his eldest daughter, who had seen her mother’s head ex­plode, she was sitting in the backseat, trying to eat glass. “We were one of the families who welcomed Daesh,” he told Verini, looking him in the eye, without a hint of abashment.

Systems of order based on violence, though, have a tendency to devour themselves in the chaos they create. Whereas the Americans and British players in Mosul’s history sometimes delude themselves into thinking that the application of savagery can create a stable order, ISIS always understood itself as an apocalyptic organization, its vio­lence a means of rushing forward to the end times. “Much more than homicidal,” Verini tells us, “the Islamic State was suicidal.”

And so, ISIS’s brutality would eventually eliminate the initial sym­pathy it had earned. An early turning point was the 2014 Speicher Massacre, in which ISIS captured a group of Iraqi Air Force cadets, brought them to an old Saddam palace, and murdered the fifteen hundred mostly Shia young men one by one. It was an Abu Ghraib–style self-inflicted wound. Until then, ISIS had support from many moderate Sunnis, people Verini insists “you and I would consider sane and sympathetic . . . Sunnis who looked at the wider Sunni stage—the selfish monarchies of the Gulf; the brutal, secularist mili­tary of Egypt, which had deposed and imprisoned the legitimately elected Muslim Brotherhood; the imperious Turks; Iran-dominated Lebanon—and saw a void of valid leadership.” The Speicher massacre exposed ISIS as the death cult it was, and not the hoped-for Sunni answer to the Iranian revolution.

From there on, ISIS had begun losing the moral battle. What was left was the slow and cruel physical battle, which Verini details from a frontline perspective. It comes in fragments, a series of vignettes from his reporting—sketches of the culture of Iraqi special forces, a profile of an Iraqi general, of ISIS’s marketing genius, Iraqi attitudes toward the United States, life in the refugee camps for fleeing Moslawis, and so on. The method is fragmentary because Iraqi politics and society is fragmented. Mosul was the apogee of this, with historic Sunni and Shia and Yazidi and Christian and Kurdish communities coexisting. Moslawis will tell you that Mosul is a microcosm of all Iraq, which is why, as the fragments intersect with the history that Verini provides to contextualize them you come to understand the reason one of his sources, a refugee from the battle, would claim, “Mosul’s history was essential to Iraq’s history—and to the world’s.”

Verini has a jaunty, ironic style, a great eye for details, and an ear for telling quotes. We see “the sheer mystical velocity of twenty-first-century mechanized-digitized combat” coordinated over a WhatsApp channel, and learn the Kurdish Peshmerga is “more an attitude than an army.” He describes ISIS’s how-to videos for suicide car bombs as like “very sinister episodes of the old MTV show Pimp My Ride,” and the liberties Shia militiamen took with their battle dress “as though they’d been kitted out at some urban unisex martial athleisure bou­tique.” At one point, he follows a student through the recently liberated rubble of Mosul University. Looking out upon what re­mains, the student declares, “I don’t see the reason we’re not back here studying. . . . There’s everything. There’s chairs.”

At times, Verini drops single paragraphs that serve as parables of the war, like one about an Iraqi major trained as an attorney. He wanted to practice human rights law after the war but in the meantime had a policy of executing suspected ISIS captives because, “It’s true we have human rights here . . . but Daesh doesn’t deserve anything like that.” The paragraph ends, “I offered no rejoinder to the major. He was killed by an IED not long after.”

More than anything, Verini captures the disorienting weirdness of war. “Experientially, war is mostly sound,” he tells us. It is only afterwards that journalists and filmmakers compose it into visually coherent scenes. In the moment, you listen to bombs, rockets, and gunfire all day and night, rarely seeing them impact or even leave a muzzle, mostly bored. Meanwhile, Iraqi soldiers and Kurdish Persh­merga with cellphones take selfies, talk to their mothers in between firefights, and argue about who is having sex with whose sister, all while the American military calls in air strikes on houses they pretend not to know have civilians inside.

The Forgotten Forever Wars

Verini has provided us, at great physical risk, and with impressive intellectual rigor, a map of the complex factors that determined—and still determine—our success or failure against groups like ISIS in Iraq. There is a question, though, that I felt haunted by as I read and reread They Will Have to Die Now. Put bluntly: does it matter? After all, for me the most surprising bit of the book was not any revelation about ISIS or Iraqi history, but a simple statement Verini makes toward the beginning about his motivations for heading there in the first place, after almost a decade and a half of avoiding the war as a journalist: “I had to write about this country whose story had been entwined with my country’s story for a generation now, for most of my life, so entwined that neither place any longer made sense without the other.” And, more to the point, he asks, “As an American writer of my age, how do you not face Iraq?”

But of course, in a war-weary America, where that weariness touches the writing community as well, it’s quite easy to not face Iraq. Quality books about the wars often seem overlooked, missing from award long lists, relegated to niche discussions. This November, when Slate compiled its list of the fifty greatest nonfiction books of the past twenty-five years, it didn’t include a single title dealing with either Iraq or Afghanistan, wars which have defined so much of the past two decades and produced writing of the highest order, from writers like Dexter Filkins, Anand Gopal, Emma Sky, Elliot Ackerman, Elizabeth Samet, C. J. Chivers, and Anthony Shadid. Indeed, the tone one sometimes encounters is best summed up by a recent New Yorker review of an art show featuring contemporary artists, includ­ing thirty-six Iraqis and Kuwaitis, dealing with the Gulf Wars. It began, “I have rarely looked forward with less appetite to any art show than I did to ‘Theater of Operations: The Gulf Wars, 1991–2011,’” and before panning the show the reviewer, Peter Schjeldahl, went on to ask his readers, “Why revisit the concatenating disasters in Iraq for which my nation bears responsibility” and “whose terrible consequences have not ceased since Barack Obama declared an end to American combat involvement in 2010?”

Let us set aside, for the moment, that a grown man who is paid to think thoughts and write about them in one of America’s premier magazines seems to be under the impression that American combat involvement in Iraq actually ended in 2010. The sentence provoked rage among many of the war writers I know, but at least it had a certain honesty to it, reminiscent of when W. B. Yeats contemptuously dismissed the English trench poets of World War I by declaring “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.”

In the days before reading that review I’d gone to western Mosul, where shattered houses and omnipresent rubble call to mind old World War II photos of the aftermath of Allied campaigns, and where the residents rebuild amid ruins that are still full of bodies, killed by American bombs dropped over a half decade after Obama’s declaration. Earlier, in Sinjar, I met with Yazidi survivors of ISIS’s genocide, and with members of a group seeking to liberate the Yazidi women still held in captivity. One of them asked, “Why are we not having enough attention from your side? We have a high numbers of survi­vors, people in mass graves, why don’t we have assistance?”

The first thought that occurred to me, reflecting on Mr. Schjeldahl’s sentence, was that the Yazidi operation didn’t have enough attention because, at this stage of the war, their suffering was no longer aesthetically interesting to Americans. Nor—after both Re­publican and Democratic presidents had bloodied their hands and where much of our involvement is handled with minimal troop presence and even less fanfare—was it politically interesting. Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.

All this assumes, of course, that “passive suffering” is an apt description of what’s going on in Iraq. But Iraqis, as Verini points out, “have a genius for putting things behind them . . . metabolizing misfortune down to near simultaneity.” In Mosul today, the massive task of rebuilding continues, often hand in hand with partially U.S.-funded international organizations which—having learned some les­sons from the long history of development failures in Iraq—target their aid hyper-locally rather than allowing it to be filtered through corrupt or sectarian institutions (a significant exception to this being America’s sectarian support for the Iraqi Christian community, which has stoked some tensions).

Thus, the unhcr runs camps for those displaced by violence, operates a community center and safe house in Sinjar for women who’d been enslaved by ISIS, provides aid at the community and vil­lage level to restore water and electric services, and in some cases provides cash-based assistance tracked with biometrics. The UNDP, when rebuilding homes, works with local Moslawi contractors direct­ly. The U.S. Institute of Peace partners with local ethnic and religious leaders to enable the safe return of the displaced, prevent post-return violence, and help local communities participate in district and sub­district budgeting.

Are such efforts enough? Iraq’s central government is weak, corrupt, sectarian, dysfunctional, and currently wracked by ongoing protests. The governor of Nineveh province, where Mosul is located, says it will take another decade and at least $15 billion to restore the city to its pre-ISIS state. Moslawis say ISIS could never return to the city after what they’d put the people through, but ISIS cells remain active in the rural areas, and tens of thousands of “ISIS-affiliated” families (“affiliation” meaning up to as much as five degrees of separation from an ISIS member) still languish in camps, the majority of them children, vulnerable to radicalization, and with little chance of being reintegrated back into society anytime soon. Sectarian mili­tias are everywhere, often treating the populations in a predatory, abusive, or deadly manner.

Meanwhile, America continues to withdraw nonmilitary support to the country. In December, the State Department sent plans to Congress to reduce staff at its embassy and consulate by 28 percent. This will thin an already reduced mission, in which diplomats have far less presence than before and where excessively defensive post-Ben­ghazi security protocols mean than even in relatively safe cities, like Erbil, diplomats live in a disconnected bubble, unable to even walk half a block from their consulate and have a coffee in the nearby Hard Rock Cafe. Five thousand troops, of course, remain. We may have “defeated” ISIS, but the conditions that bred them persist, and we have less interest than ever before in trying to manage those conditions with anything other than violence.

The Next Chapter

As I write this, the United States is preparing to send more troops to the Middle East, expecting further retaliation (in addition to the largely symbolic January 8 ballistic missile strikes against two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. troops) for our January 3 airstrike near the Baghdad airport that killed Major General Qassim Suleimani, the powerful head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds force, along with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander of an um­brella group of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq. The killing followed a series of escalations between Iran and the United States, starting with rocket attacks on an Iraqi military base that killed an American contractor, followed by U.S. airstrikes on an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia, killing twenty-four and wounding fifty, followed by a militia-led siege of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Iraq had already been in turmoil; months of widespread protests had forced the prime minister to resign. The protests, which have been anti-corruption, anti-sectarian, and opposed to for­eign influence in Iraq, had for the most part focused their anger not against the United States, but against Iran, at one point even burning an Iranian consulate. And though Suleimani was hated by many of the protesters (Iranian-backed militias were responsible for killing hundreds of peacefully demonstrating Iraqis in the previous months), within hours of the strike the Iraqi prime minister released a statement calling the killings the “a flagrant violation of Iraqi sovereignty” and announced that the Iraqi Parliament would begin considering measures to “preserve the dignity of Iraq and its security and sovereignty.” Undoubtedly, this strengthens the hand of Iran’s allies who seek to limit U.S. influence. Almost certainly, there will be more violence, the brunt of it born by Iraqis caught in a conflict they didn’t choose. And it may effectively end the push for government reforms as Iraq falls further back into crisis.

Where does it all end? In the wake of the strike our secretary of defense declared the attack was aimed at deterring future attacks, and our secretary of state declared “We have every expectation that people not only in Iraq, but in Iran, will view the American action last night as giving them freedom.” But such promises have been made before. And the Trump administration is hardly the first American administration to substitute targeted killing for a strategy. Meanwhile, a former interpreter for U.S. forces living in Baghdad asks me to pray for him and his family’s safety.

Even now, despite the past two decades, and despite the veritable library of books like Verini’s telling us otherwise, Americans still elect administrations that treat Iraq like a blank slate, without history or context or national pride, and which will respond to our actions only as we wish. Which is a roundabout way of saying that yes, books like Verini’s very much matter, or at least should—especially if we’re going to be involved, for the foreseeable future, in a country where history old and new lives as vibrantly as it does in Iraq.

The last site I visited in the old city of Mosul was the ruins of the al-Nuri Grand Mosque. Built in the twelfth century, the mosque was a symbol of Mosul. ISIS destroyed it in 2017. The other Americans and I walked through the rubble, past the stones of its famous minaret scattered by explosives, our eyes on the devastation. A normally garrulous and unflappable foreign policy analyst turned to a Moslawi woman. “I’m speechless,” he said.

She stared out at the UNDP workers categorizing the seven bands of stone that had made up the minaret, preparing them to be reassembled. “I’m happy,” she replied, “because I see they have started rehabilitation.”

This article, copyright © 2020 by Phil Klay and American Affairs Foundation Inc., originally appeared in American Affairs Volume IV, Number 1 (Spring 2020): 161–70.

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