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Books on the war in Iraq

Saddam Hussein’s former palace compound in Baghdad returned to Iraqi control this month. Saad Shalash/Reuters

Here’s a yardstick of bleak optimism: Almost nine years after the war started, Iraq has landed a better rating on the Failed States Index. It was the list’s second most troubled nation in 2007. (Somalia is still number one.) Now it’s merely the seventh on this annual gauge of political and social instability put out by The Fund for Peace and Foreign Policy magazine. The pain behind such gain seems too much to bear: Tens of thousands of Iraqi and American lives lost in a war that began on a false premise, jerked madly from a mission to find weapons of mass destruction and depose a dictator to instead fighting an insurgency and spun into a tangle of confusion, courage, tragedy, and hubris. And now we’ve come to the official end. The last troops will return home by Dec. 31.

You have to wonder how history will adjudicate. Will the war seem worth it when Iraq is the 10th-most failed state? The 20th? Is the question itself offensive? Whatever your answer, insight (if not solace) can be found in some stellar Iraq War books full of hard reporting and hard-won irony. The indispensable entry, I think, is “The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq’’ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) by New Yorker staff writer George Packer. It susses out how Republican interventionists trumped the isolationists so that, to cite neoconservative Robert Kagan, America could do “good things for unhappy people in foreign countries.’’

Packer plows through the justifications: the hunt for WMD, the oil factor, the axis of evil, and concludes that no one can truly pinpoint why we went in. As he writes, “It still isn’t possible to be sure - and this remains the most remarkable thing about the Iraq War.’’ “The Assassins’ Gate’’ (the title refers to the arch at the entrance to the Green Zone) doesn’t just parse Washington’s ways, though. It’s also packed with analysis of Iraq’s decades-long trauma. One Iraqi psychiatrist lists the fallout: His countrymen “have lost the hope in the future, they suspect anything foreign, they don’t feel enough responsibility towards society, they lack the power to experience freedom.’’

That lack of societal responsibility knifes through each book’s account of Iraqi looting in the Shock and Awe phase. The scale still astonishes. “The looting had caused far more damage to Iraq’s infrastructure than the bombing campaign,’’ realize two administrators sent to rebuild Iraq’s flat-lined economy via the US Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (aka ORHA, which some staffers nicknamed the Organization of Really Hapless Americans).

They appear in the shattering “Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone’’ (Knopf, 2006), on which the movie “The Green Zone’’ is based. Author Rajiv Chandrasekaran, The Washington Post’s former Baghdad bureau chief, agonizingly traces the “post-conflict’’ snarl of Iraqi and American dysfunction. He takes us through the debacle of de-mobilization and de-Baathification: Most party members had joined to hold on to their jobs, and now the benign were unemployed and the malignant became the insurgency. He goes over how Iraq’s plight was wildly underestimated (remember how oil revenue was going to pay for everything?), and how utterly green most Green Zone aides were (more than half never had a passport until going to Iraq).

“Yee-haw is not a foreign policy,’’ as one dissident scrawled on a Green Zone bulletin board. Point taken in “We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People’’ (Metropolitan, 2011) by a burn-his-bridges foreign service officer named Peter Van Buren. This is a scathing, gallows humor look at a massif of missteps - my favorite is the $3 million order for mobile water-purification units, which didn’t work on Iraq’s highly saline water. Van Buren is merciless: “We were the ones who famously helped paste together feathers year after year, hoping for a duck.’’

It’s soon abundantly clear that Iraq is no “quiescent terrarium in which to cultivate democracy,’’ as Chandrasekaran writes. Rather, it’s a hive of violence, and that story is best covered in the brutal, remarkable “House to House: An Epic Memoir of War’’ (Free Press, 2007) written by David Bellavia, a highly decorated former Army staff sergeant, and John Bruning, a military historian. During the battle of Fallujah in 2004, Bellavia’s platoon is ordered to clear a block of 12 buildings where insurgents are firing on US troops. Read this; feel terror.

By 2006, it’s clear that no nation-building, no nothing, can happen until security is secured. Thus the Surge. And thus “The Gamble: General David Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2006-2008’’ (Penguin, 2009) by Thomas E. Ricks, a former military correspondent for The Washington Post. Not to be ridiculously reductionist, but think of “The Gamble’’ as the good news to the bad news of Ricks’s earlier “Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq’’ (Penguin, 2006). “The Gamble’’ shows what Ricks calls the “extraordinary achievement’’ of the American military; it defused the insurgency not just by adding troops but by patrolling better, smarter.

In the end, then, did the war enable a better future for Iraq? I’ll defer to Chou En-lai, who, when purportedly asked what he thought were the historical effects of the French Revolution about two centuries later, is said to have replied: “Too soon to tell.’’

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine.whittemore @comcast.net.

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