Journalist George Packer delivered his lecture, “Iraq: The Remote War,” to a standing-room only crowd at Filene Auditorium on Monday evening. The renowned critic of the war in Iraq implored the audience to confront mainstream politicians and bring the war to the forefront of U.S. politics.
“Iraq is this elephant in the room that no one has anything to say about,” Packer said. “It reinforces this strange impression I have that this war is ending without being over, ending in public consciousness. It’s out of the front pages, out of the evening news.”
Packer tackled the topic with humor but criticized Democrats and Republicans for their mutual reluctance to speak out on the gravity of the problem.
“Sooner, rather than later, there will be a reckoning for the Republican party, and it won’t be pretty,” Packer said. “Unfortunately, the Democrats have one line about the Iraq war ” when I become president I will end the war and bring the troops home.” Packer said that the Democrats’ promise was as misleading and empty as Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain’s, R-Ariz., claim of victory in Iraq.
Packer blamed the nation’s growing apathy regarding Iraq on the “visual remoteness” of the war.
“There’s a blank space where the picture of the Iraq war should be,” Packer said. “Photos show a sunwashed, formless desert. People are usually seen at a distance. Journalists are kept far away from Iraqis by fear, by mutual fear. They are terrified to be seen with the other — this was the insurgents’ plan and it has been successful.”
Still, Packer was reluctant to blame the press. According to Packer, this visual remoteness was part of the Bush administration’s strategy to distance the war from the public. Photographs of casualties are almost impossible to publish, Packer said, and caskets cannot be filmed or photographed.
“All of this has divested the public of responsibility,” Packer said. “It seemed to be a clever strategy because the administration got its war and two more years more than what it deserved of public confidence.”
The public lost this confidence, according to Packer, only after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005.
“It’s almost unreal that it took a flood in an American city for people to realize that the Iraq war was failing, but the bottom fell out very quickly,” Packer said.
Packer likened the war in Iraq to the Vietnam War, recognizing that it took the public several years to become disillusioned with Vietnam, noting that approval ratings for Vietnam never dropped below 50 percent.
Packer said the Bush administration wrongly suggested the war in Iraq would be quick and simple. At the same time, he said that the opposition’s claims that the invasion was the “original sin” and that “nothing could follow but more evil” are equally false.
“In its moral simplicity, it reflects the original narrative,” Packer said. “I consider myself a part of the progressive left, so that disturbed me. In order to understand this war, you have to carry contradictory ideas at the same time.”
Packer criticized the military as “bureaucratic” and “careerist” because it has been too focused on public relations in its treatment of the war, he said.
“You only get fired for telling the truth, not for doing badly. The Iraq war has become another battlefield of wars that were going on here before we reached Baghdad: political wars, an American civil war,” Packer said. “The stability at Baghdad is a very thin veneer, and under the ashes there still burns a fire.”
Packer is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq” and has been a staff writer for the New Yorker since 2003, covering Iraq for the magazine after visiting the war zone. He has also authored the play “Betrayed,” about Iraqi refugees and their trust in America, which will debut in New York in two weeks.
“George Packer has been one of the most thoughtful, informed people on the topic of Iraq,” Ken Yalowitz, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding said in an interview with The Dartmouth. Packer was invited to speak at Dartmouth by the Dickey Center.