A shorter version of this article was published in The American Thinker.
James Verini, They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2019), has gifted us with gruelingly realistic war vignettes of the Islamic State from Iraq’s “second or third most populous city (depending on who did the counting)” (p. 5). Mosul is also one of the oldest human settlements: “The Western Fortress” of the Akkadians (p. 45). On a short assignment from National Geographic, Verini remained behind for a year. His journalism is omnivorous, and superbly faithful to real-time developments. He contextualizes it within a peculiar framework informed by his liberal ideology, as will be shown later.
At his best, Verini is superbly authentic. One can smell death in his dispatches: “On the sidewalk and pavement were bits of the suicide-driver’s skin and organs and bones, charred and coated in oil. A good fifty feet from explosion lay part of his spinal column” (s. 254). He walks us through the realm of fear and boredom that is the battlefield, both in regular and irregular warfare. “Never had a war been so uncensored,” he tells us in a way of an indirect explanation of his travails (p. 98). Never, one should add, has there been a population, armed and unarmed, more confused than in Iraq. Or more paranoid. By Verini’s telling, they all love America and want to emigrate to the United States, and they all hate America and blame the U.S. for the war. All this they justify and explicate in a dizzying kaleidoscope of counter-logocentric conspiracy theories featuring the ubiquitous “Jews” and the omnipotent “Americans.”
The author embedded himself with the native forces, usually Iraqi crack anti-terrorist units of the CTS, but also a Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga. With a keen observer’s eye, he recounts for us the military’s friendly barter, including, for example, casually amiable exchanges about sleeping with each other’s sisters, peppered with the F-bomb. Verini’s impressions of most of the combatants are simply truly Brueghelian, if not outright Picardian. “All Iraqi fighters, regular and irregular alike, took liberties with their battle dress, but the Shia militiamen were in a category of their own. They looked as though they’d been kitted out at some urban unisex martial athleisure boutique. It was a sartorial riot of dozens of different patterns and shades of camouflage and denim and tactical gear and gym wear and footwear of every description, and they paid as much attention to their hair as any Prussian cavalry officer. They may not have had training on their weapons, they may have been committing human rights abuses, but their heads were marvels of trimming and mousse” (p. 167).
The journalist has nothing but scorn for evangelical and other Western (mostly American) volunteers who joined the anti-caliphatist coalition, in particular the Peshmerga. They are useless – except combat medics, as he grudgingly allows. And their Christian religious motivation is repulsive and irksome at best. He positively recoils from a former special forces operator who tries to pray with him, thus ruffing Verini’s fashionably atheist feathers (p. 188). But at least the author has a week spot for the Kurds, as captured in the following snapshot: “At dawn… I joined a battalion of peshmerga – about five hundred male soldiers, along with a few women – gathered in the shadow of the ridgeline. They were sons, fathers, grandfathers, daughters. They were shopkeepers, mechanics, clerks, teachers. They wore an assortment of camouflages, beige, green, gray, or traditional Kurdish billowing pants and jackets, waist sashes, headscarves. Some carried antique Kalashnikovs, others new assault rifles. Though few had helmets and fewer body armor, strapped to backs and belts and legs were daggers, revolvers, axes. Many had received the call to duty only the day before and had been driven to the front by proud and worried family members or in overnight taxis” (p. 140-141).
Yet, as much as he enjoys his military pals, both intimate and remote, including General David Petraeus, Verini prefers to focus on the civilian bystanders, the true victims of the conflict. Or at least he believes them, initially at least, to be so. Most of the Mosulis he befriends, and revisits periodically, in their urban domiciles, on the road, and in refugee camps, tend to be Sunni. Most of them are also former, passive or active, Islamic State supporters. Of course, some of them lie, disambiguate, deceive, and other otherwise practice their taqiyya on the gullible, bleeding-heart liberal journalist who, nonetheless, over time, develops enough critical sense to be able to spot various shades of guilt by association. He is also capable of discerning complex reasons behind the ambiguous attitude toward the Daesh among the caliphate’s subjects. They verge from political and religious choices, including primarily the Shia-led government’s persecution of the Sunni, who formerly backed Saddam Hussein, to personal reasons. The latter could mean a domineering father at home, whose authority ISIS undercut, thus freeing a downtrodden son to assert himself against paternal authority. Here’s one witness’s depiction of the Daesh recruitment effort through a local mosque: “[Imam] Abu Bakr always wore a rifle slung over his shoulder, including when preaching. He told Omar and his friends they were apocalyptic warriors in waiting. They would help deliver the world from unbelief. Many of Omar’s friends joined up, either because they were ‘brainwashed,’ as he put it to me, or because they were threatened, or needed the money, or were bored, or because they wanted a cause to belong to” (p. 44).
In Mosul, the jihadis initially were very sympatico, polite, and well-mannered. The exception was, of course, their actions against immediate enemies, most notably the slaughter of perhaps 1,500 Air Force academy cadets, mostly Shia. The Daesh at first asked very little of the locals. Gradually, however, they subjected the civilian population to an ever-widening array of restrictions. Women lost their freedom step by step. From covering heads to turning into walking Bedouin tents, they no longer could buy panties and other lingerie articles. They were banned as “unislamic.” So were movies and music, except Islamic State’s propaganda videos and tunes.
“Violence became a civic entertainment” (p. 221). Men were whipped for insufficiently bushy, aka “Muslim,” beards. Some took to wearing fake facial hair extensions to show their Islamicist commitment. The religious police hounded the men also for a variety of sartorial crimes. “He was stopped by a patrolman on the street. His pants were too long, the patrolman informed him. They would have to be hemmed above the ankle ‘Afghan’ style. The patrolman offered two options: either he went to the tailor or the patrolman would hem the pants for him on the spot. Hizbah [religious police] patrolmen carried scissors especially for this purpose. The man chose the tailor. Having nothing better to do, the patrolman accompanied him and looked on as the tailor hemmed the pants” (p. 98). The Islamists banned all Western-style humanities and social sciences. They told the students: “We have a new history… We have the right history” (p. 103).
Arguably, the Caliphatists hated nicotine the most. As soon as they could, they implemented a total ban on smoking. The police took men to the side and made them breathe in their faces; the cops pulled over cars and sniffed the ashtrays. On the other hand, the only way to procure a pack of smokes was through serious bribes for the jihadis. They looked the other way as a black market developed in cigarettes and other banned items. The Daesh fighters benefitted from the illicit trade most handsomely.
Meanwhile, the Mosoulis got used to their lot. It included stoning to death of alleged adulterers, casting suspected homosexuals from towers, or “only” amputating extremities of putative thieves. According to the fatwa of the Islamic State Committee on General Oversight of 2 October 2016, “Whoever is corrupted in this world will either be crucified or lose their hands and feet and will be punished in the next life” (s. 201). Not much excitement, in the Daesh-land, was there. Verini avers that “The predictable and irreducible fact of a terroristic theocracy, the fact the jihadis never mentioned in their promotional materials, was boredom, mind-emptying, rage-inducing, afterlife-inviting boredom. Between the bouts of violence and prayer and painting things black, there was absolutely nothing to do” (p. 140-141).
As far as the context, Verini’s incisive reporting is marred by his liberal ideology. He confesses that his covering the fighting in Mosul was out of “guilt” and “shame” (p. 16). He believes America was “lied” into the war in Iraq, which he opposed actively. Much evil in Iraq stems from Washington’s decision to invade.
Yet, at the same time, in his whistle-stop tour of the area’s history, Verini concedes that Saddam Hussein was a monster. His overthrow liberated Iraqis. However, a radical religious revolution followed, with the country splitting along sectarian lines. Vicious persecution and slaughter commenced as the Shias avenged themselves for decades of Sunni supremacy. And the Kurds, as always, got the short end of the stick.
So far so good. But then, Verini tries to showcase his erudition and, for the sake of continuity, Verini wheels out the Saddam-Ishtar nexus. The “creator-destroyer” Mesopotamian goddess – as well as the Assyrians – loved powerfully, and, out of love, she destroyed multitudes to build up anew. Just like Saddam. Thus, in this context, Iraq has been a Manichean battlefield of hate and love for millennia. That’s how it makes sense to Verini. Now, this sort of rather pedestrian scheme can be applied to virtually any place, and the war story would have been better served by eschewing contrived archeological originality and just sticking to the here and now.
Granted, in comparison to some of his other liberal colleagues, the author tries to restrain himself. Sure, there is a jab against Donald Trump here, and a shill for Hillary Clinton there, but, in a time-sanctioned way, the journalist inserts those in the mouths of his interlocutors: perhaps grating, but not overdone. What is most worrisome, however, is his morally relativistic parity between Zionism and Islamism, or, more precisely, “modern-day Zionists” and the Islamic State. Both subscribe to the retributive theory of history, where vengeance rules to right the old wrongs, real and imagined, in a chiliastic cycle of violence. It’s worth quoting Verini at length, as his ideas ideally express the prevalent liberal sentiment about Israel: “Is it any surprise, then, that today Islamists purport to blame Israel for every misfortune since [the founding of the Jewish state] – or that modern-day Zionists countenance their every incursion as a genocide-defying move against Islam? Is it any wonder that the militarized berserkers on either side are indistinguishable from one another in their grievances, in their wailing over lost empires, their obsession with time’s justice, their endless retributive-theorizing of history? These are foes driven by the same shame, the shame of abandonment by their maker; bound by the same nostalgia, the nostalgia for a time when they ruled, a time none of them knew and which they all secretly suspect – most shameful of all to admit – their prophets were lying about anyway; foes impelled by a resemblance so elemental it dare not acknowledge itself” (p. 212-213).
It is inconvertible that if Israel slips once militarily, it is no more. Its regional detractors can lose as many battles as it takes, so long as they ultimately win just one, the final one. Israel will be gone, and so will the Jews: many exterminated, and the rest reduced to jizya-paying dhimmihood. Also, millenarian groups like ISIS have reappeared in Islam since the Kharijites in the 7th century AD. The Zionists are a modern, nationalist phenomenon, based upon a rational understanding of humanity organized as tribes and nations, as opposed to utopian holy warrior bands or empires like the much-longed-for caliphate. Verini refuses to comprehend any of this because of his ideological blindness.
Thus, we have on our hands a mixed bag of offerings: a true-to-life set of battlefield reports and a liberal ideological screed. This incongruous and infelicitous dichotomy afflicts They Will Have to Die Now throughout the dispatches, but, if ignored and excised, it makes for one of the most powerful war stories of the early 21st century.
Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 11 February 2020