A little more than two years ago, The New York Times Magazine published an article by James Verini on the battle for Mosul, a consequential phase of the military effort to beat back the so-called Islamic State, the international insurgency and terrorist group that formed and then metastasized during the American occupation of Iraq and whose grim campaign of violence is a legacy of the Pentagon’s war against terrorism. By the end of the battle, much of the once-thriving city of Mosul was reduced to rubble; countless people had been wounded, killed or driven from their homes; and the Islamic State, knocked from its perch as the city’s governing entity, had slipped back into the underground, where it remains.
This week, Verini is out with “They Will Have to Die Now” (W.W. Norton & Co.), a book about the battle and its consequences, much of it through the experiences of Iraqis. I caught up with Verini for a conversation about his work. Below is a slightly edited version of our exchange.
What is your view of the Mosul campaign’s effect on the Islamic State, as insurgency and as an international terrorist threat?
The Mosul campaign spelled the end of the caliphate as a place in the Middle East, at least for the moment, but not the end of the Islamic State as an idea. On the contrary, the destruction of the caliphate, in which Mosul was the climactic struggle, may have meant the expansion of the idea of the Islamic State. Without a territory to call its own, the movement must once again think of itself as just that, a movement, rather than a place or a government. There are the obvious consequences of this expansion, including new fronts and attacks. I suspect that there are less obvious ones, too: new theological arguments for the group’s violence, new appeals to would-be recruits. But what those are, only time will expose. The Islamic State, like any violent religious movement, is expert at finding new battle fronts in which it believes, or anyway claims, its coreligionists are being persecuted.
To what extent do you believe that readers understand the origins of the Islamic State, as a reaction to the American military occupation of Iraq?
Readers, at least Times readers, appear to understand that Iraq became a locus of militant Islamism only after the invasion. I hope that my book will further help readers understand why it was that so many Iraqis sided with the Islamic State initially. They did so because, after two generations of war, after Saddam Hussein and the Americans and Nouri al-Maliki, they were so brutalized and so desperate, the movement seemed like a viable alternative. Indeed, to many Iraqis, like the only alternative. Here is what I write about Abu Fahad, one of the book’s main subjects, a Moslawi who at first welcomed the Islamic State into Mosul: “Abu Fahad wasn’t a zealot. He wasn’t even particularly devout. He hated Maliki, but he didn’t hate Shiites as such. He had Shia friends. But he had watched his country invaded, occupied, turned upon itself; his city degraded from a ‘paradise,’ as he described the Mosul of his youth, to a hell; his wife killed; himself and his family and friends humiliated by soldiers of the army he’d once nursed to health; his children driven mad, denigrated, denied futures. To a man like that, sane as he is, talk of a millenarian utopia, of any utopia, of any improvement of life beyond the malediction it has become, holds promise.”
Creditvia Norton & Co.
Much of the Western focus on the Islamic State relates to its menace to Westerners. What can you share about how the lives of Iraqis and residents of Mosul have been affected in these past years, when the Islamic State crested and then declined in and around Mosul?
This gets at the great twin tragedies of the prosecution of what used to be known as the War on Terror in Iraq. The first is that Iraq was extraneous to that war, such as it was, extraneous to the American effort to combat international violent movements like Al Qaeda. By insisting on the stridently irrelevant war in Iraq, America invented a worse enemy than it could have imagined, a perfect fever dream of our fears and shame. This brings us to the second tragedy, which is that our fever dream has hardly affected us. For numbers of people profoundly affected, the recent attacks in the West, while spectacular, have been insignificant when compared with the Islamic State’s effects in the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, North Africa. Make no mistake, the real toll of the Islamic State is on those it claims are its natural constituency. The group has killed and immiserated infinitely more Iraqis and Syrians, including Sunni Muslim Iraqis and Syrians, than it ever could Westerners.
Tell us about your decision to develop your magazine feature into this book. What do you hope the book can achieve?
On the practical and intellectual levels, I left Mosul, in May 2017, with whole notebooks full of material that had not gone into my articles. I also left the country with a passel of burning questions about the history of the city, of Iraq, of religious revolution. On a more personal level, I will make the unseemly move of quoting myself again. “I got a monthlong visa” to Iraq in 2016, I write in the book. “I ended up staying the better part of a year. Only later did I understand why. It wasn’t just to see the jihadis up close or to cover a war or to prove my mettle. No, the main impulse, I realized, many months into the battle, was a certain guilt. Shame, even. Though I never said it aloud to an editor or anyone else, maybe never so much as thought it explicitly, I knew I had to do penance. I had to do penance for being a coward and a hypocrite. I lived in New York in 2001, just out of college, and, at my first real newspaper job, I covered the destruction of the World Trade Center. I should have found a way to go to Afghanistan after that. I wanted to. A braver voice in me did, anyway. But I was too scared. Two years later, after attending one antiwar rally and writing some faintly damning things about the Bush administration, I watched American troops roll into Baghdad and Mosul from the comfort of my living room. Americans and Iraqis died in the hundreds, then the thousands, then the tens of thousands, as Iraq was torn apart and tore itself apart. I was still a journalist, a conscience-stricken one, I liked to think, and I could have, I should have, gone to Iraq, but didn’t. Later, I took to reporting on war and conflict in other parts of the world, but still I avoided Iraq. Maybe I was still too scared, maybe too embarrassed about what my country had done there. But how do you write about war as an American and not write about the American war of your time? As an American writer of my age, how do you not face Iraq?”
Verini’s book will take its place on the shelf of English-language works on the violence that followed Iraq’s post-invasion spiral. And because talk of books set in the wars in the Middle East since 2003 can be less robust than many of us would like, I’ll note that in my own stacks “They Will Have to Die Now” will find a home beside Rania Abouzeid’s “No Turning Back,” Sinan Antoo’s “The Corpse Washer,” Ahmed Saadawi’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad” and another on my fall reading list, Alia Malek’s “The Home That Was Our Country.”
For shorter reading, this week you might also consider Thomas Gibbons-Neff’s brief essay “A Marine Looks Back at his Battles in Afghanistan” and Fatima Faizi and Mujib Mashal’s “For Afghans Scarred by War, ‘Peace Can’t Bring My Love Back’ — more writing, like the books above, generated far from the Pentagon’s public-relations mills.
The Latest Stories From At War
At War Event
Will the United States Ever See Another Mandatory Military Draft?
Oct. 7 // New York City
Lauren Katzenberg, the editor of The Times’s At War channel, will moderate a conversation with C. J. Chivers, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Times journalist and Marine veteran; Elizabeth D. Samet, a historian, author and professor of English at the United States Military Academy; and Dennis Laich, a retired Army major general and the executive director of the All-Volunteer Force Forum.
Tickets are $10 for military veterans, active-duty personnel, reservists and retirees with the code NYT. Buy them here.
Behind the Numbers: $13 Million
CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times
That’s the amount of money it cost to keep one person imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay last year, according to a new tally by The New York Times. Today, there are only 40 prisoners being held at the detention center in Cuba, which was established by the George W. Bush administration in 2002. The total cost of operating the prison, a political lightning rod among those who object to its upkeep, exceeded $540 million in 2018, with expenses including the costs of war court, construction and the 1,800 troops currently assigned to work out of the remote prison, which operates on a Navy base in southeastern Cuba. Many of them patrol the site’s three prison buildings, while others work at Camp Justice, where the war court and parole board hearing room are located. The costs at Guantánamo have swelled since 2013, when the Defense Department revealed that the detention center cost approximately $454 million to operate. At that time, there were more than four times as many prisoners being held there, and no others have been detained since 2008. Read the full Times report here. — Jake Nevins, New York Times Magazine fellow