'Even Our Breath Will Be For Sale'
A few notes on my Rolling Stone piece about the 20th anniversary of Iraq, as well as a video of a panel I was on in D.C. on the subject. PLUS: Worldwide Threats, Nordstream counternarratives, and a legendary natsec blazing session
Edited by Sam Thielman
SO FOR A COUPLE MONTHS I've been mentioning this big magazine piece I've been working on. That was a front-of-book reported essay for Rolling Stone on the legacy of the Iraq War as the invasion turns 20, as it will on March 19.
This one turned out to be harder than I expected when I told my old friend and frequent editor, Noah Shachtman, that I'd give it a shot. There are a lot of moving parts in this one. I rewrote it a lot, even before Rolling Stone's talented editors asked for revisions—all of which, I can honestly say, made the piece better and I'm grateful for them. Inevitably, when that happens, I second-guess construction choices I make. So it's been reassuring and pleasantly surprising that the reaction I've gotten to the piece has been overwhelmingly positive. I thought I'd have to explain here that the piece isn't really about Jim Mattis, he just happens to elegantly exemplify the phenomenon the piece discusses, but it seems like that part clicked?
To my mind, the heart of the piece isn't the revisitation of Mattis' career. It's in the reflections I collected from the Iraqi writers Mortada Gzar and Amal al-Jubouri. The more I turned the piece around Mattis, the more I felt I risked losing the most important fact about the Iraq war: what it did to Iraqis, not what it means to Americans. Both Mortada and Amal handled my requests for elaboration with great forbearance, especially when I needed to be led to understand things like why Iraqis are more likely to refer now to the Occupation than during 2003-2011. (I'm not spoiling it—read the piece.)
Amal fled persecution from the Saddam regime and returned home to Baghdad after the invasion. Here's a paragraph that, as is sadly inevitable at times, I couldn't quite make room for in the piece:
In 2005, al-Jubouri and other Baghdad writers organized a film and poetry festival. She proposed to "add the topic of the role of Iraqi poets in resistance to the occupation." Her colleagues voted against it. They feared, she recalls, that a poetry discussion would be identified by informants as "affiliated with the former regime and the resistances." She replied, "Why are you afraid of the word 'resistance'? Doesn't international law legitimize people's resistance to the occupiers of their countries? Doesn't history tell us about many poets whose poems we read and memorized, poems of resistance, such as those of the French poet Aragon?"
These next three paragraphs from her did make it into the piece. They cap the penultimate section, which is a crucial point in a piece like this, since that section is where the narrative functionally stops, like in a ninth episode of a prestige TV series. It sets up the final part to work, season finale-like as a summation of the aftermath. When Amal gave me these responses I knew how that section ended.
This is all out of mind for American elites, who have long since moved on. Iraqis, who have paid the cost of Americans’ delusions, don’t have that luxury. “The war has created a country of multiplied mafias,” al-Jubouri says. “The middle class totally disappeared, and there are now two categories of people. Those who participated in the American political process and their adherents became the new Iraqi elites … the ordinary people from all backgrounds, the majority, are living under the poverty line.”
Meanwhile, a familiar form of capitalism has reshaped “liberated” Iraq. “The streets and gardens of Baghdad were the lungs for its inhabitants to breathe the blessed smell of their flowers and blossoms of their trees. Gardens were the identity of their capital,” remembers al-Jubouri. “The gardens after the invasion turned into investment projects for the new investors. The large houses of the Baghdadis have been sold with overexaggerated prices due to money laundering, to the extent that no Baghdadi citizen can afford to buy even a studio there.”
She continues: “It’s the greed of the new Iraqi capitalism, which turned everything into an open auction, excluding only the oxygen; and if they can get it controlled, then even our breath will be for sale.”
When a reporter follows a paragraph-ending quote with a different quote, the "[Someone] continues" introduction means: and now, here is the holy-shit quote of the piece.
Additionally, on Tuesday, I was grateful to be on a panel with Matt Duss, the Wall Street Journal's Vivian Salama, Carnegie's Chris Chivvas and Stephen Wertheim, and the illustrious history-ender Francis Fukuyama. I fought the temptation to do a Philomena Cunk and ask Fukuyama if he doesn't feel refuted by the rising of the sun each day and instead we all approached the anniversary with the respect it requires. Here's the video of our 90-minute discussion.
I know, when Fukuyama started talking about how reparations won't solve any geopolitical conundrum the U.S. faces, I should have hit him without something like: you say this is the end of history… but these are the forever wars.
I DON'T HAVE ANY INSIGHT into Sy Hersh's piece claiming the U.S. blew up Nordstream 2. That one appears single-sourced, which is an absolutely dicey thing to do with a claim that big—I vividly remember all the times I thought I had blockbuster pieces when in fact I had major claims from one source that fell apart upon checking it with others—and some of the open-source information suggests it couldn't have gone down the way Hersh's source described.
But the counternarrative U.S. intelligence provided to the New York Times right before intel chiefs' annual "Worldwide Threats" testimony on Capitol Hill, smells like an even bigger load of bullshit. The CIA is blaming it on a "pro-Ukrainian group," whatever that means? While I suppose that description is vague enough to, um, apply to the CIA, there's just nothing specific or solid in this piece, and the agencies (or their Hill overseers, who leak stuff like this on behalf of/in addition to the agencies, as I know from experience) are caveating this all to hell.
Like I say, I certainly don't know, nor do I have a theory of the case. But this leak is trying too hard to put It Definitely Wasn't Us out there. So the Ukrainians pursued a rogue sabotage operation, one that would jeopardize their relationship with their German military patron? Poke at this a bit and more questions emerge: did they stage the operation from a NATO country like Norway (commensurate with Hersh's claims) and the U.S. somehow wouldn't have known about that? U.S. intelligence, so closely tied with the Ukrainian war effort, wouldn't have been aware of, say, Ukrainian naval special forces moving away from the Black Sea? If Hersh's piece is sloppy, this sure isn't any more meticulous.
Whatever happened to Nordstream 2, and whatever you think of the later career of indisputably one of the greatest "national security" reporters in American history—imagine breaking My Lai and Abu Ghraib and the CIA penetration of the U.S. antiwar movement and writing the definitive Henry Kissinger biography—Hersh wrote a lovely piece honoring his friend Daniel Ellsberg, who recently received his terminal diagnosis. (It's dark to consider, but it appears Kissinger may outlive Ellsberg.)
At some point in our chats, I brought him home for a good meal. His campaign against the Vietnam War was literally consuming him, and he immediately engaged with my wife and our two small children. He did magic tricks, he was marvelous on the piano—Dan could play the Beatles and Beethoven—and he connected with all of us. Our friendship was locked in—forever. I confess that late at night—we were both night owls—he and I would walk the dog and find time to sit on a curb somewhere and smoke a few Thai sticks. How Dan always managed to have a supply of these joints from Southeast Asia I chose not to ask. He would talk about all the sealed and locked secret files of the Vietnam War that he could recall, with his photographic memory, in near perfect detail.
Absolutely legendary sesh. I'm speechless. I thought I was done being jealous of Sy Hersh, but he surprises me. Stay for the story about Edward Lansdale and Operation Mongoose.
SPEAKING OF THE WORLDWIDE THREATS HEARING, a highlight-worthy moment in American Exceptionalism occurred when Sen. Marco Rubio got FBI Director Chris Wray to affirm that China, via TikTok, could "control data on millions of users… control the software on millions of devices given the opportunity to do so… drive narratives" in service of their foreign policy objectives. "They can collect our data, manipulate information, feed garbage into the minds of millions of people."
Somehow, Rubio didn't ask Gen. Paul Nakasone, the director of the NSA and commander of U.S. Cyber Command, seated right at the same speakers' table as Wray, whether the United States/Five Eyes surveillance apparatus possesses similar capabilities!
Rubio and Wray hinged a lot on their distinction between China's ownership of ByteDance and the U.S. "private sector." To apply the most generous interpretation of how PRISM works, the one preferred and at times insisted upon by cybersecurity people at the U.S. internet/social media titans, China owns ByteDance, while the U.S. just pwns Google, Facebook, etc.
Rubio called TikTok "one of the most valuable surveillance tools on the planet," and he's correct. But apparently the vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee thinks that the massive American surveillance dragnet – which, they always insist is foreign-focused, whatever impact that has on Americans' data – simply doesn't exist: "I mean, if we went out and decided to build something like this of our own, to influence or spy on another society, I'm not sure we could build something like this."
Any legislator who, per Rubio, votes to ban TikTok while reauthorizing NSA Section 702—which Nakasone now argues is needed for "shining a light on what China's doing"—sends a powerful message to China: Only American intelligence agencies get to digitally demolish American privacy!
Meanwhile, the FBI's Chris Wray confirmed that "we previously, in the past, purchased" commercially-collected geolocated data on Americans that would have required a warrant. Sean Vitka of Demand Progress called it "shocking and further proof of the need for Congress to take immediate action to rein in mass surveillance. This is a policy decision that affects the privacy of every single person in the United States." Those darn Chinese again!
IN ADDITION to 2023's escalation of U.S. military operations in Somalia, the New America Foundation's David Sterman marshals the fragmentary evidence that there's been a U.S. drone-strike resurgence in Yemen. al-Qaeda has posted an obituary for two of its operatives there, while U.S. Central Command and the CIA are saying nothing.
LYZ LENZ on allergies.
CHARLIE STADTLANDER FROM NSA does communications for the New York Times now???? Jon Schwarz reports.
BILL BARR, America's most trustworthy person, wants U.S. troops to wage what he dances around recognizing would be a bloody counterinsurgency quagmire in Mexico rather than, say, legalizing drugs to undercut the finances of drug cartels. What could go wrong? Look, he watched Sicario and skimmed some Don Winslow novels. Anyway, Barr is supported by Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Mike Waltz, Forever-War veterans both, who are pushing an AUMF for something they expressly analogize to Plan Colombia ("The US was successful in assisting the Columbian [sic] government dismantle cartels in the 1990s and must do the same now") which killed 200,000 people.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), speaking at the Worldwide Threats hearing on Wednesday morning, immediately went for 9/11 analogies to blame the Mexican cartels and China for U.S. opioid overdoses: "This is like losing a large passenger jet every day for more than a year. Just like 9/11, just like we would react if in fact passenger jets were falling out of the sky every day for a year. We would react in an overwhelming fashion." [Cornyn is understandably upset about 108,000 deaths, so I’m sure he was “reacting in an overwhelming fashion” to COVID-19 in July 2020 when Americans were dying at a rate of 600 people a day, significantly more than a Delta 777 can carry. Let’s check the tape.—Sam.]
I'm so old that I remember when jihadists were supposed to be exploiting the southern border's alleged lack of militarization—El Qaeda, we called it—and now the cartels have leveled up to Chinese sponsorship? Damn. So the Mexicanese Fentanyl Attack is going to be the Cuban Missile Crisis of Cold War 2, huh?