Many journalists covered the battle for Mosul, the capital of the self-styled Caliphate of the Islamic extremist group ISIS. American author Luke Mogelson, on assignment for The New Yorker, viewed it from a unique angle: He embedded for two months with a SWAT team from the Iraqi city.
“I’ve always been struck by how little we talk about the trauma of people from Iraq and Afghanistan compared with how much we talk about the trauma of the Americans who have briefly visited those countries.”
The SWAT team was led by Lieutenant Colonel Rayyan Abdelrazzak. Jihadists had gunned down his brother, blown up his father’s house. He had been shot three times himself. But Mogelson deftly avoids reducing the war to an unending cycle of vengeance. He says of his experience there: “The war in Iraq is a civil war, and civil wars are personal—if my article had a theme, that might be it—but this doesn’t mean that the war in Iraq is only personal. Nor does personal always denote vengefulness.”
His story offers a bleak, disillusioned picture of Iraq: a shattered country no one seems to really belong to. Soldiers feel first and foremost “native sons of Mosul.” And you are reminded of the late Anthony Shadid’s dispatches: a country where the word “liberation” makes no sense anymore, because whoever wins, nothing is going to change: Extremists are on both sides of the front line.
And yet, despite it all, you would be wrong. Mogelson recalls that one of the sergeants on the SWAT team had “Iraq” tattooed across his forearm. “When I asked for the story behind the tattoo, he explained that ‘Iraq’ was the name of his first-born son. Now, I would defy anyone to question or trivialize this man’s love for, and devotion to, his country.”
I talked via email with Mogelson about his experience in Mosul, his thoughts about the last decade and a half of U.S. wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and his ambivalence about being a journalist covering those wars.
You embedded with a SWAT unit made up of relatives of ISIS victims. It is a telling choice. It is somehow the symbol of a country nobody feels to really belong to. A country where the strongest motivating force for fighting is blood and revenge. What does Iraq look like today?
My knowledge of Iraq is honestly too limited for me to be able to characterize anyone I’ve written about as necessarily “symbolic” of broader, national traits or trends. It’s true that many of the members of the Mosul SWAT team desire revenge for crimes that were perpetrated against them by ISIS and its antecedents; I wouldn’t know, though, to what extent that applies to Iraqis generally. Perhaps more importantly, even among the SWAT team members, there are other, equally potent factors at play. It would be as disingenuous for me to claim that retribution is the sole driving force behind the Mosul SWAT team as it would be to suggest that a given terrorist group, or terrorist, is motivated entirely by religious zeal (or bloodlust, or sexual frustration or resentment of our way of life). I suppose that in the space of a magazine article—even a 20,000-word article—you are doomed to be reductive, both in your rendering of people’s lives and in your presentation of the political, social and historical contexts that circumscribe them. But in choosing to isolate and pursue a certain thread, you can’t lose sight of… Actually, I’ll skip the tapestry metaphor and offer an example. One of the sergeants in the SWAT team—who, unfortunately, didn’t make it into the piece—had “Iraq” tattooed across his forearm. When I asked for the story behind the tattoo, he explained that “Iraq” was the name of his first-born son. Now, I would defy anyone to question or trivialize this man’s love for, and devotion to, his country. Another day, however, this same man removed his right eyeball and held it out for me to touch. It was fake. He had lost the real one to a car bomb in 2007 and, like all of his compatriots in the unit, he believed that the insurgents responsible for the attacks in Mosul during those years were currently fighting for ISIS across the front line. In other words, the law of retaliation pertained rather literally to his situation. So, the war in Iraq is a civil war, and civil wars are personal—if my article had a theme, that might be it—but this doesn’t mean that the war in Iraq is only personal. Nor does personal always denote vengefulness. The one-eyed sergeant had been forced to flee Mosul, and leave his family behind, a month after his son Iraq was born. He was fighting to get back to him, to save him.
Usually we talk about the Sunni-Shia divide. But from your experience, there seems to be mutual distrust, and mutual fear, basically everywhere.
Religious, sectarian, ethnic, tribal, political and generational tensions are ubiquitous. But so are the enduring bonds that often supersede these tensions. Maybe that sounds naive. All I can say is that it is difficult to justify surrendering to cynicism after you have witnessed the sort of heroism and humanity that I have been privileged enough to witness in Iraq.
After so many wars, Iraq is somehow a society of veterans. A society where the majority of men are like the characters of your book: troubled men, struggling to fit in again. But we barely notice it. We talk of PTSD only for our soldiers. How much do traumas matter?
I’ve always been struck by how little we talk about the trauma of people from Iraq and Afghanistan compared with how much we talk about the trauma of the Americans who have briefly visited those countries, particularly when you consider that the experiences of almost any Afghan or Iraqi will make most of ours look pretty quaint by contrast. Then again, psychic torment isn’t relative; you don’t suffer any less just because others elsewhere have, by objective metrics, been worse off than you. For the writer, especially, equating trauma like that is unproductive. Also, it’s to be expected that Americans will be more engaged by the trauma of other Americans than by the trauma of Afghans or Iraqis. I’m not so troubled by this, in and of itself, mainly because it seems unlikely that Americans talking more about the trauma of Afghans and Iraqis would practically benefit or even privately gratify many Afghans or Iraqis. I’d say the issue is not the lack of discussion about their trauma but what that lack of discussion points to. I’d say it points to a gap between the value we place on their lives and the value we place on our own. I’d say this gap defines much more than our discourse about trauma; it defines the politics, strategies and tactics that traumatize. I’d also say it is one of the major moral problems of our moment and, incidentally, one reason why terrorism works.
Jihadists are basically off-limits for journalists. We can’t report from ISIS-held areas. What is it like covering a war where you never meet the enemy? And also, an enemy that is somehow your enemy as well? Because we all come from countries at war with ISIS.
Yes, and no amount of social-media contacts or phone interviews or studying of propaganda materials will change the fact that, so long as you are affiliated, by virtue of your nationality, with one side of a conflict, you will always be working within the context of assumptions and biases that are so ingrained you don’t even think of them as such. I would guess that this presents less of a predicament for people who have decided the side with which they are affiliated is either categorically right or categorically wrong. Then your journalism functions as an expression of patriotism or an act of protest. Historically, there are great examples of both kinds of journalism, but personally I find reporting in either mode about the current conflicts in which America is involved unconvincing. So, for me, that’s the challenge: How do you write soberly from a place of uncertainty, of ambivalence, and also what is the objective of such writing — that is, war reporting that’s neither in support of nor in opposition to specific policies? To return to my comment above, I think a good starting point is resisting the impulse to value American lives, Western lives, over others. As soon as you do that, the world reconfigures — everything looks different, including our enemies — and your priorities as a journalist shift accordingly.
“The war in Iraq is a civil war, and civil wars are personal—if my article had a theme, that might be it—but this doesn’t mean that the war in Iraq is only personal. Nor does personal always denote vengefulness.”
You joined the National Guard as a medic. In an interview, you said that you enlisted because you believed Afghanistan to be a just war. You didn’t deploy, but when you were discharged you moved to Afghanistan as a journalist. What did you expect, and what did you actually experience once there? What made you change your mind?
During the three years that I lived in Afghanistan, my opinion about what the United States should and shouldn’t be doing there must have changed a dozen times. I’m no expert on the country, and certainly less of a military expert, but it’s hard to imagine anyone who has been on patrol with soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan genuinely believing that more soldiers and Marines are the answer to its problems. That said, I don’t know that I can point to a moment between 2001 and today when I would have argued, without reservation, for a complete withdrawal of foreign troops. So, there’s that ambivalence. More than any other place I’ve been to, Afghanistan defies bifurcation into good guys and bad guys, and that goes for the United States and the Afghan government and security forces as much as the Taliban. I’d advise extreme wariness of anyone who depicts the country in such binary terms (which, I suppose, would mean a fair share of the people who have occasion to publicly depict the country in the first place: generals, politicians, editorialists and the like).
One of your short stories, “Total Solar,” is about our work as foreign correspondents. And you say: Confusing folks in confusing wars. What are for you the hardest things to grasp?
I’m nagged by this anxiety that in the future, if anybody bothers to look at these articles, they will read the way colonial travelogues read to us now. If my country wasn’t at war in Afghanistan and the Middle East, I doubt that I would ever have attempted to write about them; it would never have occurred to me to attempt to. But, of course, my country is at war in those places. My country is killing people every day in those places. Moreover, as I said, I’ve never been able to repudiate this killing absolutely. I can’t tell you right now that I believe America needs to stay out of Syria, wash its hands of Afghanistan and withdraw from Iraq. Given that I am therefore, in a sense, complicit in the violence, I, as a writer, feel compelled to document some of its effects and consequences. More often than not, this means writing about Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis. Is it outrageously presumptuous for someone like me to write about Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis? Perhaps. Am I especially qualified to write about Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis? Not at all. That’s something I struggle with constantly: the tension between a sense of obligation to cover these conflicts, on the one hand, and a sense that I have no right to speak with any authority about the people who are most impacted by them, on the other. I don’t know. What’s the alternative? Let these stories go untold? One way around the dilemma, maybe, is to remind yourself that writing about anyone, anywhere, always constitutes a kind of transgression: You’re never truly going to feel like you have the right, regardless of whether the person comes from Mosul, Aleppo or your hometown.
All the characters in your book lost something in war. What about you? What have you lost in these years?
I’ve been very lucky.