Stripping Bare the Body: An Exchange
By Mark Danner and George Packer November 04, 2009

Letter by Mark Danner in response to George Packer's review of Stripping Bare the Body.

To the Editor:

Controversies flicker past so quickly in our voracious culture that we assume once the shouting has died away the disputes have been put to rest — while beneath the surface, the worst live on. The debate over whether to launch a war against Iraq was one such, and I am afraid the bitterness lingering from it hovers like an invisible toxic cloud over George Packer's review of my book, "Stripping Bare the Body: Politics Violence War" (Oct. 18).

I strongly believed — as I first argued to George, my old New Yorker colleague and friend, in a discussion he and I had at a meeting of a small reading group to which we both belonged in January 2003, shortly before the war — that the invasion would be a catastrophic mistake that would bring in its wake a great deal of sectarian violence and score-­settling. Packer, an ardent supporter of going to war in Iraq, argued that the United States should invade and occupy the country for humanitarian reasons. As the war ground on, he and I rejoined the debate intermittently in a number of forums.

That the war is the critical event looming over the book will be obvious to any reader. That your reviewer had a direct disagreement about the war with the book's author will not be obvious, for your editors, and the reviewer himself, chose not to disclose it. Whatever this may say about eccentric attitudes toward journalistic fairness or personal integrity, it certainly shows contempt for Times readers, who might have found themselves puzzled by the oddly personal and defensive tone of the review and many of its gratuitously nasty and distinctly strange observations: that I have "carved out a European niche in American letters," for example; that my title "borrows the style of countless works of poststructuralist theory"; that I have "turned away from eyewitness reporting" (though sometimes, it seems, I am "lucky enough to see mayhem firsthand"); that what reporting I do is "undertaken to argue rather than to learn" and that in any case "individuals are mostly absent" from it; that I display "an attraction to scenes of torture and dismemberment" which is "at the very least problematic." Finally, I am guilty of "condescending to a refugee."

That "European niche" sounds uncomfortably like the place where freedom fries and John Kerry's supposedly "French" attitudes come from. The book's title has nothing to do with "poststructuralist theory," directly quoting as it does an observation by an overthrown Haitian president. (Some "eyewitness reporting" might have turned up that fact: it is the epigraph to the book.) That I have "turned away from eyewitness reporting" will be news to the hundreds of "mostly absent" people I have interviewed over the years in the Balkans, the Middle East and elsewhere — as any reader of the book can see. Such a reader might also wonder how it is that "investigative reporters" have "unearthed" documents, while the Red Cross torture report magically "falls into Danner's hands" — or how it is a fellow who is not a card-­carrying "ground-level" journalist is somehow "lucky enough to see mayhem firsthand."

The corrosive tendentiousness at work here warps much of what Packer writes and accounts for his near superhuman ability to ignore what is on the page. We are told that when Iraqis voted in 2005, I "went looking for "˜the desired symbolic justifications, the capstone in the narrative building already under construction that day.' " Taken in context, this quotation is in fact my description of the quest of much of the international press on Iraq's election day in January 2005, when the waving purple fingers were nearly universally claimed to be the turning point of the war. As I reported from Baghdad that election day, the obvious fact that the Sunnis had not voted meant that the elections would probably usher in a period of greatly heightened violence. I don't know if I was arguing rather than learning, but this is precisely what happened.

Any reader of my book will find that many of the quotations Packer cites, not least the one where he finds me "condescending to a refugee" or expressing "a secret preference for the violent outcome," are yanked painfully out of context. When it comes to judging whether the reviewer quotes what he does in good faith — or evaluating the fairness of the sweeping conclusions that I don't "take the care to understand these societies" or that 20 years of reporting on "violence reveals nothing — it's just violence," readers must decide for themselves. Most will begin, at least, with the recognition that the book is about war and violence and torture and that these subjects, if they are to be fairly treated, will bring with them painful and graphic descriptions. Packer finds this to be "creepy" and "voyeurism," and cites as an example a sentence drawn from the scene of the Sarajevo market bombing (one of those bits of "mayhem" I was "lucky enough to see firsthand"). This precise description from the ground seems to me — and apparently to journalists at the Overseas Press Club, who awarded the articles that year's prize for best magazine reporting from abroad — a fair example of the "eyewitness reporting" he says I have "turned away from."

All this is a pity, for Packer and I have a disagreement about America's war in Iraq that is real and that might have been honestly disclosed and fairly discussed. He comes closest to doing this in his final paragraph, where he begins: "What about Bosnia? This is the war that leads Danner into unacknowledged tangles and reveals the disconnection at the heart of his work." A more direct way to put this is that George and I both thought the United States should intervene in Bosnia but that I disagreed with him when he argued that our country should invade and occupy Iraq.

There is no "unacknowledged tangle" here. In Bosnia, the United States should have acted to stop genocide, which I witnessed and reported on and which was going on, and on, even while American warplanes patrolled overhead and United States intelligence agencies recorded the "number liquidated" in Serb concentration camps. In Iraq in 2003, there was an autocratic government but no genocide. Indeed, when Saddam Hussein's army had engaged in mass killing — against the Kurds in 1989 and against the Shiites in 1991 — American officials, who had been supplying Saddam with critical intelligence in 1989 and who commanded a United States Army in Iraq in 1991, had stood aside and done and said nothing.

A dozen years later, many of the same officials who had looked on when tens of thousands of Iraqis were being killed had no compunction about pointing to those graves to drum up support for an invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration's "humanitarian argument" for the Iraq war was shameful and dishonest from the start. Sadly, many of those who well understood its dishonesty and cynicism, and who could have served the country — and done their jobs — by acting to expose it, for their own reasons stood and cheered America on to war.

Your reviewer was one of these, and if there is an "unacknowledged tangle" here, I am afraid it lies somewhere within him. For all his words about "realist arguments" and "the moral case," the fact is that facing it, acknowledging it, untangling it, now as then, would have taken only a modicum of honesty. It would have better served your readers, not just this author, if he had managed to find it.

New York

George Packer replies:

I didn't lay out my views about the Iraq war in the review because they weren't relevant to my judgments about Mark Danner's book. What I wrote was that history proved Danner's position on the war right, which apparently didn't satisfy him. Readers interested in my views can always look for them in my work, where they will find a fairly ambivalent support that was reached after extensive arguments with myself and described only after the war had gone very wrong — but nothing that resembles cheerleading. (I wish Danner had read me as carefully as I read him.) Danner and I have met half a dozen times, in each case but the first on public panels, and there was never any acrimony between us. I was put on a mailing list that receives notices of his new work, but on the one occasion when I replied (about his changed view of the Powell doctrine, one of the tangles I wrote about in the review), I never heard back. He had almost completely stopped writing for The New Yorker before I started. None of this is the stuff of friendship, and none of it raises any ethical conflicts. The conflict is between Danner's wish to have an argument about Iraq and a reviewer's job to review his book. I've written favorably about some writers who opposed the war, and unfavorably about some who supported it. If I weren't capable of critical analysis independent of a writer's positions, I would recuse myself from any reviewing at all.

Some of Danner's work has my complete admiration — "a European niche in American letters" is only a term of abuse if you want it to be. My criticisms of his essays were based on literary, moral and intellectual, not political, grounds. The way for readers to decide whether they are fair is not to be subjected to rehearsals of discussions about the war, but to spend time with "Stripping Bare the Body."

© 2017 Mark Danner