'They Will Have To Die Now' Recounts Retaking Of Mosul From The Islamic State
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Books about war tend to focus on battles, blood, heroism, loss. Journalist James Verini's new book describes the fight for the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2016. And while it has all of that epic testosterone-fueled stuff, he focuses more on the quiet moments - the troughs between adrenaline waves, the boredom that turns fighters into philosophers, the irony of everyday indignities. He embedded with Iraqi troops as they retook Mosul from ISIS, block by block. The book is called "They Will Have To Die Now." And I started by asking him to read a passage.
JAMES VERINI: (Reading) In Mosul, it was obvious - the jihadis would make their grand last stand. Smaller fights would follow, but this would be the showstopper. It would be not just the biggest and most devastating battle of this war, but the biggest battle - in a sense, the culminating battle - of what was once known as the war on terror. When it was only half done, the Pentagon spokesman would call the fighting in Mosul the most significant urban combat since World War II.
SHAPIRO: From where you sat in the city with the fighters, did it feel that significant - like a new epoch of war, like the most significant urban combat since World War II?
VERINI: It certainly felt significant, and it felt different - the scale of the destruction, the number of troops, the number of Moslowis who were still in the city while it was going on. In a strange way, war had returned to the 20th century. You know, since 9/11, wars have largely been asymmetrical, as they're called.
SHAPIRO: Like insurgents and drones, but not...
VERINI: And certain...
SHAPIRO: ...Army versus army.
VERINI: Exactly. So that was one of the interesting ironies of ISIS. Though they represented this futuristic progression and jihadism, they also managed to bring war back to a pre-9/11 sense of war.
SHAPIRO: So often, the soldiers who were with you in the middle of this fight had this strain of fatalism, like it didn't matter what they did. Maybe they would die. Maybe they would survive. Like, maybe they would go in without helmets or flak jackets. They would say...
SHAPIRO: ...You know, whatever comes comes, whether that's death or injury or if I survive to fight another day. Where did that come from?
VERINI: That feeling was ubiquitous among the Iraqi troops. A lot of it has to do with Islam - the attitude that this is in God's hands, so we do not control our fates; God does. And if God has decided that this is my day, this is my day - which is not exclusive to Islam. And I think probably plenty of American soldiers who are devout Christians say - may also feel that way and other religions, as well.
In Iraq, it translated into a certain indifference about protecting oneself that I found to be particularly interesting. Part of it was that they were trying to prove to themselves and the jihadis that they, too, were perfectly comfortable with death. You know, the famous jihadi encomium is, we love death more than you love life.
VERINI: I think there was a certain attitude among the Iraqi troops that said, well, we - we're perfectly fine with death as well. That's not - you don't have a monopoly on that fatalism. I think certain of the troops were also so wary of war by this point. And I think in probably a lot of their minds, there was a kind of resignation that war is our fate, and war brings death. And this is our fate - independent of their religious convictions.
SHAPIRO: There's a man named Abu Fahad who puts this really poignantly in the book. Will you read a section of what he told you? This is a Page 223.
VERINI: Yes. Yes. (Reading) War after war, disaster after disaster. Each day, you receive a call, and you don't know if it's just a call or if someone is calling to tell you your brothers died or your uncle. We haven't found comfort or peace in our entire lives. We've spent all our energy on misery. It's like being back in the army. You can only take a few days off, and then you must go back on duty, back into the misery. I am a little over 50 years old. And if you compare me to a European person my age, you see him traveling, swimming, enjoying life. Well, I am always tired. I'm tired all the time. Our existence has become tired.
SHAPIRO: That line - we've spent all our energy on misery - is so vivid.
VERINI: Yeah. And Abu - and in Abu Fahad's case, it was particularly about his first wife, who was killed. So he said - and I take him at his word - at a checkpoint a few years after the American invasion, he was in the car with her when she was shot to death. And this is a man, Abu Fahad, who had spent his life, you know, nursing Iraqi soldiers back to health. He was a - he was the head nurse at an - the Iraqi military hospital in Mosul. This is a man, you know, had - who had given over his life to service to the state, so to speak, a state, you know, which he no longer had any faith in and which really no longer existed.
SHAPIRO: One big revelation in the book for me is that, as you put it, in the minds of many Iraqis, America and the Islamic State were equal. And you write, in this crucial sense, they were invaders, no matter what they claimed their intentions were - liberation, salvation, modernization. They were both invaders. When you are invaded, the difference between a democratic utopia and a religious one is immaterial. Tell me more about that.
VERINI: Yes. So the conception of America that I always ran into with Iraqis - Iraqi men, let me say - this wasn't always the case with Iraqi women. Their idea of America was baffling. They thought of America as second only to God in its power. They thought America and Americans were capable of doing anything they liked and that the - even the Iraqi soldiers, even Iraqi intelligence officers I met believed that the United States was not just leading the coalition that was helping the Iraqi forces against ISIS, but that America was also supporting and funding and backing ISIS.
SHAPIRO: That it was really coordinating both sides of the war, just pulling a couple strings.
VERINI: Exactly. And I - when I asked them why this - how this could be - why would we be doing both? - their answer was always essentially, well, that's what you do. That's what a great power does. That's what a national power, second only to a divine power, is capable of doing and does. You know, you inflict great pain, basically.
SHAPIRO: And so it creates this sense of simultaneous admiration and resentment to have that kind of power and to use it to destroy the lives of Iraqis.
VERINI: Exactly. So it creates this mixture of awe and grievance and contempt and profound respect. It took me a long time to realize that when they started saying that the United States was supporting ISIS, as well as them, that I shouldn't counter it, that I should just shut up and listen because what was important was this crazy stew of emotions about America that was beneath the surface. And it was really unnerving, of course, and made you feel very bad as an American.
VERINI: But what was so remarkable is that it so often came with a warmth and a curiosity. Iraqis always wanted to know what I thought of all of this - you know, what I as an American thought of their situation and what America had done to their country. And they weren't looking for an apology or, you know, even an answer. They were basically looking to create a connection with someone from this - what they conceived as this omnipotent country.
SHAPIRO: So how do you even begin to engage on a question like that?
VERINI: You do what - I guess what your job is as a journalist - is mainly, you just listen. And then, you know, if you spend enough time with them, you realize that you owe them more than just questions and listening, that you also owe them some form of reasoning of your own. And I'm sad to say that I didn't have much to offer in that regard. You know, they had been forced to think about American power in a way that I have never been forced to think about American power, even as a journalist who writes about it. You know, their experience has made them understand American power in a way that I will never understand it. I - 'cause I haven't been the victim of it.
SHAPIRO: James Verini, thank you for talking with us about your new book.
VERINI: Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: It's called "They Will Have To Die Now: Mosul And The Fall Of The Caliphate."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.