ISIS Lost Mosul in 2017, but the Story Began Thousands of Years Ago

Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate
By James Verini
Read by Ray Porter

“It makes no difference what men think of war,” says the Judge in Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian.” “War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be.” The interplay between the “was” and the “will be” of war runs powerfully throughout “They Will Have to Die Now,” James Verini’s account of the battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State. Verini, who covered the battle for The New York Times Magazine and National Geographic, has written not only a deeply human account of the conflict but also a fascinating historical investigation of Mosul itself.

Verini traveled to Iraq for the first time in the summer of 2016, feeling a need “to write about this country whose story had been entwined with my country’s story for a generation now, for most of my life, so entwined that neither place any longer made sense without the other.” Shortly after arriving, he embeds with the elite and American-trained Counter Terrorism Service, known as C.T.S., the shock troops at the vanguard of the Iraqi government’s fight to retake territory seized by the Islamic State.

Verini is a skilled observer of combat. “Experientially,” he writes, “war is mainly sound. In the news, in a movie, you see a war, but once amid a war, you mostly hear it.” His descriptions are sharp, as of “the last-word metallic clangor” of heavy machine guns; and how, in an effort to appear less threatening to communities, “soldiers had wedged bouquets of pink plastic flowers into the bullet holes in the windscreens of their Humvees.” In the audiobook version, Ray Porter’s forceful narration heightens the propulsive quality of Verini’s writing, while also highlighting the general and enduring absurdities of war.

When the battle to retake Mosul begins in October 2016, Verini is along for the ride — and it’s a long one. An operation that was supposed to take four to six months instead bleeds into 10, and his reporting spills well into that next year. In chapters spanning the millenniums of Mosul’s history — from the Assyrian kings to the Ottoman sultans to the British crown — one year starts to feel like a very small unit of measure. If this audiobook has a shape, it isn’t the classic narrative arc with a beginning, middle and end, but rather a helix, in which the past and the present are chasing each other on parallel axes, defined by but never touching each other.

“The central paradox of modern-day jihad?” Verini asks, in one of the sections when Porter’s narration slows, turning reflective. “Its idea of time. The jihadi would roll the clock back by kicking it forward.” Throughout his book Verini parses the Islamic State’s use of historical narratives, even pre-Islamic ones, to advance its mission. Borrowing liberally from the playbook of one of Mosul’s early rulers, the vicious (and last) Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, the Islamic State according to Verini understands that “splendid, too, is torture, which the Assyrian kings looked on as strategic propaganda and sacrificial ritual.” But in a very 21st-century twist on the ancient Mesopotamian penchant for public demonstrations of violence, under the Islamic State “jihadi execution videos” are not enough; as civilians “you were encouraged to celebrate not just your piety but your individuality, to go online and tell your personal story of awakening and redemption. More than the propaganda … more than the snuff films, it was these stories that brought to the Islamic State new citizens.”

If the seizure of Mosul in June 2014 signals the high-water mark for the Islamic State, the 2016-17 battle for Mosul is the decisive engagement that augurs its collapse, at least as defined by its territorial boundaries. Toward the end of “They Will Have to Die Now,” Verini is presented with the daunting question of what comes next, and questions his own complicity in the disaster that he has witnessed. Porter’s narration effectively conveys Verini’s conflicted emotions. What responsibility does he have to the Iraqis who have taken him into his confidence and entrusted him with their stories?

I fought in Iraq. And after leaving the military, I returned there to make sense of my own war as well as of the rise of the Islamic State and the complex interconnectivity between Iraqis and Americans. Verini recalls “a look I received many times, a look that said, ‘You invaded and crushed this place, and now it’s fallen to us to face the consequences. But in spite of ourselves we find we still like you. So welcome back and go [expletive] yourself.’”

I recognized that look, having experienced it myself many times. It is a look as old as war.

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