In the August 14, 2016 edition of its Magazine, devoted to the theme of “Fractured Lands,” the New York Times achieved new depth and scope in the coverage of perhaps the signal event of our times, the dissolution of a vast swathe of the Mideast into war, sectarian strife, and social anomie. At the same time, both the Magazine and the larger organization of which it is part, established new high-bench marks in flexibility and the pooling of precious but often scattered resources. To the degree that responsive, active, and interventionist journalism is an absolutely indispensable component of democracy, the Times’s achievement is deeply reassuring to readers: particularly to those like myself whose efforts to discern the underlying motives and patterns in mega-phenomena are often thwarted by the scattered flash-up of developments, often-contradictory, in real time.
In his editorial note, Editor in Chief of the Magazine Jake Silverstein informs us that what we “hold in y[our] hands is, in essence, a short book.” Correspondent Scott Anderson, with eerie photographic illustrations furnished by Paolo Pellegrin, have assembled, in Silverstein’s words, a “ very long nonfiction narrative” of how events unfolded over the years 2003-16 “through the eyes of six characters in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iraq, and Kurdistan.” Of crucial import to the readers and collective authorship of Feedback is that conventional feuilleton journalism has surpassed itself, broken into a higher power in its full and explicit embrace of a literary operating system that crystallizes narratives and organizes them around characters. Indeed, reportage’s out and out appeal to the resources making great fiction possible is also the occasion for a temporary waiver of the conventions defining the New York Times Magazine as a medium: the customary ads and features lending predictability to our weekly consumption of journalism.
Because Anderson and Pellegrin are masterful reporters, they manage to contour the microscopic downturns, triumphs, disasters, and major directional shifts undergone by their subjects to the broader international developments that took place over the timeframe in question. There is a significant historical payoff to the account they have rendered of the human-scale events in the lives of their main characters, among them an Iraqi feminist organizer, a leading Egyptian dissident, a Kurdish physician who returns to his homeland in order to fight ISIS, and, a simple Iraqi day-laborer who ends up, for a time, owing to major downturns on the familial front, joining ISIS. This is, like all honest reportage, a journalism of the particular that does not shy away, when the results of its arduous work have been collected, from making historical inferences. The Eisensteinian montage of six concurrent stories pursuing very distinctive individuals and their families reaches outward toward two overarching historical contexts: the “long” one is the artificiality, instability, and sectarian strife implanted into the regional states, crucially among them Iraq, Syria, and later Libya carved out by the Great Powers in the aftermath of World War I. Anderson makes sure to chronicle the divide-and-conquer tactics exercised above all by the English and the French in the selection and manipulation of their proxies that surely made for enduring instability in the region.
Even in 2016 it is striking how little Anderson minces his words in designating the 2003 U.S. Iraqi invasion as the more recent timeframe responsible for wreaking havoc on his subjects’ lives. “Their lives have been forever altered,” writes Anderson, “by upheavals that began in 2003 with the American invasion of Iraq, and then accelerated with the series of revolutions and insurrections that have collectively become known in the West as the Arab Spring. They continue today with the depredations of ISIS, with terrorist attacks and with failing states. For each of these six people, the upheavals were crystallized by a specific, singular event.”
In 2016 we continue to shudder not only at the political malfeasance and resignation that could have allowed the Iraqi invasion to be foisted on the American public, but at blunders with long-lasting after-effects made on the ground. “The Pentagon had set down comprehensive blueprints detailing which strategic installations and government ministries were to be seized and guarded, but the American military seemed to have given little thought to the arsenals and munitions depots that Hussein had scattered about the country. In one town and city after the other, these storehouses were systematically looted.” “One of the first actions taken by the C.P.A.’s administrator, Paul Bremer, was to disband the Iraqi military. Just like that, hundreds of men—men with both military training and access to weapons—were being put out of their jobs by the summer of 2003. It may have been the edict immediately preceding that decree, however, that had the most deleterious effect. Under the terms of C.P.A. Order No. 1, senior Baath Party officials were summarily dismissed from government and placed under a lifetime public-employment ban.” Each of the six very real people who are enlisted by Anderson and Pellegrin to be our viewfinders “on the ground” are impacted, whether directly or indirectly, not only by these measures, but more importantly by the thoughtlessness with which U.S. global grandiosity got acted out.
It will be for the historians to quibble with the journalists as to whether the five “chapters” of narrative development designated by the latter: 1) Origins; 2) The Iraq War; 3) Arab Spring; 4) Isis Rising, and 5) Exodus correlate with the facts of the most reliable record. Yet these are indeed the stations defining the major reversals in the six subjects’ lives. It is within this succession of stages that Laila Soueif and her husband’s loyal opposition to the Egyptian government is transformed, particularly in the wake of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military take-over, into a persecution extending to the entire immediate family; that Azar Mirkhan takes leave from his medical practice and is transformed into a wily pesh merga combatant taking on ISIS; that Khulood al-Zaidi relinquishes her dream of feminist activism while taking on the task of reuniting her family. She initiates a tortuous trajectory of emigration through Jordan and ultimately into Germany. Indeed, the massive flight from the region constituting the most dramatic international news development of 2015 and 2016 catches the majority of the subjects in its sweep. Majd Ibrahim, a Syrian from Homs hoping to find a place for himself in the hotel industry, also takes the dangerous escape route across the Mediterranean into Germany. We leave Majdi el-Mangoush, a Libyan air force cadet who has experienced first-hand the tumultuous upheaval and false-starts disintegrating that state at home working at the kind of environmental reclamation particularly attractive to shell-shocked veterans. It is also the fate of Wakaz Hassan, the Iraqi day-laborer who joins but then leaves ISIS to emigrate, but close to home. We lose sight of him in a Turkish refugee camp, where he is almost certain to be repatriated to Iraq and executed.
Drawing on the full resources of literary story-telling, Anderson and Pellegrin effect a dialectical mediation between very particular repercussions of the facts and the events upon personal and familial lives and the emergent historical backdrop. In the wake of their meticulous research, which involved constant movement between one dangerous site of contested rule and territory and another, we are past the point of pulling any punches regarding the shortsighted U.S. military adventure of 2003 and what followed. And the “take” on what we might further do in correction of our blunders, for example with respect to the still substantial populations of stateless refugees, has been refreshed.
Among the minor, but palpable trends that we carry with us as we exit this journalistic-historical montage is the emergence of the Kurds as an estimable trans-national quasi-government and force. Whether perfect in their comportment or not (who could be under these conditions?), they’ve learned mightily from the succession of regional catastrophes in this century—built upon a long prior history of subaltern status—and they forge ahead with purpose. But there is also the counterpoint to the Kurds’ galvanization: the sorry tale of the Yazidis, a Kurdish minority that in holding themselves apart left themselves particularly vulnerable to ISIS savagery.
Excepting the military itself, of all the professions, that is, the social subclasses defined by commonality of endeavor, formal credentialing, and shared internal standards setting the nature, scope, and ethical parameters of intervention, journalism is surely fraught with the most extreme degree of intrinsic risk. This to life as well as to the exercise of duty, which is, by the old adage, simply “telling the story.” The danger is hardly limited to entering war-zones or covering political upheaval. From Russia and the Mideast to Latin America, of late, journalists, particularly investigative ones, have been fair game for political as well as sectarian assassination. These are the extreme instances of a resistance whose “garden variety” includes legal harassment, restrictions on movement and access to sources, and incarceration. We remain in the midst of a pandemic of those journalists losing their lives while performing their jobs.
Were these possible eventualities not dire enough, journalists now constantly address, on multiple planes, the immanent extinction of their craft and trade—both on institutional and financial levels. This by dint of all kinds of revolutions in technology, general access to equipment and exposure, and even changes to the ways in which large populations receive and process information. The profession, along with the general public, may still be scrambling in the wake of the heyday of “print,” yet it was still in “print,” as text, that we processed the tapestry of events that Anderson and Pellegrin assembled before us: the U.S. invasion, the spread of the Arab Spring, dissolution in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, and the unprecedented wave of forced emigration. (I do not in any way denigrate the visual constitution of Pellegrin’s auratic illustrations. In their multi-dimensional resonance, they too are texts, and as vital supplements to Anderson’s narrative, they join the text.)
Yet the New York Times, in fostering this project and in reconfiguring its in-depth coverage, has claimed new capability and power for journalism, even amid the dangers that the profession and its practitioners face on every front. This is a significant ground for celebration, even with the bad news pouring in through every possible transom. The August 14, 2016 New York Times Magazine spawns an audience for in-depth, panoramic coverage, over time, of similar mega-trends: whether of the current role-reversal between armies and police forces and the sheer proliferation of weaponry throughout the social domain; the decline of political parties in putatively democratic societies; or the relinquishment of traditional governmental roles and functions to corporate entities, under a multinational regime of corporate law.
The flexibility that the New York Times has demonstrated in mounting this achievement—flexibility in its own organization and resource allocation as between the traditional discourses and sub-genres of journalism—is exemplary and bodes well for the future of the profession and its most rigorous practitioners. On occasion, a great historical institution simply gets something unusually right—and this joins the cascade of the actualities making up the news.
Henry Sussman is the founder and co-editor of Feedback. An old deconstructionist, he continues to investigate “general writing” in its scope, nuance, and applicability.