Mark Danner

Mark Danner versus George Packer, and the nature of a bad review

It sucks getting a bad review in the New York Times. I mean, it really sucks. Your book, product of months and years of effort, attacked in one foul swoop of mediocre thought. I’ve had conversations with many a writer, and those who are honest will admit to nights stewing awake plotting revenge, afternoons crafting lengthy and obsessive letters that never get sent, and mornings researching whether free speech legally covers tasering another private citizen in the face.

Usually, you don’t do any of that. You take your hit, keep on trucking, realizing it’s part of the deal. Eventually, you rationalize— hey, it’s kind of a twisted honor to get such a prestigious pan, it’s better than being ignored, and at least historically you’re in pretty good literary company.

The journalist Mark Danner decided to fire back this time, and his target is the New Yorker’s George Packer. Danner, according to E&P, is getting 1,400 words in this week’s New York Times Book Review to respond to Packer’s slam. E&P quotes Danner’s letter as saying:

“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 the gratuitously nasty and distinctly strange observations.”

First major caveat before I go on. Packer gave a fairly negative review to my book in the Times, so I am not a neutral observer to this case. But just from reading the above quote, I recognized a few of my own complaints, which I mostly bored my friends with over the past year. Mainly, that Packer, a vocal supporter of the war in Iraq, seems to like to trash books that are quite critical of the war in Iraq. And in doing so, he always fails to mention that he was a vocal supporter of war in Iraq.

Second major caveat. I happened to have just read, downloaded on my Kindle four days ago, right here in Baghdad, Mark Danner’s book, “˜Stripping Bare the Body.’ I was in fact getting ready to write a post about how much I liked the book, when I saw the E&P story about Danner’s letter. I then went back and read Packer’s review.  

My response, outlining Packer’s past reviewing sketchiness, is published here, in a letter to E&P. The thrust: this is not the first time questions of conflict of interest should have been raised about Packer. In my opinion. He’s a talented guy and all, but his thoughts on Iraq should be viewed with considerable skepticism. (See The Washington Monthly’s review of Assassin’s Gate for some perspective.) But like I said, I’m not quite an impartial observer.

So, though I was pleased on a karmic level to see Packer get called out, I also figured I’d take the opporunity to share an observation or two about “˜Stripping Bare the Body,’ and why, as the Daily Beast suggests, it’s a must read for anyone interested in American foreign policy.

It boils down to this: Danner never shies away from the human price of conflict, while managing to weave an intense narrative of how high-level policy evolves. See, that sounds boring, but when he does it, it’s riveting. The real obscenity of war, Danner shows us, is found both in the horrible aftermath of a suicide bombing and in the pomp and circumstance of a White House dinner where policy gets  imagined. From Haiti, to the Balkans, to Iraq and the GWOT, he narrates tales of how the ideas dreamed up in Washington and New York and Cambridge rarely survive contact with messy reality. Then, the book explores how even after the reality “over there” forces government officials to change their policy, the logic of the change is still often guided by the political dynamics found on the DC to New York Acela Express, rather than guided by what is actually happening, and what has actually happened on the ground. This, I think, is a central question that most foreign policy writers like to dodge—because acknowledging this idea is an expression of uncertainty and uncertainty breaks the illusion of authority, and what is an official or an expert without authority?

Danner’s book is certainly an intellectual challenge, and I’ve been trying to put my response into words for a few days now, with, as the above passage shows, minimal results. The book raises serious questions about morality, ethics, policy, the value of life and the nature violence that have few easy answers.

That being said, Danneralso puts forward a fairly provactive thesis of recent history, which is best summed up in the books afterword, quoted here:

Contingency, accidents, the metaphysical ironies that seem to stitch history together like a lopsided quilt—all these have no place in the imperial vision. A perception of one’s self as “history’s actor” leaves no place for them. But they exist, and it is invariably others, closer to the ground, who see them, know them, and suffer their consequences.

Danner is a writer who has the guts to ask the foreign policy establishment, using their own language against them, to account for themselves. So it’s going to make the establishment’s defenders—especially those complicit in our recent foreign policy debacles—uncomfortable. As it should.

Buy the book here.

Update: I’ve now had the chance to read both Danner’s letter, and Packer’s response. (I’ll link to them when they are published this weekend.) Danner offers this valuable insight about Packer’s reviewing skills—” his near super-human ability to ignore what is on the page.”

More disturbing info is in Packer’s reply. In defending himself, Packer reveals at least two instances of intellectual dishonesty. The E&P caught the first—that Packer claims to have written “that history proved [Danner’s] position right” when in fact no such sentence appeared in his review. Secondly, Packer characterizes his support of the war as “ambivalent,” and claims he wasn’t “cheerleading.” Yikes. One doesn’t even need to go back to his writing at the time to see how dishonest that claim is—though there’s plenty of evidence there, too—you just have a look at the discussion he participated in Slate’s “liberal hawks” roundtable, where (and this is 10 months after the invasion) he wrote: “The slaughter and misery of Iraqis (and their neighbors) justified the war…” This doesn’t read like ambivalence to me, nor is ambivalence to be found in this interview he did while promoting his book, titled: “An author’s confession—he got the war wrong.”

The Danner versus Packer debate all comes full circle in that interview. Packer responds to a question about sectarianism by saying  that “we had no idea” that there were such divisions in Iraq prior to 2003. In fact, we did have an idea—and Packer could have found that idea in Mark Danner’s writing, among other places.

If a writer can’t honestly look at what he’s written himself—whether it’s two weeks ago or six years ago—how can we expect honesty when he looks at another’s work?