UPDATED: Packer Responds to Hastings Letter on ‘NYT’ Book Review

By: E&P Staff

From the E&P mailbag today, a letter on a current story. Follow link for the original article. George Packer’s response to E&P at the end.

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I saw your story on the Mark Danner versus George Packer controversy. This isn’t the first time George Packer has reviewed an Iraq book in the New York Times that should have raised conflict of interest questions. In April 2008, he gave a fairly negative review of my book, “I Lost My Love in Baghdad: A Modern War Story.” My book was also very critical of the war in Iraq, a war that Packer supported. He did not disclose his support for the war in that review.

The more egregious conflict of interest, though, was his close relationship with the National Demoractic Institute, an NGO that I was highly critical of. (Andi Parhamovich, the women I was set to marry, was working for NDI when she was killed, in a large part due to NDI’s failure to provide proper security.) Packer had even met with the president of NDI, Kenneth Wollack in the spring of 2007; in the meeting, her death was discussed. A year later, the negative review in the Times came out, defending NDI, and parroting NDI’s talking points against the book. (NDI refused to cooperate with the writing of the book, and it was only under great pressure that they even shared details of what happened with Andi’s family, almost nine months later, another fact Packer failed to mention.)

At the time, I decided to take my lumps–bad reviews are part of the deal, and the majority of reviews the book got were favorable. However, I actually happen to have just read Mark Danner’s “Stripping Bare the Body.” It is an excellent work, and for Packer to have reviewed it seems quite unfair. Obviously, I’m not a neutral observer, but there does appear to be a pattern. (For the record, I have great admiration for Danner’s reportage, and I think Packer is a talented journalist, though I’ve never met either of them.)

What seems to bug Packer about Danner’s book is similar to what bugged him about mine: the books focus on the what Packer calls the “creepy” details of the consequences of war, details which clearly make him uncomfortable. That is, what war actually does to human beings, and how human beings actually behave. After having been one of the many thoughtful cheerleaders for the war in Iraq, Packer has never been able to come to terms with the human cost of the bad ideas he promoted. I fear he suffers from the anxiety of getting it wrong — it’s certainly a blow to the ego for a self-styled foreign policy writer to have whiffed on the most critical foreign policy question of this generation. So it’s easier to attack others who got it right, to criticize a writer like Danner who saw the folly of the Iraq excursion before the fact, not after.

Michael Hastings
(the writer is currently in Baghdad)

A few thoughts in response to your article about Mark Danner’s letter and my reply in the New York Times Book Review, and also about Michael Hastings’ letter to E&P:

You’re right: my review of “Stripping Bare the Body” didn’t say “history proved Danner’s position on the war right.” That was a loose (maybe too loose) paraphrase of what I did say: “[His] point of view has served Danner well in his far-reaching criticisms of the foreign policy of George W. Bush, especially on Iraq.” The meaning is similar.

I conveyed to the Times in advance that Danner and I knew each other but had no history of friendship or enmity.

The length of Danner’s letter (1400 words, about the length of my original review) and my reply (300 words) might say something about prolixity but not about wrongdoing. I answered Danner’s charges as
succinctly as I could, in the belief that readers shouldn’t be subjected to drawn-out quarrels between authors and reviewers.

In my review of Hastings’ “I Lost My Love in Baghdad” (New York Times Book Review, April 20, 2008), I wrote that I had met members of the National Democratic Institute on several trips to Iraq. In other words, they were sources of mine, and I was capable of coming to my own conclusions about NDI’s responsibility for Andi Parhamovich’s death (mixed: “a terrible mistake, but not an incomprehensible one”). By Hastings’ standards, it would be unethical for a reporter with sources in the Bush administration to review a book that criticizes the Bush
administration. These are the provisional standards of an author who didn’t like the review he got. I gave his book a not-so-good review because it was a not-so-good book–in fact, a bad book, and undeserving of mention alongside Danner’s.

George Packer

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