The Podcasting Feud Over the Iraq War’s Legacy is Going on


When Donald Rumsfeld died this week, in-memoriams for the former secretary of protection who led the rate to struggle in Iraq had been as blunt as the man himself.

Some have been as it should be honest. Some have been charged with firsthand emotion and experience. Some were downright tasteless. Barring those who knew the man for my part, Rumsfeld did no longer enjoy the hagiographic grace length that’s generally allowed even the most debatable public figures inside the wake in their death.

That dearth of properly-desires is the end result of some thing just as socially aberrant. The failure of the Iraq War that Rumsfeld championed is pretty an awful lot the most effective factor about which Americans of all political stripes agree. Joe Biden, Donald Trump, John McCain and Bernie Sanders all came to agree that the conflict become a “mistake.” But Rumsfeld remained unapologetic approximately Iraq until the very stop, and inside the procedure, made his name and that “mistake” largely synonymous.

Both Rumsfeld and our Iraqi experiment in country-building have now surpassed into records. But if you had been paying interest these days, a revealing skirmish over their vicinity in it changed into waged in a very present day medium: the serialized podcast.

In the 5th season of Slate’s “Slow Burn,” which concluded just weeks earlier than Rumsfeld’s death, host Noreen Malone brought listeners one of the series’ signature deep dives on an occasion that looms so big over American records we’ve nearly forgotten the information of what certainly came about. A little less than a 12 months before that, the left-wing newshounds and respective Vice and “Chapo Trap House” alums Noah Kulwin and Brendan James released “Blowback,” an unapologetically left-wing re-exam of the battle’s many causes and ongoing consequences.

All 3 hosts are millennials whose respective series gave listeners an in depth — and, speakme as a listener, every now and then too certain — account of the folly, hubris and collective mania that brought about the Iraq War. One may think that they might feel a sure cohesion, a shared mission to provide their era with a clear-eyed, heavily researched and mentioned view of a warfare that shaped the world in which they came of age and are now inheriting. One might be incorrect.

When Slate launched “Slow Burn” in April, the loyal, rabid “Blowback” fanbase attacked, egged on with the aid of influential lefty-international media figures. Slate’s attempt become a copycat, they said. It became shameless battle apologia. It became CIA propaganda. Team “Slow Burn” accurately declined to take the bait, but after just a unmarried episode, the struggle lines had been simply drawn: the mealy-mouthed, ambivalent, lamestream media towards the pirate reality-tellers who laced their very own account of the conflict with Howard Stern-like audio drops and profane tirades in opposition to Rumsfeld and his cronies.

The difference may seem stylistic, not sizable. To an extent, it's far: Both suggests are painstakingly researched, and tell the identical cautionary story. But records is storytelling, and in the global of storytelling, style subjects. “Slow Burn” allows space for figures like the late anti-Saddam Iraqi baby-kisser Ahmed Chalabi, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and, sure, Donald Rumsfeld, to speak for themselves, either inside the gift or thru the historical file, and invites the listener to draw their own conclusions. “Blowback” is didactic, its hosts bombarding the listener with their sturm-und-drang argument approximately the Iraq War as a portal to hell that directly prompted our cutting-edge-day political ills.

It might appear before everything like an ordinary intra-left difference in temperament. But it doesn’t map well alongside ideological lines — influential thinkers and activists from the far left to the a long way right percentage the “Blowback”-ian theory of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq as a Year Zero for the post-Cold War technology. In the spirit of this weekend’s holiday, you could nearly consider it as a brand new founding delusion: America became reborn within the Middle East’s crucible, not because the leader of a guidelines-primarily based, liberal international order, but a multi-tendrilled, ever-expanding and unaccountable corporate hegemon.

Founding myths are effective. It subjects how we write them, what we include, and what we miss. With nonetheless-inflammatory characters like Rumsfeld, Chalabi, and Miller to draw on, the Iraq War is a amazing foundation for such memories. The two series serve collectively as a convenient case examine in how we might approach them and wherein they might lead us.


The “Slow Burn” method is well-established at this factor: Take a famous occasion in current American history (Watergate, the Clinton impeachment, Ku Klux Klan chief David Duke’s 1991 campaign for Louisiana governor) and explore, in exacting detail, the encompassing political, cultural and social detritus — the higher to recognize how Americans skilled them at the time, and, consequently, how they fit into our country wide narrative.

Season five of “Slow Burn” kicks off with a leisurely, episode-length profile of Chalabi, the exiled aristocrat who thirsted for decades to supplant Saddam Hussein as Iraq’s ruler. Malone depicts Chalabi as a professional flatterer with an sufficient supply of cultural (and economic) capital to coins in with Western powers who had their own motives to yearn for Saddam’s scalp. (This, in massive component, is what to begin with drew the ire of the over-caffeinated “Blowback” fanbase: Chalabi appears right here as a powerful and threatening guy, and no longer truely a preening wannabe oligarch — as if it had been one way or the other not possible for him to be each.)

It indicates the conflict as the outgrowth of a society-extensive, submit-Sep 11 madness that led even those in any other case inclined towards dovishness to fervor. Malone and her team drag the paper-thin intelligence and galaxy-brain editorial rationalizations that birthed a seasoned-struggle consensus into stark daylight. Combined with the rueful present-day recollections of then-hawks, like Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias, as well as folks who remained stalwartly and continuously against the warfare, like the journalist Mark Danner, the effect is to offer a sobering reminder of the energy of narrative and inspired reasoning in establishments starting from the State Department to the New York Times.

But the series falters whilst it fails to thoroughly beat back against that consensus. Its penultimate episode centers round an interview with Judith Miller, the Times’ now-notorious former country wide protection reporter who credulously repeated Bush administration hype over weapons of mass destruction into the public record. In the prolonged interview, Miller remains proud and defiant approximately her tune report, insisting that she did her job by way of without a doubt reporting the management’s beliefs. Of course, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in journalism to remember that such stenography is in which a reporter’s task starts offevolved, and now not in which it ends. Here, the restrictions of “Slow Burn’s” more historically measured framing come into sharp alleviation: It does now not confront or venture Miller in any meaningful manner.

That’s not something the “Blowback” hosts want be self-acutely aware of. For all of the detail and studies packed into the series’ 10 episodes, its perspective is simplistic: The Iraq War became the end result of the American government’s capture by using bloodthirsty neocons and the settlement-hungry army-business complicated in the wake of 11th of September, abetted by means of the rolling over of a susceptible and craven “opposition”-in-call-best. The chaos that accompanied caused the rise of ISIS and the Syrian Civil War, President Barack Obama’s ineffective reaction to such violence, and the unrest and backlash that caused the election of Donald Trump. Any questions?

If that feels like a easy recounting of lefty conventional information, it is. Kulwin and James’ narrative is emotionally pleasing and symmetrical: an overconfident American empire, led via glib, difficult-charging center-control types like Rumsfeld, caught its nose in which it didn’t belong, brought about mass immiseration and reaped the whirlwind. Its first season each begins and ends with the audio equal of its two hosts turning to the camera and turning in their neat characterization of the struggle’s reasons and effects. There’s a cinematic exceptional to how they inform the tale, with explicit audio references to crowd-beautiful film classics, and the chatty, impassioned, past due-night-celebration excellent of the collection creates a experience of community that makes the listener sense privy to a more moderen, more true American narrative.

That identical best, but, makes the series less revelatory than it's miles cathartic. For instance, “Blowback” is satisfied to gawk at the clicking’ worst seasoned-struggle excesses and excuses, that is funny and authentically surprising in a few instances, however ultimately no longer very edifying because the war cheerleaders are reduced to 1-dimensional “ghouls,” to apply their common term of art. “Slow Burn” in the long run presents greater of an unsettling portrait of the media drumbeat for the struggle. In inviting the reflections of each Cassandras like Danner and the Nation’s Katha Pollitt, in addition to reformed hawks, the series makes it terrifyingly apparent to the listener how the whims of persona and encouraged reasoning can contribute to a totally real body count number.

The difference between the 2 stories is in the end in what they provide: clarity, in the case of “Blowback,” and nuance, in a good deal of “Slow Burn.” Clarity simplifies the complicated; it galvanizes the cowed or intimidated, it offers ballast to moral instinct. It also can blinker one to the “Butterfly Effect”-like structures of reason-and-impact at the back of something as giant and amorphous as American public life. Nuance, however, can reveal the inner nature of such occasions even as imparting precious little of the desperately wanted education approximately what to do of their aftermath.

That might sound like an evaluation higher proper for a mid-stage rhetoric elegance than our political discourse. But the conflicts that rend American life these days, whether in our schools, political events, or popular culture, are ultimately approximately the memories we determine to tell about who we're and how we came. The large, Shakespearean tragedy of Iraq method that, like Watergate, it's going to lace the ones narratives for many years. How, whilst, and why we do not forget it topics, making this podcast skirmish a ancient signpost in its very own right.