Mosul lies in northwestern Iraq, near Syria and Turkey and Iran. Once it was Nineveh, the same Nineveh where the Prophet Jonah preached of God’s wrath. Fifteen years ago, Mosul counted more than a million people.
In 2014, the jihadis of the Islamic State raised its black flag above the city. In this lacerating book, James Verini tells the story of the street fighting, ten long and bloody months of biblical destruction, that freed Mosul’s people and ruined their city.
“They Will Have To Die Now” swings across snipers’ perches, machine-gun nests, blown-up buildings, and mass graves. Constantly in the background are American drones and the jihadis’ favorite weapon, VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices). There are charges by peshmerga, Kurdish militia allied with American special forces: utterly brave and utterly casual, soldiers who will capture a village and then, instead of rigorously searching house to house, drop back to text messages and trade snapshots.
This is close-focus, compelling war reporting. The writing has the intensity of “Dispatches,” Michael Herr’s first-person book on Vietnam, but the book goes deeper. Herr captured the life of soldiers in wartime, but Verini sketches the calamitous history of Mosul and the complicated politics that brought the Islamic state to power.
In 2003, when Western forces took over Mosul, they found what one general called “a Star Wars bar scene of enemies . . . . At one point we counted eighteen different enemies that we were facing, and Al Qaeda was not the biggest.” Saddam Hussein was only the most recent colossus. Mosul knew Saladin, eight centuries ago, and earlier it was ruled by the Assyrian kings Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal. At the Mosul museum, once renowned for its Assyrian collections, Verini finds posters of ISIS atrocities. The photos of executions – for fornication, sodomy, theft, drinking alcohol – rhyme with the triumphs of Assyrian art: reliefs that boast of cities sacked and enemies slain. Both the ISIS caliphate and the Assyrian empire were death cults.
Only the format of the message has evolved. Looking back at the First World War, Ernest Hemingway remembered the surprising quantity of paper that littered the battlefield. Nowadays, it is in digital form that data washes over the front lines, pulsing through cyberspace. Verini looks in on an observation post, a housetop terrace from which airstrikes are coordinated. The controllers were French.
“They monitored a tablet computer that displayed camera feeds and typed on a laptop whose screen was tiled with chat windows. It was through these that strike request were relayed and discussed. Over the radios came British, Australian, and American accents . . . . I would find out later that the strike request exchanges were taking place on a WhatsApp channel. Armies, air forces, an infinity of munitions, and it was all being orchestrated via a free chat application you download to your phone.”
Westerners do not dominate the digital terrain. ISIS tried to ban cell phones, but its IT officers skillfully used digital images as propaganda. VBIEDs were popular because their explosions showed up well in online video. Stranger images also populated the internet:
“The jihadis took pictures, too. A disturbingly high percentage of them included house cats. They loved cats because the Prophet Muhammad is said to have loved cats. I defy you to find a stranger image than a bearded man in a headscarf holding aloft an assault rifle in one hand, pointing to the heavens with the index finger of the other, while beside him, staring into the lens, is a cat.”
This is not a cheerful story. Yet it is not entirely dark. Beneath a demolished mosque consecrated to the Prophet Jonah, in a tunnel dug by militants, archaeologists brought to light a new trove of Assyrian remains – huge guardian figures, winged bulls with human heads. Verini finds in this newly-uncovered past a hope for the future:
“Mosul was one of the oldest cities on earth. It had been battered and leveled and forgotten through the millennia, but never destroyed, never abandoned. It had always found a way to live on. The layers of life went down much further than we could know.”
“They Will Have To Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate.” By James Verini. W.W. Norton & Co. 277 pages. $27.95.
Allen Boyer is book editor of HottyToddy.com. He is currently at work on a history of the law of treason.