What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Nick Paumgarten is not like a piece by Dana Goodyear, and neither is like a piece by Ian Frazier. One could not mistake Finnegan for Friend, or Bilger for Lepore, or Collins for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Luke Mogelson's "The Avengers of Mosul": A Masterpiece of War Reportage

Photo by Victor J. Blue

Luke Mogelson’s “The Avengers of Mosul” (The New Yorker, February 6, 2017), is a brilliant, brutal, immersive account of his experience traveling with an Iraqi police unit called the Nineveh Province SWAT team, made up almost entirely of native sons of Mosul, as they fight to liberate their city from ISIS occupation. The piece is divided into four sections: (1) “Up the Tigris”; (2) “Entering the City”; (3) “A Respite from Battle”; and (4) “Urban Combat.”

The first section, “Up the Tigris,” opens with the SWAT team located in the village of Kharbardan, anxiously awaiting orders to join the assault on ISIS-held Mosul. The orders come, and the SWAT team moves up the eastern bank of the Tigris River, helping the Ninety-first Brigade of the Iraqi Army’s 16th Division clear half a dozen villages of ISIS occupants. The Brigade halts outside the village of Salahiya. The SWAT team continues into town on its own. Mogelson writes,

We accelerated into the lead, hurtling down alleys and whipping around corners. I was impressed that the driver could steer at all. The bulletproof windshield, cracked by past rounds, looked like battered ice, and a large photograph of a recently killed SWAT-team member obstructed much of the view.

In the second section, “Entering the City,” the SWAT team is stationed in Shaymaa, a neighborhood on Mosul’s southeastern edge. Mogelson travels to an aid station set up outside Shaymaa by the 9th Division. He describes the arrival of injured soldiers:

A Humvee belonging to an infantry unit that was working with the 9th Division parked outside the aid station and unloaded a soldier whose left arm was open to the bone. His face was raw with burns; he was unconscious, and snorting loudly through his nose.

After several days at the aid station, Mogelson catches a ride to a SWAT-team position inside Shaymaa. He writes,

Upstairs, we found First Lieutenant Omar Ibrahim hunched below a shattered window. An oblong hole gaped in the cinder-block wall behind him, where a rocket-propelled grenade had exploded the day before. Omar was one of the only men in the unit whom I’d never heard raise his voice—he rarely spoke at all—and he recounted the grenade incident with sangfroid.

“They’re very close,” he said.

Peeking over the windowsill, we could glimpse dense blocks of identical-looking houses with water tanks on their roofs, the domes and minarets of mosques scattered here and there. One of the houses belonged to Dumbuk’s uncle and cousins; another held Hadi’s wife and daughter. ISIS and the men’s loved ones were in the same place, but ISIS was too close and their loved ones were too far away.

That night, gunmen attacking the SWAT team’s line approached so near that we could hear them crying “Allahu Akbar!” Bullets whistled overhead; red tracers arced and disappeared. In the morning, rounds smacked against the walls of the house occupied by Mezher [Major Mezher Sadoon, the SWAT team’s deputy commander], and a mortar rattled the windows. To the east, two enormous blasts preceded two enormous plumes.

The 9th Division asks the SWAT team to help it capture the adjoining neighborhood of Intisar, where ISIS resistance is fierce. The SWAT team enters Intisar and is nearly decimated. Mogelson reports,

Of the forty-odd men who’d been in Intisar, twenty-two had been seriously injured and two killed. Nearly everyone else was hurt to some degree. Four of the swat team’s seven Humvees had been destroyed and abandoned on the battlefield. Two others were out of commission. Later that night, I met Rayyan [Lieutenant Colonel Rayyan Abdelrazzak, commander of the SWAT team]] in the house where he was staying, by himself. His eyes downcast, his voice almost a whisper, he said, “They defeated us.”

In the third section, “A Respite From Battle,” the SWAT team is given a week off. Mogelson visits the father and siblings of a SWAT-team member named Souhel Najem in a camp for internally displaced people (I.D.P.s), “a vast grid of white tents enclosed by cyclone fencing,” in a village called Hassan Sham. The next day, he visits Corporal Bilal, a forty-year-old member of the SWAT team, at a private acute care hospital in Erbil. Bilal’s hand had been nearly severed by a suicide truck explosion in Intisar. Mogelson writes,

I found Bilal in an electrically reclining bed. The air in the room smelled mildly of rot. His left hand was splinted and bandaged; long metal pins protruded from it. His thumb, his ring finger, and his little finger were black. I asked the obvious question. When would the fingers be amputated?

“They were supposed to do it three days ago,” Bilal said. “The problem is, I don’t have the money because our salaries are late.”

The next afternoon, Bilal’s doctor agrees to perform the surgery, with the understanding that Bilal will pay at a future date. Mogelson says, “The black fingers were amputated successfully. By then, however, the necrosis had spread, and another operation was required to remove the entire hand.”

The last section, “Urban Combat,” chronicles Mogelson’s experience as he follows the SWAT team back into battle, this time in a part of Mosul known as Gogjali. Mogelson writes,

To reach the SWAT team’s new positions, my interpreter and I drove down Highway 2 until we reached a berm that had been heaped across the lanes, and then turned left onto an unpaved road with a decapitated corpse lying in the middle of it. Stray dogs picked at the body; children played nearby. The unpaved road paralleled the cemetery, which lay behind a row of houses. At the end of the row, a perpendicular alley offered a sight line to the brown field of tombstones and, beyond it, the buildings in Al Quds. The SWAT team was in a house on the other side of the alley.

ISIS snipers shoot at the house:

The snipers eventually quit for the night, but they resumed with gusto in the morning. The SWAT-team members who were not stationed on the roof went to the road behind the house. Bullets zinged up the alley leading to the cemetery. Every now and then, the men backed a Humvee into the alley and aimed a few bursts from the Dushka at Al Quds; they also launched grenades from a turret-mounted MK19. The moment the Humvee pulled back behind cover, more bullets hit the house and the houses around it. They kicked up dirt and slapped against walls. They pierced an empty fuel tanker. They shook the branches of a tree and cut down leaves. They ricocheted off power-line poles, ringing them like bells.

The SWAT team is deployed to Aden, a neighborhood west of Gogjali. One of its positions is a school. Mogelson writes,

The school was a large two-story building that jutted into the clearing—and therefore was exposed on three sides. We had to duck low while climbing an exterior staircase. A corridor ran the length of the second floor, ending at an open doorframe that gave onto a landing. A bedsheet had been hung from the frame, but you still had to hew to the corridor walls, because the snipers in Akha [a nearby neighborhood] sometimes shot through the sheet.

Mogelson crawls on his stomach under the bedsheet. He describes what he sees:

Outside, two machine guns were propped, on bipods, in front of small holes in a waist-high wall. The floor was covered with spent ammunition. Peering through a hole, I could see the houses across the clearing and, behind them, the yellow dome of a mosque. Souhel [a SWAT-team member] drew my attention to a house with a corrugated-tin roof and several square windows missing their panes.

“There are three ISIS in there,” he said.

While Mogelson is in the school, a mortar lands “so thunderously that we thought, mistakenly, that it had hit the building.” He reports,

People were screaming. I followed Basam downstairs and outside. A crater gaped in the street; a metal cistern raised on stilts was spewing water. The screams came from a house around the corner. We pushed through a gate and found a man in a tracksuit lying in the driveway. Before we could attend to him, a woman came out and yelled that more seriously wounded people were inside. She led us into the living room, where an older, shirtless man sat on a couch. Blood smeared his torso and was splattered all over his pants. People were holding sopping red cotton pads to both sides of his face. He was having trouble breathing. When he saw us, he pitched forward, as if to say something. Instead of words, blood spilled from his mouth.

A young boy lay at the man’s feet. He was also shirtless and bleeding heavily from wounds on his torso and his legs.

It was a challenge to focus. The living room was crowded with screaming relatives and neighbors. While we worked on the boy, a woman began shaking my shoulder and shouting in my ear. I had to push her away. My interpreter later told me what she’d been saying: “Don’t let my son die!”

Note that “we.” Mogelson is more than an observer; he’s a participant, helping dispense first aid.

Also in this section, Mogelson visits another I.D.P. camp, this one in Khazer. He goes there to see a SWAT-team member nicknamed Dumbuk (his real name is Mohammad Ahmed), who is recovering from a leg wound suffered in the fighting in Aden. Mogelson writes, “As we ate, Dumbuk told me that as soon as his leg and arm healed he planned to rejoin the swat team. He was happy to see his relatives, but he missed the front line.” This line reminded me of something A. J. Liebling said in the Foreword of his great Mollie & Other War Pieces (1964):

I know that it is socially acceptable to write about war as an unmitigated horror, but subjectively at least, it was not true, and you can feel its pull on men’s memories at the maudlin reunions of war divisions. They mourn for their dead, but also for war.

“The Avengers of Mosul” is an extraordinary piece of writing, one of the best I’ve read in a long time. In summarizing it, I’ve cherry-picked a few incidents to convey its vividness. I relish the way it unfolds sequentially without flashbacks. I relish its factual style. I relish its focus on the SWAT-team members. Most of all, I relish its details, e.g., a Humvee’s interior (“I crammed into Mezher’s vehicle, sharing a seat with a corporal in a black balaclava. We were wedged in amid ammo boxes, ammo belts, and the feet of another policeman, who stood in the turret behind a Dushka, a Russian heavy machine gun”); a medic’s cigarette ash (“He spoke excellent English, and worked with calm efficiency, often while smoking a cigarette, the ash falling on his patients”); the SWAT team’s deputy commander sitting on the edge of a bed “casually flipping a hand grenade around his finger”; inside a new aid station (“The fake-gold pages of a Koran, draped with a garland of plastic roses, were mounted on the wall, above bags of saline hanging from protruding screws”); the way a soldier puts his foot on a prisoner’s head (“The soldier in the cap twisted his boot back and forth, as if putting out a cigarette”); the ringtone of the Swat-team commander’s phone (“His phone kept ringing: the tone was the theme song from the movie ‘Halloween’ ”); a woman suturing a boy’s face with needle and thread (“It looked as if she’d dipped her hands in a bucket of red paint. I cut the thread and tried to shoo her off. A minute later, while attending to the wounds on the man’s legs, I looked up and saw that she was stitching him again”).

Edward Hoagland, in his review of John McPhee’s Coming into the Country (1977), said, “It is a reviewer’s greatest pleasure to ring the gong for a species of masterpiece.” Today, I’m pleased to ring that gong for Luke Mogelson’s “The Avengers of Mosul.” 

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