Reports from the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria are met with exhaustion in an increasingly inward-looking West, fixated as we are on the political battles being waged in Washington and London. As the black holes of Brexit and Trump feed greedily on our attention, the internecine conflicts of the Middle East fade into background noise. The War on Terror has, as it was perhaps destined to, become the Forever War. There are now troops serving in the US military who weren’t even born when 9/11 happened, and for whom the first Gulf War is ancient history. The complexity of it all – and our complicity in it – has given way to simplified horror stories about Isil and the abject sense that people have simply ceased to care.
That’s why They Will Have to Die Now is such a necessary book, as the American journalist James Verini takes on the ambitious project of reporting from the front lines of the war with Isil in Iraq, in a way that is attentive to the humanity of those embroiled in it. What he is not interested in is amplifying Isil’s death-cult propaganda. Too much reporting from Iraq and Syria has, he argues, been lurid, falling “somewhere on the same spectrum as the Caliphate’s own blood-porn”.
He is certainly interested in the larger idea of Isil, which he sees as a millenarian project designed to fail, but he also wants to know why it appealed to so many young Iraqis who were not fanatics. To do so, he plunges into the history of Mosul, Iraq and jihadism to tell a story of religious factionalism, political corruption, foreign interference and the nihilism of growing up in a state of perpetual war. Without this knowledge, you cannot understand what is happening on the front lines – and Verini’s front-line reporting is exhilarating, too, whether he is picking his way through the ruins of Mosul’s streets with the elite Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service (CTS) or riding in the patched-up vehicles of brave but reckless Kurdish Peshmerga fighters as they speed toward Isil positions. He brings each scene to life and, crucially, knows when to absent himself from the story.
Verini has a novelist’s eye for the telling detail, such as the date pits and shreds of rope found in an interrogation room, the latter presumably having bound the victim, the former presumably spat out by the captor. Most vivid is Verini’s evocation of the noise. Here he is describing a Russian-made Hind helicopter gunship: “When fired overhead, it was as though the earth’s atmosphere was a closet and you were trapped inside it with a crazed timpanist, and the Hind’s rockets gave the aural effect of tearing the sky in two like a canvas.”
As the CTS tightened its grip, the jihadists, running low on conventional weapons, invented ways of dropping grenades from cheap drones, making bombs out of kettles and pressure cookers, and turning anything from hatchbacks to bulldozers into a vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs. “Their interiors were gutted and filled with explosive,” writes Verini. “Sometimes the driver was welded inside.”
This is all gripping stuff, but the narrative heft of the book comes from a refugee camp outside Mosul, where Verini gets to know Abu Omar and Abu Fahad, estranged brothers who fled the siege. Verini quickly realises they are keeping secrets from him. The more Verini learns about these brothers, the more suspicious he becomes about the nature of their relationship with Isil. In the final chapters, their secrets spill out in ways that are both particular and emblematic.
This family, for which read this country, is locked in a cycle of retributive violence like the House of Atreus, brothers fighting brothers, new generations rising up to revenge the crimes of the old. The fall of the Caliphate is, Verini argues, no occasion for triumphalism. New cycles of violence grind into life. This incarnation of Isil might have been defeated, and American forces might be extricating themselves from the battlefield, but for the people of Mosul and Iraq, the Forever War rumbles on.
They Will Have to Die Now: Mosul and the Fall of the Caliphate is published by Oneworld at £18.99. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph Bookshop