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The Podcasting Feud for the Legacy of the Iraq War

Both Rumsfeld and our Iraqi nation-building experiment have now gone down in history. But if you’ve been paying attention recently, an illuminating skirmish for their place has been fought in a very modern medium: the series podcast.

In the fifth season of Slate’s “Slow Burn,” which ended just weeks before Rumsfeld’s death, presenter Noreen Malone gave the audience one of the series’ signature deep dives about an event so big in American history that we can see the details almost forgot what really happened. A little less than a year earlier, left-wing journalists and respective Vice and Chapo Trap House aliens Noah Kulwin and Brendan James published “Blowback,” an uncompromisingly left-wing review of the many causes and ongoing effects of the war.

All three presenters are millennials, whose respective series gave the listeners a detailed overview – and sometimes as listeners also detailed – account of the folly, hubris, and collective mania that led to the Iraq war. One could imagine that they feel a certain solidarity, a common mission, to give their generation a clear, intensely researched and reported view of a conflict that shaped the world in which they grew up and now inherit. One would be wrong.

When Slate started “Slow Burn” in April, the loyal, rabid “Blowback” fan base attacked spurred on by influential media figures from the left world. Slate’s effort was a Imitators, They said. It was rude War excuse. It was CIA propaganda. Team “Slow Burn” wisely refused to take the bait, but after just one episode the lines of battle were clearly drawn: the floury, ambivalent, lame media against the pirate truth-tellers who-like their own portrayal of the war with Howard Stern Audio drops and profane tirades against Rumsfeld and his cronies.

The difference may seem stylistic, but not essential. In a way, it is: both shows are meticulously researched and tell the same cautionary story. But story is storytelling, and in the world of storytelling, style is important. “Slow Burn” leaves room for figures like the late Iraqi anti-Saddam politician Ahmed Chalabi, formerly New York Times Reporters Judith Miller and, yes, Donald Rumsfeld, speak for themselves either in the present or through the historical record, and invite the listener to draw their own conclusions. “Blowback” is didactic, its hosts bombard the listener with theirs storm and stress Controversy over the Iraq war as the gateway to hell that directly caused our modern political evils.

At first it may seem like a typical inner-left temperament difference. But it cannot be mapped exactly along ideological lines – influential thinkers and activists from far left to far right share the “blowback” conception of the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 as year zero for the post Cold War era. In the spirit of the holiday this weekend, it can almost be imagined as a new founding myth: America was reborn in the melting pot of the Middle East, not as the leader of a rules-based, liberal international order, but as a multi-trilled, ever-expanding and unaccountable corporate hegemon .

Founding myths are powerful. It is important how we write them, what we include and what we leave out. With characters still riotous like Rumsfeld, Chalabi, and Miller, the Iraq war is a strong foundation for such stories. The two series together serve as a practical case study of how we should approach them and where they might lead us.


The “slow burn” approach is well established At this point: take a well-known event in recent American history (Watergate, the impeachment trial of Clinton, the 1991 campaign by Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke for the governor of Louisiana) and examine in detail the surrounding political, cultural and social debris – the better to understand how the Americans experienced it back then and how it therefore fits into our national narrative.

Applied to the Iraq war, this approach is instructive. Iraq is as rich a destination as Watergate: both events are metonymic with the erosion of confidence in American institutions that has led us to our current uncertain moment.

The fifth season of “Slow Burn” begins with a leisurely, episode-long profile of Chalabi, the exiled aristocrat who thirsted for decades to replace Saddam Hussein as Iraqi ruler. Malone portrays Chalabi as a skilled flatterer with ample supply of cultural (and financial) capital to make money with Western powers who had reasons of their own for craving Saddam’s scalp. (This has in large part drawn the ire of the over-caffeinated “blowback” fan base: Chalabi appears here as a powerful and dangerous man and not just as a cleaning would-be oligarch – as if it were somehow impossible for him to be both.)

It portrays the war as the result of a post-9/11 society-wide madness that fervently fueled even those who otherwise tend to be reluctant. Malone and her crew are pulling the gauzy intelligence and editorial rationalizations of the galaxy that fueled a consensus for war. Combined with the sad memories of the hawks of the time, like Vox co-founder Matt Yglesias, as well as those who stood firm and resolute against the war, like journalist Mark Danner, this is a sobering reminder of the power of narrative and motivated reasoning in institutions from the State Department to New York Times.

But the series will stall if it doesn’t adequately push back that consensus. The penultimate episode revolves around an interview with Judith Miller, the Times’ now infamous former National Security reporter who gullibly echoed the Bush administration’s hype about weapons of mass destruction on the public record. In the long interview, Miller remains proud and defiant of her track record and insists that she did her job simply by reporting on the government’s beliefs. Of course, you don’t need an advanced degree in journalism to understand that a reporter’s job begins and doesn’t end with such shorthand. Here the limits of the more traditionally measured framing of “Slow Burn” become clear: It does not confront or challenge Miller in any way.

This is something that the “blowback” hosts don’t need to be aware of. Despite all the details and research packed into the series’ 10 episodes, their perspective is simple: the Iraq war was the result of the capture of the American government by bloodthirsty neoconservatives and the treaty-hungry military-industrial complex after the 11th favored by the roll-over a weak and cowardly “opposition” – just in name. The chaos that followed led to the rise of ISIS and the Syrian Civil War, President Barack Obama’s ineffective response to that violence, and the unrest and backlash That led to the election of Donald Trump. Any questions?

If that sounds like a simple retelling of left-wing conventional wisdom, this is it. The Kulwin and James narrative is emotionally satisfying and symmetrical: an overconfident American empire led by slick, tenacious middle management types like Rumsfeld poked its nose there, where it did not belong caused mass impoverishment and reaped the whirlwind. Its first season begins and ends with the audio equivalent of its two hosts turn to the camera and provide their neat characterization of the causes and consequences of the war. The narrative of the story has a cinematic quality, with explicit audio references to audience favorite classic films, and the chatty, passionate late-night party quality of the series creates a sense of community that makes the listener feel like they are in a newer, truer American Narrative.

The same quality, however, makes the series less revealing than cathartic. “Blowback”, for example, is satisfied with staring at the worst pro-war excesses and excuses of the press, which in some cases is funny and authentically shocking, but ultimately not very edifying as the war cheerleaders focus on one-dimensional “ghouls,” to use their common art term. “Slow Burn” ultimately provides a rather unsettling portrait of the media drumbeat for the war. By taking the reflections of Cassandras like Danner and the nation‘s Katha Pollitt, as well as Reformed Falcons, the series makes it terrifyingly clear to the listener how the moods of personality and motivated thinking can contribute to a very real body count.

The difference between the two stories ultimately lies in what they offer: clarity in the case of “Blowback” and nuances in much of “Slow Burn”. Clarity simplifies the complicated; it irritates the intimidated or intimidated, it adds ballast to the moral instinct. It can also horrify the “butterfly effect” -like systems of cause and effect behind something as large and amorphous as American public life. Nuance, on the other hand, can reveal the intrinsic nature of such events while giving very little of the much-needed instructions on what to do after their consequences.

The sounds like an analysis better suited to a middle-level rhetoric class than our political discourse. But the conflicts that shape American life today, be it in our schools, in political parties or in pop culture, ultimately revolve around the stories we tell about who we are and how we got here. Iraq’s immense Shakespearean tragedy means he, like Watergate, will perpetuate these tales for decades. How, when and why we remember it is important and makes this podcast skirmish itself a historic guide.

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