The United States withdrew the bulk of its armed forces from Iraq in 2011, an endgame move that brings to mind the expression “just declare victory and then leave.” Fighting, or war, of course didn’t stop in Iraq in 2011, but the nature of it changed. With the Americans gone and Baghdad somewhat quiet, the action moved north and west of the capital. In Ramadi, Fallujah, Tikrit, the Sinjar Mountains region, and on into Syria, Sunni-fundamentalist Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters terrorized those they labeled non-believers while waging war against the Iraqi Armed Forces and various local militias. The Kurdistan city of Mosul became the locus of much of the fighting, especially since the Kurdish Peshmerga militia proved resolutely stout in the face of ISIS, by all accounts much more so than the Iraq army.
The Kurd fight against ISIS features in Mike Freedman’s 2019 novel King of the Mississippi, and the movie Mosul, directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan, also appearing in 2019.
King of the Mississippi
In truth, fighting on the ground in Mosul occurs only in the mostly-comic King of the Mississippi’s concluding chapters, when the novel’s central characters, two Houston-based business consultants, are sucked into battle with a combined U.S.-British special operations outfit operating in support of the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Armed Forces. Author Mike Freedman seems to have based these scenes on his own experience, as his bio relates that he served in the U.S. Army Special Forces (“Green Berets”) before obtaining an MBA and becoming a business consultant himself. The portrait of the special operators is extremely flattering, which is not to say it is necessarily wrong or without interest. The two consultants, in Iraq on some puffed-up, cock-eyed business scheme, are suitably unimpressed by anything the U.S. conventional Army has to show them in their camps around Baghdad, which they must pass through enroute to Kuridistan, but they, and the third-person narrator, too, are all agog at what they behold in the highly-trained A-team:
Each person on the twelve-man team had a specialty, and they all trained each other in the specialties. If this team was indicative of the talent of other Special Forces teams, Special Forces could smoke any consulting dream team in concentration of talent. Of the two communications sergeants on the team, the senior radio operator had been an investment banker in New York at Goldman Sachs until volunteering for service after the 9/11 attacks, and his no-neck junior, a half-Hispanic weightlifting beast of a man with fluency in three languages, had attended Harvard as an undergraduate on scholarship, graduating in just three years with honors.
Nothing that happens after this glowing portrait deflates the high regard with which King of the Mississippi portrays the team. The leader, “Luke,” offers a fine, no-BS pep-talk before the men roll-out on their mission:
For our two SF babies out of the Q course who joined us in country last month and are hungry to get some, be ready to get your gun on. We all accepted there would be risks when we signed up. Our mission is to influence our battlespace through combat advising. Sometimes we have to get creative to make that happen. Be cognizant of civilians on the battlefield if we get attacked. We know what ISIS’s MO is when it pertains to civilians. As always, don’t do anything that would disgrace the regiment.
The novel as a whole validates the special operater warrior-way, as one of the protagonists himself is a former Green Beret who brings his wily outside-the-box approach to high-end consulting:
For a decade I trained not only on how to operationally liberate the oppressed, but also how to free your mind from the oppression of conventional thinking…. The relevance of my graduate work in the Special Forces Qualification Course is that I have unique professional training and a record of success in solving and analyzing complex problems.
The speaker’s name is Mike Fink, like the legendary American huckster-frontiersman referred to in the novel’s title (with initials “M-F” like the author’s). Fink’s not a smooth operator, and the clunkiness and presumptuousness of his self-description, offered early in the novel, makes other characters and readers too (at least this one) wonder if he is being set up as a humorous foil. But as the novel proceeds, we learn that Fink is not to be underestimated and that Freedman is not joking: what ails big business and America at large can be remedied by letting our unconventional elite fighters take charge.
There is much more about King of the Mississippi and author Mike Freedman that interests me, but let’s keep the focus on Mosul….
The movie Mosul doesn’t kid around. Set in Mosul from start-to-finish over the course of a very long day, there’s no waiting for the combat action to start: it’s “guns-on” from the opening scene, a terrific shoot-out that introduces the main characters and sets the story speeding forward. Two Kurdish Mosul policemen are ambushed by a large ISIS force as they try to arrest two insurgent sympathizers, and just as they run out of bullets they are rescued by an offshoot renegade band of battle-hardened Peshmerga militiamen known as the Ninevah SWAT team. “Since when did we start arresting Daesh?” asks the team leader shortly before ordering the execution of the last two ISIS fighters alive. One of the policemen, a young recruit named Kawa, is enlisted into the Ninevah SWAT on the spot and, over the course of the movie and the day, Kawa not only develops the instinct for survival it takes to fight ISIS, he (and we) learns the humanizing backstories that drive militia-men to be as committed to each other and to their mission as they are.
Mosul is excellent–86 taught minutes of compelling story-telling and action. I watched it twice without blinking, and most war movies have me distractedly surfing the Internet ten minutes in. The plot is something of a twist on the picaresque last/lost patrol motif familiar from Saving Private Ryan and many others, but at every turn director Matt Carnahan infuses the story-line with interesting and even surprising inflections. Much of this is accomplished at the level of brisk staging of scenes and inspired camera angles, as in many interior scenes of Ninevah SWAT traveling about the Mosul battlefield in their up-armored Humvees. It’s even more so at the level of screenwriting (Mosul is based on a New Yorker story by Luke Mogelson) and acting. Carnahan focalizes the story through the perspective of his two protagonists: the wizened Ninevah SWAT leader Major Jasem, played by Suhail Dabbach, and the fresh recruit Kawa, played by Adam Bessa. Dabbach and Bessa are both outstanding, each easily capable of holding interest in sustained close-ups and even more engaging as we watch them deal with war’s circumstance and the increasingly tight bonds of their relationship. I don’t know if I’d say either Dabbach or Bessa is handsome, but both give the appearance of being intelligent and soulful, and thus compelling to watch; by contrast so many American male leads in war movies look bland and dopey. Probably just the camera lighting and make-up, right?, but still. Dabbach is an Iraqi expatriate who had small roles in The Hurt Locker and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. More please soon (and I just read more is forthcoming as Dabbach has a role in the upcoming movie version of Nico Walker’s Cherry). Bessa, a ringer for Marine vet author Elliot Ackerman, is a French-Tunisian actor with a string of acclaimed roles in European movies to his credit—I’ll be interested in anything he acts in, too.
Americans barely figure in Mosul, which makes it something of a wonder that the movie was made by an American studio and directed by an American director, with dialogue in Arabic with English subtitles. No one interested in the human side of ISIS (whatever that might look like) is going to love Mosul, as it firmly wears its allegiance to Kurds and the victims of ISIS on its sleeve, but the movie soars above partisanship on the strengths of its vision of the violence of war and the vivid characterization of those forced to fight for their lives against a hated and ruthless enemy.
Mike Freedman, King of the Mississippi. Random House-Hogarth, 2019.
Mosul, directed by Matthew Michael Carnahan. AGBO, Conde Nast Entertainment, 2019.
NOTE: My blog platform, WordPress, has changed its editing feature in such a way that makes it much harder for me to upload pictures and videos, so until I can figure that out I’ll do without. Ah well, for ten years, creating Time Now posts has been the same simple process, so not a big fan of the change, but will carry on as we can.