Contemplating Hell … Heaven … And the End of the War on Terror

Life in hell, thoughts on heaven, and what President Bush has on his nightstand and in his dressing room.

One man’s life “in hell.” One man’s thoughts on heaven. These and other goodies in this week’s newsmagazines.

First, the dark side: Time devotes its cover this week to “Life in Hell: A Baghdad Diary,” a first-person account penned by the magazine’s longtime senior Baghdad correspondent, Aparisim “Bobby” Ghosh, upon returning to work in Iraq after a vacation. Explaining the purpose of the cover story in a note “To Our Readers,” Time’s new managing editor, Richard Stengel, writes: “Even though the press is often criticized for delivering bad news about Iraq, our job is to provide you with the information and perspective to help you do your job, which is to approve or disapprove of the government’s policies.”

Among Ghosh’s “information and perspective” is this description of a conversation with his Iraqi driver, Wisam, after landing in Baghdad recently: “To bring me up to date with the news, Wisam rattles off a long list of recent atrocities: a high-profile kidnapping here, a massacre there, a car bombing someplace else. Long before we reach the city, I’ve heard so many ghastly things that the harrowing flight [into Baghdad] is already a fading memory. Sensing my sinking spirits, Wisam apologizes for the overdose of grim tidings. ‘You know how it is in Iraq,’ he says with a grin. ‘All news is bad news.’ Then he tells me about the 10 bodies that were discovered in his neighborhood in the past few days, all of them his fellow Shi’ites….”

On the eternal question of whether or not Iraq is experiencing civil war Ghosh writes: “American officials and Iraqi politicians who live and work in the fortified bubble of the Green Zone are still reluctant to use the words civil war. At the start of this year, they were dismissing an all-out battle between sects as impossible. In March they were saying it was improbable. Now they cautiously suggest it is not inevitable. And that’s the optimistic perspective. … After three years of dwindling optimism over Iraq’s future, I now feel a mounting pessimism.” More on Ghosh’s outlook for the country: “In 31/2 years of covering Iraq, I have not come across a single leader who has seemed able to rise above petty political or sectarian interests. Never mind a Mandela; there’s not even an Iraqi Hamid Karzai. The beleaguered Afghan President has more credibility with his people than any Iraqi politician can honestly claim. In the absence of statesmen, I fear the sectarian furies that have been unleashed in Iraq will hack away at the last vestiges of sense and decency and drag the country into a final fight to the death.”

Anticipating a different death,Newsweek touts on its cover an “exclusive” with Reverend Billy Graham, promising insights on Graham’s “New Thinking on Politics, the Bible, the Prospect of Death” and, yes — we couldn’t help but notice — Paula Zahn’s favorite topic, the Apocalypse. Newsweek’s Jon Meacham reports that Graham “remains a news junkie, following developments in the Mideast, North Korea — and in nearby Durham, where he keeps an eye on coverage of the Duke lacrosse rape case,” and that although Graham now avoids weighing in on matters political, he was “tempted to call President George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq war to advise him on the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, but decided against it.” And, about Armageddon? Writes Meachem: “While [Graham] believes Scripture is the inspired, authoritative word of God, he does not read the Bible as though it were a collection of Associated Press bulletins straightforwardly reporting on events in the ancient Middle East. ‘I’m not a literalist in the sense that every single jot and title is from the Lord,” Graham says.’”

Shifting gears entirely, perhaps you’ve wondered, “What’s on our president’s nightstand (to read, that is)?” Helpfully, Newsweek offers a short piece this week titled, “Bush: Summer Reading.” Reports Richard Wolffe: “Judging by the books on his summer-reading list, Bush is thinking about nuclear bombs, civil war and baseball. The president has just finished Clemente, by David Maraniss, the story of the gifted right-fielder who rose from a poor Puerto Rican family to become a Pittsburgh Pirates star, before dying in a plane crash while delivering aid to Nicaraguan earthquake victims … The president has also read American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, a biography of Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atom bomb … Now Bush is reading another bio of his favorite president. Lincoln, by Richard Carwardine … According to Publishers Weekly, the book’s best insight is into Lincoln’s religious views and his relationship with evangelicals.”

Next, we move on from “What’s he reading” to “What’s he drinking and sucking on?” While J-Lo requires fig-scented Diptyqe candles and “honey peanut Balance bars” in all of her dressing rooms, President Bush, according to U.S. News & World Report’s “Washington Whispers,” likes to have “a box of Altoids” and “warm water … room temperature … preferably bottled” at his assorted appearances and speaking engagements. According to “an insider,” the president “doesn’t like [water] cold. It’s kind of weird.” (Not to J-Lo, who also requests “room temperature Evian.”)

Elsewhere in the magazine — cough, cough, typical summer cover story — U.S. News explores “Mysteries of History” such as, “Who got to the true North Pole first: Robert Peary or Frederick Cook?” and “How can George Washington be the first president if he didn’t assume office until 13 years after the Declaration of Independence?”

Finally, in the current Atlantic, James Fallows hands (subscription required) the Bush administration a “New Strategy for the Fight Against Terror: We Win.” After talking to “some sixty experts [including military and intelligence folks, academics and think tankers of assorted nationalities] about the current state of the conflict that bin Laden thinks of as the ‘world jihad’ — and that the U.S. government has called both the ‘global war on terror’ and the ‘long war’”… Fallows reports that he found an “implicit optimism about the United States’ situation. .. not on Iraq but on the fight against al-Qaeda and the numerous imitators it has spawned.” In sum: “al Qaeda’s mistakes and our successes have sharply reduced the terrorist network’s ability to harm the United States. Its threat now rests less on what it can do itself than on what it can trick, tempt or goad us into doing. …” And so “the time has come to declare the war on terror over; so that an even more effective military and diplomatic campaign can begin.”

Not only does Fallows outline for the Bush administration a “new strategy,” he also drafts the speech to unveil said strategy. Channeling the New York Times’ Tom Friedman, Fallows concludes with a hypothetical “My fellow Americans” presidential address, noting that “we are ready for a message … of realism, of courage, and of optimism despite life’s difficulties.”

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.