The closest I ever got to Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, was 1,720.7 miles away—or so the Internet assures me. Although I’ve had a lifelong interest in history, I know next to nothing about Mosul’s, nor do I have more than a glancing sense of what it looks like, or more accurately what it looked like when all its buildings, including those in its “Old City,” were still standing. It has—or at least in better times had—a population of at least 1.8 million, not one of whom have I ever met and significant numbers of whom are now either dead, wounded, uprooted, or in desperate straits.
Consider what I never learned about Mosul my loss, a sign of my ignorance. Yet, in recent months, little as I know about the place, it’s been on my mind—in part because what’s now happening to that city will be the world’s loss as well as mine.
In mid-October 2016, the US-backed Iraqi army first launched an offensive to retake Mosul from the militants of the Islamic State. Relatively small numbers of ISIS fighters had captured it in mid-2014 when the previous version of the Iraqi military (into which the United States had poured more than $25 billion) collapsed ignominiously and fled, abandoning weaponry and even uniforms along the way. It was in Mosul’s Great Mosque that the existence of the Islamic State was first triumphantly proclaimed by its “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi.
On the initial day of the offensive to recapture the city, the Pentagon was already congratulating the Iraqi military for being “ahead of schedule” in a campaign that was expected to “take weeks or even months.” Little did its planners—who had been announcing its prospective start for nearly a year—know. A week later, everything was still “proceeding according to our plan,” claimed then–US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. By the end of January 2017, after 100 days of fierce fighting, the eastern part of that city, divided by the Tigris River, was more or less back in government hands and it had, according to New York Times reporters on the scene, been “spared the wholesale destruction inflicted on other Iraqi cities” like Ramadi and Fallujah, even though those residents who hadn’t fled were reportedly “scratching out a primitive existence, deprived of electricity, running water and other essential city services.”