podcast review

Slow Burn Takes on the Forever War

President George W. Bush on May 1, 2003. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP/AP2003

The Iraq War lives in a historical uncanny valley. Its origins feel far enough in the past to be due for reappraisal, yet its dynamics are still so present in our lives that it resists definitive interpretation. In some ways, the haziness of the forever war makes it a perfect subject for Slow Burn, the Slate audio-documentary series that has become one of podcasting’s flagship franchises. “Knowing what we know now, it’s easy to be smug about what the backers of the war got wrong,” says new host Noreen Malone in the first episode of The Road to the Iraq War, the podcast’s fifth and current season. “But lots of people who were following the war closely at the time supported it, and not just Republicans.”

Armed with compelling archival tape and a wide range of new interviews and narrated by veteran journalist (and former New York editorial director) Malone, The Road to the Iraq War explores the conditions that led the U.S. to invade a country that ultimately had little to do with the 9/11 attacks. It offers a vivid re-creation of what it felt like to live through the events, arguments, and national atmosphere at the time. But as engaging as that can be, the series never quite manages to process the significance of this grand American failure — in large part because it’s unwilling to assert a more distinct point of view.

Slow Burn’s earlier seasons cut through by appealing to Trump-era anxieties. Hosted by then–Slate staffer Leon Neyfakh, the 2017 debut season, on Watergate, resonated for obvious reasons (and was eventually adapted for television), while the second season, on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, proved timely when it overlapped with the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. After the departure of Neyfakh — who has since launched his own competing series, Fiasco Slow Burn started building its subsequent seasons around different hosts: There was a fascinating revisiting of the Biggie-Tupac murders led by Joel D. Anderson, then Josh Levin’s study of the former KKK leader David Duke’s ’90s political rise. Despite its shifts in subject matter, the show has maintained a clear identity. You always know when you’re listening to a Slow Burn story.

The Road to the Iraq War is a rigorous marshaling of the facts. In the first six installments—the remaining two are slated for June 9 and June 16—Malone and the Slow Burn team deliver an astonishingly tight narrative that begins in the early ’90s with Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who had been waging a campaign to depose Saddam Hussein long before the 9/11 attacks. After a brief reflection on the war’s costs — the thousands of lives lost, the trillions of dollars spent, a region left much less stable than it was before — the show turns into a procedural of sorts, moving through the climate of fear that gripped the American psyche in the wake of September 11, the Bush administration’s chaotic scramble to respond, and a cluster of incentives that aligned in just the right way to pin a target on Iraq despite the lack of concrete evidence.

The Road to the Iraq War doesn’t uncover much that’s terribly new. As with previous seasons of Slow Burn, its appeal lies in the way it reframes the past in the context of the present. The podcast does its best work when it clearly illustrates how various actors, including three of the politicians Malone calls the “four Dicks in Congress” — Gephardt, Armey, Durbin, and Lugar — came to believe there was simply more to be gained from supporting the invasion than not. (Durbin was the one who voted against it.) The fourth episode focuses on the media and is notable for its accounting of the journalists, bloggers, columnists, and publications — including Slate — that supported the war, some of which still enjoy tremendous influence today. “What really gets me is that all the people that were wrong about the war … went on to great glory,” says Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation who opposed the invasion, in that episode. “And all the people that were against it did not.”

Any possibility of empathy stops short when the podcast trains its attention on how Bush and his people sold the Iraq War to the public. Most Americans over the age of 35 will be familiar with this part: Saturated in faulty intelligence and convinced despite reasonable doubt, the Bush administration pitched the invasion to Americans by manipulating narratives and presenting incomplete facts, weaponizing the cracks between possibilities and probabilities. Was there ever a genuine threat that Hussein would unleash a “mushroom cloud,” to use the administration’s favored image? Probably not. The road to hell was paved with good deceptions.

The Road to the Iraq War gets wobblier when it tries to convey the psychic significance of that information. The power of projects like Slow Burn comes only partly from their auditing of events. They also need to build a space for listeners to develop an emotional relationship with the past — and on this front, The Road to the Iraq War can come off as a little too removed, a little too academic to leave a lasting impact. Sometimes the series has the feel of a person recounting a bad dream, even as it takes stock of what continues to be one of the most consequential errors of a generation.

Some of this can be attributed to Malone’s distinctly clinical delivery — which, to be fair, has been something of the house style for Slow Burn dating back to Neyfakh’s run. During the Trump era, that formality felt like a balm. But it feels insufficient now — like too much of an intellectual exercise about institutional failure. The Iraq War took a tremendous toll on a huge number of lives and families. A greater emotional focus on that would have helped.

While listening to the series, I kept thinking back to Floodlines, The Atlantic’s sublime audio documentary from last year, in which journalist Vann R. Newkirk II revisited another Bush-era catastrophe: the botched response to Hurricane Katrina. The sensitivity of Newkirk’s reporting and the gravity of his voice allow for a kind of grieving in addition to a revisiting of the brass tacks of what actually happened. A stranger parallel that rattled around my brain was Vice, Adam McKay’s 2018 Dick Cheney biopic, which, while flawed, doubles as a ruthlessly critical assessment of the Iraq War. Vice is visceral, angry, almost sweaty in its polemic. But it is also cathartic. In both projects, you can feel the presence of the author: In Floodlines, Newkirk’s perspective is the tool that unearths new dimensions of the disaster, particularly during interviews with government officials like the former fema director who oversaw the Katrina response. In Vice, McKay’s creative editorializing generates new moral and emotional insight that you would never get from a straightforward biopic.

That said, it’s unfair to hold The Road to the Iraq War to a standard it may not be trying to meet. Slow Burn’s premise does functionally contain a point of view: When you spend so much time illustrating a mistake, you are making the argument that the mistake matters. As I write, congressional Republicans have voted against establishing an independent commission to investigate the January 6 attack on the Capitol — an insistence on forgetting that this tragedy ever happened. Merely recalling and clarifying history can feel like an act of moral justice. But simply remembering the past isn’t the same as learning from it.

Slow Burn Takes on the Forever War