Packer's parents, Nancy Packer and Herbert Packer, were both academics at Stanford University; his maternal grandfather was George Huddleston, a congressman from Alabama. His sister, Ann Packer, is also a writer. Packer graduated from Yale College, where he lived in Calhoun College, in 1982, and served in the Peace Corps in Togo.His essays and articles have appeared in Boston Review, The Nation, World Affairs, Harper's, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, among other publications. Packer is a columnist for Mother Jones and has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since May 2003.
Packer is a Holtzbrinck Fellow Class of Fall 2009 at the American Academy in Berlin. The title of his project there is Enlightenment and War.
Packer's most recent book, The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq, analyzes the events that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and reports on subsequent developments in that country, largely based on interviews with ordinary Iraqis. Packer supported the Iraq War in the run-up to the invasion. In his book, The Assassins' Gate, Packer characterizes the anti-war movement as fringe, knee-jerk in its pacifism and lacking in "understanding" of the region. This was consistent with Packer's pre-war condemnation of the anti-war movement being part and parcel with a "doctrinaire left" that opposes any and all American foreign policy. Or as Packer put it in another piece, the antiwar movement was "controlled by the furthest reaches of the American left" - a conclusion supported by reference to slogans and signs at some anti-war rallies.
He was a finalist for the 2004 Michael Kelly Award.