June/July/Aug 2014

Twists of Hate

Two fictional takes on the war in Iraq

William T. Vollmann


I.

“WE HAD REACHED THE CROSS ROADS before noon and had shot a French civilian by mistake. . . . Red shot him. It was the first man he had killed that day and he was very pleased.” So far, this incident, and the style in which it is told, would be appropriate for either Redeployment or The Corpse Exhibition, two new works of fiction about the Iraq war, the first by Phil Klay, a former marine who served in Iraq during the surge, and the second by Hassan Blasim, an Iraqi filmmaker and writer who moved to Finland as a refugee in 2004. In fact it comes from a late Hemingway story called “Black Ass at the Cross Roads.” The setting is France, sometime after D-day, when the Nazis are fleeing. The narrator’s business is to kill them as they go by.

By the standards of the Iraq war, he turns out to be a bleeding heart. Even after his contingent ambushes a half-track “full of combat S.S.,” the worst of the worst, he feels uncomfortable about keeping souvenirs from their corpses: “It’s bad luck in the end. I had stuff for a while that I wished I could have sent back afterwards or to their families.”

Of course, Hemingway was no career soldier; he was a writer and therefore, never mind his tough-guy stuff, a professional sensitive. But he was around war enough to be grieved, hardened, enlightened, and damaged by it, and to write about it movingly. This essay is not about him except insofar as he can be a foil to the other two writers under discussion. I need not discuss either his greatness or his glaring faults except to say in regard to the former that he surely remains a natural standard of comparison for modern war literature, which is why I mention him now, and in regard to the latter that (excluding much mawkishness about gender relations) sentimentality rarely figures high on his list of official sins.

But “there is something about a man shot off a bicycle at close range that is too intimate.” And one of the fleeing German cyclists they hit “was not dead but was shot through both lungs. . . . He had a nice face and he did not look more than seventeen. . . . He was trying to take it the way he’d always heard you should. . . . Claude bent over and kissed him on the forehead.”

Since that story was written, we’ve marched considerably deeper into the darkness.

In one of the stories in Redeployment, an Iraqi child plants an IED. “We blew it in place right after the kid left,” says a soldier character. “Now, I’d have shot that fucking kid. I’m mad I didn’t. If I caught that kid today, I’d fucking hang him from the telephone wires outside his parents’ house and have target practice till there’s nothing left.”

II.

I BELIEVE THAT BOTH of our Iraq wars have been unjust wars, fought for specious reasons, and therefore productive of great evil. It is an understatement to say that Redeployment and The Corpse Exhibition fortify my opinion.

What Klay himself thinks about the current Iraq war I don’t know for certain. Since the most haunting aspect of Redeployment, for me at least, is what its “message” might be, I have pored through it for clues. The dedication of Redeployment is “for my mother and father, who had three sons join the military in a time of war.” But if you read this book through, you will be hard put to find a character who feels enthusiastic about the American “accomplishment” in Iraq, no matter how many times he redeploys. To tell the truth, Klay’s soldiers are equal-opportunity haters. They hate Iraqis, and they despise the fat, self-indulgent civilians like me who are against these wars, not to mention all the other fat civilians who act proud of American soldiers and grateful for their service. (Did I leave anyone out?) Hence this soldier’s summation of Iraq Veterans Against the War: “We lived in a place that was totally different from anything those hippies in that audience could possibly understand. All those jerks who think they’re so good. . . . Alex is gonna go and act like a big hero, telling everybody how bad we were. We weren’t bad. I wanted to shoot every Iraqi I saw, every day. And I never did. Fuck him.”

That “place that was totally different,” where is it? Sure, Iraq is part of it, maybe even in the center of it—the Iraq that Bush and Cheney made, with considerable post-invasion assistance from angry, pitiless Muslim fundamentalists. All of Hassan Blasim’s characters live there; one of them is described thus: “He was used to surprises, and his experiences had taught him not to waste time looking for reasons for his predicaments and to look for the emergency exit instead.”

Sometimes, this place also incorporates parts of our own United States. In the story “After Action Report,” an Iraqi boy has “grabbed his dad’s AK” and fires. In self-defense, a marine “shot the kid three times before he reached the ground. . . . The kid’s mother ran out. . . . She came just in time to see bits of him blow out of his shoulders.” The marine shooter is traumatized by the gaze of the dead boy’s little sister. A staff sergeant consoles a soldier: In two and a half months of deployment, “how much fucked-up shit have we seen? And she’s been here for years. . . . Look, this isn’t even the wildest Fallujah’s been. . . . Al-Qaeda used to leave bodies in the street, cut off people’s fingers for smoking. . . . You don’t think the kids see?” Then, with no transition, he begins to talk about home: “When I was a kid I knew about all the shit that was going on in my neighborhood. When I was ten this one guy raped a girl and the girl’s brother was in a gang and they spread him out over the hood of a car and cut his balls off. . . . And Fallujah’s way crazier than Newark. . . . This girl is probably fucked up in ways we can’t even imagine. She’s not your sister. She’s just not.”

But this “different place”—this realm of casual nightmare violence that makes Klay’s protagonists so sad, stressed out, and belligerent—is in the end divorced from geography. After the traumas of war, Klay’s soldiers inhabit this place wherever they go. It’s a mind-set in which distinctions between “us” and “them” collapse, and in which the possibility for even the most basic forms of human connection and sensitivity, except perhaps among fellow soldiers, becomes impossible.

Click to enlarge

A night-vision photograph of US forces performing a practice operation in Iraq, 2007.

III.

ANOTHER STORY from Redeployment:Just before a young man leaves for Iraq, his Vietnam-vet father regales him with an anecdote about a certain bar (perhaps in Bangkok, where I have seen comparable demonstrations) where the girls can suck quarters up their vaginas. “I had this friend,” continues the father, who heated up a stack of quarters with his cigarette lighter “till they’re branding iron hot. Then he calls over a girl. . . . It smelled like sizzling steak.”

Where did that man’s malice come from? Does anybody care? “She’s not your sister. She’s just not.”

IV.

WHY ISN'T SHE? The reason might have something to do with whatever you saw back home in Newark. Once you get to Bangkok or Saigon (or Fallujah), there might not be much love lost.

When our soldiers are sent to Iraq or Afghanistan, about whose people and customs they know very little to begin with, that’s got to make it worse. Our America-centered media and education system poorly prepare our children to grow up into informed instruments of American global power. Whatever your opinion may be of American global power, I hope you will agree that ignorance and isolation hardly facilitate achievement.

Let me quote a cynical exchange between two of Klay’s government-subsidized American do-gooders in Iraq:

“USAID claims agriculture should be employing thirty percent of the population,” I said.

“Right,” said Bob, “but the whole system broke down after we trashed the state-run industries.”

“Fantastic,” I said.

“It wasn’t my idea,” said Bob. “We remade the Ministry of Agriculture on free market principles, but the invisible hand of the market started planting IEDs.”

None of this is any compliment to the American ideologues and greedheads who remade the Ministry of Agriculture. What were their free-market principles, exactly? Who was supposed to benefit? Did they know or care what the Iraqis wanted?

When I visited Somalia as a journalist in 1992, I saw French soldiers buying fruit in the market, while the US Marines I wrote about were stuck in a sweltering stadium, with nowhere to go except on patrol (at which point we got shot at). They were supposed to be keeping the peace, confiscating weapons. Their job was impossible. “Don’t be surprised if you see tempers fray,” one soldier told me. “This ain’t our job. We only know how to kill.” And who can blame them? In a Klay story called “Prayer in the Furnace”—the most revealing of the collection, and perhaps the best—a trainer on escalation-of-force procedures, trying to teach restraint, gets shouted down by the colonel: “I’m not having any of my Marines die because they hesitated. . . . Marines do not fire warning shots.”

If I mean nothing to you and you make no sense to me and there’s a war, why should I fire a warning shot?

(As a matter of fact, the marines I briefly met in Somalia were heroically, almost inhumanly restrained.)

V.

IF IT'S TRUE what the staff sergeant said, that “Fallujah’s way crazier than Newark”—and I certainly believe it—why, then, an Iraqi’s point of view on the war should be even bleaker and more brutal than a marine’s. Such indeed is the case with The Corpse Exhibition, whose stories are at times almost Hemingwayesque in their stripped-down style and content but more often employ surrealist techniques. The very first sentence of the first story sets the tone: “Before taking out his knife he said, ‘After studying the client’s file you must submit a brief note on how you propose to kill your first client and how you will display his body in the city.’” In another story, the narrator informs us toward the end: “I was killed by friendly fire, myself.”

The marines in Redeployment at least find occasional security in each other. They cry at each other’s funerals, keep each other company when their wives abandon them, take each other to strip clubs, and even sometimes feel guilty over each other’s deaths. “I will remember the sounds PFC made” as he died, one vet notes in acronym-numbed language while thinking of a fellow soldier fatally injured by a bomb. “I will remember that I was his NCO, so he was my responsibility. And I will remember PFC himself as though I loved him.”

Everybody in The Corpse Exhibition is far more alienated than that.

“Amid the panic, as men, women, and children trampled on each other to escape, Christ saw that his mother’s chair was empty, and he pressed the button” of his suicide vest. A young woman tells how her husband’s “killers had sent his body back decomposed and decapitated.” (During the Yugoslavian civil war I heard firsthand accounts of the same, often with the added refinement that the body would be mailed back in pieces, over a period of time.) “Everyone . . . ridiculed the woman’s story and claimed they had stories that were stranger, crueler, and more crazy.” An old woman interjects: “That’s a story? If I told my story to a rock, it would break its heart.”

VI.

LINE FOR LINE and paragraph for paragraph, Blasim writes more interestingly than Klay, whose prose tends to be flat. The quoted dialogue about “the invisible hand of the market” is an adequate sample of his style. Blasim’s ability as a wordsmith is not necessarily superior to Klay’s, his sentences no better for the way they convey what they say, but his content is more strange and striking. “When we were in high school we used to fuck a prostitute who would give us her customers’ shoes.” “I found myself sitting on the ground, a few paces away from my own burning body!” He is a magical realist whose magic is the contagion of death. His people are mostly civilians, and they are all ruined by the war and its aftermath. His imagination is fertile in gruesome phantasmagorias. The dead speak, and cannibalize one another. A man wakes up with an inappropriate smile on his face, wanders around trying to hide it from his family and maybe get rid of it, then becomes a victim of violence. Certain members of a family can make knives disappear or reappear, and when one of these adepts, kidnapped and tortured by terrorists because he has dealt in pornography, is condemned to have his arms cut off, he vanishes all their swords and knives, so “they decided to amputate his arms with bullets. . . . They set fire to him and chanted, ‘God is most great.’”

As you can see, Blasim has a sense of humor. He must have learned his jokes from the Grim Reaper. Here’s one story that will give you a good laugh: A kidnapped man gets sold from one militant group to the next. Each time, they pose him in one of those nightmare confessional videos with which we are now all too familiar. First he is an Iraqi Army officer who has been raping and killing by order of the Americans, and his captors pose him by a bunch of severed human heads. Then he is an Iranian-sponsored murderer, then a Sunni terrorist, and so it goes. Finally he must act out the part of a bloodthirsty Afghan leader of Al Qaeda; “they slaughtered the men in front of me like sheep as I . . . made threats against everyone in creation.” Blasim is an artist of the horrendously extraordinary.

As for Klay, although he has obviously drawn on the experiences of others for his protagonists, each of whom has a different army job and family background, the situations and characters feel somewhat homogeneous. This does not make me think less of him or his stories. In fact Redeployment is an enormously challenging book with which to engage. First it made me angry; then it made me think. There is very little hope in it, but much sincerity. One of his heroes declaims: “i dont feel bad about shooting mosques and never will they were insurgent ratholes every fucking one.” What can I do with this statement but grant it some sort of reality? Having been to a mosque or two in my time, I don’t believe that all mosques are insurgent ratholes. But I do believe that some Americans, who may or may not be soldiers, think so, and that I am hiding my head in the sand until I accept that they think so.

VII.

IN ONE OF Blasim’s most Borges-like stories, an Iraqi refugee tries to start a new life in Europe. “When he applied for asylum in Holland he also applied to change his name: from Salim Abdul Husain to Carlos Fuentes”—because, as his cousin advised him, “perhaps you should choose a brown name—a Cuban or Argentine name would suit your complexion, which is the color of burnt barley bread.” And so Carlos Fuentes marries a nice Dutch woman, and lives happily ever after until he leaps from his apartment window. His dreams of Iraq have gotten to him. In the final nightmare, he has become a terrorist with a rifle, killing children and everyone else “with skill and precision.” He finds himself taking aim at Salim Abdul Husain, who escapes him by jumping out the window.

In fact there is no escape, either for “them” or for “us.” I highly recommend both these books for their ability to make you feel the ghastliness of that “different place,” the place where “we” and “they” must now live out certain nightmares.

William T. Vollmann is the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including the seven-volume study of war and violence Rising Up and Rising Down (McSweeney's, 2002). His book Last Story and Other Stories will be published by Viking in July.

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