Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars: MLA 2016

Austin-MLA-2016At the recent Modern Language Association (MLA)  conference in Austin, Texas, six of us convened a panel titled “Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars” to discuss the memoirs, fiction, and poetry of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ikram Masmoudi, whose War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction I recently reviewed, wasn’t able to join us, unfortunately, but Stacey Peebles, Patrick Deer, Roy Scranton, AB Huber, and I reiterated and expanded upon remarks we have posted on our panel website. Our moderator, Aaron DeRosa, offered brief introductory remarks that set the tone for the panel, and, it should be noted that he and Peebles are coediting an upcoming issue of Modern Fiction Studies devoted to Iraq and Afghanistan war literature—the call for papers of which can be found here.

DeRosa had us speak in order of increasingly speculative and conceptual slant, so while Peebles, Deer, and I began by taking mostly backward looks at works already written, Scranton’s and Huber’s concluding comments made provocative challenges to future war writers. Scranton reminded us that war writing, whatever its virtues, owes its existence to war’s victims, a fact depressing enough to contemplate when we’re talking about Americans and even worse when war lit’s triumphs are predicated on the dead bodies of Iraqis and Afghans who neither asked for war nor benefited from it. To make his point, Scranton suggested that Hassan Blasim’s “The Corpse Exhibition,” about an Iraqi virtuoso of artistic war-death, is arguably the most apt war story written to date for how it dramatizes the moral reprehensibility of producing art about killing. In its wake, Scranton warned, less self-conscious war fiction risks naivety and ethical undernourishment.

Huber took the discussion to even more intriguing places. Riffing on the latent implications of “unmanned” in the phrase “unmanned aerial devices,” Huber inquired what it meant for war fiction when its heroes are displaced from the battlefield to drone command centers 1000s of miles away. Speculating that new ways of war, such as drone-fighting, that don’t have men staring death in the face are rendering conventional war fiction, poetry, and memoir obsolete, Huber suggested that modern war has generated new textual forms such as “the leak”: depersonalized, de-narrativized documents stripped of authorial experience and authority and creative origin and which fuzz the borders between official and unofficial. Sporting with one of my own lines, “When the great work about war in Iraq and Afghanistan is written, it will be written by a woman,” Huber suggested that battlefield records placed into public view by Chelsea Manning’s Wikileaks already constituted the exemplary literary artifact of 21st-century war.

Huber’s comments might be considered fanciful by non-academic audiences, but they got the roomful of scholars thinking—exactly the kind of visionary re-imagining of the possibilities of war literature we all hoped the panel would inspire. The body of modern war literature so far produced, centered on the experience of author-combatants, earnestly tries to set the conditions for its understanding. Discerning readers, however, accept neither war writing’s ideas nor its premises as either self-evident or given, and have begun to work it over hard. Once more, I encourage you to read the statements posted on our MLA panel website–they are important first words in the process.


Austin was full of pleasures other than MLA, and a real highlight for me was meeting and having lunch with Brian Van Reet, the author of two of my favorite short stories about war in Iraq, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and “Eat the Spoil.” Van Reet’s novel Spoils, he is happy to report, will be out in 2017.

Brian Van Reet, Austin, Texas, January 2016.
Brian Van Reet, Austin, Texas, January 2016.

Ikram Masmoudi’s War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction

Ikram MasmoudiIkram Masmoudi’s most welcome War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction surveys a remarkable body of fiction that portrays from the inside Iraq’s 30+ year history of war, oppression, invasion, occupation, and sectarian violence beginning with the Iran-Iraq War in 1980. According to Masmoudi, novels authored prior to Saddam Hussein’s overthrow by US forces in 2003 were marked by the Ba’athist regime’s censoring practices, but immediately following 2003 Iraqi authors in numbers uninhibitedly began writing novels that portrayed with critical urgency and imagination both the Iran-Iraq War and the 1991 Gulf War. Very soon, they also began to write novels that depicted the horrendous social turmoil unleashed by American occupation and subsequent sectarian violence. American readers might be somewhat aware of fiction by Hassan Blasim and Sinan Antoon, two expatriate Iraqi authors in the tradition of which Masmoudi writes. Masmoudi touches on both Blasim and Antoon, but the primary focus of her study is a series of mostly-untranslated novels written by authors unable to flee tyrannical power, foreign occupation, and sectarian conflict. Based on Masmoudi’s accounts of these works, one can only hope they are quickly brought into English, for they appear to combine compelling storylines, perceptive insights, and literary craft to a high degree.

War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction chapters on the novels of the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War are full of interest, but of most concern here are two chapters devoted to works set in post-2003 Iraq. In Chapter Three, titled, “Bare Life in ‘New Iraq,’” Masmoudi examines three novels whose protagonists are interpreters working for Americans. The protagonist of each novel begins as a hopeful idealist, mostly secular and not ideologically motivated, and each is brought to ruin by the experience of trying to assist Americans. The protagonist of Shakir Nuri’s The Green Zone (2009) translates for a high-ranking officer in the Coalition Provincial Authority. Appalled by the ignorance and brutality of his American bosses and driven to seek vengeance against them for the death of his wife, Nuri’s protagonist detonates a suicide vest at a Green Zone gathering of CPA and Iraqi leaders. Inaam Kachachi’s The American Granddaughter (2008, with an English translation in 2012) features an Iraqi-American heroine who returns to Iraq to serve as a translator for American forces. Naïve and unassuming at first, she soon realizes that rather than aiding Iraq’s transition to democracy, she is participating in its subjugation to the extent of accompanying US soldiers on raids on the homes of innocent non-combatants. In Baghdad Marlboro (2012), by Najm Wali, an American Gulf War veteran returns to Iraq to seek forgiveness and reconciliation with the families of soldiers he helped kill in 1991. The goodwill quest immediately goes awry; the American is quickly kidnapped and killed and the translator he has retained to help him must flee for his own life from the perpetrators of the murder.

The novels described in Chapter Three of War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction describe the occupation and individual Americans unflatteringly enough, but do so in the context of a more general Iraqi social deterioration plagued by problems more of Iraq’s own making (though of course connected to the occupation). Fundamentalist, sectarian, and Iraqi criminal violence arguably equal the horrors of American imposition of force for the protagonists of The Green Zone, The American Granddaughter, and Baghdad Marlboro. The novel Masmoudi explores in Chapter Four, however, is much more uncompromising in its indictment of Americans. The chapter, titled “Bare Life in the Camp,” examines at length Shakir Nuri’s The Madmen of Camp Bucca (2012). Nuri here is unsparing in his portrait of the atrocious carceral conditions of the American prison camp named in its title, which housed upwards of 20,000 prisoners in makeshift conditions in a remote desert corner of Iraq. The horrors of Camp Bucca have been amply described in Helen Benedict’s novel Sand Queen (2011), but based on the quotations from The Madmen of Camp Bucca provided by Masmoudi, Benedict didn’t know the half of it. Masmoudi doesn’t offer biographies of the authors she studies, so it’s not clear if Nuri was incarcerated at Camp Bucca (or if he and the other Chapter Three authors worked as interpreters themselves) and thus speaks from first-hand experience. In any case, though, the quoted passages from The Madmen of Camp Bucca are full of damning detail and overlaid with a sense of dismay that the American occupiers are not just brutal, but inept and thoughtless. One passage from Nuri’s novel, for example, takes aim at the ignominy of Camp Bucca being named after a New York City firefighter who gave his life trying to save others at the fall of the Twin Towers:

Oh you, the firefighter whom America committed a crime against, you sacrificed your life to save innocent Americans; America did nothing more than humiliate you by naming after you the worst prison ever in the history of humanity…. Oh my God, does this man deserve to be insulted every day while his soul still hovers above the place of the crime? And to make matters worse, America invited the daughter of this man to visit the camp to bless this quagmire that bears the name of her father.

Camp Bucca has its defenders and apologists–its Wikipedia entry, for example, appears to have been written by a US military public relations team–but those trying to put a shiny face on whatever happened there will be arguing uphill in wake of Nuri’s (and Benedict’s) depiction. But Nuri suggests that a shiny face was never the point of Camp Bucca anyway, as its whole purpose was to inflict humiliation on Moslems equal to the anger felt by Americans about 9/11.  The narrator of The Madmen of Camp Bucca reports:

Every time the guards look at the banner with the name “Bucca” on it, they show their teeth and become even more violent towards us, as if we had exploded the World Trade Center. Cursed is New York who is sending us such people.

Masmoudi resurfaces an interesting statement in this regard by Henry Kissinger found in Bob Woodward’s State of Denial (2006). Woodward writes, “Asked why he had supported the Iraq War, Kissinger replied”:

“Because Afghanistan wasn’t enough” … In the conflict with radical Islam, [Kissinger] said they want to humiliate us. “And we need to humiliate them.” The American response to 9/11 had essentially to be more than proportionate–on a larger scale than simply invading Afghanistan and overthrowing the Taliban. Something else was essential. The Iraq War was essential to send a larger message, “in order to make the point that we are not going to live in the world that they want for us.”

The fiction Masmoudi studies seems perplexed that Iraq’s and America’s national histories have had to have been so intertwined in the first place; from Kissinger’s statement it appears that it was Iraq’s bad luck to be in the way of an angry nation eager to take a swing at it-didn’t-care-who-or-what. Iraqi war fiction takes the measure of individual American soldiers often–many novelists describe their first encounter with actual Americans, as in a passage from The Green Zone: “I did not expect to see them except on a TV screen, and here they were, flesh and blood before my eyes; they never tired of searching us.” Clearly enough the American occupiers are found wanting in most cases, though exceptions occur. Five enlisted Marines in The Green Zone, for example, are portrayed as individuals roughly no worse and no better than one might expect. The dominant response, however, is disappointment: narrators and characters repeatedly report their shock on learning that the military forces that deposed Saddam were not just ignorant of Iraq’s rich history and treacherous social dynamics, not just disdainful of its Islamic religion and culture, and not just arrogant in their belief in their own superiority.

Their biggest problem, one gleans, is that Americans were just lousy at doing what they thought needed doing: untrained, unresourced, without a plan, their on-ground performance wildly out of whack with their vaunted goals, ideals, and standards of competence. To Iraqis, then, the humiliation of being subjugated by boobs adds stinging insult to real injury and abuse. Generous amounts of self-loathing on this count permeate Iraqi war fiction, along with many other forms of guilt and internalized hatred brought about by a sense of ineptitude and helplessness. Iraqi authors use fiction to portray injustice wrought by foreign occupiers, but also to come to terms with their own complicity—both personal and collective—in allowing a proud nation to precipitate its own destruction over the course of thirty torturous years. This complex attitude, sad as it is, enriches and elevates the fiction that documents it and might even be said to account for the body of work. Deprived of all other forms of productive, legitimate, and non-violent citizenship, the authors and characters of Iraqi war fiction resort out of necessity to story-telling to bear witness, call for change, and assert their agency.

Iraq’s post-2003 war fiction, in Masmoudi’s reading of it, privileges the point-of-view of dissidents, deserters, prisoners, suicide bombers, and other marginal figures, to include lowly soldiers given little choice but to obey orders and kill or be killed. Masmoudi sees the Iraqi war fiction corpus as exemplifying the ideas of influential Italian political theorist Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (1998); Agamben terminology such as “homo sacer,” “bare life,” “state of exception,” and “the camp” organizes and deepens Masmoudi’s analysis at many points. Agamben is generally thought to critique Western modes of thought and political organization, so Masmoudi cinches his relevance to the Islamic Middle East milieu of Iraq by linking Agambian notions to post-colonial scholar Achille Mbembe’s concept of “necropolitics”—a social order predicated on technological means of killing—and Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the devastating psychological effects of colonialism on both colonizer and colonized. Lurking behind Agamben, Mdbeme, and Fanon is Michel Foucault’s “biopower”: the exertion of political power through control of the body politic.

These heavy-hitter theorists are handled accessibly and sensibly by Masmoudi; Iraq war fiction titles such as Freedom of the Bagged Heads (Jasim al-Rasif, 2007), The Dead of Baghdad (Jamal Husaya Ali, 2008), Killers (Diya Ali-Khalidi, 2012), The Morgue of Baghdad (Burhan Shawi, 2012), The Corpse Washer (Sinan Antoon, 2010, translated into English in 2013), The Corpse Exhibition (Hassan Blasim, 2013), and Frankenstein in Baghdad (Ahmad Al-Sadawi, 2013) suggest how Mbembe for one is on to something. In any case, Masmoudi’s approach is more thematic than theoretical. We might hope for even more historical and biographical context than she offers. Who are the authors she studies, and are they representative of a large segment of Iraq citizenry or a particularized class of intellectual-artistic dissidents? Were ideologically-motivated Shias and Sunnis publishing fiction? What were the conditions of publication in Iraq during the American years—who was reading, who was publishing, how popular were the works, and what was their influence? What control over media, print, and culture did Americans try to exert (probably none, through either benign or sloppy neglect, but still worth exploring)? Inaam Kachachi, the author of The American Granddaughter, is a woman, but the other authors under examination are men; what else might we learn from fiction written by Iraqi women? Everything Masmoudi offers for consideration is excellent, but leaves me, and hopefully others, wanting more. A logical first step will be the translation into English of all the novels of which she writes.

Ikram Masmoudi is an assistant professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Delaware. War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction was published in 2015 by Edinburgh University Press as part of its Studies in Modern Arabic Literature series. The translations provided in the passages quoted above are Masmoudi’s.

Comp Lit, ComiCon, and Contemporary Iraqi War Fiction

At the American Comparative Literature Conference last week in Seattle, I participated in a seminar titled “What Does War Look Like? Visual Trauma and Representation.” Organized by Brenda Sanfilippo, a UC-Santa Cruz professor whose husband is a former paratrooper, the seminar explored the ethics and aesthetics of photographs, films, comic books, and graphic novels depicting war, conflict, and violence. My own contribution was a discussion of an Israeli theorist of photography named Ariella Azoulay. In The Civil Imagination: A Political Ontology of Photography (2012) and two previous works, Azoulay advances a concept called “the photographic situation.” Properly understood, “the photographic situation” expands our understanding of how we might interpret photographs, while suggesting that photography, as a visual medium, uniquely and importantly engages us with the modern world. Heady stuff for sure, but I’ll save the detailed explanation for another post.

Most of the other presentations focused more specifically on actual photographs or other popular culture artifacts. Two presentations that especially interested me were on comic book series, one by Spencer Chalifour on the Hellblazer series and the other by Najwa Al-Tabaa on DMZ. I didn’t know either Hellblazer or DMZ, each of which address war in Iraq or a generalized state of emergency post-9/11, or much really about comic books at all, but am perfectly willing to consider that comic books, graphic novels, cartoons, and comic culture directly or indirectly channel the zeitgeist that envelops the hearts and minds of soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we expand our definition of comic culture to include video gaming, role-playing games, and animated movies, I know it. Among a million other data points, I could point to Chris Kyle’s admission in American Sniper of his love for playing Command and Conquer, a shooter-killer video game, in-between real-world sniper missions in Iraq. He wasn’t the only soldier whose entertainment choices—more visual than textual—blurred and blended with his or her experience of combat.



As it happened, next door to the ACLA conference, the Emerald City ComiCon, or “ECCC,” was taking place at the Washington State Convention Center. Needless to say, ECCC’s attendance dwarfed ACLA’s, and its attendees looked like they were having a hell of a lot more fun. The Convention Center grounds swelled with thousands of comic culture nuts, costumed to the hilt, gathered to celebrate their favorite comic book, animé, cosplay, sci-fi, fantasy, and role-playing-game works, heroes, authors, and creators. It was impossible not to be jazzed by the explosion of imaginative energy and cheerful sociability. There was a critical edge, too, of a sort, to ECCC, though quite unlike the super-serious tone of ACLA. “How to Make Beer Money with Your Comic or Zine,” ran one panel title that caught my eye. Noticeably absent from the ECCC agenda, however, were testosterone-soaked shooter games such as Call of Duty and action-adventure games such as Grand Theft Auto, the likes of which soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan by the hundreds of thousands enjoyed. The ComiCon crowd is not shy about its fascination with darkness, perversity, evil, and violence, but it is a very stylized engagement—very girly and geeky and progressive–that eschews militarism and modern war, not that that’s a bad thing….

Fellow ACLA attendee and US Army major and Iraq veteran Deborah Dailey and me at Emerald City ComicCon, 2015.
Fellow ACLA attendee and US Army major and Iraq veteran Deborah Dailey and me at Emerald City ComicCon, 2015.

Meanwhile, back at ACLA, I was delighted to listen to a paper titled “The Spread of the Camp: Power, Law, and the ‘New Democracy’” given by a University of Delaware professor named Ikram Masmoudi at a panel on contemporary Arabic literature. Masmoudi, as if in answer to a question I never asked because I didn’t know who the heck to query, catalogued a number of novels published in Iraq since 2003 that portrayed “Operation Iraqi Freedom” from the perspective of Iraqis. Specifically, Masmoudi examined representations in recent Iraqi fiction of American “camps,” or what we might call more often a FOB:  armed enclaves of foreigners that spread parasite-like across the country in the 2000s after the American invasion and, as these things happen, now are being replicated by Iraqi factions themselves as new-fangled communal living spaces organized to meet the demands of civil war.

Masmoudi’s presentation was very exciting to me. I know well the achievement of Hassan Blasim and am somewhat aware that Sinan Antoon’s The Corpse Washer and Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad lurk out there waiting to be read. Now, thanks to Masmoudi, I know that other Iraqi fiction writers have been busy, too. A short list includes:

Madmen of Camp Bucca, by Shakir Noori
Green Zone, by Shakir Noori
The Freedom of the Bagged Heads, by Jassim al-Raseef
The American Granddaughter, by Inaam Kachachi
Beyond Love, by Hadiyya Hussein

War and OccupationA translated version of The American Granddaughter exists and is available for purchase on-line, while Masmoudi herself is translating Beyond Love. The first three await translation from Arabic, but based on Masmoudi’s account of them at ACLA, they have much to offer American readers interested in seeing what the war looked like from the other side. Masmoudi also has an academic study coming out later this year called War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction (Edinburgh University Press). Now who would have predicted a full-length scholarly study of Iraqi war fiction would appear in English before one examining war novels written by our own citizens? Let’s get busy, ye fellow American literature scholars.

Thanks to Brenda Sanfillipo and Najwa Al-Tabaa for organizing our ACLA seminar and inviting me to participate, and thanks to everyone who presented. I haven’t finished thinking about your papers yet.

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