First published on BIKYAMASR
“The American Soldier”: That is the title of a traveling photographic exhibition that has been on the road since 2007, capturing unusual scenes from nine wars, since the Civil War – one of the first armed conflicts to be widely photographed – to the streets of Baghdad, in 116 images. Cyma Rubin, the creator of the exhibit, says that she first thought about the project in 1995 while seeing a picture taken of an American soldier during World War II and wondered: “He looks like he’s thinking, ‘Why should I be here?’”.
From an initial selection of 4,000 pictures she came up with the hundred-and-something: “This exhibit touches a patriotic nerve – capturing the joy, the sadness and, sometimes, even death – that’s at the core of soldiering. It’s very emotional.” Furthermore, she adds that the exhibit is totally apolitical and that those looking for an anti-war statement, or one that glorifies conflict, will be sorely disappointed. The exhibit still is – undeniably – a tribute to American soldiers, and one is uncertain whether it humanizes or romanticizes the drama of war.
In the introduction to Annie Leibowitz’s 1999 book of photographs, “Women”, Susan Sontag writes: “It’s for us to decide what to make of these pictures. After all, a photograph is not an opinion. Or is it?” The bombardment of war images taking place daily makes it seem unlikely that an image suffices to make an opinion, at least an informed one. The case of books – particularly those dealing with the selfsame dramas of war – is very different and it would be difficult to pin down a book without an opinion.
In the genre of war writing – ranging from chronicles, to diaries, memoirs, history books, journalists’ accounts and novels – that inundate the bookshelves of Middle Eastern contemporary history, we find the most diverse range of opinions about war and the many wars that have plagued the region; what is rare however is to hear a story told by the “Other”, that is, an American soldier deployed in Iraq, and rarer even how difficult it is to think of his book as having an “opinion”.
Vince Perritano’s novel “After We’re Free” (2008, third edition 2011, Wheatmark) comes to fill this gap with an uncanny sense of impaired judgment about the overtly complex and multi-layered story that he is telling, while at the same time he offers us a glimpse into the opinions that the experience of war imprinted on his fictive characters. But what he is offering in this curious novel isn’t simply the literary geography of what an author might think, imagine or research that the experience of war is like.
In the preface to the novel he writes: “In late March 2007, I was twenty-one and in my third year with the U.S. Marine Corps when my unit, 3rd Battalion 7th Marines, was deployed early as part of the 3,000 extra Marines sent to take control of the Al Anbar Province in the troop surge. We were sent back to Ramadi, the capital of Al Anbar, which is where we fought Al Qaeda and its partners at a critical part of the war in 2005 and 2006.”
We also learn that the novel was written during the author’s second tour in Iraq in 2007. Whatever there is of truth in the novel – as distinguished from simply fiction – is something that we will never know.
Would have the book been “truer” had it been a memoir or an auto-biography? An answer is difficult to come by. Freud, one of the greatest readers of the modern consciousness writes in a letter to a friend in 1929: “What makes all autobiographies worthless is, after all, their mendacity.” In another letter from 1936 he completes the thought: “Anyone turning biographer commits himself to lies, to concealment, to hypocrisy, to flattery, and even to hiding his own lack of understanding.”
The crucial point for Freud is that both biography and autobiography essentially lie and Sarah Kofman, a contemporary French philosopher and one of the 20th century’s most able readers of Freud, insists that any auto-biography is false and written with a retroactive illusion and with the purpose of idealization. While Kofman pointed at the fallacy, she also recognized that autobiography leaks itself into any literary and intellectual endeavor, and paradoxically, after writing her own autobiography, she took her own life in 1994.
But Isak Dinesen’s famous saying, “All sorrows can be borne if you can put them into a story or tell a story about them” serves here the purpose of showing how novels – and literature in general – perform a task nobler than that of chronicling events in which one was himself a participant, and that are probably already diluted and watered down infinitely by personal subjective experience. A case in point here would be the enormous corpus of auto-biographical literature on the Lebanese Civil War or the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
“After We’re Free” is a polyphonic novel, ineludibly American, set simultaneously in Ramadi and different American cities, written in a discontinuous present that defies the narrative ego – for the story is told in the first person – and in itself proves how unreliable a device the memory is for storing events chronologically; preferring to speak in terms of colors and tones, grasping or at least attempting to grasp the ever changing particulars of existence, that are never bound by any such a thing as a fundamental essence.
The events – for want of a better word – are interrupted constantly by dreams, by nightmares, by hallucinations and sometimes by fragmentary recollections that are indistinguishable from the above mentioned. But the somber realities of the Iraq war are indisputable: “As a new guy I came to Iraq scared, but when I hadn’t been hit after a couple of months I gradually lost the fear. The complacency set in, and as soon as I began to wonder if I could go the whole time here without being hit, I got smacked hard.”
Bradley Multriener is a twenty-one-year old corporal in Ramadi, a place that he dares to call home: “As much of a home this place is for me, I still can’t find a place to escape my disposition. No matter where I go, my discontent follows me.” One is here reminded of Amin Maalouf’s writing: “It could be that an accident, a casual encounter, weigh more in our feeling of identity than a thousand years heritage.” In the words of Multriener: “I was now part Iraqi, and Azooz was part American. Not by choice, we just rubbed off on each other like that.”
How could an American soldier feel himself at home in Iraq? Is this not a war? An occupation? To be sure there’s little Romanticism to invoke here, for the young soldier sees Iraq with the eyes of unmistaken accuracy: “I’ve heard some say that this place was once the Garden of Eden. If that place really existed I could see how this might be it. If it was, we must have fallen hard, hitting our head on the crumbling concrete ground.” In between a wide array of singular meditations, far and close to the trenches of war, he continues:
“I wasn’t even sure on which side I’m fighting. I felt at times that, as a Marine in Iraq, I might be the real terrorist.” He expresses uncertainty over the Anbar Awakening: “That’s the reason I was told why the city, in which I lost my best friend last year, was suddenly the prototype for a new Iraq. I can’t be so sure, though. I remember hearing that Al Qaeda claimed Ramadi as the capital of The Islamic State. How could they let it go that easy? They have to be out here somewhere; waiting, planning, recovering.”
Everyone in both East and West recalls by now the haunting images of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib at the hands of American soldiers and Susan Sontag warns in “Regarding the Torture of Others” (2004) with prophetic vision:
“After all, we’re at war. Endless war. And war is hell. “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we’re going to kick some ass.” (George W. Bush, September 11, 2001) Hey, we were only having fun. In our digital hall of mirrors, the pictures aren’t going to go away. Yes, it seems that one picture is worth a thousand words. And even if our leaders chose not to look at them, there will be a thousand more snapshots and videos. Unstoppable.”
That this happens to be case – Afghanistan, Syria, Bahrain – is only illuminating in respect to the novel: “The way so many people were able to treat Iraqis are subhuman really disturbed me. I don’t know where they got it from, and trying to change them always seemed to be in vain. To avoid serious disputes I usually avoided talking to anyone on a deeper than surface level. That’s not how it’s supposed to be with your brothers in arms, and that’s not how it always was. But now my best friend’s dead and all of our minds seem to be further casualties of war.”
The horrors of war are not spared even by one bit – there are painful descriptions of witnessing the suicide of a woman or being invited to an Iraqi home to be told how an American missile had made the man’s daughter blind – but interestingly enough, that is not the gist of the novel. At the core of the story there is nothing but an intense tale of bonding and friendship between Azooz, an Iraqi insurgent translator and the American soldier: “Azooz told me how, in Iraq, everyone lost someone, but most lost everyone to the war.”
The late Tim Hetherington, both and expert and casualty of war, told Tyler Malone in an interview shortly before his death: “The war-machine is: take a group of young men, train them together and put them on the side of a mountain, and they’re gonna kill and be killed for each other. It’s something very human.” This is precisely the story that “After We’re Free” is telling.
The novel does manage to form and offer an opinion: “They got us fighting against each other. They want us both to lose. And the longer we fight each other the more we are winning the war for them.” In the end, war isn’t simply a moment in time, it’s not a past, but rather a never-ending present that devours itself; the riddle of the mysterious and redeeming novel is found at the very beginning: “It’s a strange path one walks to make himself able to kill a man. Stranger, though, is being there and trying to return.”