Still in Bed
by Elliott Colla
As Iraq returns to American news, we should recall that the eleventh anniversary of the US invasion passed in March with little comment in the US media. The silence of March, compared to the roar of current commentary, speaks volumes about our inability or unwillingness to learn from the past. March 17 could have been the occasion to reflect, but it was not. Reflection and self-critique are things that losers do. And as Americans, we are committed to the premise that above all we are winners, not losers.
The fact is that we have forgotten so much about our adventures in Iraq. We have forgotten the lies of our leaders and how they hurled about baseless charges of existential threat, national security and mass terror. We have erased our memory of war hawks pressing flim-flam legal cases against a brutal and criminal regime that, by all rights, should have been competently tried in a court of international law. We have pardoned the journalists who supplied truthy conjecture when facts were not to be found. We excused the all-volunteer soldiers and security industry mercenaries who committed war crimes while waving the banner of freedom and democracy. We absolved battalions of intelligence officers who tortured Iraqis, as well as those low-level reservists who sought to emulate them with a pathetic, second-hand Sadism. And we exonerated all those generals and secretaries who covered up for these atrocities and let our crimes there go uninvestigated and unpunished. We forgot and we forgave, and we absolved the criminals so that they might turn around and pardon our failure to stop them.
Mission Accomplished. Turn the page. Move forward. Closure.
It is that dream of closure which opens the door to forgetting, just as forgetting invites repetition. But closure is a literary device, nothing more. And forgetting—as Freud reminds us—is an ongoing process, never complete, never concluded. Which means it is not that "we have forgotten Iraq," but rather, "we are still very much in the process of forgetting Iraq."
The process of forgetting Iraq has taken—and will continue to take—a great deal of effort and organization, since what is being forgotten involves a decade of mass violence and war crimes as experienced by millions of Iraqis and tens of thousands of Americans and others. A mere memory lapse could not perform this task, nor would a simple dose of repression. This kind of collective event involves a special kind of forgetting. Which is to say, it entails active forms of remembrance. To overwrite our memory, we need to supplant it with other images and stories. Vivid stories. Stories full of detail, adventure and heartbreak. Stories of life on the edge, stories about mortality and camaraderie. Stories so good that they override and outweigh lived experience and knowable facts. To forget is a profoundly creative process. Artistic, even.
The Military-Literary Complex
It is natural that the process of forgetting Iraq has coincided with a remarkable growth in literary storytelling about American war experiences in that country. David Abrams, Kevin Powers, Brian Turner, and most recently,Phil Klay—the list of warrior writers is steadily growing, and the promotion of their work reflects a major investment on the part of the nation’s largest commercial publishers. Well-written, well-placed and well-received, these stories are fast forming a literary canon on the Iraq war, adding to a long, significant tradition of war writing in American letters.
Few critics—Sinan Antoon, Theo Tait, and M. Lynx Qualey—have written critically about this reception, and pointed out that the sacralization of American war violence in literature is not so different from the interventionist discourse that produced the invasion or the humanitarian-security logic that sustained a corrupt and violent occupation no one ever believed in.
As these critics argue in their respective ways, the outpouring of American literature on Iraq entails a process of overwriting Iraqi experience with American ones. Of course, this is not how American warrior authors have conceived of their works. Nor is it how the works have been marketed by publicists or how they have been reviewed in the press. On the contrary, American works of Iraq War literature offer themselves as conscientious acts of remembrance. Some even offer an ethical promise to not forget. Most of all, they promise a form of humanism that transcends politics and culture. As Andrew Carroll, organizer of the Operation Homecoming project, and editor of the anthology of the same name, asserted,
[These] writings transcend the subject of war and teach us about grief, hope, violence, compassion, empathy, resilience, and the precariousness of life. Without question there is intrigue, humor, suspense, and drama in these stories of men and women who have endured the crucible of battle. But as with all great literature, there is also hard-earned wisdom about the human condition from which all of us can learn.By now it is not difficult to trace a circle of literary-minded assertions about the humanism of the US war in Iraq, emanating from the Department of Defense and NEA, as well as high-brow cultural and literary organizations, publishing houses and corporate media. It is not entirely an exaggeration to say that a military-literary complex has emerged in recent years.
Antoon’s recent critique of contemporary American war poetry is seminal because it allows us to notice the complex ties that have arisen between the military and American literary culture. Following his argument, I will argue that so far this writing needs to be read as "embedded literature." By this I mean that American literature on the Iraq war does not yet mark a break from the earlier practice of embedded journalism in Iraq or the subsequent outpouring of "embedded memoirs." Rather, it indicates a continuation, though now in new literary genres and with the blessing and support of crucial sectors within the American literary establishment.
Like embedded journalism, these literary works depict the invasion and occupation of Iraq in a very particular and narrow way, that is, as an exclusively American event. As Antoon put it with regard to the award-winning "embedded poet" Brian Turner:
[The poems] did represent the visceral violence of the war, of course, but they never questioned the genealogy of the war itself nor its ideological edifice. What the poems do is humanize the soldier (in a volunteer army) and represent him as a victim, at the expense of civilians (Iraqis). Or, at best, they posit an equivalence between soldiers and civilians. That is quite problematic since being a civilian in a war zone is not voluntary, but being a soldier in the US’s war machine is.As it turns out, this assertion—that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was an American rather than Iraqi event, with victims spread more or less evenly on all sides—lies at the heart of the forgetting project, whether in journalism or in literature.
The Military Bed
Throughout the invasion and occupation of Iraq, much of the story was framed through the practices of embedded journalism. That structure—the military bed—ensured that Americans viewed the events of war and occupation partly as though through the scope of a rifle, but mostly as though it was a buddy story. The critique of embedded journalism was already established even before the first boots hit the ground, and it has been revisited often since 2003, but it is useful to recall some of the dimensions. Months before the ground campaign began, media outlets were invited to send reporters to "Embedded Boot Camps" specially designed to facilitate their socialization within units and to prevent reporters from getting in the way of making war. On arrival, members of this all-volunteer press corps were issued Kevlar helmets and military regalia. They ate in mess halls, slept in barracks, and were taught how to shit like a grunt. They were given cursory training in marching, combat preparedness and first aid. They were taught how to speak the local jargon and how to use acronyms whenever possible. They signed a contractthat indemnified the military and gave the Department of Defense the right to terminate the arrangement at any time.
In truth, embedding was a completely voluntary scheme, and many reporters and outlets chose to never get into the bed that had been made for them. Many remained behind the lines to cover the conflict by way of Pentagon and Centcom press briefings or from neighboring capitals. Other American reporters—like Anthony Shadid, Dahr Jamail, and Nir Rosen—ventured outside the wire to cover the events from the perspective of civilian Iraq. But because the occupation became increasingly violent, the bed was never empty. In the mainstream media, it played a dominant role in shaping the story.
We need to recall that when the military bed was made in late 2002, it was a response to loud criticism on the part of the media about the lack of information in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Pentagon had been stumbling in efforts to explain the flow of information in active combat theatres, as evinced whenDouglas J. Feith addressed the Defense Writers Group in February 2002:
Defense Department officials don't lie to the public. And we are confident that the truth serves our interests in the broadest sense of national security and specifically in this war. The use of information in the war, in order to facilitate the work of our armed forces and help them fulfill their missions, is very important. Everybody who follows the military affairs and knows military history knows how important information can be at the operational and tactical level. There are all kinds of things that one wants to improvise about the use of information from things like the way you bring information to an area of operations… There are all kinds of uses of information for which policy is required. There's also the issue, as I was saying, about operational and tactical use of information. We have an interest in the enemy not knowing, not being confident about what we’re going to do. And there are all kinds of ways of affecting enemies' perceptions of what our armed forces are doing that don't involve Defense Department officials lying to the public.To be fair, the bed did provide unfettered access (of a kind) to those journalists who consented to the arrangement. The result was a productive one, enabling a wealth of reporting from the field. The stories were textured and detailed, and most importantly, human.
Nonetheless, critics excoriated the explicit rules of censorship that conditioned reporting from the military bed. Bodies were buried, dispatches delayed, names and places changed to ensure the security of ongoing military operations. Yet, as Judith Butler has pointed out, censorship is not merely "restrictive and privative, that is, active in depriving subjects of the freedom to express themselves in certain ways, but also formative of subjects and the legitimate boundaries of speech."1 In other words, censorship—even of the most restrictive military kind—has productive effects and these are arguably the ones that have had the most lasting impact on our understanding of the war and occupation.
In practical terms, it is not so difficult to see how embedded censorship enabled relations and identities as well as collective memories. First and foremost, the practice of embedding succeeded in fostering genuine empathy between journalists and the units with whom they traveled. Friendships, even lifelong friendships, take root in times of intense crisis and life reckoning. The first wave of writing about the war—the dispatches from 2003 and the memoirs that came out in the years that followed—are filled with poignant scenes in which (supposedly liberal) journalists and (supposedly barbaric) grunts learn to overcome their mutual distrust. In the Iraq war memoirs of embedded journalists—like Evan Wright’s Generation Kill, later adapted into an HBO series—we see on display all the rites of passage we might expect to find in an old-fashioned ethnography: the arrival in the camp of the exotic and dangerous militaristic tribe; the first inarticulate gestures of revulsion and admiration; the learning to speak the language of the Other; and finally—after a blood sacrifice—the ethnographer-journalist catches a glimpse of the deeper humanity that binds all men together, especially during times of war. The narratives differ in some respects, but by and large, they tell the romance of how the (supposedly liberal) reporter has come to have nothing but the very deepest respect for the GI, warts and all. Whether intended or not, the military bed gave rise to a compelling new narrative form that combined elements of the nineteenth-century high colonial swashbuckler, the police procedural, and the bromance.
And this is where forgetting comes in. By agreeing to work in Iraq according to the rules set out by the US military, the war was reported primarily as an American drama. In the theatre of operations, the narrative was told from point of view of GIs on the ground. These were our men and women. They were citizens, not draftees. Their problems were extraordinary and also ordinary. In essence, their stories belonged to all of us. When non-Americans entered in the story, they invariably lacked rich psychological depth and complexity. If Iraqis appeared at all, it was mostly as extras in the occasional crowd or hospital ER scene or, more colorfully, as deadly (but usually inept) arch-villains—hajjis, jihadis, Ali Babas. In the embedded story, non-Americans lacked personal history, lacked direct quotes, and lacked human aspirations and dreams. In other words, they lacked character and they lacked story.
This happened not because the journalists who attempted to cover the war and occupation were less professional than in the past, or because they were racist, or because they accepted the neoconservative rationale for the war. It happened because, with very few exceptions, they agreed to work in Iraq according to the rules of embedded reporting. True, in the worst cases, journalists served as stenographers for military brass, effectively translating Pentagon bullet points into headlines. More often however, the failures stemmed from the difficulty of imagining stories that went beyond the headboard of the military bed. Once embedded, it was difficult for journalists to imagine what the war was like for anyone but the US soldiers they ate and joked with.
Embeddedness did not mean that all was sweetness and light. On the contrary, criticism and griping were tolerated and even highlighted, as in the famous media campaigns of 2004 that criticized the Department of Defense for failing to provide proper armor on vehicles. Moreover, violence was depicted, as was horror. But, in the military bed, the horrors of war were those faced by American GIs, not Iraqi civilians. When Iraqi suffering did appear in embedded reporting, it was often in the context of a narrative about American doctors saving lives, or as something regretful and woefully absurd.
The military bed thus helped to create and maintain a very powerful myth about the Iraq war and occupation, namely that it was mostly, or even entirely an American experience. To return to Antoon’s point: inside this storyline, it was hard to imagine that the vast majority of the participants in the war were not Americans and not armed combatants. And it was easy to imagine that the scales of those killed and injured "on both sides" were comparable. That "hard/easy to imagine" aspect is key to understanding how stories work to enable forgetting. Indeed, a strong myth is one that renders other stories—especially contrary stories—unimaginable. These other stories were never forgotten—they were never even considered to begin with.
In an essay to follow, I will sketch in more detail how the history of embedded journalism has come to have a new life in literature. We may have changed the sheets and put poetical bon-bons on the pillow, but we are still in the same old bed.
1. Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997), 132.