The following essay is reprinted from What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics (Public Affairs, November 2007), edited by Andras Szanto and with an introduction by Orville Schell
From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned.
—George Orwell, 1946
We pride ourselves in being realists first of all, and thus we know well, or tell ourselves we do, that “the first casualty when war comes is truth.”Yet Senator Hiram Johnson’s oft-quoted dictum comes down to us from 1918, a more innocent time, when the hopes for truth and transparency at the heart of the Progressive Era were foundering on the rhetorical exigencies of the Great War. What can this truism mean nine decades later, when applied to a war that is itself in large part a rhetorical creation, a war unbounded by space or by time, unlimited in extent and metaphysical in ambition: a forever war launched against evil itself?
Such is the “War on Terror,”declared in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001, and fought with passionate rhetorical intensity in the half dozen years since. The enemy in this war, the president told Congress and the nation a week after the planes struck, was “heir to all the murderous ideologies of the twentieth century . . . follow[ing] in the path of Fascism, and Nazism, and Totalitarianism”and such a terrible foe called for nothing less than a campaign to “rid this world of evil.”Though for a time the war remained mostly “virtual,”fought mostly “on the dark side,”as Vice President Dick Cheney put it, by intelligence officers, special forces, and, in Afghanistan, a large helping of aerial bombardment, this largely virtual conflict shortly gave birth to a real war, the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The stubborn refusal of the Iraq war to conclude on schedule (Pentagon plans called for all but a few tens of thousands of Americans to be out of Iraq by September 2003) and thus supply the promised “shining example of democracy in the Middle East”in time for the 2004 elections resulted in its wholesale absorption, faute de mieux, into the virtual war. And so Iraq, the failed war, now became, as the self-described “wartime president”dubbed it in his reelection campaign, “the central front of the war on terror.”
Virtual war begets real war. Failure subsumes real war to virtual. Thus did virtual War on Terror became real, an affair of tanks, weekly casualty counts, and an infinitely receding horizon. As I write, President Bush and the Republican candidates to succeed him, with a losing war on their hands and no place to put it, find themselves working tirelessly, unceasingly, to keep the real war safely sheltered under the virtual canopy of the War on Terror, declaring Iraq “the critical battle”in “the defining ideological struggle of our time,”in which defeat will lead to “the terrorists following us home.”The Democrats, meantime, struggle equally hard to drag it back out, branding the Iraq war not only a failure but, more seriously still, a “distraction”from “the real war”—by which they mean, to add another twist of paradox, none other than the War on Terror. More surprising, perhaps, than the fact that the struggle over the ontological character of these wars now comprises the central rhetorical battleground of American politics is our own decided lack of surprise, our ongoing willingness to listen seriously to such verbal shadow play. We have come far since Hiram Johnson’s simple bromides about war and truth.
George Orwell, it is safe to say, would not have been surprised. It was Orwell, after all, who nearly six decades ago fathered the idea of virtual conflict, creating the perpetual world war between the superstates of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia that forms the background to 1984. That never-ending, shapeshifting struggle, it is well to remember, was nearly bloodless, a perpetual war that, “if we judge it by the standards of previous wars, is merely an imposture . . . like the battles between certain ruminant animals whose horns are set at such an angle that they are incapable of hurting one another. But though it is unreal it is not meaningless. . . . [I]t helps to preserve the special mental atmosphere that a hierarchical society needs.”
The comparison, of course, must be inexact. Thousands have died in the War on Terror, and many thousands more in Iraq. These wars are only partly virtual, and it is no accident that the struggle over their reality has attained such a central place in our politics. What Orwell dramatizes is an ideal, the Platonic form of virtual war. What he describes for us — what we must learn from him today — is the power of virtual war to reduce and refine boulders of international armed conflict down to their most valuable political ore. In his conception the great grinding mechanism of modern industrial warfare is stripped of all its material attributes: armies, fighting, even death — all but “the special mental atmosphere”that wars produce. The glittering, priceless ore that remains is the politician’s lodestone, for glowing at its heart is that most lucrative of political emotions: fear. War produces fear. But so also does the rhetoric of war. This— Orwell’s precious insight—leads to the central lesson he brings us about our own perpetual war:What terrorists ultimately produce is not death or mayhem but fear; and in a War on Terror the rich political benefits of that most lucrative emotion will inevitably be shared—between the terrorists themselves and the political leaders who lead the fight against them.
Perhaps it would have surprised Orwell, poet laureate of the Cold War, to find himself so much in our thoughts in this second decade of the post”“Cold War age. The Soviet Union is fifteen years dead, its imperium in the East long since ended. China has entered into a peculiar economic symbiosis with the American capitalist juggernaut, fabricating most of its consumer goods and holding in payment most of its debt. And in this new post-ideological world no writer is more vital than George Orwell, not least because he helps us see how deeply that earlier struggle has marked us, helps us read the signs it has inscribed on the body of our politics.
Gazing at the solemn White House ceremony on December 14, 2004, watching in inarticulate wonder as the newly reelected president placed the Medal of Freedom around the necks of three high officials, I began to perceive, dancing deep in my memory, a line of Orwell’s that I could not quite grasp. Before me on the television screen, neck bent for the president, stood General (ret.) Tommy Franks, who had led the initial “combat phase”of the war in Iraq, that “combat phase”that had never ended. Beside him was L. Paul Bremer, the bold and bumbling proconsul under whose regency the insurgency had taken root and flourished. And beside Bremer, finally, stood George Tenet, the director of central intelligence whose long tenure will be known to history as twice distinguished—by the failure to detect the coming 9/11 attacks and by the certainty about Iraq’s bristling arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, those magical objects that, having provided the casus belli for the war, turned out not to exist. The three men, dedicated public servants all, had been coauthors of failures quite monumental in their implications, a truth that by December 2004 was quite incontestable, whatever your politics. Now they were receiving from the leader’s hands the country’s highest civilian honor and basking in the light and warmth of his smile.
That the truth of their failures was incontestable did not matter. The ceremony served not to proclaim truth but rather to assert and embody a proposition that has been central to the current administration: Truth is subservient to power. Power, rightly applied, makes truth. As I watched the television screen and murmured that simple formula, the fragment of Orwell that had been dancing just beyond the grasp of my consciousness finally took shape: “History is something to be created rather than learned.”In a few moments, even as the freshly bemedaled heroes on the screen were still smiling and shaking hands, I found the full quotation:
From the totalitarian point of view history is something to be created rather than learned. A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. But since, in practice, no one is infallible, it is frequently necessary to rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened.
These words, written in 1946, are imbued with the anti-totalitarian struggle, the one just ended and the one about to begin. Six decades later, the United States is far from a totalitarian state. But we have seen, during these past half dozen years of perpetual war, more than a little of “the totalitarian point of view”and more than a few attempts to “rearrange past events in order to show that this or that mistake was not made, or that this or that imaginary triumph actually happened.”The words might serve as a succinct and elegant description of much of our politics—or, better yet, they might be taken as a caption, ready-made, and placed beneath a photograph of Messrs. Frank, Bremer, and Tenet receiving their medals from a grateful sovereign.
Nearly five years into the Iraq war, at the beginning of a presidential campaign that may well turn on the question of how to end it, one might be pardoned for forgetting that that war already ended once before. More than four years have passed since that richly choreographed victory scene on the USS Abraham Lincoln off the coast of San Diego, when the president, clad jauntily in a flight suit, swaggered across the flight deck, and beneath a banner famously marked “Mission Accomplished,”declared: “Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.”
At first glance, the grand spectacle of May 1, 2003, fits handily into the history of the pageantries of power. Indeed, with its waving banners and thousands of cheering, uniformed extras gathered on the flight deck of that mammoth aircraft carrier, which had to be precisely turned so that the skyline of San Diego, a few miles off, would not be glimpsed by the television audience—this grand event, in its vast conception and its clockwork staging, in its melding of event and image-of-the-event, would have been quite familiar to the great propagandists of the last century (most notably Leni Riefenstahl, who achieved a similar grandeur of image in her 1934 masterpiece, Triumph of the Will). Indeed, however vast and impressive, the May 1 extravaganza seems a propaganda event of a traditional sort, meant to bind the country together in a second precise image of victory (after the carefully staged dethroning of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad two weeks before)—a triumphant image intended to fit neatly into campaign ads for the 2004 election. The president was the star, the sailors and airmen and their enormous dreadnought props in his extravaganza.
For all the historic resonances, though, one can’t help detecting something different here, a kind of . . . knowingness, perhaps even an ironic self-awareness, that would have been unthinkable in 1934. For we have today leaders who are not only radical in their attitudes toward power and truth, rhetoric and reality, but are occasionally willing, to our great benefit, to state this attitude clearly—at least to members of an elite who are thought to have the wit to understand it and to lack the power to do anything about it. In the annals of such frank expressions of the philosophy of power, pride of place must surely be given to this, my favorite quotation of the present age, published in the New York Times Magazine on October 17, 2004, by the writer Ron Suskind, who recounts his discussion with the proverbial “unnamed Administration official,”as follows:
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,”which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,”he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
These words from “Bush’s Brain”—for the unnamed official speaking to Suskind is widely known to have been none other than the selfsame architect of the aircraft-carrier moment, Karl Rove—sketch out with breathtaking frankness a radical view in which power frankly determines reality, and rhetoric, the science of flounces and folderols, follows meekly and subserviently in its train. Those in the “reality-based community”—those such as we—are figures a mite pathetic, for all of our adherence to Enlightenment principles and our scurrying after empirical proof proves only that we have failed to realize the singular new principle of the new age: Power has made reality its bitch.
Given such sweeping claims for power, it is hard to expect much respect for truth (or perhaps it should be “truth,”in knowing, self-mocking quotation marks); for when you can alter reality at will, why pay much attention to the matter of fidelity in describing it? What faith, after all, is owed to the bitch that is wholly in your power, a creature of your own creation?
That relativist conviction—that what the unenlightened naí¯vely call “objective truth”is in fact “a discourse”subservient to power, shaped and ordered by the ruling institutions of our society is by no means new; on the contrary, it has served for decades as the fertile truism at the root of much fashionable academic discourse. Leading humanist theorists of the last three decades, European and American both, might concede an intellectual kinship, not least in the disdain for the unimaginative drones of the “reality-based community”—though perhaps they would find themselves a bit nonplussed to discover the idea so blithely put forward by a finely tailored man sitting in a White House office. Accusing power is one thing, quite another when power feels comfortable enough to confess.
We are so embedded in its age that it is easy to forget the stark, overwhelming shock of it: Nineteen young men with box cutters seized enormous transcontinental airliners and brought those towers down. In an age in which we have become accustomed to two, three, four, five suicide attacks in a single day—in which these multiple attacks in Iraq often don’t even make the front pages of our newspapers—one must make an effort to summon back the openmouthed, stark staring disbelief at that impossible image: the second airliner disappearing into the great office tower, almost weirdly absorbed by it, and emerging, transformed into a great yellow-and-red blossom of flame, on the other side; and then, half an hour later, the astonishing flowering collapse of the hundred-story structure, metamorphosing, in a dozen seconds, from mighty tower to great plume of heaven-reaching white smoke.
The image remains, will always remain, with us; for truly the weapon that day was not box cutters in the hands of nineteen young men, nor airliners at their command. The weapon that day was the television set. It was the television set that made the image possible, and inextinguishable. If terror is first of all a way of talking—the propaganda of the deed, indeed—then that day the television was the indispensable conveyer of the conversation: the recruitment poster for fundamentalism, the only symbolic arena in which America’s weakness and vulnerability could be dramatized on an adequate scale.Terror—as Menachem Begin, the late Israeli prime minister and former anti-British terrorist, remarked in his memoirs—terror is about “destroying the prestige”of the imperial regime; terror is about dirtying the face of power.
President Bush and his lieutenants surely realized this, and it is in that knowledge, I believe, that we must find the beginning of the answer to one of the more intriguing puzzles of these last few years: What exactly lay at the root of the almost fanatical determination of administration officials to attack and occupy Iraq? It was, obviously, the classic “overdetermined”decision, a tangle of fear, in the form of those infamous weapons of mass destruction; of imperial ambition, in the form of the neoconservative project to “remake the Middle East”; and of realpolitik, in the form of the “vital interest”of securing the industrial world’s oil supplies.
In the beginning, though, was the felt need on the part of our nation’s leaders, men and women so worshipful of the idea of power and its ability to remake reality itself, to restore the nation’s prestige, to wipe clean that dirtied face. Henry Kissinger, a confidant of the president, when asked by Bush’s speechwriter why he had supported the Iraq war, responded: “Because Afghanistan was not enough.”The radical Islamists, he said, want to humiliate us. “And we need to humiliate them.”For the sake of American prestige and thus of American power, the presiding image of the War on Terror—the burning, smoking towers collapsing into rubble—had to be supplanted by another, of American tanks rumbling proudly down the streets of a vanquished Arab capital. It is no accident that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, at the first “war cabinet”meeting at Camp David the Saturday after the 9/11 attacks, fretted over the “lack of targets”in Afghanistan and wondered whether we “shouldn’t do Iraq first.”He wanted to see those advancing tanks marching across the world’s television screens, and soon.
In the end, of course, the enemy preferred not to fight with tanks, though they were perfectly happy to have the Americans do so, the better to destroy these multi-million-dollar anachronisms with improvised explosive devices, so-called IEDs, costing a few hundred dollars apiece. Such is the practice of asymmetrical warfare, by which the very weak contrive to use the strengths of the very strong against them. In the post”“Cold War world, after all, as one neoconservative theorist explained shortly after 9/11, the United States was enjoying a rare “unipolar moment.”It deployed the greatest military and economic power the world had ever seen. It spent more on its weapons, its army, navy, and air force, than the rest of the world combined. Indeed, the confident assumption of this so-called preponder- ance was what lay behind the philosophy of power enunciated by Bush’s Brain, and what produced an attitude toward international law and alliances that is quite unprecedented in American history. “Our strength as a nation-state,”reads the National Security Strategy of the United States of 2005, “will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes and terrorism.”A remarkable troika, these “weapons of the weak,”comprising as it does the United Nations and like institutions (“international fora”), international and domestic courts (“judicial processes”), and . . . terrorism. This strange grouping, put forward as the official policy of the United States, is borne of the idea that power is, in fact, everything: the only thing. In such a world, international institutions and courts—indeed, law itself—can only limit the power of the most powerful state. Wielding preponderant power, what need has such a state for law? The latter must be, by definition, a weapon of the weak. The most powerful state, after all, makes reality.
Now consider for a moment this astonishing fact: Little more than a decade-and-a-half into this “uni-polar moment,”the greatest military power in the history of the world stands on the brink of defeat. In Iraq, its vastly expensive and all-powerful military has been humbled by a congeries of secret organizations fighting mainly by means of suicide vests, car bombs, and improvised explosive devices—all of them cheap, simple, and effective, indeed so effective that these techniques now comprise a kind of ready-made insurgency kit freely available on the Internet and spreading in popularity around the world, most obviously to Afghanistan, that land of few targets.
Nearly five years into the Iraq war, the leaders of one of our two major political parties advocate the withdrawal of American combat forces from Iraq, and many in the other party are yielding to the growing urge to go along. As for the Bush administration’s broader War on Terror, as the State Department detailed recently in its annual report on terrorism, the number of attacks worldwide has never been higher, nor the attacks themselves more deadly. True, the terrorists of al Qaeda have not attacked again within the United States. Perhaps they do not need to. They are alive and, though decentralized and dispersed— transformed into what might be called “virtual al Qaeda”—in numbers they seem to be flourishing. Their goal, after all, notwithstanding the rhetoric of the Bush administration, was not simply to kill as many Americans as possible but, by challenging the United States in spectacular fashion, to recruit greater numbers to their cause and to move their insurgency into the heart of the Middle East. And these things they have managed to do.
Not without help, of course: In their choice of enemy, one might say that the terrorists of al Qaeda had a great deal of dumb luck, for they attacked a country that happened to be run by leaders who had a radical conception of the potency of power. At the heart of the principle of asymmetric warfare—al Qaeda’s kind of warfare—is the notion of using your enemy’s power against him. How does a small group of insurgents without an army, without heavy weapons, defeat the greatest conventional military force the world has ever known? How do you defeat such an army if you don’t have an army? The answer is obvious: You borrow your enemy’s. And this is precisely what al Qaeda did. Using the classic strategy of provocation, the group tried to tempt the superpower into its adopted homeland. The original strategy behind the 9/11 attacks—apart from humbling the superpower and creating the greatest recruiting poster the world had ever seen—was to lure the United States into a ground war in Afghanistan, where the one remaining superpower was to be trapped, stranded, and destroyed, as the Soviet Union had been a decade before. (It was to prepare for this war that Osama bin Laden arranged for the assassination, two days before 9/11—via bombs secreted in the video cameras of two terrorists posing as reporters—of the Afghan Northern Alliance leader and U.S. ally Ahmed Shah Massood.)
Well aware of the Soviets’ Afghanistan debacle—the CIA had after all supplied most of the weapons that defeated the Soviets there—Bush administration officials confined the American role to sending plenty of air support, lots of cash, and very few troops, relying instead on its Afghan allies, a strategy that avoided a planned quagmire at the cost of letting al Qaeda’s leaders escape. Bin Laden would soon be granted a far more valuable gift: the invasion of Iraq, a country that, unlike Afghanistan, lies at the heart of the Middle East and sits squarely on the critical Sunni-Shia divide—perfectly positioned to fulfill al Qaeda’s dream of igniting a regional civil war. It is upon that precipice that we find ourselves teetering today.
Critical to this strange and unlikely history were the administration’s peculiar ideas about power: “We’re an Empire now and when we act we create our own reality.”Power, untrammeled by law or custom; power, unlimited by the so-called weapons of the weak, be they international institutions, courts, or terrorism— power can remake reality. It is no accident that one of Karl Rove’s heroes is President William McKinley, who stood at the apex of America’s first imperial moment and led the country into a glorious colonial adventure in the Philippines that was also meant to be the military equivalent of a stroll in the park and that led, in the event, to several years of bloody insurgency— an insurgency, it bears noticing, that was fought with extensive use of torture, notably water-boarding, which has made its reappearance in the imperial battles of our own times.
If we are an empire now, as Mr. Rove insists, perhaps it is worth adding that we remain a democracy. And therein lies the rub. A democratic empire, as the Athenians were first to discover, is an odd beast, like one of those mythological creatures born of man and horse. Its power, however great, depends fi- nally on public support. If its leader longs to invade Iraq to restore the empire’s prestige and power, he must first convince his people. And at his peril; for if the menacing weapons vanish, if promised cakewalk turns to long and grinding war, the leader’s power wanes and support for his war collapses. The empire’s greatest vulnerability—a matter not of arms but of politics—is revealed, to be exploited by a clever enemy. Bin Laden in his writings has long focused on Americans’ “lack of will,”though one doubts even he could have imagined these self-inflicted wounds.
Herein lies a bit of pathos, or a cruel irony: Officials of the Bush administration, now judged by a good part of the public to have lied the country into war, did believe Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, though they shamelessly exaggerated the evidence they had to prove it and the threat those weapons would have posed. Secure in their belief that the underlying threat was real, they felt they needed only to dramatize it a bit to make it clear and convincing to the public—like cops who, certain they have the killer, plant a bit of evidence to “frame a guilty man.”If only a few weapons were found, who would care, once the tanks were rumbling triumphantly through Baghdad? By then, the United States military would have created a new reality.
I have a daydream about this. I see a solitary army private- a quartermaster, say, or perhaps a cook—breaking the padlock on some forgotten warehouse on an Iraqi military base and finding a few hundred or a few thousand old chemical artillery shells. They might date from the time of the Gulf War; they might be corroded, leaky, completely unusable. But still they would be “weapons of mass destruction”—to use the misleading and absurd construction that has headlined our age—and my solitary cook or quartermaster would find himself a hero, for he would, all unwittingly, have “proved”the case.
My daydream could easily have come to pass. Why not? It is nigh unto miraculous that the Iraqi regime, even with the help of the United Nations, managed so thoroughly to destroy its once existing stockpile. And if my private had found those leaky shells, and administration officials from the president on down could point to them in triumph, what would have been changed thereby? In fact, the underlying reality would have remained: that, in the months leading up to the war, the administration relentlessly exaggerated the threat Saddam posed to the United States and relentlessly understated the risk the United States would run in invading and occupying Iraq. And it would have remained true and incontestable that—as the quaintly factbound British foreign secretary put it eight months before the war, in a secret British cabinet meeting made famous by the socalled Downing Street Memo—”the case [for attacking Iraq] was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbors and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”
Which is to say, the weapons were a rhetorical prop and, satisfying as it has been to see the administration beaten about the head with it, we forget this underlying fact at our peril. The administration needed, wanted, had to have the Iraq war. The weapons were but a symbol, the necessary casus belli. Or, to shift from law to cinema, they were what Alfred Hitchcock called the Maguffin (and what Quentin Tarantino, in Pulp Fiction, in turn parodied as that glowing mysterious object in the suitcase): that is, a satisfyingly concrete object on which to fasten a rhetorical or narrative end—the narrative end being in this case a war to restore American prestige, project its power, remake the Middle East. Had a handful of those weapons been found, the underlying truth would have remained: Saddam posed nowhere remotely near the threat to the United States that would have justified running the enormous metaphysical risk that a war of choice with Iraq posed. Of course, when you are focused on magical phrases like “preponderant power”and “the uni-polar moment,”matters like the numbers of troops at your disposal, and the simple fact that the post”“Cold War United States had too few to sustain a long-term occupation of a restive and divided country the size of Iraq, must seem mundane indeed. These facts were the reality, and reality had its revenge; and yet Americans live now in a world in which the magical, glowing image of the weapons has been supplanted not by the truth—the foolishness and recklessness of launching an unnecessary war—but by yet another glowing illusion, of mendacious, dastardly officials who knew the weapons weren’t there but touted them anyway.
One of the most painful principles of our age is that scandals are doomed to be revealed—and to remain stinking there before us, unexcised, untreated, unhealed. If this Age of Virtual War has a tragic symbol, then surely this is it: the frozen scandal, doomed to be revealed, and revealed, and revealed, in a neverending torment familiar to the rock-bound Prometheus and his poor half-eaten liver. All around us we hear the sound of ice breaking, as the accumulated frozen scandals of this administration slowly crack open to reveal their queasy secrets—or rather to reveal that most of them, alas, are not secrets at all.
More than three years have passed since the photographs from Abu Ghraib were first broadcast by CBS News on Sixty Minutes II and published by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker; nearly as far back I published a book entitled Torture and Truth in which I gathered together Bush administration documents that detailed the decision to use on prisoners in the War on Terror and in Iraq “extreme interrogation techniques”— or, as administration officials prefer to call them, an “alternative set of procedures.”A remarkable phrase, this, memorable for its perfect bureaucratic blankness: President Bush personally introduced it to the nation on September 6, 2006, in a full-dress White House speech kicking off the midterm election campaign, at a time when accusing the Democrats of evidencing a continued softness on terror—and a lamentable unwillingness to show the needed harshness in “interrogating terrorists”—appeared to be the Republicans’ only possible winning electoral strategy. Indeed, Democrats seemed fully to agree with the president, for they warily chose not to stand in the way of his Military Commissions Act, which appeared to legalize many of these “alternative procedures.” And since Democrats did indeed win both houses of Congress, perhaps their victory was owed in part to their refusal to stand in the way of what a less legally and bureaucratically careful politician might call torture.Who can say? What we can say is that if torture today remains a “scandal”or a “crisis,” it is so in that same peculiar way that crime or AIDS or global warming or indeed the Iraq war is: that is, they are all things we have learned to live with.
I last visited that war in December, when Baghdad was cold and gray, and I spent a good deal of time drawing black X’s through the sources listed in my address book, finding them, one after another, either departed or dead. Baghdad seemed a sad and empty place, with even its customary traffic jams gone, and the periodic, resonating explosions barely attracted glances from those few Iraqis to be found on the streets.
How, in these “words in a time of war,”to convey the reality of that place at this time? How to punch through the rhetoric of virtual war—to escape the “political language,”as Orwell described it, “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”? Reading his words, I remember an account from a young Iraqi woman of how that war has touched her and her family. In the blog Inside Iraq, this anonymous Baghdadi offers her personal version of what has become a quintessential Iraqi family ritual, making a trip to the morgue. She writes of what lies behind the headlines and the news reports, and her account is what it is.
We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed over. . . .
So we went, his mum, his other aunt and I. . . .
When we got there, we were given his remains. And remains they were. From the waist down was all they could give us. “We identified him by the cell phone in his pants’ pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourselves. We don’t know what he looks like.”. . .
We were led away, and before long a foul stench clogged my nose and I retched. With no more warning we came to a clearing that was probably an inside garden at one time; all round it were patios and rooms with large-pane windows to catch the evening breeze Baghdad is renowned for. But now it had become a slaughterhouse, only instead of cattle, all around were human bodies. On this side; complete bodies; on that side halves; and everywhere body parts.
We were asked what we were looking for; “upper half “replied my companion, for I was rendered speechless. “Over there.”We looked for our boy’s broken body between tens of other boys’ remains; with our bare hands sifting them and turning them.
Millennia later we found him, took both parts home, and began the mourning ceremony.
These are the words of people who find themselves as far as they can possibly be from the idea that, when they act, they “create their own reality”—that they are “history’s actors.”The voices come from history’s objects and it is worthwhile pondering who the subjects are, who exactly is acting upon them.
The car bomb that so changed their lives was not set by Americans; indeed, Americans even now are dying to prevent such things. I remember one of them, a lieutenant, a beautiful young man with a puffy, sleepy face, and the way he looked at me when I asked whether or not he was scared when he went out on patrol—this was in Anbar Province in October 2003, as the insurgency was growing daily more ferocious. I remember him smiling a moment and then saying with evident pity for a reporter’s lack of understanding. “This is war. We shoot, they shoot. We shoot, they shoot. Some days they shoot better than we do.”He was patient in his answer, smiling sleepily in his young beauty, and I could tell he regarded me as a creature from another world, one who could never understand the world in which he lived. Three days after our interview, an explosion near Fallujah killed him.
Ours is a grim age, still infused with the remnant perfume of imperial dreams. It is a scent Orwell knew well. Contingency, accidents, the metaphysical ironies that seem to stitch history together like a lopsided quilt—all these have no place in the imperial vision. A perception of one’s self as “history’s actor” leaves no place for them. But they exist, and it is invariably others, closer to the ground, who see them, know them, and suffer their consequences.