Scars of war: central Bagdhad ten years on, 2013. Photo: Getty
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Opening the hurt locker: three new books on Iraq

There are many echoes of the literary lineage to which these books must belong. Owen’s old lie is in all of them, as is Whitman’s precious blood.

My Life as a Foreign Country
Brian Turner
Jonathan Cape, 240pp, £16.99

Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting
Kevin Powers
Sceptre, 96pp, £12.99

Redeployment
Phil Klay
Canongate, 291pp, £15

 

“We knew our prelude would be different from the trenches of the First World War or the front lines of Korea,” Brian Turner writes in his fever dream of a memoir, My Life as a Foreign Country. Turner joined the US army in 1998 when he was almost 31 – old, for a soldier – and served with Nato forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the close of the 20th century. From the end of 2003, he served in Iraq for a year with the 3rd Stryker Brigade.

The difference Turner alludes to, in this context, is a difference in the conduct of war. There would be no front line, but instead “a 360-degree, three-dimensional environment . . . Anything was possible. A dead farm animal on the shoulder of the road could harbour an improvised bomb sewn into its belly. A bullet might ride the cool currents of air between one human being or another. A Hellcat missile or a wire-guided Tow missile might rend the moment open.”

There is also another difference, made explicit by Phil Klay in one of the stories in his debut collection, Redeployment. Klay joined the US marine corps after graduating from Dartmouth; in 2007, he served in Anbar Province, Iraq, as a public affairs officer. “Success was a matter of perspective. In Iraq it had to be,” he writes in “Money as a Weapons System”. “There was no Omaha Beach, no Vicksburg Campaign, not even an Alamo to signal a clear defeat.”

Over a decade has passed since the invasion of Iraq by US forces in March 2003. In the years since, that conflict – as depicted by some of the soldiers who served there – has become one in which the terror of war is unrelieved, even for an instant, by the idea of a cause, of a larger morality. As Kevin Powers wrote in his acclaimed first novel, The Yellow Birds, published in 2012: “I’d been trained to think war was the great unifier, that it brought people closer together than any other activity on earth. Bullshit. War is the great maker of solipsists: how are you going to save my life today?”

Powers’s new book is a volume of poems, Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting, and his voice, released from the constraints of narrative structure so finely exhibited in The Yellow Birds, seems angrier, more raw. Powers, unlike Turner, joined the army as a very young man – he was not out of his teens – and served as a machine-gunner in Iraq in 2004 and 2005. What all three of these books have in common, for all that they are written in different forms by very different men in different circumstances, is the way in which they are haunted by the terrible and mythic landscape of Iraq – by the names Nineveh, Tigris, Euphrates – and by the shadowy presence of history’s old wars, from the American civil war to the First World War, the Second World War, Korea and Vietnam.

Powers was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, the seat of the Confederate capital during the American civil war. These poems, which move between a war zone and civilian life transformed by the experience of war, hook back into older injustices. “Nominally” is a poem that seems to speak purely of America and yet does not: “. . . down in the valley where I’m from there is/a parking lot, which covers up a grave,/a name we give in singular for the hundred slaves/they buried there back then”. This mass grave can’t help but recall for the reader more recent brutality. “Nothing/was counted. Order is a myth.” This is a fine, harrowing collection and yet one that ends on a redemptive note:

. . . The thing I can’t recall
was what I had been waiting for.
It likely won’t come back again.
And I know better than to hope,
but one might wait
and pay attention
and rest awhile,
for we are more than figuring the odds.

Turner’s hallucinatory memoir bears the mark of his work as a poet: in his first collection, Here, Bullet, published in 2005, is found the poem “The Hurt Locker”, which inspired the Kathryn Bigelow film of the same name. Broken up into well over 100 sections, this new book is a kind of collection, too, wrathful, wry and incantatory. “How does anyone leave a war behind them, no matter what war it is, and somehow walk into the rest of their life?” There is no answer to such a question: there is simply a collage of experience and memory that drops the reader fully into this writer’s life. Turner played at being a soldier as a kid and made Super 8 war movies with his pals – and he mixed home-made napalm with his dad and his uncle Jon in their California yard. Uncle Jon was in Vietnam; Turner’s dad chased MiGs over the Kamchatka Peninsula in 1965; his grandfather was a marine in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. He grew up with war all around him and yet what he found in his own war didn’t answer his question. “In Mosul, the war became routine,” he writes simply. Some routines bring comfort; some bring just the opposite.

Of these three books, Phil Klay’s is the most unprocessed and perhaps the least satisfying. All the stories are told in the first person by a sequence of narrators: a chaplain in “Prayer in the Furnace”, a member of Mortuary Affairs in “Bodies”, a foreign service officer whose job is to spearhead efforts at reconstruction in “Money as a Weapons System”. The last of these is a sharp satire reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 but too many of the stories are overburdened either by a heavy-handed use of military acronyms (“EOD handled the bombs. SSTP treated the wounds. PRP processed the bodies. The 08s fired DPICM. The MAW provided CAS. The 03s patrolled the MSRs. Me and PFC handled the money”) or by too-obvious rhetoric. A story such as “Psychological Operations”, in which a former soldier now enlisted at Amherst confronts a recent convert to Islam, has the feel of a creative-writing exercise. That said, Klay’s writing is often both powerful and courageous.

It’s sometimes eerie the way these books echo each other. All three writers have an eye for how the awful becomes ordinary, how what is unacceptable in civilian life becomes the norm in a combat zone. “We shot dogs. Not by accident. We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby. I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot,” begins the title story of Redeployment. What that means for the story’s narrator is played out in the course of the tale; as for what the shooting was actually like, you can turn to Kevin Powers and his poem “Field Manual”. “Think quick pop, yelp, then puckered fur./Think skinny ribs. Think smell.”

There are many echoes of the literary lineage to which these books must belong. Owen’s old lie is in all of them, as is Whitman’s precious blood, but most particularly one can sense the influence of Tim O’Brien. His memoir of the Vietnam war, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and his short-story collection The Things They Carried (now available as an audiobook, read perfectly by Bryan Cranston) helped redefine the way Americans thought about the wars in which they were called to fight. I thought of O’Brien and the equipment and baggage carried by the soldiers in his stories as Turner described a group of men entering the house of an Iraqi civilian: “The soldiers enter the house with only nine credits earned toward an associate’s degree in history from the University of Maryland. They kick in the door and enter the house with the memory of backyard barbecues on their minds.”

I thought of O’Brien, too, in Klay’s “War Stories”, in which a pair of vets, one very badly wounded, consider conflict and awful injury in the context of picking up women. The narrator hears his wounded friend Jenks tell the story of what happened to him; when Jenks says, “I feel more sorry for the guys who had to rush in and treat me than for myself,” the narrator remarks, “This is Jenks’s standard line. It’s utter bullshit.” For the true war stories, as O’Brien knew, can never be told, though the need to keep trying to tell them never goes away. The reader of these books can’t help but be a voyeur, always asking, silently, secretly, “But is that what it was really like?” We cannot know. “A true war story is never moral,” Tim O’Brien wrote. “It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behaviour, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”

Erica Wagner is an Eccles British Library writer in residence and a judge of this year’s Man Booker Prize

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The last World Cup

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era