“Iraq is variegated, contradictory, endlessly confusing. Over the years its people have watched as others have sought to define them, creating images to be displayed beyond its borders” (10).
—Anthony Shadid, Night Draws Near
It may not be surprising that I, along with the other soldiers in my platoon, didn’t really consider the war outside of what happened to us directly. The suffering of Iraqis, the lives they were trying to live amidst the presence of us, our war, our occupation, was hardly ever our focus. Usually, we had so many of our own hardships to deal with that it was difficult to imagine much else beyond our daily tasks and missions: patrolling villages and towns populated with tens of thousands of people, training and working with Iraqi Police and Iraqi soldiers with too few interpreters, raiding homes and farms late at night to arrest men or take weapons and bomb-making materials, standing all day outside pulling security for political meetings and city council meetings, too many IEDs or IED scares to count, indirect fire attacks at the base which were, thankfully for us and not so much for the insurgents, poorly aimed and unsuccessful. After so much time—twelve years—has passed and I’ve developed more of an emotional distance from my time in Iraq in 2004, I’ve been able to, finally and fortunately, begin to study, as best as I can, the war through the eyes of Iraqis.
“There’s a line from history that nearly everyone in Baghdad remembers: ‘Our armies do not come into your cities and lands as conquerors or enemies, but as liberators.’ The speaker was Major General Sir Stanley Maude, the British commander who in 1917 entered the capital to end Ottoman rule” (17).
In Night Draws Near, Anthony Shadid, the Lebanese-American journalist, documents his time from March 2003-June 2004 living with and among Iraqis. His accounts overlap, somewhat, with my time in the country—roughly late February 2004-December 2004. While deployed as a twenty year-old specialist in the Army National Guard, I was aware of the British occupation after WWI but I had never heard about this well-known line from Maude. I imagine most Americans have not. If Shadid emphasizes anything, it’s how that the longer he stays in Iraq, the more complicated and complex the country and the war becomes. Before deploying, as a nineteen year-old trying to understand the gravity of my situation, I started reading, when time permitted, about Islam, Iraqi history, Saddam Hussein and his family, among other things. I also asked my undergraduate advisor—I’d finished one semester of college at the time—for reading suggestions and she mentioned, Rabbit, Run; Portnoy’s Complaint; A Farewell to Arms. At the time, because my professor knew me well, all of these fit my interest as a young male drawn to masculine-driven realist fiction. Beyond literature, I also read the “news” obsessively. I began to read about the war with more intensity and attention because I knew I would, soon, be going to Iraq; somehow, as the deployment became more inevitable, each morning I’d consume every word in the newspaper—usually the Cleveland Plain Dealer since my family still received daily copies back then—that dealt with any aspect of the war: bombings, militias, civilian deaths, insurgents, al-Qaeda, troop surges and reductions, IEDs.
Shadid: “Some Iraqis foresaw the American invasion as a liberation” (42).
An Iraqi man says: “The American invasion has nothing to do with democracy and human rights…it will bring more destruction, more civil war, and a nationalist war against American intervention in the internal affairs of Iraq” (47).
An Iraqi man says of Bush: “From the bottom of my heart, I really respect, I adore this man” (150).
Another Iraqi man: “It is basically an angry response to the events of September 11” (47).
After a bombing, an Iraqi man says in a hospital: “Our floors are covered with blood, the walls are splashed with blood…they came to free us? This is freedom?” (77)
Of course, Saddam is also mentioned, again and again, as justification for the invasion. If Shadid’s book proves anything, it’s how unclassifiable and complicated each Iraqi felt about the American invasion and presence. Shadid writes in the introduction: “There is a word in Arabic that I have heard uttered over and over in the city: ghamidh, meaning ‘mysterious’ or ‘ambiguous.’ If Baghdad’s soul is loss, its mood always seemed to be ghamidh” (10). Shadid argues that someone in his position, a journalist trying to “capture” the war, must “surrender to the ambiguities and embrace what is ghamidh” (10). He later asserts what does seem to be the most effective way to present the war landscape: “Perhaps we simply tell stories” (10).
Almost every day in Iraq I “left the wire” as we would say. We’d rumble out on our Humvees—I drove the last one in our small convoy of four—and do patrols, route clearances, and sometimes just drive around the hills or villages or towns doing “presence patrols.” Every now and then we’d stop for various reasons and I’d stand outside my Humvee where, unless we were in the middle of a desert field, Iraqis, usually young men or boys, would approach us and talk. To generalize, I’d say that any Iraqi approaching us had more positive feelings about our presence and what we were doing; so when they spoke to us, usually with broken English, they complimented what we were doing, thanked us, told us stories and stories about Saddam and the regime. Those who didn’t want us there probably, I think, would not approach us. For much of Shadid’s book, he does, remarkably and vividly, tell stories of the families dealing, on an intimate level, with the invasion, the bombing, and, later, the occupation.
An Iraqi man says: “‘I can’t show my fear in front of my children…if I’m afraid, they’ll become afraid. Life’s not comfortable,’ he said, recalling the twenty missiles that had struck nearby the night before” (64).
After an American bombing, Shadid describes what a man says to him: “He simply turned to me and said matter-of-factly, ‘Fuck all Americans.’”
Over the past year as I’ve worked on my second manuscript of poetry, tentatively titled, Service, I’ve been attempting to write poems with a more expansive and wider range of personae. Specifically, I’ve wanted to write, I say with much humility, more in and of the Iraqi experience of the war. Most of the voices I attempt to develop are centered around the soldier or veteran experience. I’ve wanted to create a more multi-vocal, polyphonic tapestry which will, hopefully, provide a more layered multi-dimensional portrait of the war. I’ve been reading accounts from Iraqis, journalists, and reaching out to speak to Iraqis who might be willing to talk (that’s still in-progress). I say this with no self-congratulation or nobility. My current position as a graduate student allows me to, luckily, simply explore and read what I want. Although I’ve worked over the past few years to discover first-person nonfiction accounts of war by non-soldiers, non-veterans, I’ve seen how very few there are. As I read Shadid’s account of what Iraqis tell him leading up to and during the invasion, I also remember what people, in America, said to me.
“You see how they act over there—they’re a bunch of animals.”
“We should just bomb the whole place.”
“They should be thankful we’re going over there.”
“We’re just doing it for oil.”
“Just like Vietnam.”
Although it seems to be a well-known, tidy cliché, I’ve always found it true: I really didn’t consider the political, social, historical, economic—to name a few—complexities involving my deployment to Iraq. All I knew: I was going and I wanted to do everything in my power to come back. This was, usually, mixed with a feeling of vicious, nightmarish self-loathing and regret at joining: how did I get myself in this? After all, I signed on with the Army National Guard approximately four months before 9/11 as an incoming high school senior. I remember practicing, in the barracks at Fort Bragg, disassembling my M16 and thinking, in terror, that if it took me just a second or so longer to disassemble and reassemble I might die. It never came to that, thankfully, but how was I to know?
One Iraqi man tells Shadid: “We have eleven thousand years of history…I know it sounds facetious, but it gives you resilience” (84).
A woman, Nadeen, says: “What gives them the right to change something that’s not theirs in the first place? I don’t like your house, so I’m going to bomb it and you can rebuild it again the way I want it…what they’re doing to us, they deserve to have done to them, their families, their children” (87).
Shadid’s account is one of the more startling and comprehensive among the many journalistic accounts of the invasion. His focus is solely on the Iraqis, those caught with the war, literally, in their backyards and front yards. Amidst the bombings, the destruction, the gradual and relentless movement of the war, life does, as much as it can, go on. Shadid writes: “Scenes from normal life persisted: young boys, their bodies dark and thin, swam in the muddy Tigris, while fishermen led their boats along the clumps of green reeds rising from the banks” (54).
Although this seemingly innocent and bucolic scene he mentions above does fall under that wide and complex landscape of war, it happens alongside more of this: after a bomb during the invasion, Shadid writes, “Across the street the severed hand of a seventeen-year-old boy was tossed gracelessly in a pool of blood and mud” (79). Much of the book is filled with this image: blood mixed with mud. There is also very much blood with water, oil, debris on the street, blood in various shades as it dries. Although we enter, as readers, the lives of Iraqis as they struggle through the invasion and the first months of the occupation, even Shadid can’t come—like I want—to some plausible conclusion or closure: “Baghdad is a city of lanterns amid the blackouts,” he writes. “A city of ghosts shadowed by fear, a city that is forsaken. The city I knew would always remain ghamidha” (308).
Hugh Martin is a veteran of the Iraq War and the author of The Stick Soldiers (BOA Editions, Ltd., 2013) and So, How Was the War? (Kent State UP, 2010). He is the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and the Gettysburg College Emerging Writer Lectureship. He is completing his Ph.D. at Ohio University.