Desert of the Unreal

The war in Iraq always seemed like WWII’s European Theater to Afghanistan’s Pacific in my way of thinking and pretty much everyone else’s, too:  bigger, more important, more publicized.  Thus the fact that our declaration of victory last week—in terms that celebrate our liberation of the Iraq people from tyranny, but skate precise articulation of our achievement in the eight years following—didn’t exactly promote dancing in the street makes me think that the war in Afghanistan is REALLY going to conclude with more of a whimper than a bang.

According to one US soldier interviewed on his way out of Iraq, “We didn’t even tell our Iraqi counterparts we were leaving.”  Now I’m sure he meant that his specific unit didn’t divulge exact movement times for security reasons, but read figuratively or extrapolated into a statement of policy, the statement is eye-opening.

Where national decision makers and spokesmen have faltered, artists have rushed in, eager to help shape and reflect understanding and significance.  Most of us know The Hurt Locker, a movie I enjoy greatly for its imaginative vision, if not its adherence to the most exact standards of realistic military detail.  Even more I like the photographs and commentary of Benjamin Busch, a Marine captain whose photos taken on two tours of Iraq can be found at:

http://wlajournal.com/19_1-2/busch.pdf

Busch writes of trying to portray the Iraq war’s human cost without photographing actual people, an aesthetic approach that seems especially appropriate now that that the American military has departed.  The picture below–“Disneyland”–contains a human figure, along with two cartoon figures, but renders Busch’s ironic perspective about his twinned role as artist-soldier.

“I went into a building near the entrance of an abandoned amusement park to take a picture of Mickey Mouse that was painted on a window from the inside. As I focused the lens on the series of American cartoon characters, a Marine appeared in the missing window that I had come through. There is an innocent wonder in his expression and despite his weapons and combat equipment he seems to be what he is, young and misplaced. An American child grown into armed maturity who still looks into the room, empty aside from me, for something that he expects to recognize. To see an Iraqi interpretation of an American icon next to the reality of American occupation made this photograph important to me. In the window beside Mickey is a cartoon image of an Indian, our Native American. This makes the triptych even more powerful as our own nation, America, began as an occupation of theirs.” (Benjamin Busch, 2010)

Above all I like the poetry of Brian Turner, who as early as 2005’s Here, Bullet began to accurately measure the Iraq war in its personal, military, political, cultural, and historical dimensions.  Turner saw the war (as does Busch) most of all for its ability to create beautiful ghosts,  sublime nightmares, and nostalgic memories animated by pain and loss–oxymoronic phrases that speak suggestively to a love affair with death played out in the Mesopotamian new millennium:

To Sand

To sand go tracers and ball ammunition.
To sand the green smoke goes.
Each finned mortar, spinning in light.
Each star cluster, bursting above.
To sand go the skeletons of war, year by year.
To sand go the reticles of the brain,
the minarets and steeple bells, brackish
sludge from the open sewers, trashfires,
the silent cowbirds resting
on the shoulders of a yak. To sand
each head of cabbage unravels its leaves
the way dreams burn in the oilfires of night.

(Brian Turner, 2005)

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