• Imagining Iraq: On the Fifteenth Anniversary of the Iraq War

    Philip Metres Offers a Brief History of Imperial Dementia

    Three years after the Persian Gulf War, I met Shakir Mustafa in the graduate study lounge at Indiana University. He looked like an uncle of mine, so I asked where he was from. He was the first Iraqi I’d ever talked to.

    “What are you studying?” I asked.

    “Irish literature,” he said, in his gravelly voice.

    “Really?!” I said. It seemed hilarious. After all, wasn’t Iraq the birthplace of literature?

    “Of course,” he said, pursing his lips and smoothing his cool mustache, before smiling. “Irish history and Iraqi history are closer than you think. Remember, the British empire.”

    Shakir, his wife Nawal, and their children had left Iraq for graduate school in the States a few years earlier. Though he was already a professor in Iraq with one scholarly book published, he now had to start over—as if his previous life hadn’t existed at all.

    Before the war, I was completely ignorant about Iraq. It’s a paradox of modern imperial life: only when we bomb a country do we actually learn something about it. As we reach the 15th anniversary of the Iraq War, I cast back to when my fascination with Iraq began—in 1990, when Saddam’s forces invaded Kuwait due to an oil dispute, and the US threatened a military response.

    What do I know of Iraq, I wondered then, where I’d heard our Lebanese ancestors had come from? Not enough. The land my junior high teacher called “Messy Mesopotamia,” for no reason I could gather, except for an alliteration fetish and natural Orientalism. In 1990, the machinery of demonization was humming, as when The New Republic doctored a cover photo to make Saddam’s mustache appear more like Hitler, and President Bush pronounced his name “Sodom” and promised to kick his ass.

    In college, hunting in the library stacks and talking with professors, I learned Saddam was a cruel dictator, but he also had been an American ally. Thanks to Ronald Reagan, during the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam was able to develop chemical weapons. I also heard Father Joe LaBran’s stories about teaching young Iraqis at Baghdad College, a Jesuit high school, a generation before. He loved his pupils, their generous and warm families, and angrily waved his thick shillelagh at a college rally I’d organized as he castigated the president and media for their drumbeats for war.


    “Before the war, I was completely ignorant about Iraq. It’s a paradox of modern imperial life: only when we bomb a country do we actually learn something about it.”


    Despite protests in the US to oppose the use of military force, the vote in Congress ended the argument. I watched on television, along with the whole nation, as green tracers lit the sky over Baghdad. The first live TV war, of course, authorized by the Pentagon and co-signed by a journalistic class eager to prove its patriotism. The TV movie version of the Gulf War censored dissent and erased the dead. For Saudi financier Adnan Khasshoghi, the war was “like going to a movie: we paid our money, we went to the theater, we laughed, we cried, the movie ended, and an hour later we had forgotten about it.”

    Our imperial dementia, this rapid forgetting, comes from not knowing the full extent of the war in the first place. So, the Persian Gulf War (1991) leads to a decade of brutal economic sanctions, to bombing in 1998, to the Iraq War (2003), like a drunk stumbling down unfamiliar stairs… and taking down the whole building with his fall.

    The real war would not be televised. But could I find traces of it—despite Whitman’s admonishment—in books, journals, and magazines? In graduate school, I’d come to spend a whole semester researching everything that I couldn’t see on TV or read in the papers. In The Fire This Time (1994), I’d learn about the US’s massive bombing of Iraqi infrastructure: power stations, water filtration plants, railroads, and bridges—bringing a modern society to its knees. I’d read about the Highway of Death. The use of depleted uranium in weaponry that contributed to spiking cancer rates and birth defects. The 1991 Al Amiriyah bombing, in which 400 Iraqi civilians, mostly women and children, were killed in a bomb shelter. How Dima Yassine was ten minutes from the bombing, and could smell the burned flesh for days afterward. What would it mean to remember Al Amiriyah as clearly as 9/11?

    We have to unerase the disappeared war. Yet depicting the real war is not enough—whether we’re speaking of the 1991 or 2003 iterations, or stretching back to western imperialism’s beginnings in Iraq after WWI, during the 1920 revolt, when British forces killed as many as 10,000 and planned to drop chemical weapons with the RAF.

    The answer to antiseptic coverage (Gulf War) or embedded coverage (Iraq War), however, is not merely to provide images of corpses and flag-draped coffins, better body counts and eviscerated flesh. We need to unmake our own imperial narrative, to dial down its noise. Part of that dialing down will require us to listen to Iraqis themselves, who will help us hear again, to remember what we have never known, so that we might not repeat the disasters of the past.

    In Baghdad Diaries (1998), Nuha al-Radi also watched the war from home: “Christiane Amanpour on CNN says: ‘The noise is so loud, can you hear me?’ It’s what never leaves me.” The noise of empire is the noise of war, but that noise begins with the ideological noise that shuts out voices like al-Radi’s. The real war, as William James proposed in The Moral Equivalent of War, is the ceaseless, permanent, and “intensely sharp preparation for war.”


    “If you can swap out the scenery and dial back the technology and be back in Vietnam or Iwo Jima, then you haven’t ever arrived in Iraq. You’re in the War Zone. It’s a place that doesn’t exist except in our imperial imagination.”


    Still, making the war visible in Iraq is not seeing Iraq. Even Three Kings (1999), the most provocative film about the Gulf War—with its stunning dialogue between an Iraqi and American soldier, “the problem with Michael Jackson”, and the grief of war—slips into imperial heroism by the end. It’s a good idea to read the works of Americans and military veterans of the Iraq War—the subversive novel War Porn (2016) by Roy Scranton, the agonized memoir Consequence (2016) by Eric Fair, the poetry of Brian Turner and Hugh Martin (for a compendium of works, see Peter Molin’s blog). At its best, this literature fully implicates us, as in Martin’s poem, “Frisking Two Men in Sadiya”:

    …This man, maybe sixty,

    doesn’t take his hazel eyes
    off my face & as I reach where

    my right knuckles brush
    the scrotum’s loose weight, he doesn’t

    This moment places us discomfitingly in the position of a soldier whose job it suddenly becomes—in the surreality of war and military occupation—to place his palms inside this man’s clothing and touch his genitals. Those are American hands, following American orders. They are our hands, violating this man’s privacy.

    But too often in the classic War Story, Iraq and Iraqis are often merely the exotic backdrop or inscrutable bit players in the journey of American bildungsroman. If you can swap out the scenery and dial back the technology and be back in Vietnam or Iwo Jima, then you haven’t ever arrived in Iraq. You’re in the War Zone. It’s a place that doesn’t exist except in our imperial imagination. According to Ellen Shohat and Robert Stam, the imperial imaginary sustains a way of viewing the other through the lens of technological and ideological domination. In works of the imperial imagination, “the viewer is forced behind the barrel of a repeating rifle and it is from that position, through its gun sights, that he receives a picture history of western colonialism and imperialism.”

    Inside the imperial imagination, we don’t see, for example, as Nuha al-Radi writes in 1991, “Suha and I spen[ding] the day merrily painting in my studio while the war was going on full blast outside. I wonder where this detachment comes from, whilst others are gnashing their teeth with fear. This afternoon we saw a SAM missile explode in the sky. I also caught Mundher Baig riding around on his grandson’s tricycle, scrunched up with his legs under his chin.” What an image: a war going on, and Suha painting, and a grandfather riding a trike.

    Back in Bloomington in the late 1990s, Shakir and Nawal Nasrallah and Amy Breau and I would share meals together, prepared by Nawal, who was working on an epic and lovely 600-page cookbook, Delights from the Garden of Eden (2003). Years later, when the next war was five years old, Shakir would go on to publish Contemporary Iraqi Fiction: An Anthology (2008), required reading for anyone who wants to get out of the Literature of the War Zone.

    I’d also meet Salih Altoma, an Iraqi scholar who’d come to translate scores of poems by contemporary poets, decrying the economic sanctions that led to the deaths of countless Iraqis and decimated the middle class. Working with Kadhim Shabaan and local peace activists, we did numerous protests, demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, and fundraisers—to provide medical supplies to Iraqis, which Shabaan would pack in tremendous suitcases on his way back to his native country. He’d return with astonishing stories—of people removing all their glass windows and leaving only the frames, or professors selling all of their books—simply to feed their families.

    One day, I went to my mailbox in Ballantine Hall, where I’d first met Shakir, to find a letter from Iraq—a young Iraqi scholar writing about the poet Elizabeth Bishop. Due to economic sanctions, she could not get the latest scholarship on Bishop. Could I help, she wondered? I literally couldn’t mail a package to Iraq without breaking the law. Prior to the Internet, in the middle of the sanctions regime, Iraq was terribly isolated. Going there would have been like visiting the moon.

    I wanted to see it for myself, of course, to bear witness to what was happening, to what I could only imagine—but I never did. As a graduate student, I simply couldn’t afford it, and then the week after I began my first academic job, the Twin Towers came down. My friend Christopher Allen-Doucot, co-founder of the Hartford Catholic Worker, did visit Iraq in 2000, and witnessed the deplorable conditions at Basra Pediatric Hospital, where the destruction of Iraq’s electrical grid and US-imposed economic sanctions meant that even the morgue would lose power a few times a day, and the bodies would begin to smell. Still, he tells of one family’s efforts to bury their child:

    The day Binit Ukhti died, the morgue had 15 boxes with 15 babies that had been unclaimed because their families couldn’t pay to bury them. The family of Binit Ukhti raised the 5,000 Iraqi Dinar, roughly $2.50, for burial. Back at the cemetery, the worker placed the naked body of Binit Ukhti, umbilical cord still attached to her belly, on a three-foot square stone slab at the rear of the chamber as carefully as if he were placing her in a bassinet. The man filled a plastic pitcher and a teakettle with water. He measured the child and cut a length of white linen from a bolt kept in a satchel. The aunt then joined the man at the rear slab and together they gracefully washed the body with a yellow bar of soap and a cloth. The woman rinsed the girl with the water in the kettle.

    After 9/11, when the neocons in the Bush Administration decided to punish Iraq one more time—cooking up a war with stories of dangerous yellowcake in Niger and a soup of ridiculous conspiracies between Saddam and al-Qaeda—the inventors of their own reality somehow were astonished that they weren’t greeted with flowers. When Zaid Mahir was stopped by US military in Baghdad during the Shock and Awe invasion, the US soldiers themselves were shocked he could speak English. The force commander informed him that “this is a war zone, and you’re a university professor. You shouldn’t be here now.” The War Zone is a highly controlled space, where a thinking person, apparently, is not allowed. As he tells it in The Way to Baghdad (Day 18 of the War) (2011), Mahir replied: “Baghdad is my hometown. It is the capital of Iraq, and Iraq is my country. That is to say, my territory.” (Years later, Zaid and Shehla would treat me to an unforgettable Iraqi feast in their home in Warrensburg, Missouri, in their new territory, because of that war.)

    In the Internet Age, Iraqis like Riverbend and Salam Pax now would be able to talk back to the empire via their blogs. On “Where is Raed,” Iraqi writer Salam Pax would respond to commenters who found his posts violated their narrative of the war. For example, to “Jack,” “the newest member in the shut-up-and-say-thank-you club,” Pax informs Jack how little he knows about the bomb shelter situation in Baghdad, and quotes The Quiet American: “He was as incapable of imagining pain or danger to himself as he was incapable of conceiving the pain he might cause others.”

    The invasion—originally called “Operation Iraqi Liberation,” until its acronym spelled out more than it intended—was followed by an occupation, botched spectacularly by the Bush Administration when they decided to outlaw any member of the Ba’ath Party from participating in the new government. At the risk of simplifying a tortuous story, occupation led to resistance, which led to sectarianism and civil war, the breakdown of the central government, and the rise of ISIS.

    In 2004, a drone-plotted attack in Iraq led to the killing of Iraqi American artist Wafaa Bilal’s brother Haji. Shortly thereafter, Bilal created “Domestic Tension.” In Shoot an Iraqi (2008), Bilal describes how for this month-long, live-streamed performance piece, he lived “in a makeshift room set up in the gallery, going about [his] daily routine with a robotically controlled paintball gun aimed at [him], which people could shoot live and over the internet, 24 hours a day.”

    In his poignant account, Bilal felt “guilt-ridden and ambivalent about my pleasures and successes.” After all, he’d immigrated to the United States, a refugee of the Gulf War, while his family remained under sanctions and bombings. In an act of radical identification with his brother, Bilal placed himself in a simulated War Zone, inviting us to confront our fantasies of domination and to reflect on “the nature of modern technological warfare, in which a soldier, sitting in comfortable safety somewhere in the United States, can drop a bomb causing death and destruction in remote locales.”

    People from 136 countries fired over 65,000 shots at him, though most came from America and Europe. Not surprisingly, he encountered enormous sadism from the safety of disembodied anonymity. Though trolls taunted him to show his head when he crouched beneath the line of fire, he quickly realized that the point was to live under fire: “The point is, in Iraq… you don’t jump in front of a gun asking to be shot.” He also exposed to people the impact of that shooting, engaging with shooters in a live chat room and posting daily reflection videos. When Digg.com publicized the project, someone created a script to enable rapid fire shooting. Soon, he began to develop PTSD symptoms.


    “In an empire as much virtual as territorial, with the War on Terror now a chronic state, the whole world risks becoming a War Zone, in which a drone missile can kill anyone anywhere.”


    “Domestic Tension” laid bare the imperial imaginary, and pointed toward what was outside its limited view. Despite the violence, something beautiful happened. People online began to work to protect Bilal, creating what he called a “Virtual Human Shield” in an act of cyber resistance. In his words, “while ‘Domestic Tension’ draws out the misanthropic and brutal elements of cyberculture and human nature, it also highlights the ways in which the internet has become a forum of community resistance and empowerment.” We are not doomed to remain inside the imperial imagination, though we’re invited inside it every day.

    In an empire as much virtual as territorial, with the War on Terror now a chronic state, the whole world risks becoming a War Zone, in which a drone missile can kill anyone anywhere. In A Theory of the Drone (2014), Grégoire Chamayou argues that the quasi-legal concept of “kill box”—a conceptual space of the War Zone—can, in the logic of imperial counterinsurgency, “ideally be reduced to the body of the enemy or prey.” If anyone can be in the War Zone, none of us are safe, and all of us are targets. This is the world we now live in, where anyone can be reduced to a target. Of course, some are more likely to be target than others.

    Meanwhile, outside the imperial imagination, Iraqi writers testify to a complicated reality. The problem is that, from our distance, we read or see something about Iraq and presume it speaks for the whole. I quote Helen Benedict quoting Hasan Blasim, author of the unsettling Corpse Exhibition (2014): “Each one of us picks us one shard and thinks he sees the whole picture.” Five years ago, World Literature Today published an issue called “Iraq, Ten Years Later,” that offers a broader view, not limited to war stories—even if the war hovers in our imagination, and theirs.

    Iraq is, at least in part, a fiction, an invention of map-making European powers after WWI. Just as America is a fiction. But Iraq also is the site of world civilization, where writing itself began, where the first laws were written, and where reading was an honored pastime. As an Arab saying goes, “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Iraq reads.” We have yet to read Iraq.

    That’s why I keep going back to Iraqi writers, so many of them exiles remembering and imagining their own Iraqs: Dunya Mikhail in The War Works Hard (2005) and Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (2009), and her new nonfiction book, The Beekeeper (2018). Sinan Antoon and his novels I’jaam (2007) and The Corpse Washer (2013). The poetry of Saadi Youssef, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, Sargon Boulus, and Amal al-Jubouri. The powerful collection We are Iraqis: Aesthetics and Politics in a Time of War (2013).

    Earlier this year, I received an email inquiry from a scholar living in Jordan who is working on a dissertation about Arab American poetry, and had some questions about Sand Opera (2015)—my book about the Iraq War and the War on Terror. I thanked her for writing about it, so that the voices of Iraqis who were tortured at Abu Ghraib could be heard. She shared that she was Iraqi, and I then apologized for what my country had done to hers.

    This was her response:

    Dear Professor Metres, you needn’t apologize for a crime you are not responsible for. We are all victims of abhorrent policies and false propagandas. A relative of mine passed away six months after he was set free from Abu Ghraib camp. He was a very talented and respectable university professor, but something changed in him. I could see the pain in his eyes, though he kept silent all the time until his death. Your book enabled me to understand his internal conflict. I realized after reading your book that the trauma of torture and of his humanity and manhood, which had been raped, haunted him until he passed away. Thanks for your book, which has spoken the unspeakable.

    I have never made it to Iraq, but somehow my work has. That someone who witnessed the impact of Abu Ghraib on her own family would read this book and find in it some use lessens the overwhelming guilt I feel about what has been done in my name, that I could not stop—not with marching or petitions or poems. Herodotus once wrote “to prevent these deeds from drifting into oblivion.” If only our writing could not only aid memory, but also attend to the wounded, the silenced, the erased, and offer some small balm, an opening for language, a little bit of fire to see each other again.

    Ten years ago, at the Radius of Arab American Writers conference, we sat in a darkened theater in the basement of the Arab American Museum in Dearborn. Above us, we could hear the screeching of chairs and tables being set up for a wedding in the main hall. Beside my wife and two daughters, Shakir and Nawal sat. Shakir wrote my Adele’s name in Arabic on her notebook. Then the exiled Iraqi poet Fadhil al-Azzawi—with translation from Khaled Mattawa—took the stage, regaling us with his poem “Toasts.” On the anniversary of the invasion, that’s what I want to remember. In the underland of exile, Shakir and Nawal laughing in two languages, toasting an Iraq that I may never see, and will never really know:

    Even though I am drunk and sad and can barely talk
    please allow me to propose another toast:
    A toast to the blind who see in the dark
    A toast to the mute who talk to God on the mountain
    A toast to the deaf who listen to the music of eternity
    A toast to the poet who steals fire from the gods
    A toast to God to create a better world the next time around
    A toast to Satan losing his bet and returning to hell
    A toast to the mother under whose feet paradise lay
    A toast to the beloved waiting on the shore
    A toast to the friend who does not abandon us
    even when the rooster crows thrice
    A toast to the deceiver who does not whisper evil in people’s hearts
    A toast to the noose that bends to the hanged man’s neck
    A toast to the torturer who flogs himself
    A toast to the victim who rises from his torment
    A toast to the bird that leaves the cage
    A toast to exile that does not defeat our will
    A toast to the homeland with rivers running beneath
    A toast to freedom until the end
    A toast to a world for all in collectivity
    A toast to the despots we hire as museum guards
    A toast to the tree with roots deep in the earth
    A toast to the moon listening to lovers’ laments
    A toast to the sun in the bitter cold of February
    A toast to the planets still rumbling about since the Big Bang
    A toast to heaven on earth
    A toast to hell pouring concrete over her closed gates
    A toast to the past as it tells us its memories
    A toast to the present gushing like a river in the streets
    A toast to a future we climb without ladders
    A toast to this beautiful, short life.

    Philip Metres
    Philip Metres
    Philip Metres is the author of Ochre & Rust: New Selected Poems of Sergey Gandlevsky (2023), Shrapnel Maps (2020), The Sound of Listening (2018), Sand Opera (2015), and other books. His work has garnered fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Lannan Foundation, NEA, and the Ohio Arts Council. He has received the Hunt Prize, the Adrienne Rich Award, three Arab American Book Awards, the Lyric Poetry Prize, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. He is professor of English and director of the Peace, Justice, and Human Rights program at John Carroll University, and Core Faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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