Helen Benedict’s Guernica Magazine essay paints a comic picture of a recent New York City literary event. In the piece, Benedict describes the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim departing from a pleasant discussion of literature to touch upon a rather awkward subject:
“Your army came to my country and destroyed it,” he said, arms crossed, eyes calm. “Your war has not only destroyed this generation, it has destroyed generations of Iraqis’ futures. And you don’t even say you’re sorry.”
I wasn’t there. I suppose it was not as funny for the people in the room as it is for me. But it is funny. The Americans have found a real live Iraqi who writes books, whose brilliance – according to his Penguin book blurb – is “forged” by the crucible of war (like a sword), and have paid a lot of money to have him go on tour in their country as Europeans used to take Native Americans through Europe. But, just when you want to have a nice discussion about literature and magical realism, just when we were going to see how decent and civil a sufficiently westernized Arab can be over a croissant and glass of wine, he goes and throws this curveball, this stunning accusation, at everyone in the room.
I mean who could have seen this coming?
Well, anyone who read Blasim’s book for one. His short story collection is so powerful not because it describes war but because it interrogates so ruthlessly the aesthetic appeal of violence. His work mocks those who make money at war, and not just arms dealers or politicians – that’s a little too easy – but the artists, the storytellers who make their money off of the violence. The title story of his American debut is not called Corpse Exhibition for nothing. In one of his stories, civilians vie with each other to tell the most horrific life story; to be proud of these experiences, this capacity, is, to say the least, a complicated sort of pride. Thus, Blasim, you could say, is the winner of a contest he is not very comfortable winning.
Yet Benedict insinuates not many people have read the book. She then proceeds to take veterans to task for their failure to face the fact of their crimes. They – everyone last one of them – “become trapped in a painful, roiling stew of unresolved guilt, unable to feel like a “good” person while desperately needing to.” Luckily, these poor souls are not alone; they have civilians there to take some of the blame: “We, too, are caught in morally erosive tangle of denial and lies, a tangle that has made us lose sight of who on earth we Americans are.” She enjoins all Americans, veterans and civilians, to regain our sense of moral clarity by facing up to and apologizing for our moral complicity. The problem is, this blandishment, like all such appeals to a recovery of essential “Americanness,” conveniently forgets the fact that this belief in the possibility of moral clarity, of a true “Americanness” that can be achieved through some sort of redemptive narrative and manichean universe, is largely what caused all this moral complicity in the first place.
I assume Benedict’s description of the audience’s reaction, silence, is likely dramatized. How could a bunch of writers, veteran writers no less, be so naïve to not seen this coming? But the drama makes aesthetic sense. Americans want to believe these ex-soldiers had nothing to say to Blasim because it fits so well into the American mythology of intense naiveté followed by hard-earned wisdom, with the idea that if we can try hard enough we can put our past behind us (as we did so successfully after Vietnam). If veterans and civilians haven’t truly considered what they did in Iraq, if they haven’t said they’re sorry (a meaningful sorry, no crossed fingers!) there is now a perfectly reasonable explanation for their lack of psychological health and political malaise. All the suicides, all those murders, all the sadness – Americans just need to own up to what we did and find our way back to our true essential American self, its “moral center” (which is obviously good and upstanding and innocent and un-suicidal). I admit it is nice to think that America is sitting where it is right now because it hasn’t said it’s sorry or admitted it made a mistake, but life, I’m sorry to say, is not an Disney movie (or a Spielberg one). America cannot regain a moral purity it never actually had.
But many insist otherwise. The question then is this: when did the world make sense for America? Where is this moral purity? When were heroes heroes, wars good, and civilians innocent? Benedict seizes on 1945 as the date we lost our way. We bit the apple sometime in the late 1950s or 1960s. Maybe in Vietnam. Maybe in Korea. I don’t know. People tend to be unclear about the specifics of the fall and quite clear about their vague fondness for World War Two. After 9/11, people were worried America had lost it’s way. Dictators were crushing freedoms all over the world, attacking us, and we sat idly by. Journalists and politicos furiously demanded the American they knew and loved wouldn’t be morally confused; their greatest generation, their grandfathers, would not have stood for this agonizing ambiguity. I was raised in the 1990s, before 9/11, when every other movie was about the good Germans who stood up to the Nazis during the Holocaust or the heroism of a band of ne’er-do-wells who stormed Normandy and took down Hitler. Things might have been confusing with the LA riots and school shootings and Kosovo, but back in the 1940s, back during the good war, things were not so morally frustrating. Things made sense.
Except for they didn’t. Someone living in the early 1940s, in a segregated country still hemorrhaging from the failure of their economic system, allied with Stalin, murderer of over 20 million people, contemplating whether or not to destroy entire cities of human beings with nuclear energy, would have hardly have described themselves as living in a time of innocence and moral clarity. Propaganda from the period makes it seem this way and worked very hard to make people believe the world was simpler and less messy than it actually was, but why should we believe the propaganda? I thought we were better than that. It’s time we admitted memories of the Second World War have become a sort of moral pornography. Not only do they push Americans to make horribly stupid decisions concerning going to war and blowing up countries, they undermine criticism of more recent wars. If we continue to see Vietnam and Iraq as exceptions to the rule, as deviations from a previous moral clarity, we will continue to hunt for this moral clarity and continue to apologize to country after country for what our moral confusion has wrought.
The idea that there is an original “self” or culture uncorrupted by time’s complications and indignities is absurd. Life itself, last time I checked, is “a morally erosive tangle of denial and lies.” Blasim’s call for an apology, I would think, has more to do with our predilection for this insidious fallacy. He likely wants us to apologize for believing that life could be any different, that Americans were at some point in our past exempt from the normal processes of history and experience. Toward the end of the interview Benedict has Blasim comparing reality in the wake of the Iraq war to “a giant mirror that has fallen and shattered into a million shards.” “Each one of us,” Blasim says, “picks up one shard and thinks he sees the whole picture.” Benedict, ironically, sees this as a call to action. Americans need to restore the mirror to look like it was in 1945. But isn’t the exact problem? Our tendecy to pick up a shard and act as if what we saw there – ourselves mainly – were the whole image? And then to hubristically force all the shards together to make a monstrous doppleganger of this fantastic idea of ourselves?
Benedict concludes with a suggestion:
“Thus I have a suggestion. Like the veterans I know who are struggling with the question, “Am I still a good person and, if not, how can I be good again?” so should we civilians ask this of ourselves: How we can we feel like a morally upright, “good” people when our military has killed and tortured so many innocents with our support, tacit or otherwise, and continues to do so? And if we do face these facts, where and how do we start to heal?”
Speaking as one veteran of the Iraq war, I have a suggestion as well, for civilians and veterans – let’s not be healed. Let’s keep the wounds open. Let’s see these wounds as not something to be cleaned up and forgotten but important contradictions that should be rigorously contemplated and endured for as long possible. Let’s not be so quick to apologize or pretend facing the facts will somehow make the facts go away. A half-a-million Iraqis will still be dead no matter how heartfelt our apology, no matter how intense our honesty. So, instead of imagining a world and America that never actually was, instead of seeing ourselves as good or bad, as characters in a medieval morality play, let’s examine the America that is here. That’s what Blasim did. He exhibited corpses. We would be well advised to resist burying our own under yet another destructive nostalgia.