Iranian-American author captures how combat has a Peter Pan quality, allowing fighters, as well as war correspondents, to escape from the drudgery of daily life and never grow up.
Salar Abdoh's novel, "Out of Mesopotamia," is one of a handful of great modern war novels. It tells the story of Saleh, a jaded, middle-aged Iranian reporter -- one suspects a bit like Abdoh himself -- who accompanies Shia militias, as Abdoh did, in Iraq and Syria during the heavy fighting between 2014 and 2017. A few thousand Iranian soldiers, including members of Iran's elite Quds Force, along with thousands of Iranian volunteers, entered Syria and Iraq to assist the governments of Iraq and Syria in the battle against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). ISIS, which at its height held about a third of Syria and 40 percent of Iraq, is led by Sunni Muslim extremists who consider the Shia Muslims apostates. ISIS has murdered thousands of Shias in mass executions and destroyed numerous Shia shrines and mosques.
The Iranian-backed Shia fighters were vital in the crushing of the Sunni jihadists and functioned, for a time, as de facto allies of the United States, although the American forces, as Abdoh writes, "despised our skin and our faces and our weapons." The Americans saw the Shia fighters, he writes, as "rodents, and we saw them as a hollow Goliath." The fighting was chaotic, brutal and often senseless. Factions abruptly changed sides, as in all civil wars, to decimate those who a few days earlier were their allies.
Fratricides are the most savage conflicts, this one pitting one branch of Islam -- Shia -- against another branch of Islam, Sunni, over what Sigmund Freud called "the narcissism of minor differences." These internecine conflicts, as I witnessed in the wars I covered in Central America, the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia, turn on cultural, ideological and theological absurdities, elevated to unforgiveable apostasies meriting death. They are sustained by myth and the yearning, as Abdoh writes, for "adrenaline" rushes and "vengeance," especially once comrades are sacrificed for the cause. War lures the poor, the neglected and the lost, those whose lives seem to have no meaning or future, to the carnage. War is sold as the ultimate escape, the last chance for adventure, heroism and glory. But war promptly grinds up its acolytes into the maimed and the dead. It is a tale as old as war itself.
The reporter Saleh, fleeing a failed love affair and the grind of writing television scripts, makes his living as a war reporter by chronicling the suffering of others. This voyeurism forces him to question himself and his profession. Is he seeking truth? Is he attempting to convey the reality of war? Do his reports engender understanding and empathy? Or is his reporting part of the pornography of violence?
"A mother, child held tightly to her chest, walks by not glancing at you and not asking for food, even though she's half-starved and her feet are sore and blistered," Abdoh writes. "Maybe she had been a teacher in another life, a musician, a nurse, a housekeeper; she asks for nothing except that you -- you who are not a part of her solution but, she suspects, a part of her misery -- go away and take the soldiers you're with along with you. You are searching for life's meaning and this woman marches her misery march. What do you do? What do you file in your report? What is it you all want from us? she says. Says it matter-of-factly. As if reason had anything to do with why any of this was happening."
Combat has a Peter Pan quality. It allows fighters, as well as war correspondents, to escape from the drudgery of daily life, to never grow up. War is a way, ironically, to cheat death by severing us from the normal markers of time and the responsibilities of living. This infantilism is not available to those left behind.
"None of us ever thought about how these once-, twice-, thrice-blessed mothers, wives, daughters, felt when they went down the street to buy bread in the morning," Abdoh writes. "Ours was the laziest of paths, simply to die; theirs was calamity, followed by the backbreaking grind of daily life. Ours was fantasy; theirs raising that fatherless boy who'll grow up to be the spitting image of his father."
Abdoh uses Marcel Proust's novel "In Search of Lost Time" as a literary foil. Saleh finds a copy abandoned near the border of Iraq and turns to it for solace and wisdom, as I did when I ploughed through the six volumes of Proust's masterpiece while covering the war in Bosnia. War, with its brief, incandescent flashes of excitement and terror, is also defined by long periods of inactivity and boredom, perfect for those who seek to retreat into the pages of books. Proust, as Abdoh understands, explores the alienation, distortion of time, tricks of memory, symptoms of a dying society and a desperate longing to be something greater than who we are -- all of which define war.
"In this war, nothing -- nothing at all -- made sense," Abdoh writes. "People appeared and disappeared, ancient animosities suddenly boiled over, heads were cut off with such fierce regularity that it made you doubt the proper digits of your century, and there were so many sides and fronts and realignments that when you managed to grab a sliver of reliable Internet long enough to read a foreign paper, where they referred to the simple men you marched alongside as men who committed atrocities, you began to doubt everything, especially yourself: Am I a part of some beastlines? Where is this inhumanity they point to? It's not here, no. Not in Khan-T where Moalem and I are trying to hold onto a goddamn useless red building."
Life outside of combat is stale and redundant. War, as Abdoh writes, makes "everything else irrelevant." It is not that one loves war, although there are psychopaths and sadists who love war -- it is that the rush of combat cannot be replicated. The addictive narcotic of combat, which, like any narcotic, you need in ever greater doses, eats away at you. "The war had swallowed him up," Abdoh writes of a character in the book, "and like all volunteers fighting there he was no longer good for anything else but playing the death game."
The vivid and disturbing images, the night terrors and the flashbacks haunt those who return, making them aliens in their own land. War, as Abdoh writes, "is always in a state of becoming." It is "...perpetual motion. Even after it's over. You think you've won, then a few years later your win turns into a loss. Once you enter combat you've signed away anything good in this world. Men who don't understand this simple equation have a habit of turning the world to sh*t."
War brings with it a kind of schizophrenia. You are never sure where you are or where you belong. "I do not know in how many worlds a person can live simultaneously before they lose themselves completely," Saleh reflects. In this troubled state, those who have not felt the dark, seductive emotions war elicits, or seen the suffering of war's victims, become objects of disdain and hatred.
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