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The First Servant In Iraq

Douglas Gearhart says there are 1001 stories from Iraq.

“It is exceedingly unlikely that I shall ever be able to understand the why and wherefore of war … The deepest fear of my war years, one still with me, is that these happenings had no real purpose.”
J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, 1970, p.24

One of my literary heroes, from Shakespeare’s King Lear, is on the stage (or the page) for only one scene (Act 3, Scene 7). The text calls him ‘First Servant’, and in the grand scheme of the play he is a cog, or a mere functionary, speaking no more than a few lines of dialogue. Yet his decisive action, driven by moral outrage, makes him perhaps the most heroic character in the play. His heroism is also uncomplicated by tragic reflection, save for the last-breath realization that heroes do not long survive their principles.

The First Servant works for Cornwall. During an interrogation, Cornwall tortures an old man. He has him bound, and proceeds to gouge out the man’s eyes. ِAfter the first eye is put out (to the delight of Cornwall’s wife), the First Servant pleads with his master to stop. The Servant is rebuked, and when he realizes his master will not be reasoned with, he attacks him, delivering a blow that will eventually prove fatal; but he is killed in the process. After the fight Cornwall completely blinds the old man anyway. The First Servant is never mentioned again, and the play moves forward.

The story of King Lear could be told without mentioning the First Servant. He is certainly not a main or even necessary character for what King Lear is about. But when I read or listen to the play (at least once a year), I think about him a great deal.

In the Iraq war there are main characters and bit players. The main characters, the deciders, the Generals and the planners, will tell their stories, and ultimately shape the Iraq war narrative. I want to illustrate how events in war elicit contrasting narratives depending on perspective.

Opening Chapters

The invasion of Iraq was the most exhilarating event of my life. It is impossible to remember clearly those early hours in March 2003, when I was a naïve Army reservist embarking on what promised to be a bizarre and exciting interlude from normal life, as well as a great resume point. As we advanced towards Baghdad during those opening days, there were as yet no uniform procedures for dealing with problems arising from Iraqi normal life, like civilian traffic coming close to our convoys. Much suspicion, anxiety and theorizing went out over the radio net. Were cars following us to act as spotters for attacks? Why are there so many orange taxis? Reports of car bombs compounded the confusion and anxiety of us foreigners. It is worth mentioning that in these early-early days, troops on the ground still genuinely expected to be attacked with chemical and biological weapons. Whether or not the danger actually existed, based on what our superiors told us during the build-up weeks prior to the invasion, we believed that it was likely.

An Iraqi man and his son approached the US checkpoint in a small pick-up truck too quickly for the guard’s comfort. American troops shot up the truck, hitting and killing the father. Visibly shaken troops tried to comfort the boy while figuring out what to do about the man’s body. The boy looked about eight years old. Word must have spread quickly in that rural area of southern Iraq, because his relatives soon arrived to collect the body and take it and the crying boy away. I can only imagine what the boy is doing now, seven years later. These are formative experiences that defy coherence. What does it mean to him? What will he remember about the days when the Americans came? If he is still alive he is a teenager now, carrying within him one of countless divergent narratives about the war in Iraq. I met him that morning in 2003, and then my own endeavor continued forward.

War Without A Truth

Humans are sense-making animals: they lie, twist and distort all sorts of facts and experiences in an attempt to make narrative sense of the world, from the origins of the universe down to anecdotes and other autobiographical accounts of our own behaviors. Even our own memories and accounts are tainted by wishful thinking, fading memory, confirmation biases and all sort of self-serving motivations and fallacies. We are rather unreliable witnesses even of our own lives.

Since we are sense-making machines we look for meaning and purpose in our experiences and our suffering. We use narrative to make our experiences cohere under a unifying theme. Yet whatever narrative coherence the war had for me in 2003 is now lost after return trips in 2006 and 2009. The struggle among the competing voices to define the Iraq war, to spin the facts, to tell the important stories, or just to try to describe what happened and why, leads me to only one certainty: I still know nothing about Iraq, and I do not know where I would begin to look to find The Truth about this war. Iraqis and Americans will never tell the same stories or share the same narratives about what happened. It seems that the virtuous approach is a radical humility and skepticism about any attempts to make the war a single coherent narrative, because to attempt to do so would inevitably silence or ignore so many voices and witnesses. To feign access to any type of definitive knowledge or privileged access to the Truth about Iraq seems to me indecent. If truth is the goal, then memory is a witness with little credibility. I do not believe in the veracity either of my own memories or those of others. The clarity of my memories wanes every day. The accuracy of the imagery and the stories which accompany them are untrustworthy, like any piece of eye-witness testimony, degraded by time and dissonance. I only know my little piece of the war as a tiny cog or functionary in an effort encompassing so much grief, destruction, and so many stories. I do not care to listen to the war stories of other soldiers. I generally stop listening when I hear a soldier tell a war story, because I don’t believe them. But I too succumb to the temptation to talk about Iraq: “One time in Iraq…” the story generally begins. The images burned into my mind and my photos from Iraq are like mental hyperlinks to a thousand different stories. They can be sad, terrifying, heart-breaking or funny. But they do not all hang together, and with the passing of time it is becoming impossible to remember, much less tell, any true stories about Iraq. In the process of recounting reality the complex becomes simplified. Like any piece of experience we pluck from the murky past and clean and polish for an audience, all war stories have filled-in gaps, are a best-guess approximation, and most probably are also a piece of ego propaganda. At worst they are lies and exaggerations. The Iraqi people do not tell the same stories either.

A Company Commander reports to his boss, a Battalion Commander: “My guys cleared the neighborhood of weapons and insurgents today.” This report is accompanied by a PowerPoint storyboard, with images and graphs. It is literally a piece of product, and already the process of transforming events into a hard story and ‘fact’ has begun. The Battalion Commander says, “Nice work,” and reports to his boss, a Brigade Commander. Meanwhile the villagers are picking up the pieces, telling their own stories, and asking their own questions – though not in PowerPoint form. The ‘village narrative’ might go as follows: “They came and broke our things, knocked down our doors, destroyed our property. They arrested no one. Then they left.” Meanwhile, we claim a small victory because sure enough, the area is now ‘cleared’, while they’re perplexed or just pissed off.

This is the problem of measuring and interpreting effects in a war without space to win or armies to defeat. These types of event are less open to alternate modes of description: an army is either vanquished or holds the field. There is less risk of the confirmation bias when the indices of victory are enemy soldiers killed and ground gained. But when the desired effects are ‘village X supports our efforts’, then the confirmation bias takes hold and we spin the story to our favor, because after all that is part of how we keep score: the information environment and the local narrative. While less insidious a measure of success than a daily body count, it has its own risks of magical thinking and logical howlers getting in the way of the truth. When the war effort is literally a struggle for the population’s narrative, and endorses propaganda to create these effects, who can you trust?

Any attempt at historical truth will be only one account among many. There will be many competing accounts, and much political rhetoric about what Iraq was all about, what it was really like – all motivated by imperfect memory, a hope for redemption, cognitive dissonance, or the desire to create emotional, rhetorical and political effects in an audience, rather than by a desire to capture the truth. We must always seek to spot the storyteller’s shadow in any account. Narratives are passed down and stories are told solely to create an effect in an audience. That is all. Nevertheless, historians will synthesize the events into a coherent narrative. Somebody will consign the war to the fixed narrative of history. But what really happened? And if Truth does exist, who has access to it? Eventually the narratives and stories will morph into a kind of historical truth. Someone will win the information campaign.

Images and Information

Southeast of Baghdad is the small city of Wahida. The name means ‘unity’ or ‘one’. Wahida is a predominately Shia area, and the reactions to the US presence were mixed. The people expressed the common frustrations and impatience heard in other cities circa 2006: “The electricity and the water are sporadic.” “There is no work.” “We do not trust the government.” Young men were out of work, left out, out of place. Many wanted to join the Iraqi Security Forces, but the process was hardly transparent to them. There was a rumor on the street that you had to pay bribe money to join the Iraqi army. Most people were impatient with the progress of the Iraqi government and the perceived US impotence to fix problems.

Shia neighborhoods like Wahida are replete with images of their martyrs, Ali and Hussein. During the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar, Muharram, the Shia mark the anniversary of the death of Imam Husayn – a Shia saint figure and grandson of Prophet Muhammad – in a procession marked by self-flagellation and lamentation. Its theme is collective atonement. Also prominent throughout the city on posters and merchandise, is the ubiquitous image of Muqtada Al Sadr, the fiery cleric with a strong following among the Shia poor and dispossessed. Sadr’s propaganda frequently includes the image of Husayn alongside his own.

In Wahida there was a unique sign hanging from a street-light post. Of high quality, obviously professionally crafted, the image on the sign was of an Iraqi soldier wearing the uniform of the Iraqi National Police, standing tall and proud with an AK-47. The people in the neighborhood said he was killed by the terrorists, meaning the Sunni insurgency, and this was the community’s way of remembering one of its heroes. The text reads: “The martyr [soldier’s name] was martyred on Oct 16, 2006.” Also on the memorial are the classic images of the Shia martyrs Ali and Hussein. In the narrative of Wahida, the soldier’s sacrifice is further ennobled by its religious significance, providing the comforting undertone of the concepts of an all-powerful witness to earthly struggles, of universal justice, and ultimate meaning. Some other touchstones of the Shia collective narrative appear on the fallen soldier’s memorial. As the story goes, during the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE, Ali’s son Hussein was massacred, along with seventy-two companions and family members. They say Hussein and his men were massively outnumbered, but held off the attacking Syrian force for six days. Their water supply cut off, Hussein led his outnumbered band and charged the Umayyad army, only to be cut down. This story is symbolically important to Shia Muslims as a moral example of resistance to illegitimate authority, of standing up to tyranny, and of displaying undaunted courage in a just cause. Hussein’s martyrdom is the dramatic experience at the heart of Shia devotion. Shias invoke the Hussein story to define their conflicts. This Iraqi soldier represents another link in this tradition.

In the Information War, all sides are trying to frame the issues and ultimately influence the stories and rhetoric that will resonate with the population. In this way narratives are targeted to infect the future. Consider the rhetoric of Henry V’s ‘band of brothers’ speech: fight with me today and you can brag about it and impress women when (if) you get home again. Other men who overhear you telling your war stories will “hold their manhoods cheap.”

The Iraqis do not share stories with us, no matter how we try to shape the information environment. The truth never seems to catch up to our Public Relations campaign. Like the Company commander, we want to report, “We cleared this town,” get our service awards, and get back home. But the Iraqis have stood by and watched the same event, dumbfounded by our impotence. With two such different dimensions of descriptions, the stories will never be the same, and there can be no unity of narrative.

Meanings and Morals

What does this mean? I keep returning to this question. Maybe Iraq will never hang together for us: our narratives are not going to bring us together, and in the face of the deluge of Iraq reporting, storytelling and historical accounts, we must maintain our humility, empathy and philosophical skepticism. These must be our first principles, and the foundations for even beginning to understand the Iraq war: to remember that all communication is designed and crafted to create an effect, from first-person war-stories to history books. Therefore we must be skeptics of what passes as History, or Truth – no matter the reputation of the publishing house.

This leads to me to a philosophical problem. There is an assumption, albeit typically unexamined, that I know something about this event called ‘Operation Iraqi Freedom’ because I was/am there. Does personal experience – direct, visceral, dramatic, emotional – give us a privileged vantage point on Truth, a higher understanding? Or are we condemned to play out our roles like the First Servant in Lear? Beyond this, how do the individual experiences of all the cogs add up to historical truth? And who will write this final narrative? Who has the right?

In Iraq perhaps we cogs and functionaries were all First Servants of sorts, and the great lessons we learned in Iraq are not any insight into the Truth or the Grand Narrative of the war. We immersed ourselves into the struggles and the tragic fate of a foreign people and a foreign culture. We have expanded our sense of empathy. We have lost friends. Hopefully because of this we are better people, and better skeptics, albeit less scholarly, perhaps. That might be all we can contribute to the conversation. We will not write the history, or go on book tours to tell the masses about ‘Iraqi Freedom’, but we will have our stories – similar to the story of King Lear as told by the wife or children of the First Servant.

History forgets the cogs in the gigantic machine. It is easy to lose sight of the First Servant; the boy on the road in 2003; the martyr from Wahida. But this is a perspective we must empathize with if we’re serious about understanding and influencing narratives, whether for successful counterinsurgency operations, for understanding our own lives, or for our ongoing conversation about what it means to be human, and for our relationship with history and truth.

My stories do not all hang together. Yet although I may never understand the whole story, I hope to develop and cultivate the moral instincts of the First Servant so that my judgment may never be clouded from acting in the face of evil and cruelty. I also hope that the suffering of war has made me more empathic, more humble, and more skeptical of narratives and myths dressed up to look like History and Truth.

© Douglas Gearhart 2010

Douglas Gearhart is currently serving in Iraq. Email to douglas.gearhart@yahoo.com.

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