Thursday, October 07, 2021


Oct. 7, 2021 -- Another iteration of an essay I authored some 10 years ago—a braiding of conversations among young Iraqis visiting the U.S. along with personal reflections and fragmented reports from their homeland—appears this month in Quagmire: Personal Stories from Iraq and Afghanistan (University of Nebraska Press, Oct. 2021). The new anthology, edited by Donald Anderson, presents selections from War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities to mark its 30 years in print. It also happens to coincide, of course, with the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, that first chapter in the War on Terror that would lead somehow to the invasion of Iraq, the longest war in American history in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of casualties to date, and millions upon millions of families across the globe displaced from their homelands, according to numbers compiled by Brown University's Watson Institute.

The collection's title, notes Philip Beidler in his foreword, "says exactly what it means: that a post-Vietnam War America, having extricated itself toward the end of the twentieth century from the morass of Indochina, at the beginning of the twenty-first actually found it possible to create a new military and geopolitical quagmire in the desert."

Perhaps this mirrored reality makes it doubly hard for we Americans to comprehend the nature and scale of the violence that the wars have visited on so many lives. Our collective "ignorance about Afghanistan," in retrospect, "was as pervasive as it was sixty years prior regarding Vietnam—but that was not the cause of failure and defeat in either country," argues one review of a contemporaneous volume, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (Simon & Schuster, Aug. 2021). Such critiques and investigations point instead to high-ranking moral failures, like queries from a decades-long echo chamber: "Why were they willing to continue killing men, women, and children, and to imperil more of their own citizens, knowing that no clear-cut victory could ever be achieved? It is a haunting question."

No less haunting, for this writer, are the stories we find in Quagmire. Some accounts call to mind W. G. Sebald's soul-ravaged characters, as in this line from the narrator of The Emigrants (New Directions, 1996): "I gradually became convinced that Uncle Adelwarth had an infallible memory, but that, at the same time, he scarcely allowed himself to access it." Indeed, to quote from Beidler's foreword once more:

The work included here is generally so powerful as to reduce one to appalled silence. … from the horrific to the banal … a true literature of witness. Something changes radically in the lives of those who have looked upon the face of battle. To borrow from Donald Anderson, the phrasing "the voice that knows" says it all.

To read Anderson's prologue and other front matter, browse Potomac Books, an imprint of UNP, or preview Quagmire in Google Books. And to join me in bearing witness to these enduring stories, kindly ask your local library or bookstore for a copy.

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