That the US invasion of Iraq informs, indeed haunts, policy-making in the US was illustrated in some speeches and justifications related to the UN-sanctioned but US and NATO-led no-fly-zone over Libya. What seemed to vex policy-makers and military strategists was whether UN Resolution 1973 allowed for ‘regime change’. The text of the Resolution did not articulate any such sanction and President Obama seemed to be wary of repeating the Iraq experience. As he stated in a speech to the American people on 28 March 2011: ‘To be blunt, we went down that road in Iraq. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our troops and the determination of our diplomats, we are hopeful about Iraq’s future. But regime change there took eight years, thousands of American and Iraqi lives, and nearly a trillion dollars. That is not something we can afford to repeat in Libya.’1 Yet in a joint article with David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy, Obama called on Gaddafi to ‘go and go for good’.2 While aware of the legacy of ‘regime change’ Obama was reluctant to pass on an opportunity to mould his version of democratic change in the Arab world.
While Obama gestured toward Iraq and moved on Suman Gupta’s analysis focuses relentlessly on literary representations of the US invasion, their circulation, and implications.
Individual chapters of Imagining Iraq deal with poetry anthologies, individual poetry collections, theatre, fiction, and blogs. Gupta confines his study primarily to texts available in English and in circulation between 2003 and 2005, as this was the period ‘during which the nuances, processes and aftermath of the invasion of Iraq drew maximum public interest and were passionately debated, and remained constantly “hot news”’ (pp.14-15). The analysis of various types of textual representations is implicated within a wider ‘mass culture of critical engagement with texts, in a pragmatic, immediate, imperative fashion’ (p.26). Thus the study is interested in and meditates upon ‘the broad relationship between literature and the world’ (p.14). Such an endeavour is not unique in literary studies but what distinguishes this one from earlier ones are precisely its modes of enquiry and its ‘purpose’. ‘The point here is not to discern what literature and literary authors have contributed to our understanding of the invasion of Iraq, but to analyse how the environment of the invasion revealed something about the recent and current condition of literature’ (p.13). Although Gupta presents the analytical frame in a dichotomous manner it is possible to argue that the achievement of this study lies in its insights into both a literary enhancement of the ways we may perceive the Iraq invasion as well as the ‘current condition of literature’. By way of further qualification the study deals not with military texts but literary ones: ‘As distinct from such military accounts which tell civilians what’s what or are sanctified by experience, literary texts addressed from and to the civil sphere during the Iraq invasion circulated in a seething network of debates and uncertainties’ (p.18). Given the particularities of Iraq and the wonderfully lucid and always insightful analyses that this study reveals it is difficult to fault the author’s choices and rationale. The Vietnam era witnessed a possibly comparable outpouring of literary representations (and Gupta deals with the genealogy and practices of war poetry collections in his excellent chapter on poetry anthologies) which were ‘addressed from and to the civil sphere’. It is interesting, however, to note the ways in which ‘military accounts’ while removed from civilian domains in experiential terms were also addressed to civil spheres and their peculiar historical, political, and memorial concerns. Perhaps Iraq invasion texts such as Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet (analysed in the individual poetry collections chapter) reach beyond the military to speak to civil spheres.
“…Imagining Iraq deal with poetry anthologies, individual poetry collections, theatre, fiction, and blogs. Gupta confines his study primarily to texts available in English and in circulation between 2003 and 2005, as this was the period ‘during which the nuances, processes and aftermath of the invasion of Iraq drew maximum public interest and were passionately debated, and remained constantly “hot news”.'”
The two chapters on poetry foreground a wide range of works ranging from Todd Swift’s 100 Poets Against the War to Matthew Hollis and Paul Keegan’s 101 Poets Against War, from Harold Pinter’s War to Adrienne Rich’s The School Among the Ruins. Throughout the focus is not so much on individual collections or poems in terms of their literary value, but their location, their staging of, and their circulation within the specific politics of the Iraq invasion period. Referring to anti-war poetry anthologies Gupta argues that these tend to place poetry outside war, as if war were a ‘transcendent condition’ and ‘that poetry is somehow constitutionally moral, moral in a pacifist direction within its deep structures and inspirations. (…) In brief, the prevailing attitude is that poetry is good just as absolutely as war is bad’ (p. 32, p.59). This moral absolutism which is a kind of mirroring of the morally loaded certitudes enunciated by the makers of war was also evident during the Vietnam era where poetry became an arena for distinguishing between the ‘evil’ of US politics and war policies and the ‘good’ of Vietnamese revolutionaries and anti-war protestors. The continuum from Vietnam to Iraq is interesting in its adherence to this moral valuation of the position and content of poetry.
Gupta attributes this valuation to the ‘social construction of poetry’ and its associations ‘with literacy and the academy, middle-class or elite-taste’ (p.77). This construction is predicated on a distinction between the cerebral and the material but, as Gupta argues in his chapter on individual poetry collections, the anger in poetry by Pinter and Tony Harrison collapses the divide in the ways in which they capture ‘the temper of the Iraq invasion context’ (p.76). Anger was not, of course, confined to poetry but evident in theatre, fiction, and blogs. Theatre also brought to the fore the staging of the invasion: ‘that the courtroom, the public hearing, the press conference, the official meeting are all theatre. These spaces of social reality are used to manage belief and disbelief in the public just as theatre manages the belief and disbelief of audiences’ (p.117). The intensity of public anger was perhaps heightened not just by the falsehoods perpetrated by war-makers but by their tawdry staging (a UK government dossier plagiarized from an old PhD thesis being just one example).
While the bulk of this study is concerned with literature in English in the UK and US the final chapter on blogs recovers Iraqi voices which are otherwise written out although the invasion was ostensibly to free the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s ‘regime of fear’. Salam Pax and Riverbend gave the lie to the idea of ‘a deeply traumatized and paralysed society’ (p.178). Their blogs undermined ‘the doubtful but acceptable ethical basis (leaving aside the obvious mendacities) of the invasion, that terror-struck Iraqis needed to be rescued from tyranny—these both said or argued that they didn’t need rescuing and sounded like they didn’t, without making any concessions to Saddam Hussein’s regime’ (p.178). Their presence not only countered dominant media and political narratives but also heightened the sense of the everyday (outside cliche;) disrupted by the invasion, an ordinariness virtually obliterated by the invading forces.
At the outset—and occasionally through the text—Gupta avers that he is not interested in literary texts in terms of their authors’ ‘political choices’ or ‘to reach a moral consensus on the invasion’ (p.13). While Gupta does not directly speculate on these matters this is a study steeped in political and ideological judgements which seem inevitable given the subject at hand. For example, when he analyses and distinguishes Dunya Mikhail’s The War Works Hard from Adrienne Rich’s The School Among the Ruins the acuity, indeed necessity, of such judgement is apparent. That authors’ political choices inform their works as well as this excellent reading of those works seems to me self-evident and without any need of disavowal. Gupta also states that he is interested in the ‘design’ of individual poetry collections rather than ‘specific poems’ and his analysis bears that out very well. He does occasionally look at some poems and they brilliantly combine attention to linguistic detail with poetic, ideological, and utopian desire embedded in the texts. One only wishes there were more such analyses. One also wishes that the study had considered the role of English in the blogosphere and the ways in which the English language mediated Iraqi realities to a global audience.
These minor caveats aside this is an important book undergirded by an air of modesty. ‘In moving towards a conclusion for this study, I do not attempt to draw together the various half-baked tendencies noted in the preceding chapters’ (p.184). This rhetorical throwaway does not qualify or diminish the ways in which Gupta analyses a vast array of literary texts within particular historical, political, and deeply personal and collective moments. What distinguishes this study is not just the acuteness of its insights and its critical and theoretical sophistication, but its accessibility—an attribute that also defines the politics of the book in its desire to speculate on the ‘relationship between literature and the world’. ‘Literary studies may have been addressing the substance of the world and may have hoped to influence how the world works, but at the same time it hid behind dense language, forbidding abstractions, and walls of professional specialism’ (pp.23-24). Gupta’s earlier work, The Theory and Reality of Democracy: A Case Study in Iraq (2006) dwelt on the Iraq invasion from within contexts of the Coalition Provisional Authority, unique patterns of colonization created therein, and its implications in terms of theory and practice. This study extends the field not just in its subject focus but in its critical and imaginative reach. Imagining Iraq is a rare work in the ways in which it meditates on complex and vexed relations between literary texts and the world.
1 Paul Harris, ‘Barack Obama defends US military intervention in Libya’, The Guardian, 29 March 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/29/barack-obama-us-speech-libya?CMP=EMCGT_290311&
2 Allegra Stratton,’Obama, Cameron, Sarkozy: No let-up in Libya until Gaddafi departs,’ The Guardian, 15 April 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/15/obama-sarkozy-cameron-libya?CMP=EMCGT_150411&