I'm not the target audience for Douglas Lain's Deserts of Fire.
There are many reasons for this. As a book, it takes the United States of America for its centre and its history is drawn from the same context; consequently, its attempt at intervention in these narratives is also drawn from this context. I'm not American, so I fall outside of many of these contexts and interventions, whether posited as local or global in scope. Depending on your view as a reader this may not be necessarily either a good or a bad thing; for me it merely is. The U.S.A. is not at the centre of my cultural history of war, and that too merely is—I'm too brown, too female, too aware of my reality as Indian and part of the Global South.
This is also a book whose opening contextualises its production within the scope of the ongoing U.S. war on the Middle East. There is, from my attempts at googling its authors, not a single author from any Middle Eastern country included in its lineup (barring the single anonymous author listed). The grand majority are white American men, with a few exceptions, and one lone Canadian author. This again, depending upon your viewpoint, isn't necessarily either a good or a bad thing—for some, intervention is intervention regardless of representation. In this situation, and asking this particular question, I would argue that representation is essential to political purpose. In this, again I'm not the ideal reader for this book. There is the inclusion of a few American people of colour, but nationality is as enmeshed in these moments as ethnicity. For an easy example, in Iron Man 3, you have a scene wherein Colonel James Rhodes flies into Pakistan in the heavily armed Iron Patriot suit, to wander about a sweatshop filled with silent women in hijabs, who work while their men sit aimlessly outside. Rhodes barges in, is attacked by a female soldier (also from the Global North) and taken hostage. Later, he frees himself and joins Tony Stark to help defeat the big bad of the film, also from the Global North. I bring this up because Rhodes in this is provided with agency on behalf of his country, as a black man in the military, and this is a moment of representation, of diversity, of inclusive Americana. But that agency is used to illegally enter another country's territory (specifically a country in the Global South) with impunity, and with no repercussions for this event, where the people of this country never speak or display agency of their own, and where no international incident for American armed warfare occurs. I despair of the amount of hubris and humiliation implicit in this movie's cultural hierarchy. But, again, complicity in this moment empowers Rhodes. Being an American person of colour is distinct from being a person from the Global South of an ethnicity not recognised as white. This is the point I'm making. This is why, despite the inclusion of these authors, this book has failed long before it even begins.
Before I even begin to review this book in any depth, there's the troubling and implicit assertion of its title—the "Modern War" that Lain's collection has responded to only involves the U.S.A. Its opening contextualises it as a "statement against U.S. incursions in the Middle East." I presume this context is taken as central given that the U.S. has openly disclosed its current involvement in seven wars—Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Syria— and, depending on differing definitions regarding war and military incursion, may be involved in far more that have yet to make it to the public sphere. Yet few if any of these manage to make their way into these works in a way that is not abstracted by the American hegemony of "war" itself. Within the scenarios of this book, and notably within the introductions that frame every subsection, war is only definable by an American understanding of their ability to ask and conclude what war is. Note that this is not U.S.-led modern war but modern war as a whole, whatever that might mean, particularly given that there are numerous other countries that are not the U.S.A. engaging in covert or open warfare currently around the world.
"Why war?" asks the introduction. Sitting halfway around the world and increasingly baffled by the very parameters of these subsections, I have a hundred responses. I wonder if the editor understands how frustrating and dismissive the very construct of this book is to readers in the Global South, whose lives aren't governed solely by Americana. The Philippines is reeling as Rodrigo Duterte, a mass-murderer and self-proclaimed dictator, is now president-elect. Burundi's conflicts between the Hutu and Tsutsi communities may have flared up despite the 2006 resolution of the civil war following Pierre Nkurunziza's recent appointment as President for a third term. The question is relevant to my life too as India trundles terrifyingly towards war with Pakistan over Kashmir (which doesn't particularly want either of us in charge), and while the Indian defence minister openly questions why we might have a No First Use (NFU) policy on nuclear weapons even though the government's official policy remains that India's nuclear armament is intended as a deterrent. Far less trumpeted by local media are the ongoing Indo-Chinese border skirmishes, probably because this would involve less play to Hinduist Islamophobic rhetoric. The book doesn't even include a reference to the ongoing warfare of the U.S.A. against the Native American community. After a while, I had to stop to ask myself which Americans this book of Americana is even written for, as the list seemed to be getting shorter every time. These points are hardly a long list but what I'm really getting at here is that "Why war?" is a question relevant for those both within and outside of America or American war zones, but somehow we don't exist in the worlds of this book. I could try to answer Lain's question but he's hardly looking to me or those like me; I suspect he's been practising this speech in a mirror instead.
The titular "modern war" is framed in relation to World War I and Dada for a few brief paragraphs, before basing its opening selection around the Vietnam War and the anti-war protests that arose in America then. How ironic that this attempted intervention with fiction is already part and parcel of an American neocolonial project; one less brutally physically violent than the act of warfare, but deadly nonetheless. In a collection of essays titled Writers in Politics, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o states:
Cultural imperialism was then part and parcel of the thorough system of economic exploitation and political oppression of the colonized peoples and literature was an integral part of that system of oppression and genocide. It was used in the same way as language and religion. But it was a more subtle weapon because literature works through influencing emotions, the imagination, the consciousness of a people in a certain way; to make the colonized see the world as seen, analysed, and defined by the artists and intellectuals of the western ruling classes. (15)
That the anti-war effort in this book is against war is admirable and draws on the power of literature's ability to influence change; that this intervention is so coded with the neocolonial impetus of the humanitarian aid extended by the Global North in order to make itself a bastion of civilisation and ethics in this fight for basic morality—well, that's far less admirable. In effect, this seems to frame war itself within the context of American exceptionalism (a hubris I suspect most within the collection have utterly failed to grasp but which any reader from the Global South cannot help but have brought home with every navel-gazing page).
Deserts of Fire is broken into seven subsections. The first of these deals with the Vietnam War, as Lain notes that this is historically relevant to the war on the Middle East in terms of American sentiment and the humiliation of its military power. Lain quotes George Bush Sr.'s reference to Vietnam after the U.S.A.'s entry into the Gulf War as justification for this choice of historical opener, simultaneously validating Bush Sr.'s reference as deserving of engagement within this work, and as positioning this collection itself within the context of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and '70s. The book offers two stories here—Norman Spinrad's "The Big Flash" (first published in 1969 in Orbit) and Kate Wilhelm’s "The Village" (first published in 1973 in Bad Moon Rising) as historical contextualisation of the history of speculative anti-war fiction. "The Big Flash" deals with the use of propaganda to lead to another nuclear bombing, playing up the eventual popular allure of a racist and anti-Semitic music group called The Four Horsemen. It's a story that finds parallels in accusations of Facebook's false news stories encouraging the Trump presidency, even as it seems to question the politics of an audience whose interest in spectacle and capitalism outweighs morality. Even as it is relevant, it's also incredibly restrictive—to the best of my knowledge the story is peopled exclusively by men, and this becomes a sort of anti-war nuclear death fantasy that relies for its basis on the power of the white, middle-class American male, inadvertently validating that aspect within its premise. This feels eerily reminiscent of the manner in which the news is currently peopled by think-pieces looking to explain the needs of Trump voters because, we're told, their alienation is what really matters in these times. Following this, "The Village" folds the timelines of American soldiers attacking a village in a warzone with daily life in an American town, only to result in these soldiers attacking, raping, and killing their own community. Terror in this scenario is one in which non-American people are excluded entirely from the narrative (except for the use of the racial slur "gook") and its anti-war sentiment rests only on the assertion of similarity, not the recognition of humanity within difference.
The choice of these stories as an opening to this book felt pointed, though probably not in the way it was intended to be. Vietnamese stories aren't in this book, Afghani stories won't be; asking "why war?" only works if, when these narratives are folded together, the assertion of similarity with an American public is greater than any recognition or celebration of difference. I'm barely two stories in and I'm already frustrated with this collection because, based on the stories it has chosen, it's learned diddly-squat in the last thirty years about telling war stories that aren't about validating white male fantasies of power. Nor has it learned that actually not excluding the people of Vietnam (or indeed any country where these wars occur) is imperative. In a spectacular centring of Americana, it reframes history to centre America by replaying its own home-movie history that fails to account for the fact that the Vietnam-China conflict existed aside from American intervention or its so-called humiliation, that the Civil Rights movement was far more than the narrative of white people and capitalism, and that inevitably, this narrative of us versus them played out against nuclear war is inextricably linked to race (as noted by Martin Luther King Jr, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Shirley Graham, Marian Anderson, and so many more at the time). It's not so much that these stories are bad but that they do nothing to tread new ground; I would applaud if this was laid out openly as proof that the warlike U.S. government has learned nothing from its own military history, except that plaintive "why war" suggests that neither have these homegrown critics.
The next section is titled "terrorism." It opens with a story called "The Frozen One" by Tim Pratt which was first published in Lone Star Stories in 2008. The story is the only story from this subsection to be lauded in Lain's introduction to this part of the book, and features a parable (compared to the Christian parable of the Good Samaritan) that challenges the bystander effect when confronted with what the story sees as evil "halfway people" hiding amidst the refugees. In a world where the refugee crisis is spiralling out of control, where people are dying to escape war-torn regions whose warfare can be directly or indirectly linked to weapons and financing from the Global North, where the idea of building walls around cities is justified as to keep evil "halfway people" out because they're violent and inhuman (as Pratt's story suggests without a second to question how often these racist parameters are used to define non-white ethnicities), I struggle to understand the inclusion of this story. Telling both sides works only if both sides are adequately represented in this moment. Telling this fantastical story, linking it directly to New York, and then implying that this is what destruction amounts to—the lack of a standing wall—fails to account for histories of why these "halfway people" exist within non-metaphorical parallels. The assertion I'm making here is not about Pratt's questioning what makes a hero and the pitfalls of waiting for someone else to stand up and fight. That one's fine. What I question is the fact that this narrative, when it acknowledges the city's culpability at all, has the mayor as a "halfway person" in disguise (a point that inadvertently reinforces racist parameters that make it so difficult for people of colour to hold office in many countries in the Global North)." If you feel I am reading too strongly into Pratt's narrative metaphor here, know that it is the result of reading entire decades of non-metaphorical versions of these stories in which people who look like me are the villains outside of the gates. (And by non-metaphorical stories, I mean the news.) I'm sure a book that sees itself as questioning the very nature of war would cringe if I stated its narrative is part and parcel of the validation of Bush's America, of Obama's America (which, despite all efforts to gloss over this factor, was extremely violent and warlike both within and outside of its own borders), and of Trump's future America. I'm saying it anyway. If you need ask "why war?" with a story like this, then Orhan Pamuk has long offered a response (translated by Mary Isin) that speaks about humiliation, fear, colonial aftermaths, and the divide between the rich and the poor. When asked why violence is engendered against these neocolonial countries, he says of the Global South, "It is the feeling of impotence deriving from degradation, the failure to be understood, and the inability of such people to make their voices heard." That not one of the halfway people speaks in Pratt's story, that not one of the refugees is part of the chance to tell their tale, speaks volumes to me.
Pratt's story is followed by Michael Canfield's "The Language of Monsters" which was first published in 2011 on his website. The story uses extraordinary rendition (or the practice of forcibly sending foreign criminals or suspects to covertly be interrogated in a country with less rigorous regulations about the humane treatment of prisoners) to articulate issues of theism and the greater good. In it, the American government agency looking to extract information uses an ancient creature, renamed Ba'al by his handler, to permanently possess the bodies of these prisoners and share their memories; a process which always results in their death. The story acknowledges that often these deaths are guided by petty inter-office political motivations, and that those innocent of crimes are just as likely to die in this situation as anyone actually guilty of them, and that these deaths are not sanctioned judicially, though the American government is mandating them through the experimental programme. Yet again, people from the Global North are centred in this narrative even as the main character, Ba'al, is inhuman and consequently lies outside of nationality and ethnicity while acting as a tool for U.S. military interests. The terror that arises in this story is not one in which citizens of Egypt (where this bunker is located) are afraid, or disappeared, but where citizens assured of freedoms—such as the Canadian-Arab woman who briefly appears in its pages—because of their presence in the Global North are featured. The Yemeni driver who shares her chosen name is never presented and his likely extrajudicial torture and death are not to concern us within the narrative at all. Canfield’s choice of nationality and ethnicity for this woman, Muhammad, is central to this narrative because the fear of extraordinary rendition and extrajudicial death is one that depends heavily on the assurance of rights and recognition of humanity, and this has historically been seen as solely the purview of citizens of the Global North (with racial hierarchies in place). Canfield's story is the first inoffensive story in this book thus far, yet is still incapable of grasping the fact that "modern war" is to many of us about far more than the liberal fears of an authoritarian America turned upon its neighbouring populace in the Global North. After all, the dictators that were funded by these powers have already turned upon their own populaces, stripped those rights that were fought for by these locals, and these rights are never quite retrieved despite claims of humanitarian interventionist warfare.
Much like Canfield's narrative, Ken Liu's story "In the Loop" (first published in War Stories in 2014) also has the same pitfall of centring the fears and humanity of drone operators in the Global North. Liu's story is effective, and it would be a misreading of its scope to suggest that it doesn't attempt to account for the local populace caught within the crosshairs of Kyra's drone project, but this feels again like a sort of sympathy for the devil moment—an explanation of Kyra's pain and the monstrosity of her humanity, her guilt, is still a story where the victim who gets to survive this ethical scenario is American. Horror is felt in this scenario if you are American and understand Kyra's position; there's nothing to feel but anger or exhaustion if you read this as a citizen of one of the countries under drone warfare. In 2013, now-deceased Yemeni activist Ibrahim Mothana wrote:
During my visits to Abyan, Shabwa, and Radaa, three areas of central and southern Yemen where the U.S. has carried out targeted killings, I was overwhelmed with sadness meeting families of drone victims suffering a miserable combination of personal loss and devastating economic burden. Many of the children of strike victims that I saw were severely malnourished and families who lost their main financial provider had little hope for the future. For many of the youngsters, death seemed an easier burden than life so, with this bleak outlook, they joined the fight against the government.
With drones flying overhead 24/7, people are living in constant fear and anxiety over the possibility of another strike. During my visits to these areas, I shared their fear. I felt as Adel al-Jonaidi, a high school student living in Radaa did, when he told me, "Whenever drones are hovering in the area, it's like being in a state of waiting endlessly for execution."
I add this here because there has been no space for it in the stories so far. These are the voices this book is speaking over. I'm being asked to understand Kyra's choices, and I do, but I have limited empathy for her pain in this book's barrage of liberal American fantasy guilt-wank.
Last in this section is Brendan C. Byrne's 2010 story "Wasps/Spiders," which was first published in Flurb. It opens with the narrator introducing the heavily exoticised and othered character of Fareen Ali, who says the narrator's name "the way children say it, but drawing it out and licking up the side of its face." The story posits a world in which you can upload and sell the experiences of terrorism on the free market, and this is how the narrator makes his money—a nod to our contemporary mediascape couched in the futuristic premise of spider machines that extract these memories. The story would be incisive and hard-hitting if I felt closer to the American narrator whose first person I'm privy to, rather than Fareen Ali, whose death and elusive memory thread through the story. As it is, these descriptions that centre on her death, on this odd dystopian memorialisation that sells itself on the free market, only brings to mind the idea of private white deaths versus public non-white deaths that South African writer Panashe Chigumadzi writes about:
Ransacking my memories of newspaper and television news imagery, I find that in my nearly 25 years of existence I have never seen a dead white body, but countless dead black and brown bodies.
So indiscriminate are we about the dead bodies of black and brown people across the world, that the countless and varied photos have become generic stock imagery that media and government propagandists alike can mix and match with the exact message they want to convey: Dead liberation hero murdered by settler colonial government. Dead liberation hero murdered by rightwing white terrorist. Dead black workers shot by black government's police. Dead and bludgeoned body of African strongman. Dead Middle Eastern refugee baby on Mediterranean beach.
And we can now see the death in almost real-time imagery: Dying African child, circled by vultures as s/he starves during famine. Dying young African-American man as white American police shoot him. Dying African of foreign descent as he is stabbed to death by fellow African of local descent.
[ … ]
Thus, what the propaganda sought to convey by keeping white death private and making black death public was this: White bodies, the vessels of white colonial masters, are sacrosanct. Black and brown bodies, the vessels of colonial subjects, are fungible.
Byrne's story plays into this aspect with its emphasis on Ali's death, her memory, her otherness. Even though the story's intent seems to be to occasion a look at how cavalier and capitalistic this is, the result is repetition, not interruption. Six stories into this collection, I'm exhausted by its blinkered ethos. Is it genuinely so hard to have a brown woman live to the end? The only two introduced are dead already and I'm only two sections down.
The next section of this book is titled "Weapons of Mass Destruction" and has Lain discussing fears that encompass the nuclear holocaust, chemical or biological warfare, and the constant feeling of living under threat, specifically after 9/11. This section begins with the description of an anonymously published piece in which a speech made by Colin Powell, the Secretary of State in 2003 to the UN Security Council, is remixed by the author to account for the regret Powell claimed to feel during a later interview with Barbara Walters on ABC News. I'll repeat with more emphasis: this author has remixed Colin Powell's original speech, in which he misrepresented or clearly lied about the U.S. reasons to invade Iraq, for which he faced no real repercussions ever other than a mild marring of his military and public record, as a piece in this book which has no Iraqi writers.
I have stopped reading this book. You could not pay me to continue. I refuse to validate any more of this regurgitated liberal fantasy of blinkered regret.
I thought, having read the sections that I had early on, that inserting the voices of people outside of this book's purview in a review might be enough. It is not. It could never be enough. I am so angry I could spit. I am so exhausted I could cry. Why war? In 2001's The Algebra of Infinite Justice, Arundhati Roy points out how often war is argued to offset lives: so many on one side means destroying an equivalent or higher on the other; so rarely are these added on, factored as multiples for families and societies when it means the lives destroyed. She talks about the costs of the free markets funded by these wars, the violence of capitalism and the fears of what this means for us all. Why war? In her essay "War is Peace," she points out:
… the people of the world do not have to choose between the Taliban and the US government. All the beauty of human civilization—our art, our music, our literature—lies beyond these two fundamentalist, ideological poles. There is little chance that all the people of the world can become middle-class consumers as there is that they will all embrace any one particular religion. The issue is not about Good vs Evil or Islam vs Christianity [or the conflict between any other religions] as much as it is about space. About how to accommodate diversity, how to contain the impulse towards hegemony—every kind of hegemony, economic, military, linguistic, religious and cultural. Any ecologist will tell you how dangerous and fragile a monoculture is. A hegemonic world is like having a government without a healthy opposition. It becomes a kind of dictatorship. It's like putting a plastic bag over the world, and preventing it from breathing. Eventually, it will be torn open. (246–247)
Here is one answer.
This book is a monoculture. Here is my opposition. I will not read any further.