Mario Vargas Llosa’s Iraq Chronicles


War Trophies español

Santiago Alba Rico

Translation: David Brookbank, Machetera & Manuel Talens

(From the book “Crimes of War” published by the Committee in Solidarity with the Arab Cause, which includes the report written by brigade members about civilian victims.)


Sometimes things are so simple that one allows oneself to be carried away by discouragement; they are so simple and function with so few elements that there is no way to change them.  The worst that can be said about relationships of domination – conjugal, economic or colonial – is that they enormously simplify the mental universe of those involved, reducing it to the two perfect pieces of evidence that have accompanied and legitimized forceful triumph for thousands of years: the superiority of the victor and the inferiority of the vanquished.

In part for reasons of pedantry and in part out of superstition – and with the hope of increasing the fragility of the scenario by exaggerating its complexity – I have searched over much time for more complex and elaborate similarities with more ramifications.  But I give up.   Everything is so simple that it will endure, so plain that it will not fall apart: every one of those gestures that we call “Western,” each and every one of its parliaments and chatter, its toys, its depressions, its newspapers, its shopping baskets, its values, each one of its Christmas decorations and each of its electro-domestics, presuppose and reinforce the most simple and virtuous contempt for everyone else; the most generous, friendly, genuine and proper minimization of the Other; the sweetest, most intelligent, and most moderate negation of our neighbor.  It is not possible to dominate the other without violence; it is not possible to do violence without demeaning; but we can demean them with such good reason, so full of humanity and morality, that we end up being ironic about our victims, perfecting ourselves through their pain and sharpening our capacity for love on the stumps of their limbs. Ethnocentrism is one of the most primitive mechanisms for the production of identity in history; but it is the first time that a small tribe in a remote corner of the earth –which today represents at least a fifth of humanity – has had sufficient force and is able to apply sufficient violence so as to impose its closed vision and peculiar customs on the rest of the world; so much power and so much violence, so expansive, so borderless, that its closed vision has begun to appear to us as open and those peculiar customs have begun to seem universal.

During this summer of 2003 as I write these lines, resistance to the US occupation is increasing in Iraq even as it fades in the rest of the world.  And that simple and virtuous minimization of others returns again to take hold of Spaniards and Europeans, like a dream from an afternoon nap, fanned by sporting feats and the purring of the famous in their furs and mayors in their fancy garb.

In the middle of July I heard the big news of the summer on a television in a bar: a group of undesirables, including “some immigrants,” was caught photographing women sunbathing and changing their clothes at the beach, in changing rooms and at public pools in Germany.  The justified anger of those affected has been amplified by the understandable sympathy of German and western society, whose outrage at this non-consensual, voyeuristic operation, with its unacceptable aggression against individual liberty, reverberated in a series of commentaries and indignant media  denunciations of these photo thieves whose cultural identity – it is implied — could not be separated from their disrespectful conduct.

On Monday, August 4, I read a column in El País sent in by Mario Vargas Llosa, writing from Iraq.  In it he tells us with unabashed admiration how his daughter, Morgana, ignoring his advice and wearing an abbaya, went with him into the mosque of Ali in Nayaf, one of the holy sites of Shiism, and began to take photographs.  Suddenly “an hysterical believer” who had been there praying took inexplicable offense and “went to slap her face, with the camera catching the blow.”   What happened next?  “The bodyguard who accompanied her threw his hands to his head, indignant at this show of obscurantism” while at the same time “several of those present restrained and removed the aggressor.”  The author’s logical conclusion: “the democratic virtues of tolerance and of coexistence with diversity appear foreign in these parts.”  (The italics, which are mine, make it very clear that one is always more than several when it is a matter of describing the true idiosyncracies of a people).

Apparently the photo thieves in Germany, among whom were – I emphasize – “some Muslim immigrants,” did not want the photographs for private use, but rather for public and commercial exploitation on the internet, which without a doubt emphasizes the abject nature of their crime.  How beautiful, on the other hand, the photographic report signed by Morgana Vargas Llosa and published in full color in the Sunday July 27th edition of El País, as an advertisement for and a reminder of the “diary from Iraq”, thought up by her father, from which we have extracted the prior excerpt! The author himself had edited the tales and at the bottom of these images of girls, storekeepers and Baghdad functionaries, taken by surprise in their daily routines, one finds texts in quotes, as though they were personal quotes from the subjects of the photos, but whose names and thoughts were invented by – as mentioned discretely in the story’s lead-in — the Peruvian’s fertile genius.

This is the universal moral of our tribe: it is always they – whether here or there — who lack respect and who go too far, the intolerant, the enraged, the aggressors and the abusers.  It is ‘normal’ that we do not accept their taking photographs of us on our beaches or in our churches and that they accept being photographed anywhere and everywhere: while they pray, while they work or while they die. Normal too, that we protect our coasts from the ‘invasion” of immigrants while we invade their countries with our tanks and our hucksters. Normal is that the Moroccans in Spain adapt to our culture while Spaniards in Morroco live in elegant fortresses and exclusive clubs where they can continue eating potato pancakes and consuming asparagus from the peninsula.  Normal is that, protected by bodyguards, we shoot our cameras (or our cannons) yet the Iraqis are the “aggressors”.  Normal is that we defend our “image” tooth and nail, and with attorneys, while we rob them not only of their lives and riches, but also their faces, names and thoughts.  Normal is that we worry a lot about our politicians stealing our money and very little or not at all that foreigners are being killed. And the logic, within this concept of normality, is that we interpret the resistance of the poor and the defeated to being photographed (or impoverished or murdered), in cultural code, as a superstition related to the soul or as a natural reluctance derived from their religions, and written into the laws of the Quran, towards democracy and civilization.

Isn’t it possible that these Iraqis are in reality like us and that they do not like these intrusions into their private lives and into their individual freedoms?  No.  This would be to accept lowering ourselves to the level of those who rob us, degrading ourselves to the level of those who kill us and, definitely, to put ourselves on the same level as those who scorn us.  What we don’t want them to do to us, they ought to enjoy because we are the ones doing it.  Vargas Llosa’s “outrage” at the “aggression” suffered by his daughter demonstrates the same simple and virtuous disrespect for others as the indignation of the Marines who were shocked that their Abram tanks were greeted by weapons fire and not by cheers in their advance through the Iraqi desert.  The weapons fire and photographs have to be unilateral to be considered rational; and if we sweetly bomb their cities, carefully mutilate their children, keep their oil fair and square, disinterestedly sack their museums, leave them charitably without electricity and water, considerately search their homes and then we go, accompanied by bodyguards, to respectfully photograph their primitive rituals, the slap of “an hysteric” is therefore, by contrast, irrational, fanatical and uncivilized.

Vargas Llosa would like us to admire his daughter’s prowess and feel indignant over the intolerance of her “aggressor”.  There is something touching in this paternal pride towards the rebellious character of a daughter who does not worry about putting her life in danger so as to be able to devalue that of others. The little troublemaker, in the company of her friend Marta and that of a hired killer, in the midst of an adventure, “enters the mosque, passing herself off as an Afghan muslim!” Anyone who has visited Iraq (or any other Arab country) knows the absurdity of this scene, designed to simultaneously feed the prejudices of the ignorant, with this exotic and “medieval” portrayal of the country, and to excite the literary instincts of her arrogant father.  But there is also something touching in the literary naiveté with which Vargas Llosa – whose writings must at least be acknowledged – evokes, via the achievement of his brave daughter and without citing them, the adventures of Robert Burton, the likeable spy for the British empire, excellent writer and well-known anthropologist, who in the mid-19th century managed to travel to Mecca disguised as an Afghan hakim.  It is moving, yes, this abusive trick, completely out of proportion, between an ignorant girl who ought to be given a good whipping (not for her daring, no, rather for the discourtesy of a spoiled child) and an extraordinary and versatile adventurer with whom she shares nothing more than a common imperialistic vision, a man who mastered the Arab language and knew the Muslim customs so well that he was able to pass as a Pashtun doctor for months without suspicion.

When it comes to a loving father, everything can be pardoned.  Don’t we all enjoy seeing our children laugh, even if to accomplish it they have to gut a frog or two?  And don’t we become indignant when the gardener chastises them?  But this “tenderness,” as in the actual literary inspiration of Vargas Llosa (who has thus conjured up the most vile tradition of 19th century imperial colonists’ orientalism), implies spontaneous contempt for the Other, in whom one sees an opportunity or pretext to highlight one’s own virtues, be they military or literary. It is the universal moral of our tribe: our virtue, our talents, and our reputation are forged by contrasting them with the health, the well-being and lives of foreigners.    It is basically a problem of education, of that minimal recognition of the existence of the Other that is the last refuge of courtesy.

I would not have done it that way myself.  If I were to catch my daughter photographing nude bodies on the beach, I would direct some very sharp words her way and take her camera for a few hours; if I came upon my daughter – I, who am also an atheist, as is Vargas Llosa — taking pictures of men who are praying in a church where the presence of cameras is expressly prohibited, during a mass or a funeral and in another country, and even more so after a bloody foreign invasion, I would give her a good thrashing and make her personally ask forgiveness of everyone present and then send her back to college to study something of value.  And if one of the worshippers smacked her camera with his hand and several people came to her defense, I would understand the reaction of the first one and express my gratitude to the second one, leaving me no further recourse than to recognize, to my own great sorrow, that the majority of the Christians in that country belong to the most tolerant, generous, and civilized group of people on the planet.

Vargas Llosa, who did not travel to Iraq when it was devastated by the embargo, travelled there this summer of 2003 to support the US tanks.  His pen is nothing more than a weapon supporting  the invasion and Morgana’s camera is just a natural extension of the missiles and cannons.  The right to enter the Ali mosque, to move freely through the holy sites of Shiism and photograph the faithful is not a right of civilization, reason and tolerance; nor is it the right of hospitality given by a renowned host; it is the right of the occupier. Vargas Llosa is occupying Iraq with the US army and his right is the right of the conqueror.

He treats Iraqis as the vanquished, as naturally and simply as a Roman consul who makes no distinction between plundered riches, men, vases and golden sesterces.  With his refined intelligence he understands everything, except that his presence there is unwanted.  In order to understand that, he would have to be capable of going beyond the tribal evidence and acknowledge the Iraqis’ existence, grant them a normal and universal humanity, bear witness to their suffering and beg their pardon for having come too late.  He prefers to think that the “booty” justifies the means and that there is something within these creatures that is intrinsically incompatible with Cartesianism, tolerance and democracy.

Vargas Llosa’s chronicles deserve a detailed examination, as a cultured, exhaustive, and leisurely expression of tranquil and virtuous depreciation for the Other, typical of our culture.  Whether unconscious or premeditated, this is where all the prejudices, clichés, half-truths, generalizations, legends, hearsay, and picturesque examples are hatched; the complete repertory of colonial literature that, apparently, comes with colonialism itself.  But Vargas Llosa only interests me as a privileged example, and in order to illustrate with this passage the crucial question of “image,” which is the very question of domination in an era marked more than any other – with technology’s endorsement – by the inequality of its gaze.

The unsettling technical possibility of releasing a picture of a body and endlessly reproducing it has for the first time made it possible for capitalist exploitation to not be centered solely on the physical axis of the body.  Photography has brought the “soul” outside, turning it at that moment, into something within reach, into merchandise, an object of dispute and a source of inexhaustible wealth.  But also, clearly, into an instrument of domination.  The medieval market in religious relics and the spectacle of Roman victories somehow anticipated, within the limits set by its metonymic character, this battle of “images” finally released by technology into the vast spaces of commerce and hierarchy.  The Church or medieval princes had to settle for buying and selling a part of a saint’s body; today, soccer clubs and huge multinational corporations can buy and sell the entire body of a soccer star  – along with all of the gestures and poses – millions of times over.   The Roman consul had to settle for exhibiting a few signs of his victory – treasure or the robes of the defeated king – while today governments and newspapers can show the perpetual kneeling of the defeated.

In our time, a man must care for his body and his double.  There are two classes of people: those who can sell their image, such as the slave Beckham who is less his own owner than a black slave on a plantation, because he has also renounced his rights over his soul; and those rights go to those who steal his image after having stolen everything else.  Those who sell their own image become “brands” (like cattle, branded human beings, with fiery logos).  Those who steal images turn them into “trophies.”  It’s true that the classic, Roman concept of the trophy remains: in an elegant mix of ancient barbarism and modern technology, U.S. soldiers, for example, put up for auction on the internet the flags, uniforms, and knives they had stolen from Iraqis by carefully bending over their corpses.

But today a trophy is a law, a model, a visual custom.  Alain Gresh reports the statements of an Algerian after 9-11: “It’s extraordinary, for the first time we are the ones on this side of the screen and they are on the other.  Usually they’re the ones we see dying on television.”  It would be a meager and cruel solace, except that it’s not true.  Because unfortunately there’s never any balance.  Our tribe protects its dead just as well as it disregards those of all the rest.  We never saw the burned, melted, decomposing victims from the Twin Towers; they were never trophies.  In an inseparable double standard, their images were hidden from us and we were given their names in order to preserve their human identity, and they could not be treated as objects.  Those of the Iraqis, on the other hand, are exhibited because they are and have always been trophies, images devoid of names or at most granted an archetype, such as in the reports from Morgana and Mario Vargas Llosa.  Military trophies, yes, but above all, cultural trophies, literary trophies, esthetic trophies, trophies – finally – of our natural superiority.  The Roman triumph, limited in time and space, has been supplanted by this modern triumph in which technology, at the service of the victors, allows for our permanent victory and the permanent defeat of the rest, to be displayed before us continually – and we accept it as a natural fact.  Vargas Llosa’s chronicles are just a classic example of an industry of perception that reduces Iraqis – the poor, the subjected, the vanquished of the world – to the condition of eternal trophies of our majestic disregard for others.  Those who are photographed, robbed of their image, those who cannot protect their face – wuiyh in Arabic, synonymous with “dignity” – are always the same: those who are so completely at our mercy that we could blow them away with a gunshot as easily as granting them alms.  In our tribe, the former is not a sin and the latter is, of course, admired and praised; the first doesn’t make us feel bad and the second makes us feel very good.

I’m an iconoclast.  Iconoclasts believed that God’s power could not be contained or limited in any kind of material image.  I believe that a man’s image cannot be reproduced and exploited without limiting his freedom.  The first day of the bombardment over Baghdad, on March 19, 2003, I took a vow of visual poverty and decided – until the moment that capitalism is vanquished – to renounce all pictures in a society that, as Walter Benjamin wrote sixty years ago, “has turned not only misery, but even the struggle against misery, into an object for consumption.”  The collateral effects of esthetic satisfaction unfortunately, are the same as those of economic and territorial ambition, business benefits and colonial expansion: thousands of dead, mutilated, abandoned, disregarded children.

But – I admit – I’ve seen one photograph, just one, because sometimes a stolen picture provides, above all, a picture of the theft itself.  It’s a photo of a father and a daughter (just like Mario Vargas Llosa and Morgana) wounded, on the same gurney.  As the trophies that they are, we don’t know their names and therefore we can hardly imagine that they have friends or family who, upon seeing this picture, might recognize them; one has the feeling that they’ve been created by the same bomb that made them fly through the air and land in front of the target.  And yet they still make an impression, they wound and shake the conscience.  The father is a wiry man, small, middle-aged, unshaven; he embraces his daughter whose head is bloodied from behind, as an instinctive and useless protective gesture that might have survived – perhaps the only thing – the bombing.  The terrible, monstrous thing that we cannot bear is that he is weeping; weeping as only men do, spectacularly, like a creature, disarmed, unsheltered, with nothing left to lean on to feel ashamed.  And the terrible thing is that immediately we understand why.  He is not crying over the pain from his wounds, nor even at the much more significant pain of having his daughter cut down at his side.  He cries because his daughter’s trust has been betrayed; she believed him to be strong and powerful and protected at his side from every kind of evil.  He cries because this bolt from the sky has revealed his secret and exposed his failure to the light of day: now his daughter knows that he is a small man, vulnerable, insufficient; that his love is weaker than the shrapnel from a missile; that his arms and his word cannot save him from all the dangers of this world.  He cries, and he cries without consolation because he is tiny and his daughter, suddenly, has grown up.  The highest power, the most secure thing in this world, fatherhood, has been demolished like a toothpick in a ball of fire – along with a child’s willingness to play.  A force capable of destroying this must of necessity be huge; but a force greater than love and trust – in our tribe and everywhere – can only be a sin.

From this side of the world, we’ve not trusted in fatherhood for a long time and that’s why we believe ourselves – and our children – to be completely invulnerable.  We believe, rather, in that force of destruction (balls of fire and the desire to play) and in our calm, simple disregard of the other.  At the end of the day, we continue on this side of the television screen.  Is this realism?

A man’s land, his home, his family, his strength, his health, and later his image, are stolen.  This is how he becomes a trophy.  And when he has been turned into a trophy through the extraction of qualities; when he has been filed, sawn, isolated and reduced to ruins; when he has nothing left with which to defend himself, not even language, then perhaps we might take pity on him and even lend him a bit of care.  In our tribe we call this humanitarianism.  Iraq has been destroyed by U.S. Americans, its children bombed from the air by U.S. Americans, its power plants and water treatment facilities destroyed by U.S. Americans, its artistic patrimony looted by U.S. Americans, many of its men imprisoned and tortured by U.S. Americans and its oil taken by U.S. Americans, but luckily, later the U.S. Americans arrived and began to parcel out bottles of mineral water.  Should they feel proud?  Captain Kevin Brown directs the operation to pay salaries to former Iraqi soldiers on A-Zaura street in Baghdad and he does so without being carried away by anger, at the same time curbing the temptation to make himself feel good: “I have no hard feelings about helping those who shot at us a couple of months ago.”  It’s a very coherent phrase from an invader.  He limits himself to fulfilling his criminal duties, in light of the new moral code of our tribe: kill, steal, humiliate, but always remember to leave a crutch and a dollar, even when your beneficiaries do not thank you.  “Do good, without distinction,” in other words, do good even – even – to those you’ve killed by thirst, starvation, illness or weapon fire.  Do good even to your victims.  This is the great moral abyss that separates Captain Kevin Brown and those who we call “terrorists,” using extremely fuzzy criteria to designate, above all, their common lack of humanitarianism.  Because yes, after a “terrorist” attempt, the “terrorists” leave a lottery ticket for the family on the bodies of their victims, or a voucher for psychological treatment, so that Aznar and Bush can be appreciated as much as the Marines, even while operating on a much smaller scale and producing far fewer deaths.  Or not?

What’s certain is that the definitive disappearance of political space after 9-11 – with the worldwide proliferation of draconian laws  – has enormously simplified the mental universe of our tribe and the practice of those who govern us.  Everything is now just a question of “terrorism” or “humanitarianism,” twin concepts, born of the same root and sharing the same ontological background: there are only two ways to treat those whose voices have been denied inclusion and who can barely defend themselves: extermination or alms, at the discretion of the specific strategies exercised by the parties and the armies.

The huge “anti-terrorist” and “humanitarian” operations, both negotiated by the same military forces, presuppose an equal consideration of their victim-beneficiaries. A man is a “terrorist” – a word that names a void – because he is deprived of his political condition, he is robbed of all capacity to negotiate, he doesn’t even have the status of “enemy,” he is treated like a universal unassimilable outside the limits of humanity, an absolute Other with whom any dialogue is impossible and against whom everything is permitted (even outside the Law, as it happens with the so-called “selective murders” practiced by Israel and the U.S.). But the same thing happens with “humanitarianism:” only when a man has been deprived of his home, his family, his land, even his passport, only when he has been deprived of everything that identifies him as “human” – according to the paradox pointed out by Hannah Arendt – can human rights be invoked upon him. For a man to be treated with humanitarianism it is necessary to radically dehumanize him, to beat the humanity out of him. “Terrorism” designates the “inhumanity” of a fighter; “humanitarianism” designates the “humanity” of the one who fights, and the very idea of “humanitarianism” somehow requires the beneficiary’s ontologic discontinuity: people can only be human with humans but humanitarian with stray dogs. It is hard to imagine a higher cynicism, a higher cruelty than the one involved in this magnificent paradox of the morals of our tribe: the same people who deprive men of their humanity provide him humanitarian care afterwards.

I’m thinking of the terrible case of Ali Ismain, the Iraqi boy to whom several members of our brigade paid a visit at the hospital a few days after the start of bombings over Baghdad. A U.S. American missile destroyed his home, killed his parents, his siblings and all his family and ripped off his two arms. Then, amid a great media fanfare, the same ones who had ruined his life forever took him out of the country and brought him to the best hospital in Kuwait. When U.S. Americans leave one day, Ali Ismain will sleep in a dumpster in Baghdad and will take his position at the door of a McDonald’s to collect the disdainful charity of the new rich with his mouth. And if he ever started to think of some form of handless resistance he would be a despicable ingrate.

During this summer of 2003, while I write these lines, our brave humanitarian legionnaires have left for Iraq as occupation forces under the aegis of James the Apostle, and the same people who six months ago took to the streets trying to stop the invasion now wish them good luck in their mission. The problem is that if the invasion was wrong this is even worse. The invasion was a crime but this is a bigger crime. Things are sometimes so simple – I said at the beginning of these pages – that it’s easy to succumb to despondency. Let us not be discouraged. Iraq does exist. Iraq does resist. And even all the humanitarianism in the world, with its simple and calm scorn of the Other, won’t be able to silence the tragic complexity – irreducible to all the evidence from the powerful – of what is yet to come. I am sure that our armed humanitarians will return home soon and that Ali Ismain will applaud with the two wings that they couldn’t tear from him and will give a victory sign – perhaps – with two laughs, two fits of fury or two screams.

The Spanish philosopher and writer Santiago Alba Rico has lived for the past nineteen years in the Arab world. He is a long time collaborator at Rebelion, the Spanish language left wing website. David Brookbank, Machetera and Manuel Talens are members of Tlaxcala, the network of translators for linguistic diversity.This translation may be reprinted as long as the content remains unaltered, and the source, author, and translators are cited.

One response to “Mario Vargas Llosa’s Iraq Chronicles

  1. se la comio ALba Rico con este articulo!!!!!!!

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