Fiction, Non-Fiction and the Novel. Or, “Hello”, he lied.

I have been thinking about Geoff Dyer’s recent article on the way that books by journalists, rather than novels, have characterised the written response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Implicit in Dyer’s piece is the assumption that the non-fiction he discusses is reliable as an account of what has happened since 2o01. But it is important, I think, to reject the notion, endorsed by Dyer that “the press redeemed in Baghdad what it had botched in Washington.” 

The invasions of both Afghanistan and Iraq were fundamentally fictional in nature, in the sense that the reasons given for them were never more than more or less persuasive fabrications. Some hint as to their fictional nature can be uncovered from the published record. In the summer of 2008 Seymour Hersh reported that the then Vice President Dick Cheney had discussing the possibility of staging a provocation in order to launch an attack on Iran. This discussion followed similar lines to plans in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq to goad the Iraqis into a breach of the no-fly zone and to deliver the Americans their casus belli. Given America’s overwhelming military superiority, the use of deception to deliver political cover for the use of force has been a longstanding feature of that country’s foreign policy. This is certainly how we should understand the infamous Bay of Tonkin incident and the sinking of the USS Maine that led to the Spanish-American War. One doesn’t have to be an isolationist to believe that Roosevelt had some inkling that his policies in the Pacific would lead eventually to an attack on Pearl Harbor or Hawaii in 1941.

In the end Saddam Hussein refused to give the Americans what they needed and they had to make do with the notion that his stockpiles of anthrax, mustard gas, and uranium posed an unacceptable threat to world peace. Their absence was a source of embarrassment, but it has not led journalists to the obvious conclusion, that the war was driven by considerations other than a tender desire to do right in the world. 

In the case of Afghanistan the attacks on New York and Washington constituted a ‘day of infamy’ that bore comparison with Pearl Harbor. But the decision to invade Aftghanistan in retaliation took place some months after military preparations began. Whatever one thinks about 9/11, it did not lead in some simple way to the invasion. Rather it provided a pretext for a decision made in advance. 

Bush and his colleagues thought in cinematic rather than novelistic terms, but the determination to create and control a narrative of national redemption through violence was present from the outset. This was clear very early on, too. Sheldon Rampton and James Stauber’s Weapons of Mass Deception was published a few months after the Iraq invasion and showed that the case for war was an invention, and an invention that had been sold much like a commercial product, a method at least as old as the Boer War. 

Once the administration had established its version of events – its overarching story – professional journalists, who depended on official sources and on official resources to deliver the sub-stories their employers considered fit to print, had no option but to accept the terms offered. Reputations could be made, exclusives could be had, so long as the central fictions remained unexamined. 

Within in these limits there was much to be discovered – it was a wide field for the exercise of talent and ingenuity. War, like all crimes, is always packed with incident. People are under pressure, there are lives at stake. And the result has been a rash of books that, as Dyer notes, have been published very rapidly. After the embarrassing Ian Fleming contrivance of Weapons of Mass Destruction and the now barely remembered melodrama organized around Jessica Lynch’s humane treatment by Iraqi medical staff, these books have given America’s actions in the Middle East some much needed literary lustre. There are heroes and villains, fools and wise men and women, there is the full range of subjects that serve the apparatus of serious journalism, journalism that aspires to write the first draft of history. But they are, in a sense re-writes – re-writes of the clumsy confections offered up by psychological warfare operatives, re-writes too of what all this drama and human interest means. 

Whatever their local merits, many of the books written about these wars became for this reason details in a gigantic work of fiction. Indeed their very accuracy and scrupulousness served the purposes of that fiction. To the extent that they pretended that Iraq and Afghanistan were anything other than imperial wars of choice, reportage became profoundly unsafe.

The richness of the data, the wealth of convincing incident, the considerable aesthetic merits of the works, their fitness for comparison with the great novels of previous wars, do not qualify them as ‘serious non-fiction’, if by that publishers’ term of art we mean that they offer a defensible account of the world. 

In this sense journalism no more escapes the grasp of information warfare than the rest of the culture industry. The plausibility granted by access (whether the writers are formally ’embedded’ or not) comes at a price. The writers and their subjects – overwhelmingly America’s soldiers and administrators – have agreed on a narrative in advance that does not bear serious examination. 

Every particular claim can be accurate while the book itself remains a lie. Or, as John Stewart one put it, these days you can’t judge a book by its contents.


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