Humanities at Large Jackman Humanities Institute Blog 2 November 2017
Trigger warning: this post includes an image of a child soldier casualty.
Postdoctoral fellow Amir Khadem brings the critical focus of comparative literature to bear in an examination of the art and literature of propaganda. Today, he explored texts and images from Iran that memorialize the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988. Although the conflict generated huge loss of human life – nearly half a million people in eight years – it had little effect on the location of the border between those countries, and outside the war zone, life went on with comparative normality. Within the war zone, the long stalemate led to fanatical pronouncements and ferocious tactical decisions on both sides, with chemical warfare used by the Iraqis, and wave after wave of under-equipped, unprepared, and often under-aged Iranian soldiers sent to their death in cannon-fodder operations not seen since World War One. Writing the history of this war is challenging because nearly all of the available information about it was coloured by the desire by both governments to manipulate public opinion; the US provided a common enemy that justified the war’s continuation for each country. There is a collection of audiotapes known as the Saddam Tapes that came to light in 2003, which contain more than 30 years of wiretapped recordings, and these have helped at least to clarify that the war’s beginnings were not American-instigated, but that Saddam Hussein started it on his own. The Iranian war archives, however, remain inaccessible. What we have instead, are texts that were deliberately created as propaganda. In 2015, after intense negotiations, Iran faced the choice to comply with demands about their nuclear facilities after years of economic sanctions and political isolation. The decision of the Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) was characterized as “taking a cup of poison” by political observers inside and outside the country. The metaphor was a reference back to Khomeini’s 1988 speech at the moment of cease-fire: “O Lord, keep this book of martyrdom open for all the earnest ones, and do not deprive us of its attainment. O God, our country and our people are still at the beginning of the battle’s path and in need of the martyrdom’s lighting torch, may You guard this luminous torch from smothering.” He then announced that after “drinking the poisonous cup of accepting the Resolution,” he was “embarrassed in front of this great nation’s magnificence and endurance” (Khomeini 21: 93). He doesn’t mention Saddam Hussain, and only fleetingly mentions Iraq in connection with the US. The conflict had long ceased to be about border disputes; it was a matter of paradigms, of religious and nationalist values, and of the tenets of Islamic resistance. Twenty years later, the same old cup still had resonance. The Iran-Iraq War was called the “Sacred Defense” (Defa-e Moghaddas), and it was understood as a defense of the Revolution. The problem of Muslims waging war on Muslims was refocused as a war in defense of true religion. Mehdi Khorammi writes: “The Islamic Republic’s definition of the Iran-Iraq War as a war between Right/Islam and Wrong/Evil eventually led to the emergence of the war as a religion in itself, which naturally had its own sacred and profane components… any mention of peace would be and was considered a blasphemy, treason.” The literary result was the muffling of the voices of survivors, who might invite empathy for their experience or critical judgement of the war itself, in favour of focus on the war’s dead – the martyrs. Martyrdom conceptually replaces casualties, transforming victimhood into salvation. This glorification of death runs through the texts I will discuss: Life Was Good and Those Twenty-Three, both published by Sureh-ye Mehr, an imprint of The Organization for Islamic Promotion—Sazman-e Tablighat-e Eslami—one of the most resourceful state-owned cultural institutions in the country.
Life Was Good is a memoir of the author’s three-week tenure as a hematologist in an infirmary. Rahimpour moves from one scene to another, watching the medical personnel’s nearly impossible task of saving the soldiers’ lives. From time to time, he comments on the status of the war, admires the brave spirit of his coworkers, and delves into the battlefield anecdotes of the injured soldiers. The book is bereft of any extensive historical claims, offering only a firsthand account of the war in unsophisticated language. In the preface, the author introduces himself as a simple “nobody,” whose memoir is a humble attempt to record the “details of all that bravery” of his comrades (7-8). After his stay in the infirmary, as he makes his way home, Rahimpour sees a street vendor selling war memorabilia, including photographs. Hustling into the dense crowd of buyers and onlookers, he notes that the most popular commodities are “pictures of the shredded bodies of Iraqis, wretchedly lying on the ground,” and finds himself thinking (unironically) that this could be the best souvenir of the war (207). The narration reaches its most emotionally effective points when Rahimpour reconstructs his nightmares. Unshackled by the dutiful seriousness of a veteran, he lets the surreal moments of his dreams flow onto the pages, exposing his pains, traumas, and all the crude horrors that escape the tight chambers of patriotism:
A group of people were standing in line, which was as long as eternity. I looked closer; most of them were missing a limb or an organ. One was missing an arm, another a leg, an eye, a jaw . . . and I was looking for something or someone. I saw Mahmoud, and beside him, Hamid [two friends who died in mortar attacks]. Hamid asked, “Why don’t you join the line?” I said, “I’m coming.” The wind was blowing from an unknown direction, ruffling Mahmoud’s hair. The ground beneath our feet was full of blood. Bottles of antigen were packed in a corner. The wind was making ripples in the blood and we were stepping in it. “What is it that you’re missing?” Hamid asked. I tried to find out, but I wasn’t missing anything. Mahmoud started laughing in derision. I tried to touch my head, it wasn’t there! Tried to touch my legs, not there! My stomach wasn’t there [. . .] I was astounded. “You don’t even exist!” Hamid said. Everybody was pointing their fingers at me, laughing out loud. Filled with fear, I tried to touch my body with my hand, but it only waved in the empty air. No, I didn’t exist. (112)
Like all survivors in trauma literature, Rahimpour is encumbered by many unprocessed memories, and presents himself as both the tragic ventriloquist for the enormous, silent horror that can only be manifested through him, and the comic vehicle for a utopianism that has to cross a sea of absurdities. The dialectics of inclusion and exclusion of collective identities resolves the discord between the Rahimpour’s passionate anti-war sentiments with his patriotic beliefs: if what defines my enemy is not his national otherness, but his religion (or lack thereof), and if it is my national duty to offer the same liberation that our religious revolution has brought us, then it makes sense to both hate and love the armed conflict. Those Twenty-Three, Ahmad Yusefzadeh’s account of his first eight months as a P.O.W., seeks to refresh the memories of the war for the younger generation. To see the book’s success in the advocacy of Sacred Defense, one can simply note the back-cover blurb, written by none other than Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Supreme Leader, who praises it as “eloquent, beautiful, and artistic.” Yusefzadeh, who was sixteen when he volunteered to serve in the paramilitary group, Basij, starts his account from the days before the operation that left him and a group of his comrades, all teenagers, surrounded by the enemy. The book mostly focuses on his days in the prison camps, and his acquaintance with a variety of other captives, military and civilian. The narrative reaches its climax when a group of teenaged prisoners are handpicked to visit Saddam Hussein’s palace as part of an Iraqi publicity stunt to expose the Iranians for vast recruitment of under-age soldiers. A photograph of this group of 23 young boys standing beside Saddam was printed in Iraqi magazines, with the headline, “All Children of the World Are My Children,” (216). The ironic position of Yusufzadeh’s narrative, propagating a pro-war rhetoric by denouncing the propaganda of the Baathist regime, trying to unmask the dirty tactics of their enemy, while unwittingly approving the basic message of their magazine article—that there were many under-trained child soldiers fighting for the Islamic Republic—is remarkable.
Iranian soldier during the Iran-Iraq War, November 1982, photographer unknown. Wikimedia Commons.
Like Rahimpour, the author seems impervious to the paradoxes of his position. The first chapters of the book give the reader a good sense of the childish innocence of the soldiers, soon to be killed or captured in a massive operation that—although the book does not explicitly mention—ends in defeat. A war hero, in this convoluted conflict, is not the one who achieves the highest number of kills, but the one who is most eager to offer his own blood for the cause. To kill the enemy is not, in this war, as sacred as to die by the enemy’s hands: no matter how many times it is repeated that Iraqi forces are excluded from the circle of religious identification, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that killing them is fratricide.
Iranian child soldier killed during Iran-Iraq war with Rouhollah Khomeini's photo on his uniform, 1980. Photographer unknown. Wikimedia Commons.