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On Contact: Realities of war

On the show this week, Chris Hedges discusses the realities of war, its appeal for young men and its destruction of them, with Salar Abdoh, novelist and essayist. Abdoh's new novel, 'Out of Mesopotamia', considered one of a handful of great modern war novels, tells the story of Saleh, a jaded, middle-aged Iranian reporter who accompanies Shia militias, as Abdoh did, in Iraq and Syria during the heavy fighting between 2014 and 2017.

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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss Iran and the conflict in the Middle East with the novelist, Salar Abdoh.

Salar Abdoh: When you're there and you don't really have access to the grander scenario, you do begin to doubt yourself.  You wonder, you know, you see refugees.  You wonder if you--if what you're doing is the right thing.  You wonder if the people you--you know, you question yourself as a journalist, as a writer, you know, and then you see people you work with and I'm sure you've run into this many times, people who use, I'm sorry to say, the difficulties, the miseries of others as, you know, as stepping stones for their careers, whether--it's always not the case, but you see enough of it.  And if you're a person of conscience, you can't help but question yourself.  And that's what the character Salar does in this book, he wonders, one, whether he's part of the machinery of death that's happening there and whether he's using that machinery in order to promote his own career.  And he doesn't feel good about it.

CH: Combat has an undeniable attraction.  It is seductive and exciting, and it is ultimately addictive.  The young soldiers trained well enough to be disciplined but encouraged to maintain their naive adolescent belief in their invulnerability, having wartime, more power at their fingertips than they will ever have again.  From living trapped in menial dead end jobs, they catapult to being part of an intoxicating machine of death.  That the disparity between what they were and what they have become is overwhelming.  This is heightened in wartime when all the taboos are broken.  Murder goes unpunished, and is often rewarded.  The thrill of destruction fills their days with wild adrenaline highs.  Strange, grotesque landscapes that are almost hallucinogenic.  And a sense of purpose and belonging that overwhelms the feelings of alienation many left behind.  They become accustomed to killing, carrying out acts of slaughter with no more forethought than it takes to relieve themselves.  But in the end, numb, traumatized, and exhausted, unable to return to a world not at war.  They often long for their own death.  The Iranian-American novelist, Salar Abdoh, captures all this in his new novel, "Out Of Mesopotamia."  So I--as somebody who spent a lot of time in combat, including seven years in the Middle East, I thought you really captured the culture exceedingly well.  And there's one point I--early on in the book where you talk about martyrdom.  War is a cult of death.  But I would say the difference that I found is that when you write about these Iranian volunteers who are going to Syria in the fight, they consciously speak about the longing for martyrdom and I would say in the conflicts I covered, that same longing was there but it was unspoken.  And I want you to talk about that explicit desire of martyrdom, what it mean, and what its attraction was.

SA: Okay.  It's good to be with you today, Chris.  The case of Iran and Iranians in this particular war I found very interesting because, as you just noted, death exists with warriors in any war to an extent but I think what happened with Iran and Iranians in this war was there's a whole culture that grew around the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980's.  And that war, it was--it was a massive war.  It lasted a very long time and many, many people died.  It gave rise to, you know, the culture of martyrdom in Shiite Islam is acute to begin with because of its history.  But in this case, with the Iran-Iraq war, it's--it became sort of systematized so that because it was so long and because so many young men participated in it and women in the back, you know, there's a whole--you know, there are dictionaries of the war.  There's, you know, and then, you know, there's a lot of memoirs of the war and biographies and that talk about how everything was sort of more pure back then because there's something to be said, as you well know, about the reality of combat, like, many other things are put aside to take care of that situation that we're in at the moment.  I think what happened with this war was a lot of the young men going to Iraq and Syria--now some of them not so young, and some of the men who have actually fought in other wars, not only in Iran-Iraq war, was that there was a sense of wanting to re-find that purity of combat that had been lost after decades of, you know, the revolution ending and many things perhaps going not exactly how they want it.  So that sense of martyrdom, the vocabulary and language of martyrdom in this war takes to kind of a meta sort of a quality about it because it harks back to other wars and there was a self-consciousness about it.  So, it was verbalized quite a lot.

CH: Am I correct that the Iran-Iraq war was eight years long and I don't remember, but it--was it a million Iranian dead?  It was quite high, the number of Iranian dead.

SA: It was an incredible number of Iranian and Iraqis that it was a war--one could say it was a Iran against Saddam war, you know.  The Iraqis, many, many of them were, you know, were forced to fight in this fight.  And it was an absolute--it was like a--it was a--as a war, it was a World War I type of a war of like trenches and, like, massive numbers of people getting killed in a poorly planned out battles.  It was really, really something else as far as wars go.

CH: Let's--for those people who aren't familiar with the intricacies of the conflicts in the Middle East, explain exactly who these Iranian fighters who you profile in your novel, what they were doing in places like Syria.  I think a lot of perhaps people in the US don't realize that in fact in the conflicts against Sunni extremism, there was a tacit alliance between the United States and these Iranian militias.  In fact, you had a wonderful passage in the book about at one point seeing a US convoy.  But just lay out what was happening or what is happening.

SA: When ISIS, Daesh, sort of that cut a swath into Northern Iraq and with incredible speed and took Tal Afar and then Mosul, you know, they got very, very close.  They got--literally they got to the gates of Baghdad.  And at that time, when the war started, I went with my documentarian partner.  We were in the south.  We were as far south as Karbala and Najaf.  And there were pockets of ISIS, you know, knocking on the gates even that far south.  It was--and I saw many refugees from all over.  It was--it was not a--it was not a joke.  There was no army.  The army had sort of evaporated.  And Ayatollah Sistani, the grand cleric of the Shiites, gave his fatwa for people to come to the war but, you know, they had to be--the logistics had to be put together.  And I think to a great degree, what the Iranians did is to create the logistics with their--with their Iraqi counterparts.  And also Qasem Soleimani, the supreme commander of the Quds brigade, I mean, he really put his foot down and I don't think without the Iranians in that, with boots on the ground, I don't--I don't know what would've happened in the Middle East.  I fear what would've happened.  So what happened was this tacit agreement between the United States and Iran lasted as long as the war lasted in a major sort of way.  And then immediately after that, this current American president put those very forces that had been fighting against ISIS on the terrorist list.

CH: I want to talk about the--what it is--what you spent a lot of the time in the novel doing, what it is that drives these people into the war.  And I'm just going to read a little passage from that really brilliant--you said, "Martyrdom was our shibboleth.  We distinguished each other's sincerity by the way someone talked too little or too much about it.  We knew who was lying and who was telling the truth when they prayed for martyrdom.  We were adept at intuiting when a guy was ready to leave this world.  A certain light, halo even, would surround him.  He became extra kind.  His prayers turned heroic.  He cried a lot.  This was not always the case and maybe not all of these things happened at the same time.  But they happened enough times that my martyr radar was strong.  I knew when a man was finally tired and felt like he'd done share of protecting the holy places and was ready to leave the world."  I saw that in combat even among war correspondents.  I would describe it as a halo, but there was this sense that they were kind of part of the walking dead.  And I--and it's real.  And I want you to talk about that but also talk about the motives which you explore at length in the novel that brought these people here.

SA: Sure.  First of all, I got--I got chills listening to you because I think only a person who has seen that would be able to pick it up and I'm honored that you picked that particular passage.  That is true in combat situations.  And especially in combat situations that are prolonged and where it's not necessarily grand armies fighting against each other, but it's combat on a miniscule scale.  Sometimes house to house, sometimes you can hear your enemy just, you know, 50 yards away.  What happens is that you--and this also, again, harks back to other wars, the Iran-Iraq war, that would happen.  People talk about that.  And you saw a change in a--in a man.  You saw that they gradually, you know, they gradually gave up on the--on the quotidian, on the--on the daily things that make life the life we live and they sort of--they were--it's as if they had become transcendental.  Maybe they don't have the vocabulary or the education for it, but you as a--as a journalist or writer, you can see that.  And you also can see that.  You're absolutely right, with journalists as well.  There's a point where a man or a woman is, you know, it makes that crossover.  And once--when, as a person like you or I, you see that, you would begin to question yourself, that martyr radar that I talk about in the book is very real.  Maybe necessarily it doesn't show--manifest itself with a halo, but you can tell almost many times with many men I've known in combat the conversation has come up, so and so is going to be killed soon.  And then it would happen.  And, you know, we were just stoic resigned--in a--in a very stoic resigned kind of way.  Now why did these men come to that--to that…

CH: Let's--Salar, let's do that after the break because I want to explore that.  When we come back, we'll continue our conversation about war and its strange pathology with novelist Salar Abdoh.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the nature of war with the novelist, Salar Abdoh.  So before the break, we were just about to explore the motives that drive so many of these people.  And as you point out, there are characters in your novel, I think one of the central characters is in his '40s, if I remember.  That--but what is it that propels people into this kind of situation?

SA: There are--there are several factors and I think each of these wars has its--has its, like, grand reasonings, but also very--some things that are very particular to this war.  For instance, this war, one of the things that ISIS was doing at breakneck speed was to just desecrate many monuments of the Christians, of the Yazidis, of the Shiites particularly and so a lot of these young men who were coming, they were called you know, protectors of the holy places because the holiest places of Schism do lie in Iraq and to a lesser degree in Syria.  So there was that connection and it was very strong and it was very real.  Also, again, like I talked before, there is--there was a sense--there has been a sense in Iran among the segments of the populations, by no means amongst everyone, but it's certain segments of the population that wants to go back to that pure revolutionary time, post-revolution during the war where everybody was making a sacrifice and this was the grand sacrifice.  I met men, young men who literally--and Salar in the book talks about it, literally they would sell the shirts off their back to go and join this war.  Now, they were not necessarily--a lot of times, they were not necessarily part of the, like, guards, you know, part of the military structure, but they would somehow get there and then sort of work their way into one of the--one of the brigades or whatever.  And so there was that--there was that connection.  And also in the Middle East, in places like Iran, you know, there is also the reality of this.  A lot of times, you know, I met men, like you read in the beginning, that, you know, didn't really have any jobs or anything going on back home, and war, as an option, existed, and exists, and so they did that.  And then I would meet some of these comrades back home, and as Salar talks about it, they are literally--and I think you may have seen this, too, it's like outside of combat, they're almost like become non-entities, they're invisible, and they sleep a lot, you know, they don't have much to say because in combat, in those acute, you know, the adrenaline that you're faced with when you're in the trench and a guy with thousands of kilos of TNT is coming at you in a--in a Toyota truck, it's unbelievable.  And how are you going to, you know, how are you going to live a normal life after that?  So I think these particularly three factors, the fact of, you know, the--protecting the holy sites, going back to a sense of purity that was in their heads that they wanted to go back to, and also, like, having something to do that was meaningful to them, these three things were very acute in Syria and Iraq.

CH: You captured I thought quite well the--not just the confusion, but even the absurdity of combat and I just want to read a little section from your novel.  "In this war, nothing, nothing at all made sense."  That's true, by the way, in every war I ever covered.  "People appeared and disappeared, ancient animosities suddenly boiled over, heads were cut off with such fierce regularity that it made you doubt the proper digits of your century, and there were so many sides and fronts and realignments that when you manage to grab a sliver of reliable internet long enough to read a foreign paper where they referred to the simple men you marched alongside as men who committed atrocities, you began to doubt everything, especially yourself."  I think that's a kind of theme throughout the book, but an important one which was true for me as well and I just wondered if you could address that.

SA: Absolutely.  When you're in this situation, Chris, as you well know, you know, you--at some point, because you're so in the thick of it, you can't see the--you--it's hard sometimes to see the, you know, the branches from the great scheme of things and so you are with men who are basically protecting let's say the holy places or, you know--you know, freeing villages.  I was in many instances where the Shiite militias freed Sunni villagers and we bought them food.  But, you know, when you follow the narrative in other places, it makes it sound the narrative is very reductive, very simplified and it makes things very black and white.  And when you're there and you don't really have access to the grander scenario, you do begin to doubt yourself.  You wonder, you know, you see refuges, you wonder if you--if what you're doing is the right thing, you wonder if the people you--you know, you question yourself as a journalist, as a writer, you know, and then you see people you work with and I'm sure you've run into this many times, people who use, I'm sorry to say, the difficulties, the miseries of others as, you know, as stepping stones for their careers, whether--it's always not the case, but you see enough of it.  And if you're a person of conscience, you can't help but question yourself.  And that's what the character Salar does in this book, he wonders, one, whether he's part of the machinery of death that's happening there and whether he's using that  machinery in order to promote his own career.  And he doesn't feel good about it.

CH: I think every journalist has asked themself that question.

SA: Exactly.

CH: The character is a journalist.  And if they're honest, that's--the answer is probably yes.  You are quite aware of the disparity between the experience of these men who go to war and the family--the women and children they leave behind and I thought that was an acute and important observation that often the most intense suffering, it is--are those who are left behind.  You're right, "None of us every thought about how these once-, twice-, thrice-blessed," and you're talking about people who are married to martyrs, "…mothers, wives, daughters felt when they went down the street to buy bread in the morning.  Ours was the laziest of paths, simply to die, theirs was calamity followed by the backbreaking grind of daily life.  Ours was fantasy, theirs raising that fatherless boy who'll grow up to be the spitting image of his father."

SA: Absolutely.  Do you have a particular question on that regard?

CH: Yeah.  I want--I want you to talk about the--what you do in the book is the consequences of those who are left behind.

SA: Uh-hmm.  Absolutely.

CH:As often being the real suffering or the most intense suffering.

SA: You know, everyday life, the chores of everyday life as all of us now can be--can be a slow death sometimes, you know, and then when a person goes to war, when a man goes to war, and is martyred, and maybe for a minute or two, maybe, you know, there's a poster, you know, they kind of celebrate that death, maybe you get something in return for your sacrifice, but all of that passes.  At the--at the end of the day, the family is left with the reality of, you know, inflation, you know, paying rents, and children who don't have a father, all of that stuff.  And I think a lot of times, when men do this, when men go to war and myself, I don't--I include myself in that, you know, that's also a part of the guilt.  You have guilt when you leave war and you have guilt when you go to war.  It's a--it's a--like a--it's a never-ending battle with yourself.  And so when they go to war and they do this, they sort of have an idea, they're leaving families and children behind, but they don't dig too deep into it.  It's hard to dig too deep into it.  And then when they become martyr, it will--those who remain behind have to live with that reality for years and decades, and the children, and, you know, I, as a writer think about that and, you know, there's nothing more painful than to seeing your--seeing your comrade die whether in front of you or down the road somewhere and then having to go and face his family or his wife, you know.  Maybe you're taking their cell phone back to them or maybe the other guy said, you know, "Oh, Salar, can you take back his bag and his clothes for this family?"  You know, like, you have to--you really have to--I mean, it's natural, you just sort of--you take a deep breath and then you knock on that door, and you have to sit through that and I'm sure you've done that.  It's one of the hardest things I've ever done in my life and whoever's gone through that knows that it's as hard as anything you face in life.  And then you come out of that house, you come out of that family, the widow, and you realize deep in your soul that you've left that--you've left that building but they have to live through that forever.

CH: We used to see--I've covered war for 20 years and eventually correspondents who'd been killed, their children would come in to a warzone, you know, in essence looking for their father.  It was one of the saddest experiences that I ever went through.  We only have a minute and a half left and I just want to throw in that I was a prisoner of the Iraqi Republican Guard in the first Gulf War, north [INDISTINCT] and was attacked by Iranian ship.  So I got it from the other end.  But I love--I love the fact that you bring in Marcel Proust through the book and just quickly, I read "In Search of Lost Time," all of it during the war.  I was in Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia.

SA: That's amazing.

CH: But just in the last minute, tell us--tell us why.  Tell us why you brought in Proust if you could do it in a minute?  Sorry.

SA: First of all, because Proust was a great writer and he talked about everything in existence, and he talked about war at length in some of the books…

CH: That's right.

SA: …because they lived through World War I.  And as you know, in war time, in combat, we have a lot of time on our hands, you know, like, when you think about, "Okay, what book am I going to take with me where I would never read in peace time because I have 10,000 other things to do and I'm going to be bored to death waiting for a battle to begin?"  So, I'll take Proust.  So I think that was a part of the whole--the whole thing, but the reason--also the reason I used Proust was because I had read Proust in my 20s, underlined many passages, and I went back to those underlines and used them in the book.

CH: Yeah, very effectively.  I did--the first time I read, I read it three times and like you, I think Proust is one of the great authors of western literature, hands down, and you used it very effectively.  It's a brilliant novel.  Thank you very much.  That was the author Salar Abdoh about his really great novel, "Out of Mesopotamia."

SA: Thank you, Chris, thank you very much.

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