No One to Believe In

Unreliable narratives of the war on terror.


Austin literary agent James D. Hornfischer has represented a variety of military authors and written a pair of bestselling World War II naval histories, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors and Ship of Ghosts. His experience tells him that books about war are published in four distinct phases.

The first phase is composed of books by journalists and other professionals sent to cover the war for newspapers or magazines. These are literally the first drafts of history.

The second wave often comes from officers and administrators-educated elites-who have celebrity cachet to cash in or are motivated to justify decisions questioned by first-wave journalists.

The third and most enduring phase chronicles major events from the viewpoint of small groups of soldiers or sailors. These books often deal with war’s aftermath and pain, and are written by the grunts, the ground-pounders, the trigger-pullers.

The fourth and final phase, Hornfischer says, is written by historians, who generally wait until military documents are declassified and filed with the National Archives before weighing in.

Why do we need so many versions of the same story?

Because truth in war, whether physical or moral, is contested terrain.

Apply Hornfischer’s theory to the so-called war on terror and we’re already well into phase three, on the cusp of phase four, and showing signs of the emergence of a new phase entirely.

Phase one included Evan Wright’s Generation Kill. Published in 2004, it chronicled the Rolling Stone embed’s time with a Marine reconnaissance unit as it made its way across Iraq during the initial invasion.

Phase two included apologias such as American Soldier by Gen. Tommy Franks and Ambassador L. Paul Bremer’s My Year in Iraq-books that tried to explain what had just gone wrong.

The transition to phase three started with combat narratives by Ivy League-educated officers, such as Andrew Exum’s This Man’s Army and Nathaniel Fick’s One Bullet Away. Both men make much of their educations; Exum graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and Fick from Dartmouth. Exum and Fick, only just removed from the start of the war, are less conflicted about their roles than Dallas resident Brandon Friedman, whose memoir, The War I Always Wanted: The Illusion of Glory and the Reality of War (a book for which Hornfischer served as literary agent), describes how Friedman (another college-educated officer) had longed since childhood to fight but became demoralized after twice nearly dying in friendly-fire incidents.

It’s interesting to note that Fick is one of the soldiers featured in Wright’s Generation Kill, reinforcing the suggestion that later-phase war books often serve as correctives to earlier-phase titles.

One phase is effectively saying to the other: You cannot be relied upon to tell the whole truth.

Who, then, can be relied on to tell the truth?

Take, for example, Jessica Lynch, a West Virginia native who is on record saying she joined the Army to help pay for college. After her supply unit’s capture by Iraqis in March 2003 and her subsequent rescue, Lynch became a national hero. She appeared on the cover of People and struck a $1 million deal with the publisher Knopf for a book titled I Am a Soldier Too: The Jessica Lynch Story.

Despite the title, the book was actually written by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg, who took half the advance. It was only with such help that the book reached bookstores by Veterans Day in November 2003, less than eight months after Lynch’s rescue.

Among the book’s biggest revelations was the assertion that Lynch had been raped while a prisoner-a claim that Bragg inserted, despite Lynch’s claim that she couldn’t remember the three-hour period during which the rape supposedly occurred. The claim has been countered by the doctor who treated Lynch following her rescue in Iraq, and largely discredited since.

Was the rape fact, fiction, or conjecture?

Cynics called its inclusion propaganda, but just as well to call it a sign of the times. Whether it’s James Frey lying about a prison term or Colin Powell lying to the United Nations about weapons of mass destruction, we live in an era of unreliable narrators.

Think of the phrase “the war on terror.” What does that mean, exactly?

Or the word “interrogation” with regard to “enemy combatants.” Isn’t that just a smokescreen for torturing prisoners of war?

Think of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Outrage may be a better word for it.

Various books have been written about Abu Ghraib, starting with Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib by Seymour Hersh, the journalist who broke the story in The New Yorker in May 2004.

Thousands of news stories were filed. The soldiers involved were publicly pilloried, and the name and face of Lynndie England-the young Army private photographed holding a naked prisoner’s leash-became synonymous with American shame. England went to jail, as did some of her cohorts. Yes, there have been trials, but no one of any real authority has ever taken responsibility. No one above the rank of sergeant ever served time, and no one ever faced charges for war crimes, torture, or violations of the Geneva Conventions.

And like all tragedies of American life, including 9/11, Abu Ghraib is already fading away into memory.

Until last year, few authors had any kind of access to the soldiers who perpetrated the crimes at Abu Ghraib.

But in 2007, Tara McKelvey published Monstering: Inside America’s Policy of Secret Interrogations and Torture in the Terror War. That book, according to Hornfischer’s theory, effectively started the fourth wave of books on the war on terror.

McKelvey doggedly tracked military documents and computer files supporting claims of abuse, such as one guard’s “wish list” of “alternative interrogation techniques,” including “phone book strikes” and “low-voltage electrocution.” Even more disturbing is McKelvey’s revelation that civilian contractors probably participated in the abuse, and one translator may have sodomized a male teenager.

Working from interviews with former detainees-many of whom express reluctance about sharing their stories-McKelvey served up a dozen case studies of abuse that went beyond what was shown in the infamous photographs. The dirty laundry list includes sophisticated forms of torture like stress positioning, “monstering” (deprivation of diet and sleep), and, McKelvey strongly suggests, rape and murder. The worst abuse, she reports, took place at makeshift short-term detention facilities such as gyms and trailers, where detainees were held for less than 14 days and then released without any record of their imprisonment.

She writes about videos of bored prison guards “Robotripping” (getting stoned on a mixture of Robitussin and Vivarin) and simulating sex with one another.

In addition, McKelvey tracked down many of the principals in the Abu Ghraib photos for interviews, and she was the first writer to interview England in person after the soldier’s trial and subsequent 36-month incarceration.

McKelvey’s book isn’t without flaws. She tries a bit too hard to ascribe overly simple sociological motives to the perpetrators, suggesting that the poverty-stricken home lives of some of the soldiers contributed the abuse.

For example, Lynndie England worked at a chicken-processing plant where animals were arguably abused (though, curiously, she quit in protest) and participated in amateur porn shoots before her tour of duty in Iraq-all of which, McKelvey asserts, not entirely convincingly, predisposed her to bad behavior at Abu Ghraib.

Unfortunately, with the Bush administration’s penchant for secrecy, and the fact that the war is still being fought, it will be some years before a full picture of what happened at Abu Ghraib emerges. If and when one finally does, it is likely to have as many facets as a shattered mirror.

The latest example of the search for the truth of the Abu Ghraib story is Standard Operating Procedure, which takes two forms: a film by Errol Morris and a book written by Morris and Philip Gourevitch, each of which draws on the same source material: 200 hours of interviews with those who worked at Abu Ghraib, including five of the seven MPs indicted for abuse. Given the multiple lenses through which Morris and Gourevitch tell the soldiers’ stories, Standard Operating Procedure might be considered a phase-five book, a work that simultaneously synthesizes the narratives that came before it and casts doubt on their strict veracity.

The most important of these sources is Sabrina Harman, an aspiring forensic photographer who took many of the scandal’s most famous photos-Hooded Man, Leashed Man, the Naked Human Pyramid-including the most damning evidence of all: the photo of a dead Iraqi, killed by the C.I.A. during interrogation at the prison.

Harman appears in one notorious photo posing over the dead man, beaming a smile and offering a ridiculous “thumbs up” sign. (This photo was taken by reservist Charles Graner, the Svengali of the group and the man responsible for posing many of the photos, who fathered a child with Lynndie England and later married another MP from the group, Megan Ambuhl. Graner is notably absent from the film; he’s still serving a prison sentence for his role.)

Harman tries to explain why she looks so pleased in the picture: “I kind of picked up the thumbs-up from the kids in Al Hilla, and so whenever I would get into a photo, I never know what to do with my hands. … So any kind of photo, I probably have a thumbs-up because it’s just-I just picked it up from the kids. It’s just something that automatically happens. Like when you get into a photo, you want to smile. It’s just, I guess, something I did.”

This sounds like a self-serving justification for a gesture that’s callous at best, evil at worst. As a viewer and reader, do we believe that she’s telling her truth, or is she just concocting an excuse?Morris uses a camera device called the Interrotron to conduct his interviews. The person being interviewed looks directly into the lens and so appears to be making eye contact with the viewer in what looks like a direct, human connection.

Reading Harman’s words on the page is one thing, but watching her say them in the film makes us want to believe her, to forgive her even. But can we?

“Every narrator is unreliable,” Morris told the Observer this year. “I’m a big fan of Vladimir Nabokov; he’s the king of the unreliable narrator. My favorite book by him is Pale Fire and the character of [Charles] Kinbote. And just like Kinbote, we’re all self-deceived. When someone recounts the past, whether it’s Kinbote or Lynndie England or Sabrina Harman, they are re-enacting their past in words, they are trying to recover the various pieces from the bric-a-brac of memory. To think for a moment that it’s an absolute description is a mistake.”

The very existence of two different pieces of work-a film and a book-with the same name and deriving from the same sources suggests competing versions of the truth. The book is not a movie tie-in version of the film, nor vice versa. While both are drawn from the same interviews, their tones differ significantly, not least in the fact that Morris’ film, unlike the book, offers dramatic “re-enactments” of the events at Abu Ghraib.

For his part, Gourevitch suggests that some events are so complex and inherently confusing that they might ultimately be unfathomable.

“There is a constant temptation,” he writes in Standard Operating Procedure, “when rendering an account of history, to distort reality by making too much sense of it.”

It’s tempting to think he’s referring to Morris. At the very least, he’s acknowledging the dangers of placing too much faith in any single interpretation of history.

If Hornfischer’s four-phase hierarchy presumes truth-or at least understanding-is ultimately attainable, Standard Operating Procedure‘s phase-five bifurcation shows significantly different narratives unspooling from the same recent past.

And why shouldn’t there be doubt, of our leaders, our generals, even our soldiers? The Bush administration has sown these seeds with its own language, in which a “mission accomplished” is the start of America’s longest war, and a weapon of mass destruction is nothing but an aluminum tube.

Documents like I Am a Soldier Too, Monstering, and Standard Operating Procedure, imperfect as they are, might be the closest we can come to the disorienting confusion of this war, which is itself so vaguely defined, yet so incontrovertibly real, and which has already claimed so many victims-not the least of which is the very idea of truth itself.

Edward Nawotka writes about books and culture from his home in Houston. An archive of his work is online at

Philip Gourevitch will speak at the Texas Book Festival, Saturday November 1, on “Reporting from Rwanda to Abu Ghraib.” See for more information.