Initially, “war porn,” the phrase Roy Scranton uses as the title of his novel about the second Iraq war, struck me as a play on
the adjective “war-torn.” It also struck me as a bit sensationalistic, a title seemingly constructed to catch your eye after you’ve bought your half-liter
water bottle and browse fiction while waiting in the airport for a flight.
But “porn,” itself an abbreviation of “pornography,” has become a more generalized adjective with the ironic twist
that it’s truly a vulgar usage; a program on Milanese cuisine might be described as “food porn,” a highlights montage of earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornados
could be called “disaster porn.”
The reduction of serious, complex events to a few minutes of video footage or a handful of lurid images is a symptom of our scatterbrained,
sound-byte, device-addled culture and as I read Roy Scranton’s book, I saw how apt his choice of title.
Late in the book, the phrase is actually used by Aaron, recently returned from the war, as he shows another guy his combat pictures,
“Iraq Pix” located, appropriately, on a thumb drive. A girlfriend pokes her head into the room where the two men crouch over a computer and asks, “what are
y’all doing, looking at porn?” and Aaron replies: “War porn, wanna see?”
Scranton enlisted in the Army and served as an artilleryman from 2002 to 2006; he was deployed in Iraq for 14 months in 2003 and 2004. After
leaving the service, he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree at the New School for Social Research, then a Ph.D. in English at Princeton University. He has
written extensively and quite powerfully about America’s disastrous war in Iraq, including a rousing essay which appeared in The New York Times on July 2nd of this year called “‘Star Wars’ and the Fantasy of American Violence.”
Scranton structures War Porn using three interlocking stories conventionally related, as well as poetic interludes–all labeled “Babylon”–before and after each section. Babylon, of course, alludes to the ancient Mesopotamian city which straddled the Euphrates river; once the largest city in the
world, its ruins lie just over 50 miles south of Baghdad.
The book opens at a barbecue in Utah on Columbus Day 2004. In this first storyline, the aforementioned Aaron,
home after serving as a corporal in a Military Police unit of the Arizona Army National Guard, crashes a mellow gathering of twenty
-somethings. Whatever he was before his tour, his actions and experiences in Iraq have dehumanized him or transformed a
latent nihilism into sociopathy. By turns menacing and charming, Aaron eventually seduces one of the women then rapes her.
The second narrative concerns Specialist Wilson, a Humvee driver, at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. He
passes from the tedium of life in base camp to the challenges and perils of driving in convoys. He spends days in garrison playing video games, checking out back-issues of Maxim, working out at
the gym, staging death matches between scorpions and camel spiders. As a driver, he faces the classic ordeals of all
professional truckers–sleep deprivation, mental fatigue, and getting lost–with the added, constant possibility of an ambush
or tripping an IED, or improvised explosive device.
The downward spiral of Qasim al-Zabadi, an Iraqi mathematician working as an interpreter (or “terp”) for the U.S.
Army, forms the book’s third narrative. Qasim’s story tragically overlaps with Aaron’s. As an M.P., Aaron worked in one of the
extralegal prisons where hundreds of Iraqis were detained; almost as an eerie afterword, Qasim eventually shows up in the
“war porn” on Aaron’s thumb drive with numerous photos depicting his torture and degradation.
Along with being a journalist, novelist, and scholar, Scranton describes himself as a poet and the most lyrical passages in War Porn–those dense but brief blocks of prose which I’ll call the
Babylon interludes–border on poetry. Cobbled together with little or no punctuation, these sections read as a stream-of
-consciousness pastiche of buzzwords and catch-phrases culled from sources as disparate as the Koran and Bible to the latest
Pentagon jargon, Army acronyms, and truth-eluding speeches of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld cabal. They reminded me of what
one might hear rolling through the cable news channels with the remote and changing the station every three to five seconds.
No doubt, it’s an ambitious novel. And a necessary one. As you
gleaned from my précis of the narratives, Scranton isn’t offering any redemptive vision of the war or its aftermath. If War Porn
was a legal argument, it would be a creative elaboration on the principle of fruit of the poisonous tree.
There’s that title again. The pornographic is bound up with the obscene. Even under the most justified of causes, war never
loses an inherent aspect of obscenity–the shocking visuals of bodies dismembered, mangled, struck dumb with death,
regardless of whether those bodies belonged to evil men with twisted minds, good men compelled by love and decency, or
hapless civilians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. War is the abject failure of human beings to summon their humanity. We wince because it is obscene.
How much more obscene when the war was a premeditated sham fabricated on cooked intelligence and foisted on the world
by cowards who pulled every string available to shirk their own military duty when they were called upon?
Yes, the more I’ve thought about it, the more I agree with Roy Scranton’s choice for the title of this book.