The Fictionalization of Iraq

Why have there been so few literary or fictional representations of what has been happening in Iraq ' in comparison with Vietnam?

Certainly there have been quite a few documentaries on the subject, prominent amongst them beingFahrenheit Nine Eleven by Roger Moore, The Road to Guantanamoa Channel 4 presentation or evenThe World According to Bush, by William Karel but the fictional treatment has been missing to the extent it could have been expected.

It cannot have been for lack of interest amongst publishers for they are well aware that global events do influence literary success. Perhaps 'The Kite Runner' or 'The Bookseller of Kabul' may have been literary successes even without the recent events in Afghanistan, but the ongoing war there certainly gave an added impetus to the sale of these books. And this is something, which publishers (who are not in the book business to make losses) could have clearly anticipated.

It will be argued that there are some obvious reasons for this. The war in Iraq is only three and a half years old (though it is likely to continue for the rest of the Bush presidency). At the same time there has been fiction on Afghanistan even though there is not that much of a time gap between the two conflicts. 

Secondly, it will be argued that Vietnam and Iraq are not comparable, even though the avowed mission of the Americans in Vietnam too was a promotion of democracy and freedom. Vietnam was extraordinary in terms of the sheer quantity and range of fiction (and cinema) that it spawned.

Its not as yet clear how different the war in Vietnam is from the present one in Iraq. We have to observe however that lamentably little of the fiction that was produced was ever written from the point of view of the Vietnamese.

And this brings us to the reason why perhaps it is more difficult for either Western publishers or Hollywood to take interest in the fictional depiction of current events in Iraq. Unlike what happened with Vietnam, in today's world it is difficult to convince anyone, including the average American that the American soldier in Iraq is a 'hero'. 
With respect to Afghanistan this is still possible. An American soldier fighting the Taliban in the rugged Afghan terrain still has some glamour attached to him. Not so the American soldier fighting in Iraq. The profiteering by American companies, the large-scale killing of innocent civilians, the civil war that has been unleashed, the torture of ordinary prisoners and the revelations of misdeeds committed in Abu Gharib prison have changed all that.

The world has changed. With Iraq it will no longer be possible in the future for American thriller writers to write of an American veteran in the manner in which former Vietnam veterans were regarded as heroes in hundreds of novels and dozens of movies. The other reason of course why such novels will not be written (or will at least not be global best sellers) is in the globalized world of today it is increasingly difficult to sell a linear, one-dimensional, American interpretation of events be it in the form of a play, a novel or a film.

There is another reason why it isn't easy to write the right sort of fiction about Iraq or I ' Raq. The writer John Berger once wrote that never again would a single story be told as though it was the only one and he was right because there are so many ways of seeing. But there is another development that makes it necessary perhaps to add a sequel to his remark. It is the interconnectedness of life on the planet today. Never again will a story be told as if its not somehow connected to other stories that are also crying out to be told. What happens in Iraq is related to what happens in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US, India and almost every place else on the earth. For a writer of fiction today to focus on Iraq while missing the bigger picture is to create a cardboard or plastic representation of events. If you want to write fiction about Iraq today you need to write, or at least allude to almost everywhere else as well. This brings me to an interesting point, which I wish to make here.

Literary novels, by their very nature perhaps, have tended to confine themselves to few locations and often only a single one. In comparison the modern day thriller has the chief protagonist waking up in London, flying to Paris in the afternoon and then again showing up in the next chapter in far off Kawloon or Mogadishu. There is lots of action and there are very many places where this action takes place.

The new literary novel that will emerge may also now do location shooting in many places around the world, and it may well be that the thrillers will confine themselves to a single location. At any rate the earlier distinction that existed that existed between the two genres will be increasingly blurred. New ways will have to be invented by writers to speak of the new multicultural, globalized world we inhabit.    


More by :  Rajesh Talwar

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Comment Literary endeavours in Iraq were heavily censored under Saddam. Since Saddam many writers have been afraid of repercussions to themselves and their families if they speak the truth. Iraq is still a difficult place with many complex security issues.

I am a writer living in Scotland working with an Iraqi writer in exile here, helping him put his stories about life in Iraq during and after Saddam into English. We have been doing this for over two years now and have several stories published and one read at the Scottish Parliament. We are working on various projects including a novel-length piece about an Iraqi exile in Scotland and the Scottish family he meets whose soldier son has been killed in Iraq. We are looking for a publisher for this and other works. Can you suggest anyone? Please contact me at

Sue Reid Sexton
10-Aug-2011 13:51 PM

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