Whenever I ask my students to think about defining the contemporary era through turning points, significant events, or punctual moments, the conversation inevitably converges on New York City, September 11, 2001. The event that day was shaped by the globalized flows of communication, transportation, capital, and geopolitical power, and so in turn the shorthand of “9/11” has become the spectacular condensation of those very dynamics. The cultural response to 9/11 was complex and multiform, and the critical commentary on that response is now itself extensive and protean. In literature, statements were expected, and delivered, from the heavyweights: Don DeLillo, John Updike, Martin Amis, Art Spiegelman. Each new novel that addresses 9/11 is tested against whether it has approached making a definitive statement: witness the feverish superlatives that surrounded Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008) or Amy Waldman’s The Submission (2011). Within ten years, we already have a clear idea of a certain canon of texts that enable familiar debates about the ethics and aesthetics of the representation of the catastrophe, as Kristiaan Versluys’s study Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel exemplifies.
One cannot say quite the same for the 2003 invasion of Iraq that followed as a far from logical consequence of 9/11. No defining literary texts have emerged from the overlapping contexts of the invasion, the Iraqi civil war, or the occupation. Perhaps symptomatically, it isn’t yet clear how we should name, periodize, or even characterize these events. When did the war in Iraq start? With the Gulf War in 1991? Earlier? Is it separable from the war in Afghanistan, the longest military engagement in U.S. history? Has the war in Iraq ended? Barack Obama initially announced that American military operations in Iraq would end in the summer of 2010, a time frame held by some to be as provisional as George W. Bush’s notorious declaration of “Mission Accomplished” in 2003, and so indeed it proved to be. Obama revised the date of final withdrawal to December 2011, a decision driven by the Iraqi government’s ending the exclusion of American military personnel from Iraqi law, thus necessitating withdrawal to avoid prosecutions.1 Obama’s initial inability to extricate the U.S. from this postwar occupation was the subject of much disappointment and comment on the left.2
This essay explores how we might gauge the relation of an unfolding contemporary war to cultural representations. Ethical criticism on the aesthetic representation of war is often pulled between a demand for witness and documentation versus a call for indirection, aporia, or the foregrounding of the impossibility of representing traumatic violence. Modernist difficulty is often the favored aesthetic mode. Yet this framework, generated in the main by critical commentary on the Holocaust, isn’t necessarily helpful when transposed to contemporary events, where the urge to convey the hidden or suppressed consequences of violence in the most literal ways possible can have significant political impetus. Thomas Hirschhorn’s art installation The Incommensurable Banner (2007)—an eighteen-meter-long collage of photographs of the mutilated bodies of Iraqi civilians, composed of images excluded from Western media representations of the war—had a powerful intervention to make. Contemporaneity needn’t be marked by such literalist imperative, of course. In War Cut (2004), the German artist Gerhard Richter juxtaposed news reportage from two days of the Iraq war alongside slices of his resolutely antirepresentational abstract paintings, as if to pose the very question of adequacy and representation.
Can one even safely draw limits around what might be a “response” in contemporary culture to the war on terror—less an event than a global network of confusing alliances and hidden complicities? And might not the violence of war disturb or disrupt the very notion of being contemporary, shattering the illusory temporal order of a self-identical present? To pursue these reflections is to find, as I will shortly argue, that perhaps some of the most interesting cultural responses to the Iraq war in the West do not, in fact, directly mention the war.
Let us start, however, with a brief survey of the more obvious cultural engagements with Iraq. The very large body of...