Writing off Iraq

This month the White Review published my non fiction piece Every Night is like a Disco: Iraq, 2003, which only took me 11 years to write. I had it in notes, in my head, for that whole time; I always intended to write something, especially after Granta published Fly Away Home: Iraq, 1998. So why did it take so long?

I’d been writing about my working life ever since I started, cribbing from my notes, emails, reports, and anything else I could get my hands on. I’d published a couple of pieces in small magazines, and was thinking (optimistically) about pitching a full-length book, to be titled “Life in the Colony”.

After Iraq – well, after Iraq, three things happened. One was that I was filled with remorse – an attentuated strand of survivor’s guilt – and I felt that I would be trading on the lives of others. I hadn’t earned that right, not by a long shot, and the best thing to do would be to shut up. This feeling continues today, and publishing Disco was quite difficult for me.

Second was that I was angry at the humanitarian sector, and particularly the United Nations, for the abject failure of judgement that was Iraq. After working in Afghanistan, I didn’t expect much from the US and UK governments, but I had hoped that the UN had learned something. They hadn’t, and I’m not sure they’ve learned it now.

Third was that there was a snowstorm of books after Iraq, often from people who’d been in far worse situations than I, or had done far better research and reporting. Iraq became a coin in the reputational currency of the Beltway and beyond, to be traded for power and (often) sex; and I didn’t want any part of that. Aid memoirs? I felt like I needed to grow up.

The memory wouldn’t go away. It was a turning point in how I approached my work, in how I viewed the entire sector. It represented something more for me than just another story in the collection, and I never forgot those people along the airport road. Here was Iraq under a microscope; or more likely Iraq under a magnifying glass, burnt by the sun.

So this summer I sat down and wrote it in a couple of days. Long gestation, quick birth; I guess it had been writing itself in the back of my head. It was an awkward child – too long for short stories, too short for longform. I had a vague idea that The White Review, whose tastes trend extremely catholic, might want to publish it, maybe? And they did.

Now it’s out, I feel a sense of relief. I can get on with writing other things, maybe even from that same period: I have half a piece from Liberia, that same year, “A Day Late and a Dollar Short”, but who knows if I’ll ever finish it? That’s the problem with writing: you can make all the plans you want, but sometimes the words follow their own schedule.