soy un perdedor
i’m a loser baby
so why don’t you kill me?

A couple of months before we leave for Iraq, I spend a nice evening in Seattle with an old friend from DLI who’s now a civilian. We wander the streets for a while looking for someplace to have dinner, then wander a while longer afterwards, not really sure what we’ll do next. Eventually we end up in an cafe that from the outside looks like the quietest place in the world — small, underlit, the walls lined with a random assortment of leatherbound books — but which turns out to have a fairly loud rock/punk soundtrack. This is a little disconcerting — she and I are both quiet people, and our relationship is pretty much predicated on conversation — but we make it work, shouting deep thoughts at each other, drinking tons of tea and taking turns darting off to the bathroom after insightful pronouncements.

My friend is a genius. No lie. I just try to keep up. She was dealt an extra card or two by life. She’s stunningly beautiful, a fast and long-winded runner, proficient in four or five languages; she had her master’s degree already when I met her at 23, and now she’s pursuing a degree in international law. She’s also a terrific photographer. She mostly does self-portraits, and when we run into each other again for the first time in a couple of years at a friend’s wedding, she re-introduces me to Flickr and, mostly by example, encourages me to start putting photos online.

Our conversation in the cafe turns briefly to comparing notes on our respective portfolios. I note that she seems to post, say, a fifth as many pictures as I do, but that each one seems worked through to a highly perfected image. I, on the other hand, tend to splatter my page with a half a dozen working versions, each of which may have something fantastic to offer, but which may not be completely refined. She points out that sometimes it’s tiring to look at my work, because there’s so much just to wade through, and sometimes you never find the image — that arresting one, that defining one.

Partly this is because she’s mostly a studio photographer, while I’m mostly a documentary/accidental photographer. I’m always chasing moments like butterflies — annoyingly quick and agile butterflies that sometimes don’t look as good when you catch them as they did flying around. Part of it, too, is that even when I have an idea in mind, I often find myself not that intent on realizing it, especially if I find something else equally or more interesting along the path to it.

There’s a certain lack of discipline here, and I admit that. There’s nothing wrong with making an exploding universe of images in order to find the ones you really love, as long as you can ruthlessly pare away the ones you don’t. And it’s not that I don’t edit — for every photo I post online, there are five or ten or twenty that I don’t. The thing is that I often find two or three solutions to the same problem that I like equally well. Why not share them all? Why not give them all some life outside my camera? After all, if I can’t decide which one I like best, how can I decide for anyone else? And by leaving in more of those images, I can give a fuller sense of the moment in which I took them.

But sometimes I remember the moment better than I captured it. Those are the ones that are hardest to let go of, and sometimes I’m content to put up an image that failed — where what I was striving for fell out of focus, or I couldn’t hold the camera still enough, or the right composition wasn’t what I thought it was, or sometimes just that what I saw there wasn’t strong enough to hold an image together — if there’s a beautiful shape, an interesting gesture, or, most often, if something is happening that fascinates me. This is not so much because I think they’re great images, but because in them I see the reason I tried to take them in the first place, and I hope, I suppose, that someone else will, too. Flannery O’Connor said kill your darlings, and that’s good advice. On the other hand, I’ve paid good money to see (or spent time downloading) pieces of films that Orson Welles worked at for years and never considered finished. Five minutes of The Other Side of the Wind is worth a lifetime of shitty werewolf-v.-vampire thrillers.

So in these ways I embrace failure in my work — the failure of not knowing what I’m trying to do, the failure of becoming enchanted by something else along the way, even the failure of not letting go of work that never quite finds its way to wholeness. I try, not very successfully, to explain this to my friend. This branches into a wider discussion of being comfortable with failure in life, of seeing failure as a sign of striving.

She eyes me skeptically. She’s one of these brilliant people who has a hard time understanding why other people don’t get it — not harsh, but impatient, especially in an academic environment. The offhand ease with which she seems to do nearly everything is intimidating, even to her friends. It was almost off-putting to watch her sail, seemingly without effort, through the Serbo-Croatian class at DLI, while a mutual friend sweated for every word and every structure. (I, meanwhile, was in my own personal inferno in the Korean school.)

But, without undermining in the slightest the amazing nature of my beautiful, brilliant friend, sometimes the easy perfection of genius is clearly the result of well-selected efforts. Back in the fall, we met for that mutual friend’s wedding and, since we were both in the wedding party, ended up dancing together right after the bride and groom had their first dance. My friend is one of those people who “doesn’t dance,” and I was arguably stiffer than she — together we swayed, not objectionably, but not gracefully, either, and made unpredictable circles around the floor through the longest pop song in the world. And though she was cheerful and mostly laughed her way through it, by the time the music ended my friend was visibly relieved.

I don’t blame her; dancing is a weird and awkward behavior for me, too, as it would be for a giraffe, and it’s something I do only in the most extreme circumstances. (I can name all the times I’ve ever danced.) But on the other hand, I had a warm, pretty girl in my hands, I could make her laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation for a couple of minutes, and I knew enough to shift my weight from one foot to another while staying off hers. (I think.) I was happy to be reunited with friends and happy to see two people I love get married and happy to be a lousy dancer.

Sometimes, though, embracing failure becomes an uglier, bitterer thing. Months later I’m in Kuwait. We’ve run through most of the mandatory training before leaving for Iraq, and the members of my platoon are keeping a low profile to avoid being drafted for useless details. Fortunately, no one has a cell phone in Kuwait, so we disperse and productively goof off for the day. Luke and I go to drop off our laundry and then walk to the coffee shop on the other side of the road where, it turns out, they have chess sets. So I get some tea and we sit down to play. It emerges, rather quickly, that he is a better chess player than I am.

Now, I can lose with perfect equanimity at most things. I’ve never really cared whether I won or lost at cards or volleyball or even footraces — the fun of doing the thing is enough for me, and I’m confident enough in my abilities in so many areas that winning doesn’t really matter so much. But chess….

I think it might have started when I was young — perhaps 25 years ago now, when I was a troubled and troublemaking child. I was difficult enough to be sent to the behavioral disorders class, which was presided over by a bearded, balding man named Barry Shadrix who was one part friend, one part teacher, and one part bully. He kept control of the class — six or seven boys who, let’s be honest, needed controlling — through his physical mass, his sometimes cruel wit, and his extraordinary skill on the chessboard. When these things failed he also had the time-out rooms, about which the less said, the less it will seem like I went to school in Oceania. But chess was probably his best weapon. He was very able at getting stubborn, contrary boys to invest their ego in the game, and since he was, compared to us, quite good, he was able to simultaneously charm us like cobras and humble us. I never beat him, but as I got older I was sometimes able to corner him, or rather get him to corner me, into a stalemate. This happened several times in my last year in the program (around the same time I was in and out of the gifted class — right next door, as it turned out, which was probably good planning), and I took to considering it a victory.

Chess, now, is the one game I hate to lose. This has not spurred me to become a better chess player — I hate to lose so much that I don’t play very often, and usually only with people I haven’t played before, so that if I win I can appear to be very good, and if I lose it might well have been a fluke. (My brilliant lady friend and I played exactly three games when we first met — 1 win, 1 loss, and 1 stalemate — and then we never did play again, which is the secret to our cordial relationship.)

And indeed as Luco begins to beat me, and I see where things are going, I change strategies. My goal now isn’t to win, but to frustrate his win, to make him chase me around the board, to irritate him with one-square moves. It’s not that I have any hope of extracting, suddenly, victory from between Luco’s teeth — the game now is to keep him playing. He obliges, of course, because he is patient and rational in his pursuit of victory. And because he’s still playing in good faith, although I no longer am.

Of course, war is not like chess at all. For one thing, in chess, both sides start off with equal pieces and equal chances, and skill is the primary determining factor of victory. People who hint that excellence in chess somehow corresponds to a kind of “strategic” intelligence tend to ignore this fact. Every chess game starts out exactly the same, while every war, every campaign, every battle, and every skirmish starts out differently. If chess has any value, it is in teaching strategists not to be flustered by their own mistakes, but that can be learned in any game or, indeed, almost any adult endeavor.

But I think about that chess game, and my own relationship with chess, often in the months after we leave Kuwait for Iraq. As I get to know my enemy, I begin to see myself in him. The men of Al-Qaeda are, of course, vicious, impious, narrow in the extreme, and misogynistic. I am rarely those things. But I understand, unpleasantly, their desperation, their fixated, irrational need to win in certain endeavors. Just as I feel, as a “gifted child,” entitled to be good at chess, the members of Al-Qaeda feel entitled to military victory simply because they are Muslims. One of the terrible things about feeling that you have grasped God’s plan in its entirety is that you believe that things will never change, and you are shocked when they do.

When Islam was young and beset by hostile tribes and its small band of fighters was led by the Prophet Himself, of course victory was inevitable, if sometimes delayed for a while. But the ultimate victory — indeed, the real “struggle” — of Islam was always intellectual and spiritual. Against that victory, indeed, the military victories of various Muslim leaders over the course of a thousand year span were of no more importance than the security system in a museum is in comparison to the works of art.

But if the docents decide to bury the paintings and pour a concrete slab over the site in the name of protecting them, surely that security becomes, itself, fruitless. Islam has fallen into a terrible winter now, of the kind that Christianity itself experienced in the Middle Ages when it ran smack up against the magnificence of an Islam then in full flower. A new world has arisen around it, and it cannot make the adjustment. Now, as then, terror at this change has erupted in violence, and now, as then, the violent believe that their “victory” is the incontravertible will of God.

But if the facts do not bear this out? If the combined armies of Islam fail to make even the smallest impression on the tiny Jewish state? If secular America twice in as many decades gives the Middle East’s fiercest and best-equipped army a quick and thorough thrashing? If you begin to suspect that the Russian defeat in Afghanistan had less to do with God’s preference for Islam than with American support and certain internal factors in the collapsing Soviet system? And what if, worst of all, the world simply seems to be moving past you, considering you and your religion barely worthy of mention in a new, seemingly universal culture of consumption?

Then change strategies — redefine success. Of course with your mouth you still proclaim that victory is coming. But your tactics are not aimed at success; they are aimed at provoking and prolonging a fight.

Usamah bin Ladin has been very straightforward about his intentions over the years; he wants to drag the U.S. into an open conflict, which he hopes will turn into a large-scale or global struggle eventually resulting in the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Arab lands, the end of Israel, and the re-establishment of a Caliphate. Perhaps he believes that those end goals will come about; I can’t say. I do find it hard to believe that all the angry, uneducated, thuggish, and largely irreligious young men who make up the majority of his movement really believe it, except in some remote, wouldn’t-it-be-nice way. But they do know a few things for sure; one is that the U.S. appears to be largely immoral and is also the chief supporter of their perceived archenemy, Israel; another is that Islam is guaranteed to be victorious over its enemies. It’s unlikely that even they believe that they could win a direct fight against the U.S. or its allies. Such a conviction, though possibly foolish, would at least be honorable; it would involve raising armies and confronting their enemies directly on the field of battle. This was tried in the 1960s and ’70s, and it didn’t work. Whatever one’s feelings about the Arab/Israeli conflicts of that era, there’s no denying that the Arab states did at least fight a conventional war, generally playing by the accepted rules and taking their losses with, all things considered, equanimity.

But in the wake of those losses, an irreparable rupture opened in the consciousness of some Arab Muslims. The vast majority, of course, adjusted to the new reality and tried to go about their lives. But for some, those convinced that the inviolable majesty of their faith in the spiritual realm must forevermore translate into invincibility in the temporal realm, the idea of Muslims losing a fight to Jews, and later to Christians and atheists, became absolutely intolerable. It became a sign of a world out of balance, a world in which God’s chosen people were somehow subjugated to those who had failed to believe. Ironically, the Jews who wrote the histories of the Old Testament had had a similar experience, and had drawn from it the same conclusion — that they had not been faithful enough to God, and would need to return to a purer, more traditional exercise of their religion in order to regain His favor.

In and of itself, this might not have been a bad thing. Perhaps if economic and political conditions had been liberal enough in the Middle East to allow these people to dedicate themselves to reforming their own societies, this sense of having fallen behind in their religious duties might have spurred them to good works. Some of this return to morality and justice might well have caused us in the West some discomfort — Islamic law is not necessarily as sexist or as authoritarian as the Taliban would have us believe, but even in its milder (and more authentically Quranic) forms, some of its decrees, rooted as they are in the necessities of 7th century Arabia, would strike us as shocking or unnecessary. Nonetheless, how that sort of return to the roots of Islam might have played out could have been the subject of a vigorous public discussion, which would probably have ended with different, but not incompatible, manifestations of Islam and its legal system in different countries and different regions.

But in the absence of anything like a public debate, democracy, true brotherhood or political justice in the Arab states, a different, uglier solution to the problem of why God let Muslims fail in battle has emerged. It is two-pronged in nature: first, a retreat into an oppressive top-down fundamentalism administered by self-appointed theological authorities, and second, a revision of the idea of victory in battle. If Muhammad and His immediate successors won their battles decisively, on an open field, through skill, cunning, and physical courage, against enemies who manifestly intended them and their families harm, the mujahidin learned in the ’80s and ’90s to count largely psychological victories against largely symbolic opponents as actually winning. Just as I learned to define a stalemate as a victory against a much better chess player, so, too, Usamah bin Ladin learned to count Afghanistan as a victory against the Soviets, although he never really defeated the Red Army, and Somalia as a victory against America, although our Special Forces troops out-killed their opponents by a hundred to one.

Of course, while my peculiar pridefulness around chess remains nothing more than a mild quirk of personality, this redefining of success against a powerful enemy in the military realm has essentially romanticized failure for millions of disenfranchised Muslim and Arab youth. Although the situation of the Islamic radicals, viewed realistically, is fairly hopeless — the United States and Israel aren’t going anywhere, no matter how many car bombs they set off, and even Russia, though no longer the USSR, was hardly destroyed by the loss of Afghanistan or the brutality in Chechnya — redefining military success allows losers to proclaim themselves winners, and this has a powerful appeal for those who’ve drawn a short straw in the world lottery. And so ignorant young men will keep putting on suicide vests, convinced that they are following in the footsteps of the early martyrs of their faith, although what they are doing — intentionally killing themselves as well as civilians and even children, using subterfuge and weapons of mass destruction rather than engaging their enemies in direct combat — is in fact exactly the opposite of the noble defensive warfare the companions of the Prophet engaged in. But once you accept the general principle of interpreting reality to mean its opposite, of course, you are more easily seduced into accepting all sorts of perversions as perfectly natural. So you get the inverted logic of making unwilling martyrs out of people in order to liberate them.

All of which is only a preface to this point: by lowering the bar for challenging the perceived hegemony of the secular American monolith, Al-Qaeda made that challenge much more attractive and much more real to thousands of disaffected young men. But hitting American targets has always been somewhat difficult, even for the determined suicide bomber. There are — or rather were — a limited number of overseas American targets, and they’re hard to get to: the places known terrorists can travel freely and set up sophisticated operations are often devoid of Americans. 9/11 was an expensive, long-term attack involving sleepers obtaining legal residence and pilots’ training — not easy to do once, impossible to repeat, difficult even to use for inspiration.

On the other hand, it takes neither particular ingenuity, nor a great deal of money, nor a lengthy planning phase, to drive a car bomb into the gate of a military base in Iraq. Particularly if a group like Al-Qaeda or one of its many imitators is in place to provide the materials, such an operation can be carried out whenever another foolish and desperate “martyr” is ready. And that’s only the beginning, of course. IEDs, mortars, RPGs, ambushes — and every time it looks like the Americans are getting tired of the game, draw them back in with a mosque bombing or a chlorine attack on civilians. (An attack on our soldiers doesn’t impugn our honor the way that the slaughter of innocents under our protection does.)

The devilish cleverness of Usamah bin Ladin in 9/11 was that he was able to turn a losing position into a stalemate. He couldn’t win against the United States — still can’t — but he could put his organization on equal footing with us, if we let him. Before 9/11 he was a criminal, a former guerrilla plotting, with due respect to those who lost their lives on the Cole and in the African embassies, penny-ante attacks on easy American targets. But in the hours after 9/11, both newsanchors and the government were declaring that the United States was “at war.” And all of a sudden bin Ladin was in charge of, not just a terrorist network, but the enemy force. We elevated him and Al-Qaeda, made them our mortal enemy, our Moriarty. We made them appear to be a formidable foe to the world’s greatest power.

That was the first half. The second half was that by going into Iraq without a real plan, we created an atmosphere in which American soldiers became big fat targets. But these weren’t targets that you needed a clever plan and documentation and flight schools to carry out. Suddenly not only was the standard of success against Americans much lower, but so was the cost of entry. Attacking the U.S. was no longer a matter of crossing an ocean, but of crossing a border, a town, or even the street.

The argument for the “war” in Iraq, in many quarters, has been that if we don’t fight them in Iraq, we’ll fight them in our cities. Just so. I am all for making it as difficult as possible for our enemies to attack us. I think they should have to go to some trouble.

There is no sensible argument that we are better off fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq than in our own country. The number of American soldiers killed in Iraq long ago surpassed the number of dead in 9/11, but even if that were not so, the total cost of the war and its aftermath positively dwarfs it. Even if Al-Qaeda had managed to pull off another 9/11 we would still be a thousand lives up, tens of thousands of Iraqis would be living under a dictator instead of free and dead, our military would still be whole and in fighting trim, and we might be within hailing distance of a balanced budget.

Of course, some would say — many soldiers among them — that the advantage of carrying the fight to Iraq is that professional soldiers, rather than innocent American civilians, die in the fight. There’s something to this — it’s nice, if we’re going to take casualties, to be able to hit back. On the other hand, three points:

1) We still haven’t successfully hit back the people who hit us first.

2) We are now engaged in a fight with people we never would have had to fight in the first place — i.e., we are now hitting back at the wrong people, for acts which result directly from our actions.

3) A lot of innocent civilians are still being killed — they just aren’t Americans. Iraq’s civilian population has shouldered the greatest mass of this cost, of course — between 8 and 15 percent of the population has simply abandoned the country, and by even the most conservative estimates tens upon tens of thousands have died in the violence. Many were tortured beforehand.

Perhaps the trickiest loss to calculate in the war in Iraq is that of human potential — not least, that of young men whose heads were filled with preposterous notions of a global war with the Great Satan (notions we were entirely willing to validate), and who were given a ridiculously low and ultimately meaningless threshold of success.

I am not, of course, arguing that those who commit acts of violence are mere delusional victims. But granting that people are responsible for their behavior, some circumstances, wholly man-made, reveal the flaws in people’s characters that might otherwise never surface. Many of the violent in Iraq — though usually not the suicide bomber types — are outright criminals, thugs who wouldn’t scruple at kidnapping and murder even in a healthy civil society. But the civil society in Iraq is far from healthy, and while the evil are certainly emboldened, even those who might otherwise lead productive lives are seduced by the glib promises of holy war.

The great shame of what’s going on in Iraq is that, without meaning to, we’ve conspired with Al-Qaeda to provide a situation for thousands of people to plunge headlong into failure (even as they help Al-Qaeda keep playing a game they can’t win). But we’ve given them an easy road to the wrong kind of failure.

Iraq should be full of failure, full of beautiful losers, full of the kind of creative disasters that a healthy society thrives on. It should be full of bankrupt businesses and bad art and losing sports teams, unsound investments and terrible fast food chains and catastrophically misled politicians. By allowing Iraq to degenerate into a series of binary choices — Americans versus insurgents, Shi’a versus Sunni, Iran versus Saudi Arabia, or, as The Economist‘s memorable cover this week puts it, “Martyrs or traitors” — we’ve essentially given the weak of character a shortcut, a substitute for the glorious failures of normal life: we’ve given them the opportunity, instead, for the stalemate victory of the futile gesture.

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