Seeking the Transfiguration of the World, Fifteen Years After the Invasion of Iraq
In Gods Go Begging, one of my favorite novels (and one of the three best pieces of Vietnam War fiction), Alfredo Véa paints an exchange between a Creole sergeant and a chaplain:
“Hey, padre, let’s play us a game of suppose,” said the sergeant, wanting to distract himself from the memories of his wife and the horror at hand. He knew that the chaplain had long, outrageous conversations with some of the men in which they collectively rearranged history, and the world and its laws.
“Let’s you and me talk about a different kind of world. You might call it philosophizing, but with these boys, it’s called supposing. Let’s suppose this. Let’s suppose that. Suppose you tell me what you and Jesse and them were supposing yesterday.”
“Cornelius wondered what America would be like if there had never been any African slaves,” answered the chaplain after closing his eyes and inhaling slowly to collect himself and his thoughts.
The sergeant laughed. “That’s some supposin’! What answer did they come up with for that one?”
“They had some remarkable ideas. They supposed that there would be no jazz in America, which also means that the blues and rock-and-roll would never have happened in the States. Jesse and Cornelius supposed that jazz would have been born in Morocco, where French, Spanish, and African rhythms would have collided. Billie Holiday, under another name, would’ve sung her songs in French.”
“Alors!” cried the sergeant. “Mademoiselle Billie Jourde Fête. She would have sounded good in French!”
“They further extrapolated that the collision of African music and Welsh-Irish that became rock music would have taken place on the Normandy coast, where Celtic roots are still very strong. Jesse supposed that because of the immense popularity of Moroccan jazz and Afro-Celtic rock-and-roll, French would be the predominant language in the world today rather than English. French ballet, not yet set in its ways, would have been transformed by Africans into improvisational and fusion ballet. They would be tap-dancing in Calais. It seems that everything turns on jazz.”
“That Jesse’s got some strange notions. C’est vrai. Il est original,” mused the sergeant, who realized in the same instant that he seldom lapsed into French these days. “Everything turns on jazz, eh? I kinda like that one. Everything turns on jazz.”
The old Montagnard corporal down below echoed the phrase, “Moì thú dêù lên nhac jazz.”
I didn’t know of Véa’s novel in 2002, the year I enlisted in the Marine Corps, spurred (truthfully, just in part) by a sense that this was the thing to do to protect my country, my family, a duty I shared with my elders in their own day. Had I known Véa’s book, I’m unconvinced I would’ve heard his message. Perhaps the lived experience of what was to follow as the Bush administration whipped much of the world into a frenzy about Saddam Hussein’s notional weapons of mass destruction was necessary for me to understand.
Fifteen years ago the invasion of Iraq began. How the Iraq-centered phase of the Global War on Terror has turned out is devoid of even a shred of ambiguity. Millions of Iraqi dead, thousands upon thousands more displaced, thousands of dead & thousands more permanently wounded American volunteers, trillions of wasted dollars.
In the first years after I left Iraq, and then the Marines, I lacked a mental model that pushed me to engage with my experience in the Iraq War in a way that transcended a well-warranted, yet limited, reactive criticism. Training to become a historian introduced me to the practice of counterfactual thinking, evaluating pivotal moments in history in a way that explores their potential for rendering an alternate history. The most famous work in this genre is If It Had Happened Otherwise, a collection of essays that includes Winston Churchill’s speculation, in the guise of a alternate-timeline Southern historian, on the implications of a Confederate victory at the Battle of Gettysburg. 1
I eventually came across Véa’s book in a cultural history of the Vietnam War I took, then later co-taught for several semesters, with two men who became my closest friends. One is a Vietnam veteran, and the other says he finds himself in the odd position of having Richard Nixon to thank for sparing him the unknown outcome of service in Vietnam. As I absorbed Véa’s message, I eventually developed my own portion of our final lecture, which has become a guiding principle for my entire life:
Consider Other Possibilities.
As with Véa, jazz provides the artistic model for this approach, inviting the listener to engage in a journey from a known point (a standard, a stated riff, a quoted chorus) to an uncertain outcome that circles in expanding trajectory around the world-as-it-is, seeking enough distance or altitude to see the world-as-it-could be. To consider other possibilities is to perceive the potential of a world transfigured. 2
Sometimes, when I think about personal anniversaries related to my participation the Iraq War, I get trapped into thinking about my world-as-it-has-become. On a day like today, fifteen years after the American-led invasion of Iraq began, I first think of the world-as-it-could-have-been. But, if I remain there too long, I forget to think of the world-as-it-could-be-tomorrow.
Professional historians mostly have little patience for counterfactuals, preferring to concern themselves with sharpening understanding of what actually transpired. But as a model for exploring the implications of decisions we make in the present (that is always becoming the past), considering what possibilities are foreclosed in the future (that is always becoming the present) is useful. So, when we read Véa, I tell my students to consider other possibilities in their own world, and I try to model it when we talk one-on-one.
And I tell myself, “You can never atone for the things you believed & the decision you made in 2002, for the things you participated in on that deployment in 2004. But maybe you can avoid adding to that. Maybe you can show that you’ve learned something. Maybe, by learning to consider other possibilites, you can do something to bring them into being. Maybe, if you can live this way of thinking faithfully, you can project it into others’ lives. Maybe, if enough of us consider other possibilities, those possibilities could come into being. Maybe, just maybe, this broken world can be transfigured.”
That won’t happen if I don’t consider other possibilities. It’s the best I can do to expiate my past. It’s the best I can do to help transfigure the future.
In Churchill’s supposin’ exercise, an independent Confederate States of America eventually reunifies with both the United States and the British Empire, forming a union that prevents World War I.↩
In my mind, jazz & poetry have similar capacities to render the familiar in an artistic lens that allows both the apparent& transfigured worlds to be seen. Painting might occupy a similar position in the world of visual art.↩