Our Man in Iraq

By Robert Perisic


Black Balloon Publishing
April 2013

Reviewed by James Orbesen


I remember sitting in my high school Current Events class (Hi, Mr. Giebel!) sorting through newspapers, all of them advocating an invasion of Iraq. For the papers, it made sense. Saddam Hussein was A Very Bad Guy. Despite my shop teacher's proclamations that we, the students, should all pay more attention and, possibly, fear a forthcoming draft post-9/11, the war perpetually remained in the background. I was insulated, many, many miles away from the front line. With the recent translation of Robert Perisic's Our Man in Iraq, I cannot help but reflect on that war, which not only influenced (and maimed) a number of those from my generation, but also seems bound to repeat itself, given the Sunday morning talkmongering on the threats Americans face.

And sense is the most important thing. Even in war, it's incredibly important. Sense. You have to grasp for every scrap of sense, you just have to, for every propaganda of sense, for every lie of sense. When there's no sense, you go round the bend, madness comes out of your ears, so you have to believe in sense, particularly in war, you have to believe in sense fervently, and even after the war you have to believe with the faith of a fanatic if you want to make any sense, otherwise it doesn't.

These aren't the words of an American reflecting on Iraq, but a Croatian. Robert Perisic's Our Man in Iraq takes place in 2003. The invasion has already begun. The narrator, Toni, is a cocky Croatian reporter making his way in a country straddling the past's Soviet-style socialism and an uncomfortable future of Western-style market capitalism. His employer, a newspaper-cum-tabloid, battles for its life against a much larger news conglomerate. Preoccupied and under stress, Toni absent-mindedly sends his cousin, Boris (author of the above passage), east to cover the invasion, an invasion that he has no interest in beyond the resulting headline's ability to increase sales. As Toni tries to make sense of the cosmopolitan changes gripping Zagreb, Croatia's capital, Boris's articles become indecipherable. Toni assumes he is slowly succumbing to madness (or is he?) amidst the sands and armored columns of the Middle East.

Perisic paints a picture entirely familiar to many Americans. The Croatia Toni exists in is overwhelmed with capitalist speculation and excessive consumption. There, artists are more concerned with their reputation in the papers than the quality of what they produce. The press, Toni's sphere, is hopelessly caught up in a constant battle of one-upping rivals in order to just stay afloat. The role of the media has been skewed. More attention is paid to who gets the story first, rather than who gets the story right.

Boris's dispatches from Iraq become more and more cryptic (Croatia is a non-participant in the conflict.) Simultaneously, perhaps because of his cousin's descent, Toni's life slowly unravels. He pushes away his girlfriend, loses his job, and tries to live more and more in the past despite his advancing age. Somehow he blames his cousin for all this. True, Boris is a bit of a family odd-ball. Cosmopolitan Toni only shipped him off to get his country bumpkin cousin off his back. But, despite his lack of sophistication, Boris seems to get everything right. He just can't get his voice heard. Toni takes it upon himself to edit Boris's communiqués. The real story from the frontlines—well, as close as the hapless Boris can get to the frontlines—is rarely heard.

More Boris:

Terrific, terrific, terrific! The Tomahawk missile introduced during the First Gulf War is still a terrific miracle of technology that flies, flies, flies just below the speed of sound, follows the terrain and hits a programmed target with a 450 kg warhead up to 1,600km away. How beautiful it is to write that? Nothing hurts!

Overwhelmed at the murderous beauty of warfare, his senses trick him, and us. Remember those otherworldly night vision clips, aired like clockwork on the network news, of the air assault on Baghdad? Perisic does and invokes them with Boris's frantic prose. They're haunting, the placid green filter with glowing orbs of projectile death raining down from on high. These images are the sublime of the 21st century.

The US Navy has around 1,000 Tomahawks and each one of them costs $600,000, so I can tell you, it's simple: you gotta have a good fucking reason to want to hit someone with it, I mean, to fire at someone with a thing worth $600,000, you have to have a damn good financial reason, otherwise it's not worth it, cuz. It's no good if a missile's worth more than what it hits.

What could make more sense than the raw numbers of warfare? We've all been lectured, usually on the news, about the sophistication and elegance of our guided munitions. But Perisic pulls back the curtain. His language is breathless, like a reporter running alongside a camera crew, looking for cover. Try as one might, it is hopeless to make sense of war. It'll make one mad, just as it did Boris.

And therein lays the pull of Our Man in Iraq. Although published almost five years ago, and only recently translated into English, Perisic's latest is a provocative look at the mentality of the home front during a time of global war. Boris relates a story from Iraq about a villager named Saddam. The villager is hard up and his home lies in ruin. His name alone makes him suspect to foreign troops. What can he do? Boris asks. Saddam can only pack up his goats and head to greener pastures, if there are any, before the Americans begin their sweep.

Toni, a member of society's essential Fourth Estate, shrugs off this, and every other, anecdote, edits it down to something concise and easily processed, something easily made sense of, before heading out to enjoy, and be seen enjoying, Zagreb's nightlife. Toni gets drunk, regularly. He fucks in bathroom stalls and his biggest worry involves whether moving into a new apartment with his girlfriend will make him too old, too respectable. His life seems a constant battle of one-upping the competition, of proving he still has it.

Every quip about salvos of gossip killing as easily as rockets denigrates those actually under fire. For all his success and self conceived martyrdom, Toni is vapid. Boris, despite his oddness (filtered through Toni, of course) gets it. His cousin is clueless. Like Iraq, Croatia is in a state of transition. It, too, is celebrating an anniversary, that of the breakup of Yugoslavia. The brutality of that war was equally senseless and has left a deep scar on both Boris and Toni. However, while Toni has been able to move on, Boris remains deeply troubled. His trip to Iraq only compounds the underlying damage expressed in his frenzied and rambling emails.

Perhaps Boris isn't the mad one. He seems deeply attuned to the senselessness of warfare. His advice to Toni sounds more like a call for help: "you have to believe in sense, particularly in war," or "madness comes out of your ears." Perisic turns the incompetent fool into a sage. Easily dismissed, Boris is far more attuned to the ways of the world than many would give him credit for. The coldness of the after action report can't smooth over what he's seen and knows, has been told, and believes.