This essay by Adam Karr is excerpted from MAKE magazine Issue #17, which is on sale now.
It is 2 o’clock in the morning, Baghdad time, and Sarmud Nathum-Omar, known as “T.J.” to his American unit, walks briskly to the entry control point of Forward Operating Base Falcon. His face and head are covered, a baggy black jacket hides his frame, and he is wearing sunglasses despite the intense darkness. Walking beside him is Lieutenant Karr, his American supervisor, there to ensure T.J. is not detained by the roaming guard patrols. They are an awkward pair. T.J., 45, is a highly educated former fighter pilot in Saddam Hussein’s airforce, now serving as an interpreter for the American forces that overthrew his former commander in chief. Lt. Karr, the officer for whom T.J. translates, is 23 years old and cannot grow a full beard. Lt. Karr approaches the gate guards to tell them that T.J. has been granted leave, and that his family is picking him up soon at the gate. Translation: we are expecting a vehicle to arrive shortly, don’t shoot at the next car that drives up. Moments later, a dilapidated European style sedan arrives, stops outside of the gate, and flashes its lights. The two exchange a hug and awkwardly distanced kisses on the cheek, and T.J. walks out of the heavily guarded base and gets into the car. T.J.’s leave was precipitated by an anonymous death threat his son had received as retaliation for his father working for the Americans. He will spend his few days of leave conferring with his extended family to determine if his son needs to move houses again. Several days later, T.J. returns to the base, looking exhausted and a bit bruised, but grateful that his son is safe, for now.
Stories like T.J.’s have convinced me that interpreters — or “terps” as they are referred to colloquially in the military — occupy the most fascinating and complex role in the story of America’s now decade-plus wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A “true” war story, as iconic Vietnam War writer Tim O’Brien stresses, has no moral. It is contradictory, disdains abstractions and generalizations, and cares less for objective accuracy than for “gut feeling.” I would argue that in this new era of warfare, in which “hearts and minds” instead of hilltops are the objective, the “true” story of these wars has evolved beyond the stereotypical narrative of the conflicted psyche of the American Soldier. Instead, the lived situation of terps like T.J. now captures this nascent, still-evolving story. His precarious position, caught in the deadly intersection of cultural and linguistic forces, occupies the new site of “truth” in these wars. Nor am I unique in intuiting this. America’s next generation of war writers — including Michael Pitre, Adrian Bonenberger, Phil Klay, Hugh Martin, Matt Gallagher, and others — have also taken notice and are leveraging the figure and function of the terp to dramatize the violence, betrayal, deception, failure, and even reconciliation that characterizes the contemporary war story.
Interpreters serving combat units live a fraught, liminal existence. In the eyes of their families and communities, they are at worst betrayers, and at best severe liabilities. They travel at night, conceal their identity and their movements, maintain multiple names and back stories, and deny the relationships that once defined them. Meanwhile, they are always foreign agents to the American Soldiers. Despite the vital tactical role they fulfill for their units, they are excluded from mission planning processes and regularly denied access to information. This segregation is not malicious; rather, it is a necessary security precaution. Interpreters are inherently risky collaborators. While they are essential to military operations, they are also indisputably the most prolific source of intelligence for anti-American insurgent groups. Operating in two worlds yet inhabiting neither, terps must learn to survive amidst perpetual and existential threats of exile and death.
Michael Pitre, in his novel Fives and Twentyfives, has given us — in the character of Kateb — arguably the most complex and nuanced depiction of the interpreter’s experience in the past decade and a half of veteran literature. Kateb, or “Dodge” as he is known to his American unit, begins the novel as a graduate student of American literature and culture at Baghdad University. Over the novel’s course, he navigates nearly every sub-conflict in this bewilderingly complex war, dodging deadly Shiite militias, sophisticated Sunni insurgent groups, organized crime networks, corrupt Iraqi security forces, and trigger-happy American forces. He eventually befriends Lt. Pederson, the strong and articulate Marine Platoon Commander. Upon learning that his insurgent sympathizing father is planning an attack on Pederson’s unit, Kateb betrays his family and alerts Pederson to the threat. In Kateb, Pitre has drawn a character who represents everything that American forces should hope for in a “host nation partner” — educated, progressive, principled and courageous. However, as the story unfolds and the violence escalates, those very qualities become a curse. Shiite militias want to kill him for his Sunni background, Sunni insurgent groups want to kill him for cooperating with the Americans, and the American forces never fully trust him. Now, those once-markers of prestige form an assassin’s bullseye on his chest.
Kateb has offered an impossible sacrifice for his American unit — he has betrayed his family, openly supported American forces, assumed mortal risk, and denied the relationships and identity that once defined him. Yet over Fives and Twentyfives’ course, Pitre utilizes Kateb’s perspective to portray the bureaucratic indifference, cruelty, and disloyalty of occupying forces. In the end, he is denied a visa from the same nation that demanded that sacrifice. Kateb’s fictional case illustrates one dimension of war’s collateral damage, in which units come and go on deployment cycles, relationships end as abruptly as they begin, and the promise of a free, stable, and prosperous Iraq turns out to have been as ephemeral as the units that promised them. In the final pages of Fives and Twentyfives, Kateb has escaped to Tunisia, still hoping to make it to the United States. There, upon being asked to translate a recorded message of protest for several college students as part of the Arab Spring uprisings in which Kateb finds himself increasingly immersed, he laments: “always I am speaking English on behalf of fools.”
In Adrian Bonenberger’s epistolary memoir Afghan Post, the figure of the translator presents a more unequivocally critical portrait of the immense gulf that separates occupier from occupied. Here, the terp embodies futility as America’s empty rhetoric of democracy and free market capitalism fails to connect with the proud tribal traditions of an ethnically and linguistically diverse Afghan countryside.
Bonenberger’s portrayal of Afghanistan is one of sparsely populated valleys in which the colloquial language changes from village to village. In this setting, the “city-educated” interpreters — young men from Kabul — are often incapable of communicating with the villagers, resorting instead to summarily accusing them of being “complicit with the Taliban.” The local village elders likewise despise these emboldened, Westernized “city boys” who conspire with occupying forces and lack custom and tradition. In these passages, Bonenberger’s tone is derisive and frustrated, insinuating the absurdity of undertaking such a complex task as ‘building democracy’ in Afghanistan when even such a seemingly simple task as communicating remains elusive. The terp in Afghan Post illustrates the ineffectuality, ignorance, and incompetence at the heart of the American mission.
While the portrayal of the interpreters in Pitre and Bonenberger’s novels situate the figure of the terp at the nexus of conflicting cultural, political, and linguistic forces, author Phil Klay and poet Hugh Martin utilize the figure of the terp to emphasize the awesome specter of death that looms perpetually. In “Psyops,” from Klay’s short story anthology Redeployment, we encounter a dramatization of the ease with which language can evolve, perversely, into an instrument of wonton violence. The narrator here is an Arabic speaking, former psychological operations soldier, who recounts an episode from his past in which he was tasked with translating obscene insults which were then broadcast over a loudspeaker in Fallujah. The purpose was to goad insurgents into attacking the Marines in tactically advantaged positions from which to “mow them down.” In Klay’s telling, the tactic begins as one of tactical necessity, but morphs into a sick game, as Marine grunts begin employing it to facilitate “virgins” getting their first kill. While “Psyops” illustrates the power of language to kill, Martin’s poem “Observation Post” illustrates its power to ‘get you killed.’ The poem recounts the death of the interpreter Marwan through the eyes of two soldiers performing the mundane duty of guard watch in the tower. Driving on the base with his sons, Marwan is struck dead by three precise bullets, “Neck, mouth, nose.” Presumably assassinated for working with Americans, Marwan testifies to the ubiquity and obtuse nature of the violence that surrounds the terp.
Of the significant number of critically celebrated recent veteran texts, Matt Gallagher’s 2016 novel Youngblood is — despite being the most persistent and vitriolic of all in its criticism of the Iraq war— the only one to allow the figure of the terp the possibility of an escape from his fraught position. Qasim, known as “Snoop” to his unit, is a Sudanese born terp who learned English from British missionaries and American “gangsta rap.” In the novel’s opening scene, Snoop asks the novel’s main protagonist, Lt. Porter, “are we giving out moneys today?” The awkward English construction refers to the American practice of paying local businessmen and security chiefs, ostensibly for the purpose of building the local economy, but all too often, as in Gallagher’s telling, an easy and convenient way to purchase a temporary peace. Snoop’s character occupies a position of extreme isolation within Youngblood. His broken English denies him a place with his American counterparts beyond the rote execution of his duties, and his Sudanese heritage places him outside the tribal politics and sectarian conflicts of the community beyond the protective barriers surrounding the American base. And yet, in the novel’s epilogue, Qasim enjoys a glimpse of redemption as he and Lt. Porter cross the river Styx together, not as subordinate and superior, but as equals, companions, and even friends. Together in Beirut, the two search for a “fresh start” and “an answer for why.”
Unfortunately, the glimpse of redemption that Qasim experiences in Youngblood’s final passage is as rare in the “real” world as it is in recent war literature. The fraught position of the interpreter persists, made inevitable by their situation at the intersection of conflicting, violent worlds. And yet, it is for this very reason that the figure of the terp is uniquely positioned to achieve what Sam Sacks in his Harper’s Magazine article “First Person Shooters” argues should be the true purpose of war literature — to “wake us from our stupor.”
I, of course, was the Lieutenant Karr of this essay’s opening paragraph. As a young lieutenant, I was concerned mostly about my service to the nation, the mission of my unit, and the “life, limb, and eyesight” of my comrades. My relationship with T.J. jarred me from my stupor and taught me the true depth of consequence that exists in that experience. T.J. wanted nothing more than to move to Chicago with his son and start a restaurant after the war. We grew close during the deployment, but as tends to happen, lost touch when I returned to the U.S. Here’s to hoping that the war eventually ends, and one day I can share a meal with T.J. in his Chicago restaurant.
Excerpted from MAKE #17
By Adam Karr
Adam Karr earned a Bachelors of Science in History from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2005, and a Master of Arts in English from the University of Virginia in 2014. From 2014 to 2017, he was an Assistant Professor of English and Cultural Studies at West Point. He is currently a student at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
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Reviews Editor: MAKE Magazine