By using the written word and art, veterans of
the US occupation of Iraq are transforming their trauma into a message of both
healing and resistance to the failed US adventure.
"If I say nothing, I have failed," writes veteran Drew Cameron, "If
I do nothing, I am guilty. If I live by these ideals of democracy I can see
that war is failure."
Cameron began writing about his experiences in Iraq after he turned against
the occupation when he had several personal realizations.
"It wasn't until after I'd been back that I tried to shut off my experiences
in Iraq," Cameron told IPS. "I kept to myself, and was going through
my memories and realized we'd destroyed their infrastructure and weren't there
to help. I realized it wasn't about freedom and democracy, and the way we conducted
ourselves, and the way we brutalized the people, made me against the occupation."
"We were trained to fight and win battles," he said. "I was
in artillery, I was trained to blow shit up. We weren't there to rebuild anything
or help the Iraqi people."
His writing became some of the first of what would evolve into the Warrior
Writers Project, which uses writing and artistic workshops based on veterans'
experiences in the military and Iraq to bring their experiences to light and
connect with one another, creating a context for both healing and resisting
what their experience in the military has done to them.
"The writing from the workshops is compiled into books, performances and
exhibits that provide a lens into the hearts of people who have a deep and intimate
relationship with the Iraq war," their mission statement reads.
Writings from the first workshops were made into the book, Warrior Writers:
Move, Shoot and Communicate. A second book, Re-making Sense, has
also been released.
"The title comes from the goal of remaking sense of our relationship with
the war, of our lives, of what we do now, as veterans," Cameron told IPS.
The Warrior Writers have also organized exhibits that showcase photographs
taken by members in Iraq, as well as artwork. At the exhibits, veterans read
from the books and perform pieces they had written in the workshop earlier that
Cameron told IPS he feels the work is important "for catharsis and reconciliation,
and also so people can hear our side of the story."
Cameron was based at Camp Anaconda, a massive US airbase just north of Baghdad.
While there, he had access to satellite television and was stunned by how the
corporate media was covering the occupation.
"I remember the images and stories coming out were different from what
we were seeing on the ground," he explained. "Our intelligence reports
that briefed us on attacks against us and how we were getting hit, almost none
of this was in the news. I remember being hit for seven days straight by mortars,
but none of this was ever in the news."
"The fundamental civil society and infrastructure has been so changed
and altered in Iraq that it's absolutely devastated," Cameron told IPS,
while speaking of the current situation there. "It's been so altered...it's
not an argument of being on the road to victory because the surge is working,
but the fact is that the country has been totally devastated. We need to understand
where these people are in just trying to survive on a daily basis."
This influenced Cameron heavily. He feels that both projects he is involved
in are ways to show the truth to the US public about what their government
has done to Iraq.
Cameron co-founded and operates a paper mill called the People's Republic of
Paper (PRP) with artist Drew Matott, who founded the Green Door Studio in Burlington,
Vermont, where the PRP is based, and together with Cameron, helped create the
idea of pulping soldiers' uniforms. Thus was born the Combat Paper Project.
By turning their uniforms into paper, soldiers utilize art to heal their trauma
from the occupation of Iraq. The uniforms worn in combat are cut up, beaten
and formed into sheets of paper, as veterans use a transformational process
of papermaking to reclaim their uniform as a piece of art. The goal is for this
to be a reconciliatory process for their experiences as soldiers in an occupation.
"The whole point is to create a space for vets to come in and in a closed
context talk with each other about what they experienced in Iraq," Matott
"My energy is focused on helping folks heal," he added. "One
thing we do is show before and after art pieces. Usually the first pieces are
very, very dark, when they [veterans] first came in. Then we show their later
projects, which reveal the healing that has taken place within them, so it's
Cameron told IPS that for him, "To be able to take the uniform and reclaim
it into what I want it to be is a deeply transformational and healing act."
John Michael Turner, a former US Marine machine gunner, was the second veteran
to join the project.
Turner was still in the military when he moved to Burlington and heard about
"I heard about the project that day and had a stack of uniforms in my
trunk," Turner told IPS. "So my first night in Burlington I ended
up starting to make paper out of my uniforms."
Turner, who gave powerful testimony at the Winter Soldier hearings last spring,
added, "It is heartbreaking to see there are still people that believe
we should be over there. Open your eyes and listen to what we have to say! I
just want people to open their eyes and see what is going on, and what is being
done over there."
Through the project, Turner has found a conduit for healing what his time and
actions in Iraq have wrought upon him. "All the experiences I've gone through,
and all my built up frustration and thoughts and anger, instead of transfering
that energy into another human being, I can transfer it into my uniforms, my
writing, my drawings."
By transforming his experiences and feelings into art, Turner said, "I
can take a desert blouse and cut it up and turn it into a piece of paper. Then
I have a blank piece of paper and put one of my poems there for other people
to experience it, and for that minute they read it, they can see it through
Turner admitted to IPS that while he has found some relief for his trauma,
"I still struggle. The problem is there is so much I need to reclaim."
Cameron believes the work is ongoing as well.
"I can see it in my own writing that the anger, gore and graphic frustration
flows out, then transitions into a deeper reflection and contemplation about
how do we approach the cultural relationship between militarism and our society,"
he told IPS. "The military [in US society] is so deeply rooted in us
it's in our subconscious, and we have to root that out and be able to transcend
Turner feels the work is critical. "We have to take this work and work
together, all of us veterans, and help each other, or we'll destroy ourselves."
The project has had exhibitions around the country in cities like Minneapolis,
Chicago, and San Francisco, with many more to come.
(Inter Press Service)