Comics Review: Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts

Every now and again, I take a break from writing about Doonesbury to review comics that I like. If you’re a creator of web- or print-based comics and you’d like me to write about your work, drop a line on Twitter (@readdoonesbury) or through my contact page.
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I don’t like you, but I will tell you my story.

A woman wearing a headscarf faces us directly and says “I never liked you … I not like your government, I not like EVERYBODY … [but] I will talk about my story.” It’s 2010, and the woman is an Iraqi refugee living in Syria. She is a refugee because of the instability that gripped her country following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her story, the stories of many people who share a fate similar to hers, and the challenges faced by journalists who try to tell her story to American readers, are the subject of Rolling Blackouts, an outstanding work of comics journalism by Sarah Glidden, published by Drawn and Quarterly Press (shout-out to my hometown of Montreal!!). In 2010, independent journalists Sarah Stuteville and Alex Stonehill travelled to Turkey, Iraq, and Syria to document the situation facing Iraqis whose lives were upturned by the war and subsequent unrest. Glidden accompanied them so that she could “make a comic book about how journalism works.” More than a look at the inner workings of reporting, Rolling Blackouts explores the disconnect between the severity of the tragedy experienced by the Iraqi people following the invasion and Americans’ fundamental disconnect from, and ignorance of, that tragedy. Stuteville’s generation’s understanding of the Middle East “has been defined by the conflict of the past ten years,” but as the war receded from the headlines Americans began “looking inwards” and not paying attention to the lasting consequences of the invasion: for those left behind, notably the Iraqi refugees in Syria that are the main focus of the second half of the book, the situation endures.

Screenshot at 2018-04-06 13:19:57

The disconnect between Iraq’s central place in American foreign policy and its virtual absence from American public consciousness is revealed in Glidden’s sense of distance from military life. Before going to Iraq, Glidden’s only real connection to the war was marching in opposition to it. That said, for all Americans, a particular dimension of the war is part of the background noise of daily life as an unquestioned ethos of “supporting the troops” has become a cultural touchstone, one acted out in quotidian settings such as airports and sporting events. Yet, Glidden notes, she has “never had much contact with the troops. They were always far away.” Glidden’s alienation from a defining aspect of American identity, the military, is evident in the first stage of the group’s trip. Also on the trip is Dan O’Brien, an Iraq war vet; Stuteville hopes to write about how O’Brien can come to terms with his experience in Iraq. Glidden waits at the airport, sitting under a sign that reads SUPPORT THE TROOPS and acknowledges that Dan’s military experience makes him something of a novelty to her. As she observes Dan, Glidden confesses that she “[…didn’t] know what [she] was expecting an ex-Marine to be like in the first place.”

Many Americans have little connection with the men and women who fight their wars, but at least the media make it a point to tell soldiers’ stories. Yet while the media regularly remind Americans of the bravery of, and sacrifices made by, those men and women, Iraqis are rarely granted their basic humanity in American reporting. Stuteville, Stonehill and Glidden set out to show us how the Iraqi people live lives that are “steeped in politics and difficulty.”

As these people’s lives are “steeped in politics and difficulty,” the are also steeped in history, a dynamic that does not figure strongly in how Glidden and her companions engage with, understand, and tell the stories of the people they encounter. The narrative arc of the book begins, essentially, with the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003: absent is virtually any mention of how, dating back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, Western powers (first Britain, then the United States) used political pressure and mass violence to maintain access to the one thing that makes Iraq relevant to them: oil. There is one moment where the book hints at that long and horrible history. As Glidden and her companions drive through Iraqi Kurdistan, Dan notes that ultimately, Iraq is simply “a piece of land with borders someone drew on a map.” I read Rolling Blackouts alongside a collection of essays by the radical historian Mike Davis. In “The Ungrateful Volcano,” Davis details exactly how bloody the process of drawing those lines on a map was for the Iraqi people. As the British took responsibility for the Mandate of Iraq, they, like the Americans a century later, believed that they would be warmly greeted as “liberators,” freeing Iraqis not from Saddam Hussein, but from the Ottomans. A general uprising against British rule put the lie to those beliefs. The British response is shocking in its brutality. Winston Churchill, the Colonial Secretary, deployed ground troops, poison gas, and aerial bombardments of civilian populations to quell the anti-colonial rebellion. British administrators hanged political prisoners while RAF planes “machine-gunned women and children as they fled from their homes.”

The Iraqi people understand their situation in terms of that longer history, but it is largely from Rolling Blackouts. This observation is not meant as a criticism of Glidden’s work: she did not set out to write a comics history of the region. Rather, I see the absence of a deep engagement with the region’s history as something that underlines one of the book’s key themes: everyday Americans, the soldiers they send to fight their wars, and the journalists who report on those wars have a severely limited understanding of a place where America and its allies have inflicted, and continue to inflict, massive levels of violence. Dan’s experience as a veteran is central to this dynamic. He’s an educated man who spent substantial time in Iraq, but he seems to have no real understanding of the people, their histories, or their cultures, saying that he doesn’t “have much of an idea of who they are, what they’re like.” The system he was part of, of course, made it unlikely that he would have been able to come to a better understanding of the region and its people. America’s disengagement from Iraqi history and politics is inseparable from its failure to bring peace, stability and and prosperity to the country. As Dan notes, he and his fellow soldiers were clueless about the effects of their actions on Iraqis, and they never had the chance to learn more. “If any of our actions negatively affected Iraqis, and I’m sure they did,” he notes, “we didn’t stick around long enough to see it.”

This sense of detachment from the larger political and historic dynamics that shape the daily realities of the people they set out to write about is shared by Dan’s companions. On the drive to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, the group notices what “must be the Kurdish flag”; their uncertainty about basic facts about the region is made apparent. A few pages later, a long and complicated history of two peoples sharing a political space is condensed into an uncertain analysis: “Arabs and Kurds don’t get along, apparently.” It’s crucial to note, however, that Glidden fully understands that she doesn’t know enough about Iraq and its people. She is embarrassed because she quotes an article about Iraq that she had read on the flight as though she was an expert; she later admits, after an interview session, that “the history of the Kurd’s displacement is still a knot of confusion” for her.

If Americans are so disengaged from the people whose lives are so profoundly and painfully impacted by American military aggression, it’s in part because contemporary journalistic practices and institutions make it very difficult to get the kind of stories that might change things out into the public sphere. As Glidden draws our attention to America’s failure to care about, understand, or even acknowledge the existence of the people whose lives were torn apart by the invasion of Iraq, she also reveals the challenges faced by the well-intentioned journalists who are working to bring those people’s stories back to American readers.

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Stuteville’s struggles with the complexities of her industry are a key theme of the book.

Stuteville and Stonehill are often racked with self-doubt and frustration as they seek to find a balance point between their desire to tell stories that could make a difference and the economies of attention and money that determine which stories get published and read: As Stuteville notes, she sees her role as being “to get people excited about journalism and then show them how conflicted and shitty it is.” As compelling as the stories of the Iraqi people may be, and as much as they might change how Americans understand the Iraqi people, they will be competing with an unprecedented amount of journalistic output clamouring for readers’ time. As Stuteville asks, how can a reporter ensure that her story is the one thing that a potential reader dedicates to the little free time they have available? This dynamic goes a long way in determining what stories end up getting told, because “people are looking for things they can already relate to.” In other words, we don’t, as readers, don’t have the time to embark on a learning curve that challenges our received wisdom about a complex situation on the other side of the planet. Moreover, the economic realities of contemporary journalism mean that the stories that most need to be told – the ones that would force Americans to more directly confront some of the worst consequences of their country’s policies – go unpublished because publishers “don’t want to overwhelm their audience with too depressing a story.”

At one point, Glidden shows herself transcribing interviews and musing that her methodology for this comics journalism project is different from her usual work creating comics memoir. Rolling Blackouts actually straddles the two genres. On the one hand, it brilliantly documents a number of interconnected stories about war, its effects on people, and how we understand those effects. On the other hand, Glidden often centres her own reflections on her experiences in ways that help us better understand the person telling these stories. By sometimes making herself the subject, even with short comment in a caption, Glidden helps the reader better understand how challenging it is to make sense of a situation like post-invasion Iraq.

It’s impossible to read this account of a trip to Syria without thinking about the ongoing Syrian civil war and its associated humanitarian dimensions. While Rolling Blackouts is set before the outbreak of the current conflict, Glidden foreshadows the possibility of its emergence. As their trip begins, she notes that they are in a region that is “absorbing refugees and struggling with new resource conflicts. (As Jackie Roche and Audrey Quinn reveal in their comic about the origins of the Syrian civil war, climate change and access to water were central to the outbreak of hostilities.) The book ends with Glidden watching news of the uprising; she believes that, to a certain extent, the work she had put in researching Rolling Blackouts has been overtaken by events; she writes that her “original question seems far less important than all of this.” In future posts I’ll be looking at works of comics journalism that take more recent events in the Middle East head-on. But while the Syrian civil war created refugee flows and human tragedies that may seem to dwarf the situations that Glidden writes about, the experiences of the people who suffer most in the conflict to be understood in the larger context of the humanitarian costs of post-9/11 American aggression in the Middle East. Moreover, we need to think about how the media that we trust to keep us informed about the region grapples with substantial challenges as reporters try to get us to understand the human costs of American policy. America is going to continue relying on violence as a primary means of shaping outcomes in the Middle East, and the media is going to continue to struggle to make Westerners understand how that affects the human beings who live there. For these reasons, as well as for being a beautifully-drawn and written, and deeply thoughtful and moving book, Rolling Blackouts is a must-read.