Iraq War Vets Transforming Trauma

MARFA, Texas — By using the written word and art, veterans of the U.S. occupation of Iraq are transforming their trauma into a message of both healing and resistance to the failed U.S. 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 realisations.

“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 realised we’d destroyed their infrastructure and weren’t there to help. I realised it wasn’t about freedom and democracy, and the way we conducted ourselves, and the way we brutalised 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 organised 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 same day.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 utilise 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 told IPS.

“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 pretty optimistic.”

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 U.S. 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 the project.

“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 transferring 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 my eyes.”

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 U.S. society] is so deeply rooted in us — it’s in our subconscious, and we have to root that out and be able to transcend it.”

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.