James Trainor


The Medium and The Messenger

The Medium and The Messenger

Steve Mumford went to Iraq as an artist-reporter soon after the U.S. invasion. Twenty stories posted during six trips made over seven years make up his Baghdad Journal. With drawing after drawing after drawing, a triangulated narrative picture of the war emerges, one rarely experienced elsewhere in the highly mediated spectacle of the invasion and its bloody, deteriorating aftermath.

Programma, Issue 3, Fall 2010

Night has fallen and the worst of the day’s oppressive mid-summer heat has given way to a balmy, breezy July evening. Even a few stars can be made out twinkling in the hazy sky. Down below, on an expanse of asphalt, a group of men in orange prisoner jumpsuits and white blindfolds are being lined up, their ankles shackled one to the next with leg irons, their hands bound with plastic wrist ties, each person so close to the other that movement is awkward, painful and ill-advised. Around them, apparently tasked with monitoring the situation, stand a smaller number of men and one woman dressed in the combat gear of the U.S. military in Iraq. All have heavy automatic weapons casually slung across their bodies. One man, weighed down in full body armor, is sweating in the clammy air. The young woman in the desert-toned camouflage fatigues of an Army MP has one hand on the grip of her M-16, the other holding a steel baton by her side. Another man, older than the others and with close-cropped salt-andpepper hair, an olive drab T-shirt and cargo pants, is clearly the one in charge – the figure of authority who knows how this operation will go down and to whom the others look for procedural guidance. With a calm, clear and precise firmness he instructs the prisoners when to squat on their haunches and assume a nearly impossible-to-maintain stress position, when to stand up and when to start shuffling up the large ramp before them. He also tells the soldiers – who seem mildly nervy and unfamiliar with this task – what to do, the proper way to handle the prisoners, how close to get to them.

Under the harsh glare of floodlights, the atmosphere is both charged with preparatory expectation and at the same time prosaic, one of instructions and protocols being carried out, the kind of thing that happens when people are being readied and processed for something they know little-to-nothing about. At one point, a prisoner at the end of the gang begins to complain that the ankle cuffs are cutting off his circulation; another chimes in that there seems to have been some kind of mistake and asks if he can call his talent agent. Giggles and laughter run through the group, a sudden release in the genuine nervous tension, and even the guards start to laugh. Someone offers to loosen the shackle but no one can find the key. It is the last thing you would expect to see during a transfer of suspected insurgents at a U.S. air force base in Iraq. But this isn’t a tarmac runway in Iraq. It is a tar-papered rooftop on the Lower East Side of New York City.

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