The ghosts of war
Derek Miller rails against the passivity of the West in post-1991 Iraq and Syria today, writes James Kidd
You don’t have to listen to Derek Miller for very long before realising he takes writing fiction very seriously indeed. “There is no art form other than a novel – and I really stand by this – that closer approximates the entirety of the human experience.”
Such passion reflects his faith in the impact good novels can exert on writers and readers both.
“Done well, fiction creates tension, resolution and therefore drama that touches people in a very deep, visceral and memorable way. There are so many possibilities for layering and communicating, for visiting text and sub-text. I don’t know any other space where you have greater opportunity to affect people and get stuff out of you that has been really bottled up.”
Miller has practised what he preaches, publishing two novels in just over three years – the award-winning Norwegian by Night and a new thriller called The Girl in Green. He has managed to do this with two young children and a demanding career in international security affairs.
After a decade working at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, Miller co-founded The Policy Lab in 2011, “an international policy design institute dedicated to improving the impact and adoptability of public policy initiatives”.
On the day we talk, he had only just returned to his home city of Oslo after a whirlwind 48-hour trip to Malaysia. Miller had been advising a major NGO in Kuala Lumpur about humanitarian innovation in Nepal, with specific reference to the aftermath of last year’s earthquake. When I ask outright how he fits writing into such a busy schedule, he says. “It makes me happy. I just love it.”
The Girl in Green fits Miller’s own ideas about drama, personal investment and catharsis, and not only because he witnessed 1991’s Gulf War first- hand. The experience sounds life-changing, laying the foundations for his work bridging divides between different cultures.
“I think my first encounter with the pluralities of cultural systems, the different ways of reading exactly the same materials, the different interpretations we give to events, probably began by being under Iraqi missile attack for a month-and-ahalf back in 1991.”
The novel proper was inspired by Miller’s fascination with the Sha’aban Intifada, during which, he estimates, Saddam Hussein killed between 100,000 and 200,000 people, predominantly Kurds and Shia Muslims. “So little has been written about it that it has haunted me. I needed a way as a writer to get it out of my system.”
The Girl in Green begins in Iraq, at the end of the first Gulf War of 1991. Bored American soldiers look on as a supposedly defeated Saddam Hussein viciously suppresses anyone who might possibly launch a revolution against him. When one of his colonels murders a young girl wearing a green dress, two westerners are transformed by the atrocity: an American soldier, Arwood Hobbes, and a British journalist, Thomas Bentham.
Two decades later, Arwood glimpses a second girl in green during a news broadcast of refugees under mortar attack in Syria. He returns with Bentham on an obsessive quest to find her in a region fractured once more into bitter sectarian factions, populated by overrun, but committed, aid workers and an entire generation being decimated or cast adrift. Punctuated by unbearably tense set pieces ( climaxing when Arwood and Bentham are captured by ISIL), the novel employs repeated imagery, scenes and characters to dramatise Miller’s belief that echoes of the Sha’aban Intifada can be heard today.
A quarter of a century earlier, Saddam’s victims fled into Syria, triggering the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Now, millions are fleeing that same region, whether from Bashar Al Assad’s regime or ISIL’s brutality. A common thread linking both crises, Miller argues, is the passivity of western powers.
“After the [first] Gulf War, nobody wanted to take Baghdad. Nobody wanted to take Saddam. Nobody wanted to shoot down helicopters. Nobody wanted to do anything.”
Miller’s evident anger is channelled through his metaphorical personification of the wars’ countless victims: the girl in the green dress. “There is a real girl, but she is a representation of everything that we left behind, everything that we failed to resolve,” he says pointing an accusing finger at the respective United States and British governments.
It was especially important for Miller to give the girl a voice late in the novel. “Hers was the journey of a single child that became all children. What I wanted to do was move her from object to actor. We finally get inside her mind. We get the chance to become her for just a moment.”
It’s hard not to spot the preponderance of lost children in the novel. In addition to the titular girl, there’s a boy whom Arwood rescues from a minefield, not to mention Arwood himself – an alienated young American for whom military service offers a way out of poverty.
Miller defines the current conflict as a youth crisis of the gravest proportions. He highlights the boys flooding refugee camps across the world.
“The children are a warning,” he says. “These 10- year- olds growing up without fathers, because they have been systematically executed by Assad or ISIL, might become 20-yearold ISIL fighters in another decade.”
By this point, the Miller who is the expert in international affairs is nudging aside Miller the novelist. He concludes with a sobering, pugnacious wake-up call to the West. “Stop this paternalism. Stop this romanticism [of the victims]. Get down to the serious business of engaging these people as serious conversational partners in a quest for peace. Every westerner who was saved [in the novel] was saved by an Iraqi. Without them they would be dead. We ignore these people. We ignore the translators. We leave people behind.”
The Girl in Green bears eloquent witness to this ongoing tragedy. It deserves a huge audience. Whether anyone will listen to its message remains to be seen.
James Kidd is a freelance writer based in London.
Top, thousands of Kurds in flight from Saddam Hussein’s bloody suppression of the 1991 uprising in northern Iraq gather at a closed border in Doab, Iran, in search of sanctuary. Above, international affairs specialist Derek Miller.