The ghosts of war

Derek Miller rails against the pas­siv­ity of the West in post-1991 Iraq and Syria to­day, writes James Kidd

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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.

Kaveh Kazemi / Getty Images; Cour­tesy Nuno Fer­reira San­tos

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.

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