Debi Cornwall’s Necessary Fictions
The subject of this nuanced photobook is Atropia, a series of fake Iraqi and Afghan villages on military bases around the US where immersive war games are conducted.
(Radius Books, 2020)
United States troops appear likely to be pulled out of Afghanistan ahead of the September 11 deadline set earlier this year by President Biden, bringing to an end the 20-year conflict that’s become known as the “forever war.” Some 775,000 American troops had been deployed to Afghanistan as of 2019, according to the Washington Post, and more than 7,000 have died. Photographs of fallen American soldiers, though, are rare, despite the fact that in 2009, President Obama lifted a 19-year ban on publishing images of the flag-draped military coffins of fallen American soldiers returning from Afghanistan. “The news media’s near blackout” of such images, wrote Sarah Sentilles in a 2018 New York Times article, “enables collective amnesia about war and its aftermath … and allows the American public to ignore the real costs of the wars we send our fellow citizens to fight.” That public includes young soldiers about to be deployed, unaware themselves of what they may be facing.
The military’s solution, and the subject of Debi Cornwall’s nuanced book Necessary Fictions, is Atropia, a series of fake Iraqi and Afghan villages on military bases around the US where immersive war games are conducted. Cornwall, who spent a dozen years as a civil rights lawyer before turning her critical faculties toward conceptual photography projects like this one, took photographs in 10 of Atropia’s villages, several of which she visited more than once, from 2016 to 2019. She initially sought permission from the individual military branches and then negotiated directly with each facility for access. (Cornwall had experience successfully negotiating for access to a military base from her 2017 book, Welcome to Camp America: Inside Guantánamo Bay.) The photographs in Necessary Fictions are divided into sections: Location, Population, Resources, Casualties, etc., and text inserts, on thinner paper printed at a slightly smaller trim size than the glossy pages containing photographs, are interspersed throughout the book. Initially, her photographs seem to depict actual Afghan villages in a sun-blasted desert, with cement buildings, camouflaged vehicles, curls of razor wire, and signs in Arabic. But little by little, “slippages” appear in her pictures, hints that there’s something off: buildings that look a little too clean and devoid of decoration, food that turns out to be plastic, and fake, stiff-legged sheep on the side of a road.
Photographs and texts from a variety of sources—conversations Cornwall had with soldiers and role-players; a description of the products on a Moulage Sciences website; a list of the symptoms of PTSD; job listings for role-players; an excerpt from Washington Post article “At War with the Truth”—gradually coalesce into a complex picture of what Cornwall calls a “state-created reality” dedicated to inoculating soldiers against what they may face in Afghanistan, inuring them to violence and bloodshed. Cornwall designed the book to offer multiple perspectives, both visual and textual, and to offer more questions than answers. What is the psychic toll of these games? And what does their existence say about the US?
The games themselves aim for realism. They include simulated scents (thermal burn, simulated vomit, and burnt flesh, to name a few), sounds, and injuries. Moulage artists were flown in from Hollywood to make actors and soldiers appear mortally wounded, amputees and refugees who have fled the war in Afghanistan were hired to recreate it here. In one text, Cornwall quotes a Naval Research Advisory Committee report that concludes, “The objective … is [that] a Marine— facing live combat for the first time—will have already numerous engagements of equivalent intensity but without equal consequences.”
But while Cornwall casts a critical eye on the larger war machine, she is immensely sympathetic toward the individual players. One of the first photographs in the book shows a cropped close-up of a man’s hand loosely holding what appear to be red prayer beads. It’s a quiet, almost intimate photograph that sets a tone and conveys the humanity of all of her subjects: American, Afghan, Iraqi, young soldiers, and experienced ones. While making portraits of young soldiers who’ve been given gruesome, fatal-looking wounds by moulage artists, one asked Cornwall if he could smile for the photograph, prompting her to offer that option to all her subjects. An envelope affixed to the book’s back cover contains yearbook-style portraits of beaming, bloody soldiers—portraits that are sweet, surreal, and heartbreaking all at once, given that these young men and women are embodying injuries they could very well sustain in battle. Pictures like these underscore a thread throughout the book, a critical consideration of photography and its unreliability as a factual document.
The inability to parse fact and fiction embodied in these training exercises leaked beyond the walls of Atropia in two incidents that Cornwall documents in the book. In one, citizens of the state of Texas were apparently convinced they were about to be invaded by the US military. In another, described in a separate insert called “Pineland,” reality and fiction collided in a tragic misunderstanding that resulted in the death of one of the soldiers, who thought that a policeman who’d pulled them over was part of their training exercise. It reminded me of the paranoia-inducing podcast-turned-series Homecoming, and sure enough, Cornwall includes an excerpt of a scene from the series, which took aim at the military-industrial complex’s manipulation of American soldiers.
Despite the end of the war in Afghanistan, state-created realities like Atropia are more likely to be repurposed than they are to be closed. They’re the military-industrial offshoots of perpetual conflicts abroad, what some propose as the “necessary fictions” that prepare our military for the realities of war. Cornwall quotes Karl Rove, President George W. Bush’s chief political strategist in 2004, who observed, darkly, “We’re an empire now … we create our own reality.”