'Escape From Baghdad' Is the 'Slaughterhouse Five' of the Iraq War

Saad Hossain researched his darkly humorous novel by reading the blogs of soldiers serving in Iraq.

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May 2 2015, 4:30pm

Saad Hossain's perplexingly weird debut novel, Escape From Baghdad!, captures the pure insanity of the Iraq War. At the same time, it's not a war novel. Instead, it's a skillfully constructed literary IED that brings together the sharpest aspects from multiple genres. It's a Tarantino-esque Heart of Darkness set in war-torn Iraq, filled with absurdism and dark humor, a mash-up of satirical Joseph Heller-style comedy and sci-fi fantasy with a gratuitous mixture of good old-fashioned ultra-violence.

Reminiscent of Hollywood's Gulf War comedy Three Kings, Hossain's Escape From Baghdad! takes place during the initial stages of the war, the narrative kicking off with an explosive punch. Two Iraqis, a US Marine, and an individual who previously served as a high-profile torturer under Saddam Hussein's regime take off on a journey to find a fabled mass of gold in war-torn Mosul.

I served in the United States Army and was deployed to Iraq between 2003 and 2004. I maintained a weblog, called My War, chronicling my experiences as an Infantryman while I was in Mosul. Saad Hossain read many similar war blogs by soldiers, as research for his novel. I spoke with Hossain, who currently lives in Bangladesh, about Sunnis, Shias, and suitable humor in war time.

VICE: Do you consider Escape From Baghdad! a war novel?
Saad Hossain: I think it is a war novel, but one of my aims was to show that Iraq, and Baghdad specifically, is such an old culture and an old city, with people living there for five or six thousand years at least. Instead, it's like we woke up in the 2000s and there was a place in Iraq and there was a big war there, but obviously there's been conflict there and hatreds and old grudges that have gone back thousands of years. I wanted to delve into that and that's why I made up all of this mythology. To say: Hey, look, there might have been a war involving Americans or Iraqis or Sadaam's party on the surface, but if you go beyond that, there are a lot of other conflicts. Removing the dictator has allowed those kinds of conflicts to come to the surface; the Sunnis and Shiaas are almost more interested in hurting each other than they are in hurting the occupying force.

In most armed conflicts, that craziness is there. Everything is going crazy and you're not in charge and nothing makes sense and you're hoping to come out of it in some living shape.

A lot of times when a car bomb would go off when I was in Mosul, it wouldn't be targeted at coalition forces. Instead it would be targeted and detonated at some well-populated "civilian" part of town, or insurgents would target each other.
Yeah, they [the insurgents] were looking beyond the US forces. I think they realize that sooner or later the US Army is going to leave and then they get to kill each other to their hearts' content. You always hate your neighbor more than you hate some random guy who's really far away. Even if you have a foreign enemy, the ones you really want to hurt are the ones you've been fighting for thousands of years.

It seems like every book that comes out of the Iraq war is heralded as a Catch-22. But your book is darkly funny, like Slaughterhouse Five. Can that kind of gallows humor be taught?
I don't know if any humor can be taught. It's attitude, right? It's a person's natural inclination towards finding horrific things funny. That's just part of your character.

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You're a fiction writer. You could have chosen any setting, any war. Why the Iraq War?
This was defining war for our generation. Maybe because it's been so well-televised and written about, but it was the first time when general people were able to write about [a war], as compared to reporters. When you would write about an attack, like how you were in a firefight for hours, the newspaper just reported it in one line. War coverage like this, where you're getting this inside view instead of some made-up version by the press—that makes it much easier for people like me to write about it. It's the war people should be writing about because it's not over yet.

While I was reading your book I was smiling a majority of the time—when I probably shouldn't have, because it's page after page of fucked-up shit happening.
You want to create that atmosphere of craziness. In most armed conflicts, that craziness is there. Everything is going crazy and you're not in charge and nothing makes sense and you're hoping to come out of it in some living shape. That's what I was going for. That's why the story is a bit fantastical and the violence is over the top and really weird things [keep] happening. I wanted to create that sense of chaos, which is impossible if you read out a bunch of facts and figures.

There have been a lot of books about the Iraq war where you clearly have heroes and non-heroes, good guys and bad guys. Your characters are different. Would you consider them all anti-heroes?
Well, definitely there's no heroes at all. It's very simplistic if you portray good guys and bad guys. That rarely works out, and in this war it's easier to see the aftermath of that [kind of thinking]. Even though Saddam Hussein was a tyrant, many of his people were actually worse off after he was gone.

One of your main characters is a Marine named Private Hoffman, a character who's not your clichéd poster boy image of the American soldier. He does drugs, kind of has a fuck-authority mentality, and is pretty much there because he likes to blow shit up. I like him.
That was the kind of hero that I wanted. He's on that borderline where you're not sure if he's a genius or just a lucky idiot. Nobody is like that earnest guy who salutes and actually believes everything that's in the manual. Just because someone is a soldier doesn't mean they're without sophistication or without a nuanced understanding of the world.

Hoffman is one of my favorite characters and he lives in the end and he's one of those characters that doesn't deliberately do harm to people. In the army, you're always going to have psychotic men who are pleased about killing people, but you also have a lot of moral men who are kind-hearted. It's important to get those balances right.

Follow Colby Buzzell on Twitter and check out his book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq.

Check out Escape From Baghdad!, out now from Unnamed Press.

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