Debi Cornwall – Necessary Fictions

Review by Wayne Swanson

From the first images, it’s obvious that this is a book of photographs from the war-torn Middle East. Iraq perhaps, or maybe Afghanistan. It’s hard to tell. But the desert settings, harsh desert light, and stark desert compounds make the location clear. 

Except that it’s not. The setting is actually “Atropia,” a made-up country in the Mojave Desert of California, with outposts on military bases in other parts of the United States. It’s all a fiction — a necessary fiction in the minds of the military during our time of endless global conflicts.

Debi Cornwall, a former civil rights lawyer turned conceptual documentary artist, examines this mock country of Afghan and Iraqi villages, which have been constructed on U.S. military bases to stage immersive military training exercises for troops preparing to deploy. Here, soldiers play war games in which they encounter “cultural role-players” — civilian Afghans and Iraqis in costume, many of whom fled war and are now returning in the employ of the U.S. military. Soldiers also see a potential future in which they are casualties of war, covered with blood and gore that has been recreated by Hollywood makeup artists.

In all, it’s a surreal exercise befitting an examination of the surreal world of warfare. There are so many conflicting inputs to process. It starts with the desert setting, which quickly transports you to the Middle East. Yet something seems off. The villages, as photographed between war games, are pristine and deserted, with no signs of carnage. The role players and even the casualties with their oozing wounds and missing body parts are presented in formal portraits. Some even smile back at the camera.

Equally surreal are the text passages sprinkled throughout. Cornwall presents wry accounts of her interactions with the players and their handlers. She also includes excerpts from documents that spell out the requirements for companies supplying all the props, people, and ambience to replicate battle scenes. There are government contracts for supplying SSkRPs (Special Skilled Role Players) and FLS (Foreign Language Speaking) role players. There’s website copy from companies like the one offering scents — available in convenient spray-top containers — for decaying flesh, thermal burns, simulated vomit, and more. And there are excerpts from articles about the war games and the war machine. The book ends with a series of literary and critical texts on the artifice of war, which are intended to provoke critical inquiry about America’s fantasy industrial complex. 

Cornwall presents a distilled portrait that underlines the artifice behind the exercise. We see the calm before the storm, not the battles. The crisp images show the neat and tidy sets and the actors who will play on them. 

The book itself, published by Radius Books, is beautifully produced. The rich color images are printed large, nearly 8 x 11 inches. Some are full bleed, and some extend over both pages of a spread. There are also some surreal extras. An envelope attached to the inside back cover contains contact-print-like sheets of photos showing soldiers in their casualty makeup, mugging for the camera. A pamphlet inserted in one page of the book contains a case study of an actual war game that went tragically awry when a real police deputy confronted a truck containing role-play terrorist; he killed one “terrorist” and injured another. 

Necessary Fictions raises questions about the implications of exercises like these. On the one hand, it explains how the military prepares soldiers for the harrowing realities of war. On the other, it invites larger questions about how state-created fictions affect us in this era of fake news, when Americans can no longer agree on what is fact.

This is Cornwall’s second book pulling back the curtain on the consequences of the nearly 20-year-old war on terror. Her first, the award-winning Welcome to Camp America, focused on the “terror prison” at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Necessary Fictions employs the same dark humor to shine a light on the fictions invented for a society in which war has become the rule rather than the exception.

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Necessary Fictions, Debi Cornwall

Photographer: Debi Cornwall, born Weymouth, MA, resides Brooklyn, NY, USA. 

Publisher: Radius Books (Santa Fe, NM, USA, copyright 2020)

Text: Debi Cornwall, Poetry: Nomi Stone, Fiction: Roy Scranton, Essays: Makeda Best and Sarah Sentilles

Language: English

Hardcover book, sewn binding, four-color lithography, 9 x 12 inches, 105 images, 324 pages, pamphlet insert, envelope with photo sheets on inside back cover, printed in Italy

Photobook designers: David Chickey and Montana Currie

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Articles and photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s)

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