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Iraqi ifs and butts: Norman Mailer vs. LL Cool J

About the author
Dominic Hilton was a commissioning editor, columnist and diarist for openDemocracy from 2001-05.

“If this is World War IV,” he said, “then I’m the Fairy Godmother.”

“This is World War IV,” I told him, “and I thought Clinton had fudged that gays in the military thing.”

We were perched on the gun of a tank somewhere in Iraq. He was Private Gary Mint of the United States army. I called him Mint Imperial, for short.

We both thought this was very funny. Especially me.

Mint Imperial and I had become good friends over the last few days – the last few days I was ever going to stay in Iraq (the hotels are just awful!).

Next to us, a beatbox was pumping out “Big Ole Butt” by LL Cool J.

Your average post-liberation set-up.

As LL got busy dumping his girl for Tina, I asked my new pal to assess the post-war situation that confronted, surrounded, and shot at us. Liberation, I had hinted as an angry mob pelted us with stones, is a complicated thing.

“It sure is,” said Mint Imperial. “There’s freedom-loving and then there’s freedom-loathing, you know what I mean?”

I didn’t, but humoured him by nodding and smiling and making a sound that went “Hhhhmmmrrmmm”.

“I’m from Plain Dealing, Louisiana,” he announced. “It’s a long way from Kirkuk.”

“It sure is,” I said, sighing in acknowledgment of a metaphor Mint Imperial probably didn’t mean.

“When I heard we were going to nail Saddam, I was the first to cheer, you know? I couldn’t wait to whip that wiener’s butt. I personally wanted to shave that stupid moustache off his face.”

“I’ve had that dream,” I said. “Does yours end with a giant rabbit tap-dancing to I Got Rhythm?”

He ignored me. “I sure didn’t expect it would turn out like this.”

“What do you mean?” I said as a native eyed my Nikes. “Hell?”

“Hell, no!” he said. “Hell I expected. Hell or a holiday. It’s the inconclusiveness that gets to me.”

He was starting to sound like Wittgenstein. After a while, we all start to sound like Wittgenstein.

“You know,” he continued, “I grew up with two main influences.”

“Michael Jackson and Yosemite Sam?”

“No. I mean, on the one hand, I had military honour, as represented by bald eagles, bugle-players, and Tom Cruise. On the other, I had military dishonour, as represented by Oliver North, Oliver Stone, and General Kurtz.”

“You mean, Marlon Brando,” I said.

“Exactly. The way I figured, Operation Holy Shiite was going to either be swift and clinical, or a nightmare quagmire.”

“And which one is it?” I asked, as LL Cool J dumped Tina for Brenda.

“Neither! It’s weird. Kinda normal one minute, then the next minute people are angry and start shooting at you again. It’s neither organised nor anarchic. It just ... is.”

“Sounds almost normal to me,” I said, profoundly. “Maybe that’s all freedom is: the freedom to just ... be.”

I was getting ahead of myself – which, as regular readers of this column will appreciate, is no easy task.

“My boss, Don Rumsfeld,” chirped Mint Imperial, “he said that freedom is the freedom to do bad things as well as good.”

“Well he should know,” I said.

“The way I see it,” Mint Imperial went on, “when all is said and done, freedom is kind of murky.”

“Have you ever thought of being a speechwriter?” I asked.

“Iraq,” he explained, “is like a “Big Ole Butt”. And America is like LL Cool J.”

“Sounds like a fair analysis,” I said.

“America can’t resist being tempted by a “Big Ole Butt” when it sees one. It’d do well to stop chasing so much foreign booty and stay at home once in a while.”

It was the best argument for isolationism I’d ever heard.

“But what about the Norman Mailer thesis?” I asked, stroking my chin in a desperate effort to feign a casual name-dropping intellectualism.

Mint Imperial had never heard of the Norman Mailer thesis. He’d also never heard of Mormon Nailer.

“Let me summarise,” I said, incapable of doing much else. “Mailer believes that the reason you’re at war, and getting sand in your socks, is something to do with ‘the ongoing malaise of the white American male’.”

Mint Imperial seemed unimpressed. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Hear me out,” I said, as LL Cool J dumped Brenda for Lisa. “The white American male, Mailer says, has taken a drubbing over recent years. The women’s movement, combined with his lessening status in sports, has left your average country club Republican feeling puny and feeble. He therefore votes for Bush, who promises to invigorate his testosterone levels by invading Iraq and kicking some Baathist ass – war as sport, the way man intended it to be.”

Mint Imperial was shifting down the barrel of the gun away from me.

“Don’t you see?” I said, getting excited now. “You’re not here to find Weapons of Mass Destruction. Nor to liberate the Iraqi people. No, you’re here to unburden the white man – that’s Mailer’s thesis in a tank-shell.”

“I ain’t unburdenin’ anyone!” said Mint Imperial, climbing back in the tank.

“What,” I said, “not even me?”

The next thing I knew I was hurtling through the air over Northern Iraq, personally liberating the no-fly zone.

The strains of Mint Imperial’s voice could be heard behind me, “You’re fired!”

Some joke.

As I started to come down somewhere near Baghdad, I thought about Mint Imperial’s “Big Ole Butt” thesis, comparing and contrasting it to Mailer’s “malaise of the white American male” thesis.

I didn’t know to which thesis I subscribed, but, in my experience, and to misquote Mint Imperial, intellectualism, like freedom, is kind of murky.

With the ground now only fifty feet away, Saddam’s life flashed before my eyes. I’d always wanted a gold toilet.

Of course, I survived the ordeal (how else would you be reading this thrilling account of events).

Irony is not dead, apparently. It just moved to Iraq.

My fall was broken by a bunch of protesters, exercising their new right to free speech.

I looked up, slightly shaken, but not stirred, to see a large hammer and sickle. It was the Iraqi Communist Party. They were demanding America give the Iraqi masses a democracy they can be proud of.

Alongside them, marching in solidarity, were a school of Islamic radicals. They were demanding America give a few Iraqi men a democracy Allah can be proud of.

My Arabic is not the strongest, but I thought I heard someone say, “It must be a new smart bomb!”

I dusted myself down, checked my watch, and extended my hand in greeting, “At your secret service, folks! Always glad to meet new fans.”


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