AUGUST 28, 2020
A DOZEN OR SO years ago, while researching a book on a New Mexico grassland called Otero Mesa under threat of oil and gas development, I came across an odd sight in the middle of precisely nowhere. To reach the mesa from the west, one needs to travel across an active missile range, a satellite of Fort Bliss, Texas, where, coincidentally, my father had served as executive officer in an Army missile battalion four decades earlier. Rounding the crest of a hill, I halted before a roadblock, where a gruff military police sergeant examined my ID and then said, “You see anybody around here dressed up like Arabs, don’t worry about it.”
Sure enough, 10 minutes later I happened upon a gaggle of GIs banging around in a Toyota pickup, shemaghs wrapped around their heads and loose brown robes covering their desert camouflage uniforms. An hour later, after passing truck after truck carrying “foreign fighters,” I was out of Mesopotamia and under the shadow of the imposing Sacramento Mountains, safe from their invasion. They were out on maneuvers, for when soldiers are not fighting they prepare to fight. They might have continued south into Texas, but right-wing radio nuisance Alex Jones was on the case, warning citizens of the Lone Star State that the military was coming for their guns.
So it is that, in the years since, the military — mostly the Army and Marine Corps, but also units of other branches — has centralized exercises for combat in the Middle East and Central Asia in a dusty little Potemkin village at Fort Irwin National Training Center in the Mojave Desert, 30-odd miles south of the southern boundary of Death Valley National Park and about the same distance from Barstow, California: definitive Hunter S. Thompson bat-hallucination territory; a uniform khaki color, dusty and waterless, untroubled by native vegetation of any sort. The hills are twisted volcanic plugs that look as if they had been tortured underground before being deposited on the surface. Except in deepest winter, the sky is a washed-out, overexposed white, and the ground trembles with heat-induced mirages. It’s the kind of desert that would give T. E. Lawrence pause.
In a word, it’s hard country to photograph, featureless and dismal even at the sweet hours of dawn and dusk, which makes Debi Cornwall’s aptly titled photographic suite Necessary Fictions all the more remarkable.
The first image in the book is key to understanding the sun-blasted surreality of Fort Irwin, a kind of faux-caravanserai that’s as much Motel 6 as Samarkand. Heavily processed, as if something seen through night goggles in the full heat of day (or with the ISO pushed up to 3600), that photo is an oversized spread of geometrical shapes: the rectangles of a defensive-perimeter wall and watchtower, scattered squares where darkened windows dot low whitewashed buildings. The following spread, containing a few words against an ocean of white space, establishes the theme, quoting the disaster architect Karl Rove: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
Our own reality it is. Fort Irwin is populated by distinctive tribes: not just the military’s fictional enemy they call “Atropians,” an ethnonym with echoes of utopia, but tribes made up of paid actors whose brief includes wearing “moulage,” or makeup stimulating wounds minor and horrific, all for a base pay of $22 an hour (with raises topping out at $33, and the possibility of working 84 hours a week).
The money is even better for the SSkRP, or Special Skilled Role Players, and FLS, or Foreign Language Speaking personnel, those capable of firing a weapon and/or driving a military vehicle and/or speaking Farsi, Dari, or Arabic, pretending to be insurgents for the edification of a third tribe: those soldiers, marines, National Guard members, and other personnel who are liable to be sent at any minute to places where the bullets are flying and bombs are going off.
Thus, at any given time, the ground at Fort Irwin is littered with wounded soldiers and civilians, demolished vehicles (some metal, some plywood), legless CPR dummies, and other simulacra, blown to bits by IEDs or shot to hell by RPGs, AK-47s, and suchlike ordnance.
There’s a point to it all: as I said, when military personnel are not fighting, they are training, and the idea is to train under the most realistic simulations possible, realistic to the point that many of those specialist actors whom the soldiers confront come from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other military theaters (the word is used advisedly). There’s a further point: as Cornwall notes in the well-written text that accompanies her arresting photographs, even though the sight of all those “casualty effects” — among which she lists “traumatic amputation,” “shrapnel wounds,” and “body dismemberment” — is shock-inducing, it is known that soldiers trained to such realistic standards are better prepared for the real thing, which helps “reduce the risk of PTSD.” Thus the necessary fictions of her title, the playacting that underlies the real-world scenarios that Cornwall was on hand to document.
A former civil rights attorney, Cornwall has a clear penchant for exploring the uncivil nature of the world in which men and women are paid to “hurt people and break things,” as my father used to say. Her first book, Welcome to Camp America, was a harrowing tour of the prison facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, a place surrealistic to the outsider but all too real to the inhabitants. Necessary Fictions is a headlong glance at a different dimension of war, preparing for real hell by means of real make-believe. Novelist Ben Fountain calls it the Fantasy Industrial Complex, and Debi Cornwall’s book is an extraordinary chronicle of its Disneyland.