Sea Stories and Memoirs: a Review of Brothers of the Gun
Brothers of the Gun: A Memoir of the Syrian War
by Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple
One World (2018), 320 pages
A Marine Corps aphorism holds that the only difference between a fairy tale and a sea story is the former starts with, “Once upon a time,” and the latter with, “This ain’t no shit.” During the 90s, the sea stories in the Corps ranged from the members of the rifle squad who had all contracted chlamydia from the same “pocket masturbatory device,” to how the driver of a truck loaded with 12,000 pounds of explosives smiled at the Marine sentry in front of the Battalion Landing Team’s barracks in Lebanon. “Looked right at him.” Here the Defense Attaché paused, knifed a hand in the direction of me and a couple of the other Sergeants at the Marine House bar that night. “Smiled and sped past.”
Marines reserve a particular sort of love for good combat leaders (it is only half-jokingly that the present Secretary of Defense is referred to as “Saint Mathis”) and another sort for anybody who can spin a good sea story. During my stint, it was the veterans of Reagan’s ill-fated foray into Beirut who had the very best sea stories. The Marine Corps was between wars at the time, so the competition for this honor was not fierce: the Vietnam veterans were mostly long retired, Grenada took all of about five minutes, and the Rangers had ended up with the best tales out of Somalia. That left only two conflicts for our staff NCOs and senior officers to talk about really, and for audiences of young men in their late teens and early twenties, reminiscences of mind-numbing months in Saudi wastelands did not compare to byzantine yarns of Syrians and Phalangists, Druze and Israelis, Mercedes and Kalashnikovs—all with U.S. warships just off the coast.
It was with these stories in mind that I traveled to Syria in 1999, on temporary assignment to guard the U.S. embassy there. The drive from Amman, Jordan—where I was based at the time—to Damascus is a little less than three hours. But for a 22-year-old weaned on stories of Syrian implication in the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon, the psychological gulf between the two capitals stretched much farther—the distance between a friendly country and a hostile one.
I didn’t return to Damascus until what felt like a lifetime later, in the summer of 2014, as a United Nations Field Security Coordination Officer temporarily deployed from Mogadishu to conduct emergency medical training for the UN mission in Syria. I spent my two weeks in country disgusted by the obscene comfort of the Four Seasons Damascus (a disgust that did not preclude me from enjoying the mint scented hand towels in the hotel gym), shuddering from outgoing artillery rounds, and embittered by the goldfish-like attention span of the international community that anchored Syria to the headlines, while relegating Somalia to page 24b.
Suffice to say, my relationship with Syria is tainted, fractured, and superficial. So much so that my mind doesn’t immediately trace a straight line from the Arab Spring to the present carnage in the country. It is from the electric (but not unblemished) promise of the Arab Spring that Marwan Hisham and Molly Crabapple begin their graphic memoir of the Syrian war, Brothers of the Gun:
…we hibernated from our pitiful present and glorified in satisfying glimpses of our past, until, in the last days of 2010, our regularly scheduled programming underwent a spectacular disruption. A guy set himself on fire in Tunisia. He had been insulted by a policewoman. Would he have reacted differently were she a man? No matter. The Spring had arrived.
It began from there: from the recklessness of young boys and girls. From the courage of long-marginalized women. From long-oppressed men whose heart had no more room for fear.
Brothers of the Gun follows Hisham, an English literature graduate from Syria’s most prestigious university, and his friends, the visual artist brothers Nael and Tareq, through Syria’s descent. Usually when describing an author’s courage, one is referring to uncompromising prose, and the writing in Brothers of the Gun—bracing, eloquent, and utterly unsentimental—is every bit that. But, from braving the early anti-Assad protests to the dystopian horror of Raqqa as the ISIS “capital,” Hisham demonstrates courage in every sense of the word.
On the blood-slick ground I realized the depths of my mistake. These were my people. This was my city. The boys in counterfeit football jerseys, the girls in their neat headscarves, the old men who wore the gallabiyahs I once loathed, all seemed on the verge of reclaiming some long-ago-stolen power.
But we are this country, and there are more like us than like the ones you work for. We grow the food and build the homes and sew the clothes and dig the graves. Our scorned labor moves the earth.
The army killed twenty-one protesters that Friday.
Nael is killed early. Tareq dies later. Meanwhile, Hisham navigates life in a Raqqa where the only non-Jihadi westerners are dressed in orange jumpsuits to star in beheading videos.
When the drones finally incinerated Jihadi John, ISIS’s video-famous executioner with the ninja mask and the East London accent, they did it next to an Internet café. He burned alive just a few hundred feet from the Raqqa clock tower.
I sit with my phone shielded by a veil of coat, surrounded by fighters, potential ISIS spies, and potential ISIS victims, who need to watch every word they send and receive for anything that might offend the Brothers; otherwise this so-called Internet café will be the last place their eyes see in this sunlit world.
I am the pig, the spy, the kafir. I am everything they hate.
The blood is so loud in my ears. They won’t kill just me; they would kill my family, my friends, anyone who had been in contact with me. These decent people whom I had betrayed by working undercover, milking their stories, pretending I was like them—all dead, because of me.
Molly Crabapple has illustrated some of the most important stories of this decade—from the Ferguson riots to Guantanamo Bay—and remains one of the most influential visual artists of our time. The prose and illustrations in Brothers of the Gun complement, but are not dependent on each other—better together, but either could stand on its own. From the image of an ISIS-style mafia matriarch with a rifle strapped to her back, to a stoning in Raqqa square, to everyday life in the Syrian city,1 Crabapple compared the process of transforming Hisham’s photos and verbal descriptions into illustrations to “downloading memories.” In this sense, critics often draw parallels between Crabapple’s work and Joe Sacco’s, in that both render visible the sort of collective memories that would otherwise remain unseen.2 The depiction of enslaved Yazidi women in Raqqa is that kind of image, the kind the world needs to see but wouldn’t were it not for artists like Crabapple.3
The 82 images in Brothers of the Gun, pay homage to the 82 prints of Goya’s Disasters of War, which dates back to early 19th century, and is frequently heralded as the first work of illustrated long-form journalism.4 Similar to Disasters of War, many of Crabapple’s more fantastic illustrations—including the cover image of Tareq, a sniper hardened on the battlefield against ISIS forces, playing his knock-off Russian rifle like a violin—depict more truth than would be possible in other mediums. Artists like Crabapple, Goya, and Sacco capture truths that photography cannot. Truths that defy simple explanations.
But then, even as a knuckle headed Sergeant on Post One in the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, I didn’t want simple. In war, simple narratives never ring true. Likewise, good sea stories, the sort that scratch at war’s true identity, are anything but simple. Cynical and heroic, obscene and idealistic, putrid and funny—but never simple. Like the very best sea stories, Hisham’s prose, weaved through Crabapple’s illustrations, arrive at an essential truth—a complex one—which is not necessarily the same as the literal kind.
My mistake as a young Marine was thinking that it was only men in uniform who had such tales to tell.
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Brothers of the Gun images courtesy One World/Penguin Random House.