Once you hear the details of victory, it is hard to distinguish it from a defeat.
—Jean-Paul Sartre, French existentialist philosopher, writer and political activist
If Saddam Hussein survived a war he believed he was victorious. He also believed in building monuments to commemorate his victories.
In 1997, Saddam Hussein ordered the construction of the Victory Over America palace to commemorate Iraq’s victory in the war with the United States—what Americans call the First Gulf War.
The finished palace was to be grand and would wrap around the already completed Victory Over Iran Palace. Complete with rotundas and galleries, balconies and ballrooms, it would have more than 75 rooms. On the top floor, the grand ballroom would be four stories high and was purportedly planned to be the exact size of an American football field.
At the onset of the Second Gulf War, the palace stood unfinished and unoccupied. Construction cranes loomed over the palace when the United States began its bombing campaign in March 2003. Despite its seemingly strategic insignificance, the vacant palace was targeted and bombed.
The palace captivated me and I returned to it many times over the course of my deployment. Each time I stepped out of the punishing sunlight into the deep shadows of the palace, I was taken with the solemnity of the place. The air was always still, the heat irrepressible; the only sound I ever heard was the faint, intermittent popping of gunfire far off in the distance.
I would make my way through the palace, carefully stepping over mounds of debris and broken marble. Vast sections of ornate ceiling lay crumbled on the floor. Once brilliant chandeliers sagged from their moorings; others lay in tangled heaps where the ceiling had given way. The ruins exposed the palace for what it was—a façade. The marble, I was told, was fake, fabricated from granite, gypsum and salt. The chandeliers were not gold and crystal but plastic, glass and painted aluminum. The ceilings were not intricately hand carved by artisans, but cast of plaster and painted by number by unskilled laborers.
On an intact portion of the ceiling, an immense inscription written in gracefully fluid Arabic reads: “Victory only comes from God.”
As I lingered on my last visit to the palace before my deployment ended, I couldn’t help but consider the meaning of victory. Isn’t victory just a matter of perspective? Does it not depend on which side of history your country is on? Was Saddam right, that mere survival is victory? And since he was captured, tried and put to death, does that mean the United States was victorious?
Thomas Jefferson said “victory and defeat are each of the same price.” To date, the price of the Iraq war has been staggering. Since the war began, more than 3,500 Americans have been killed in action and more than 33,000 have been wounded, although estimates of the number of wounded are much higher—up to 100,000. Add to that another thousand deaths due to friendly fire, accidents and suicides, as well as hundreds of Coalition and contractor casualties. The toll on military families who endure deployment after deployment is immeasurable. At a cost running in the hundreds of billions of dollars, the Iraq war has significantly weakened the U.S. economy. Iraq has suffered more than 100,000 civilian deaths and the country is fragile and unstable. What, I wonder, about any of this is victorious? Perhaps the fractured palace is victory’s façade.
I am fortunate not to have experienced the horrors of the urban battleground firsthand. I spent the majority of my tour of duty at Camp Victory, a secure military compound just outside Baghdad. Now the site of the Coalition headquarters, it was once the site of several of Saddam Hussein’s presidential palaces, including the Victory Over America palace, as well as the Ba’ath Party headquarters.
I took more than 4000 photographs during my year in Iraq. Although my subjects were neither soldiers nor insurgents, neither Americans nor Iraqis, the devastation tells its own story in the context of two disconnected cultures and their place in time and history.
I hope these images are compelling and inspire the viewer to explore the nature and meaning of power, politics and empire. To me, they reveal an overwhelming sense of loss, the transitory nature of power and the elusiveness of victory.