′War artist′ shows occupied Iraq | Globalization | DW | 20.03.2013
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'War artist' shows occupied Iraq

Xavier Pick was sent to Iraq by Britain's Ministry of Defense in 2008 and 2009 to record the UK engagement there. For DW, he recalled his experiences as a war artist with US and British forces.

A drawing of a C17 transport plane

I was opposed to the invasion of Iraq, but this wasn't something I wanted to announce when I was called on by the British defense ministry. I flew out of Brize Norton Air Force Base bathed in the unfamiliar green light of a C17 Globemaster. It would be the last time I would see of the color green for weeks. My body armor was heavy with leaden plates, my sketchbook at hand. My brief was to announce to the world that we were building a better place for the Iraqis, that hopeful times were ahead.

"It's called 'influence,' not propaganda," I was told by the officer looking after me. I spent my time either with the British Media Operations unit or the US Public Affairs Office (PAO). Their common purpose was to give us "journalists" - which is what they had dubbed me, since it was unclear what to do with an "official war artist" - positive stories to use to influence the conflict.

The officers who looked after me didn't see me as a threat; I think I was seen as a gimmick to many of those who were only used to the fleeting visits of news reporters or even briefer visits by entertainers. As time passed, I was invited to the inner sanctums where the soldiers were able to relax a bit. They worked long days and nights. The focus on what had to be done was almost tangible.

My first big trip to the land of the Marsh Arabs, as the inhabitants of the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands are called, was with Psychological Operations (PsyOps), which aimed to find out who was firing rockets at our camp.

I had always been fascinated by the indigenous people of southern Iraq, having spent my childhood on the marshes outside York, and I found inspiration in the drawings of Edward Bawden, an official war artist in the Second World War.

But there was nothing romantic about this meeting with the people. The evidence of the cruelty of Saddam Hussein's reign was apparent in the dried-out earth; the regime had systematically drained an area the size of Wales to deprive the tribes - considered troublesome - of their livelihood.

I was eventually invited by the US forces to document them at work. One day a brigadier from the Iraqi border police took us to the Iraqi-Iranian border. I wandered behind the back of the building where wild dogs were eating leftovers from the meal we had just had. The land here was still scorched from the 1980-88 Persian war between the two countries.

After my first visit, a US military historian saw my work and invited me back a year later. I was determined to see one place especially: the birthplace of civilization, the ziggurat of Ur.

We couldn't have arrived at a worse time: the PAO was overstretched with visiting generals and admirals and media shows arranged to showcase a newly trained Iraqi army. Even so, the US Forces offered to take us to the ziggurat in a MRAP (mine resistant, ambush protected) convoy.

It was a tough journey. A sandstorm and the ensuing hurricane almost put an end to the trip. At the same time, the insurgency had stepped up their rocket and bomb attacks as the US forces prepared their departure from the country. After a long, painful drive in armored convoy from Baghdad to Nasiriyah, we finally made it to Camp Adder, a mile from the ziggurat. We could see it tantalizingly close on the horizon. I drew it from behind a fence.

Ur was the center of the great Sumerian empire. Once near the sea, human exploitation of the land pushed the Tigris-Euphrates Delta hundreds of miles away. The evidence was in the ground below me: shells from sea creatures were littered amongst the shards of earthenware pottery and M16 cartridges.

I was honored that tens of millions of dollars of hardware allowed me the privilege to travel the final mile and climb the steps of the ziggurat, a temple to the moon god Nanna. It was the highlight of my time in Iraq.

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