‘Since when did doing your job become a crime against humanity?’

Mohammed Hanif, Red Birds

Bloomsbury , 304pp, £16.99, ISBN 9781408897188

reviewed by Michael Duffy

The war on terror waged across Afghanistan and Pakistan’s border has continued unabated since 9/11, but the methods by which it is fought seem increasingly modern and technological. Transcripts from drone operators have shown neutralised targets being referred to as ‘bug splats,’ ‘dismounts’ and ‘squirters’ – impersonal and dehumanising terms that reflect the physical and rhetorical distance with which the American military is able to go about its business. Although Red Birds does not dwell on the technological aspect of this particularly modern conflict, Mohammed Hanif successfully draws the eye closer to the seemingly invisible victims of military strikes and the places they call home. The novel asks us to consider the unsustainability of this war, and the incommensurability between the West’s military campaign on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border and its aid efforts in war zones across the world.

The narrative is an imaginative one. Major Ellie, an American pilot, is tasked with destroying a refugee camp that has grown in the shadow of an abandoned American hangar. On the way to complete his mission, Ellie’s plane takes fire, and after ejecting from his doomed jet he is stranded in a featureless desert until near death. Eventually, after days of starvation and thirst, he is rescued by Momo, a boy from the very camp he was ordered to destroy. He receives the hospitality of the boy’s family, who are mourning the disappearance of their eldest son and the end of the USAID deliveries, both of which coincided with the abandonment of the hangar. The spectre of this building acts as a constant reminder that the American occupation has lasted longer than promised. That as troops, then aid workers and aid packages, were withdrawn, people remained there still in a state of fostered dependence and dislocation.

The novel sustains the particular form of military satire that was so successful in Hanif’s 2008 debut novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. And though the shift in target from Pakistan’s air force – Hanif’s former employer – to an American airman could risk being seen as an attack on an easy target, the critique stems not from the military’s violent actions in the region, but the irony of its humanitarian efforts and thwarted attempts at political correctness. Ellie is the conflicted product of the West’s othering of Muslims (particularly those who live within areas of US military intervention), and of an ongoing military education in tolerance and understanding. Throughout the novel Ellie refers to his training on an ‘Introduction to cultural sensitivity module,’ which included seminars such as ‘How to Defend American Values without Offending Their Own, ‘Basic Good Manners with Tribals’ and the learning of five Arabic words (if you count the word ‘Arabic’). His repeated reference to these seminars is an ironic adjunct to his innate distrust of the ‘goatherds’ he is taken in by, and its proximity to the refugees of the text seems only to reinforce his belief that they have no reason to exist.

The narrative is thankfully extended beyond Ellie’s military worldview by a narrative structure that frequently shifts its focalisation. The novel has half a dozen narrators through whom it cycles at a rapid pace in short first-person chapters. These include the fifteen-year-old Momo, his parents, a UN worker interviewing Momo for her research on ‘the young Muslim mind,’ and, most bafflingly, Momo’s dog Mutt. This broad range of viewpoints elevates the ‘bug splats’ that Ellie had expected at the end of his mission to a varied and complex mix of contesting subjectivities, all of which are impacted and sustained in different ways by the US occupation and the UN mission. Ellie and ‘Lady Flowerbody’ (as the UN worker is referred to throughout) argue about the correct terminology to use for the camp and the respect that the people within it deserve, but in reality they offer equally little in material assistance to the inhabitants.

When Ellie is tasked with destroying the camp, it is by a colonel who is strikingly reminiscent of Dr Strangelove’s ‘Buck’ Turgidson. The attack is not officially sanctioned, a renegade mission set in motion by a crazed commanding officer. Ellie accepts the mission with no thought for the refugee camp’s inhabitants:

‘There is a Hangar, and there is a Camp. The Colonel had pulled out a map. The Colonel still liked his printed maps and coloured thumbtacks and pointers and cross hairs on targets. Before he could send us out to wipe out a bit of earth, he liked doing his thing with the pointer. In a world of uncertainty, if you can nail them down on a paper map, the enemy’s existence becomes much more real.’

Although the Colonel attempts to ‘nail down’ the enemy’s existence, it is interesting that Ellie sees his task as to ‘wipe out a bit of earth.’ The level of distance between pilot and target involves, for Ellie, looking through buildings and their occupants. Though he does not have the physical distance represented by the drone operators with whom I opened this review, there is a sense that he retains a psychological distance that cannot even be bridged by meeting his targets face to face.

That Ellie is expected to destroy a refugee camp highlights the way in which bodies within designated war zones are expendable, even if they are not militarised. Part of this expendability is justified by the libertarian worldview of the pilot; the targets are a drain on American resources, and Ellie utilises anti-refugee rhetoric while actively creating the environment for displacement and dislocation: ‘People who had not left their little hamlets for centuries, goatherds who believed in nothing but grassy fields and folk music […] could all go and live in UN tents, eat exotic food donated by the USAID and burp after drinking fizzy drinks.’

Even with this unsettling logic, however, a more nuanced understanding of refugees and space peeks through at times, most notably in Ellie’s observation that ‘[n]ot only have they lived for generations in the same place, they have managed to become refugees in their own land.’ It is an unexpected insight from an often brutal character, and perhaps reflects the way in which Hanif’s satire so often finds thought-provoking inconsistencies in the pragmatic and unapologetic logic of his military subjects.

Parallel to Ellie’s mission to destroy the camp is Lady Flowerbody’s mission to understand it. She sits at the polar opposite of Ellie’s anti-refugee, right-wing rhetoric, as a liberal commentator and researcher in the war-torn region. In fact, she is so far away she almost represents a conservative caricature of the ineffectual liberal; she too comes to stand in as an extreme example of a US institution that has lost touch with the grounded realities of the war on terror. She is in the camp to interview young Muslims, and Momo is her subject. It quickly becomes clear that this project – despite being, superficially, an effort to better understand the victims of the war on terror – is also doomed to look through the individuals in favour of broader rhetorical tropes of world politics. Never is this more evident than when Lady Flowerbody explains the emphasis of her research to Momo. ‘My PhD thesis,’ she tells him, ‘is on the Teenage Muslim Mind, their hopes, their desires [...] I intend to use this community as a laboratory for testing my hypothesis about how our collective memories are actually our cultural capital.’ For her subject – a teenage boy who has lost his home, his brother, and spends his day searching for scrap metal to sell – this valorisation of his memory falls on understandably deaf ears.

Like Ellie, she is prone to moments of great insight. She tells Momo that ‘when the world shifts, when the tectonic plates of history readjust, some people fall through the cracks.’ But such flashes of sensitivity and understanding are clearly insufficient for all parties by the frenetic climax of the novel, reflections of the inherent failures of both political viewpoints to offer any solace to an embattled space that is consistently under fire. With Red Birds, Mohammed Hanif further reinforces his position as one of Pakistan’s finest writers. The huge prevalence of the military in the state’s short postcolonial history makes the former Air Force pilot an apt voice with which to narrate the experiences of its subjects, and in this regard Hanif’s novel certainly does not disappoint.