This novel acts like a memoir for Megan Stack’s life as a journalist: a series of stories of the conflicts she has experienced around the world. But it is not just physical and political conflicts that Stack experiences, but internal and cultural ones as well. Her stories are complex, they speak of the hardships experienced by locals, and of the difficulties for her in coming to terms with the cruelties she has seen. The most continuous conflict throughout the novel is the internal one experienced by Stack herself, particularly in relation to her connection (or disconnect) with America and Americans.
More importantly though, let’s look at the big ideas of Encountering Conflict which emerge from Every Man.
On a fundamental level, Stack’s stories are grounded in physical conflicts: wars, acts of terror and other acts of violence. These acts of physical aggression are portrayed in sometimes graphic detail: such as the discussion of body parts blown apart by a suicide bomber in Israel in Terrorism and Other Stories:
Men in long beards and rubber gloves, Orthodox Jew volunteers, combed quietly through the grassy slopes, hunting for pieces of human flesh, gathering every last bit of dead body for proper burial.
In many of the stories, Stack reflects physical conflict through describing significant changes to landscape. Take for example this depiction of Iraq in The Living Martyr:
“We were tracing the path of the American invasion in reverse, and war still littered our way: stray cluster bombs, blasted craters, and burned-out cards framed the road.”
What’s unique about Stack’s portrayal of physical conflict is her suggestion that it is inherently linked with other forms of conflict. This idea isn’t unique in and of itself, but it comprises Stack’s focus on war as a destructive force well beyond physical suffering:
As it turned out, the first thing I knew about war was also the truest, and maybe it’s as true for nations as for individuals: You can survive and not survive, both at the same time.
The places Stack visits seem to be a place of constant conflict. Throughout the Middle East, Stack encounters individuals whose lives operate around this perpetual warfare, and her life too becomes one that is constantly exposed to conflict. The way these conflicts are affecting different societies is complex and often implied by Stack, rather than stated.
One interesting conflict that implicitly runs through many of the stories is that surrounding women and their place in different Middle Eastern states. In Chasing Ghosts, Stack comments that the women she is encountering are entirely limited in their lives: they cannot leave the house alone to buy groceries or go for a walk. She says:
“Their husbands were doctors and merchants and engineers, but none of these women had the equivalent of a middle-school education…still they waited for the world to change. The women in Naseer’s house were not liberated beings.”
There are major changes occurring in the societies that Stack inhabits, but much of this change does not filter down to ordinary people, particularly women. Furthermore, Stack chastises the simplistic and paternalistic American viewpoint that these women have been liberated by American ideals and intervention. In fact, much of Stack’s writing is critical of America and how removed American politics is from the places it intervenes in. She says in the prologue:
“Only after covering it for years did I understand that the war on terror never really existed…it was hollow, it was essentially nothing but a unifying myth for a complicated scramble of mixed impulses and social theories and night terrors and cruelty and business interests, all overhung with the unassailable memory of falling skyscrapers.”
In this way, Stack discusses how the conflict of September 11th spun out into many different conflicts; not just those in the psyche of the American people that led to aggressive patriotism and Islamophobia, but the conflicts the Bush Administration sparked elsewhere.
Stack’s internal conflict throughout the memoir is highlighted by the fact that it is told from her perspective, and highly personal in character. The narrative voice does not shy away from describing thoughts, fears and feelings that convey her inner struggle with the things she sees and hears. Often, Stack is torn between her position as a journalist-an observer to conflict-and as a human being with opinions on and feelings towards the things she observes. Her opinions are sometimes met with criticism, such as her articles about suicide bombings in Israel, and her critiques are sometimes harsh, but they are evidence of the depth of her feeling. Equally, her decision to write this novel and share her personal feelings demonstrates the inner conflict she experiences when thinking about her experiences; that she wishes to step away from the impersonality of journalistic reporting.
It is not only Stack’s internal crisis that we see. The people she interacts with suffer from a variety of internal conflicts; whether it be the paralysing indecision of “do I stay or do I go” or feelings of deep regret for past sins. The story that Stack opens on is that of John, an old family friend who went to war at a young age. She says:
“A bomb explodes and everything goes wrong. John lived, but he wasn’t all right. Three hundred and five people died around him. A few years later, he shot himself in the head.”
John’s internal conflict isn’t explored in any great depth but it is implied; both by the situation and from Stack’s takeaway that people can both survive and not survive war, all at the same time.
Obviously there is great complexity in the causes of all of the different conflicts that Stack discusses. Nonetheless, common threads are drawn between the different stories. American greed, dangerous jingoism, fear and ignorance are often identified as aggravating factors.
When discussing the overzealous military reaction to 9/11, Stack says the following:
“Mostly, I think, it was fear. Fear made more dangerous by gaping American estrangement from the rest of the world.”
Stack often depicts this combination of factors; fear of what one does not understand (in this case, Americans feeling powerless for the first time in living memory) and the emotional disconnect between America and other countries. This is portrayed through Stack’s discussions with people back home and the attitudes towards America depicted elsewhere. She describes her transformation away from the American psyche of detachment in As Long as You Can Pay for It.
Often, Stack portrays conflict as stemming from long and complex histories. The conflicts that she comes into contact with are not created in the instant of a gun being fired or a declaration of a war being signed, but are the result of hundreds or thousands of years of shifting tensions. She tries to portray conflict as something that cannot be understood in a snapshot.
This is particularly evident in Stack’s stories which reference the longstanding Israel/Palestine conflict. She points out that “many Americans don’t fully understand what Gaza is or how it was created, or what the presence of Israeli tanks there denotes,” and paints a bleak picture of reconciliation. In particular, she highlights the vitriol she receives in the wake of publishing a seemingly mundane article on suicide bombers. One site against her reads:
“Megan Stack, another PLO propagandist, takes anti-Semitism to a level reminiscent of the 1930s.”
This histrionic response reveals the longstanding nature of the conflict and many of the reasons why people are so sensitive to even a hint of bias on the Israel/Palestine issue. Here, the writer is suggesting that Stack’s article is akin to pre-Holocaust anti-Semitic propaganda. The conflict is not purely that between the writer and Stack or the suicide bombers from Palestine and residents of Jerusalem, but stems from a different place altogether. Stack is wary of oversimplifying the cause of any of the conflicts she encounters.
This leads into our last discussion point, how all of these different conflicts lead to different responses from the individuals who experience them.
By sharing the stories of so many different people from varying backgrounds, Stack explores the many ways people respond to conflict. Whether it be victims or perpetrators, there is a lack of consistency in people’s responses to the crises they face. In this way, the collection portrays many different responses from anger to fear to apathy.
There’s Miri in Jerusalem who remains steadfastly positive while trying to educate young children why they shouldn’t torture cats and dogs. A Shiite man in Najaf expresses to Stack that his people have been killed by America, but totally without animosity. The nameless man in Libya wants to speak to Stack but lives in total fear of her publishing his words. Then there are many more who have no kindness or fear left, but feel only white rage for the conflict that afflicts them. They are all united by their experience of conflict, yet distanced by their responses to it.
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