“Those in the ‘reality-based community … believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. … That’s not the way the world works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.’ ”

Thus begins photographer Debi Cornwall’s latest book, “Necessary Fictions” (Radius Books, 2020). The quote comes from a 2004 article in the New York Times Magazine. It was originally attributed to a “senior adviser” in the Bush administration but later revealed to be from Karl Rove.

To be frank, paging through Cornwall’s book, taking in the imagery interspersed with quotes and excerpts from government contracts, can make you feel a little more than uneasy, even angry. So much of what is presented hits very close to home, including the concept of those in power seeking to create their own reality.

The book itself, a hefty 324 pages containing 104 images, is beautiful. The images are beautifully reproduced on thick paper. The very artfulness of the photos seem to belie the deadly seriousness of the book. Cornwall visited 10 military bases across the United States where mock villages have been created to help train soldiers in the various scenarios they would encounter once deployed on missions in war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq.

On these bases, real soldiers interact with people role-playing Iraqi or Afghan civilians. But many of the people role-playing have fled war, only to end up re-creating the very scenarios they fled so that U.S. soldiers can ostensibly train to be ready for them.

In one of the many passages interspersed among photos of arid landscapes populated by the role players and soldiers, Cornwall recalls a chilling conversation with a man named “Adnan.”

“Adnan says he was one of Saddam’s special forces back in Iraq.

‘I served for 11 years,’ he says with pride.

‘You must have seen some things,’ I say.

‘I did,’ he agrees, nodding gravely.

‘How does it feel to be surrounded by the sounds of shelling, gunshots here in the box,’ I ask.

‘It takes me back,’ he says with a smile, ‘I feel nostalgic.’

‘Why did you leave Iraq?’ I ask.

‘They tried to call me up for another tour of duty,’ he says. ‘It was too much. I had to go.’ ”

Here’s a man all too familiar with the ravages of war, playing a part he is intimately acquainted with for the benefit of training people to replicate the circumstances that he had to get away from. It’s a surreal and sad moment. The word “ironic” can hardly describe it.

We all know, deep down, that war is heinous. At some level, we understand that our military needs to prepare for it. But the fact that there is so much care and attention to detail taken to prepare our military for the very real circumstances the book depicts is mind-boggling. In the world of “Necessary Fictions” there are amputee mannequins, odors that simulate rotting flesh and decaying bodies, and people speaking foreign languages and acting as insurgents.

Very early in my career, I attempted to strike out as a war photographer. I first worked in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank and later spent time embedded with the 82nd Airborne in Khost province in Afghanistan. Many of the scenarios in Cornwall’s book are familiar. But as I made my way through the book, I couldn’t help but wonder how effective these simulations are. That question kept tugging at me throughout “Necessary Fictions.”

Being in the theater of war and experiencing mortar attacks and artillery fire, or flying on a C-130, experiencing the dizzying corkscrew descent it has to make while landing to evade possible enemy fire while carrying explosives to a forward operating base is surreal. The scenarios throughout “Necessary Fictions” are like a video game come to life, except they exist to train people to go into the most horrifically “real” situations. One glaring difference being that out in the field there is no on/off or reset button.

Some of the anger and frustration the book evoked in me comes from those words of Rove’s that Cornwall places up front and center in the book. I just can’t help but wonder about what goes through a person’s mind when they admit to their power creating reality. Of course at some level it’s true. But it seems so ugly and callous when it comes down to sending people out to risk life and limb. It’s not a game. There are real, enduring consequences that come from sending people to war. The civilians and soldiers suffering PTSD from participating in it surely know that.

Cornwall’s book reveals the twisted ways that power attempts to construct reality, regardless of the very real pain and suffering it lays on the people tasked with upholding it. This is emphasized on Page 259 of “Necessary Fictions,” where Cornwall quotes from Ben Fountain’s “Soldiers on the Fault Line: War, Rhetoric, and Reality,”: “To a significant extent … our lives take place in the realm of fantasy, triviality, and materialism, and our senses and mental capacity become numbed as a result.”

To be sure, resistance to the “reality” that the mechanisms of power “create” has always been around.

If anything, the events over the past year in the United States are proof of that. We’ve see all kinds of revolt: the outrage and protests after the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd; the calls for police reform; wildly differing views on how to approach the coronavirus pandemic. We have been constantly locked in a war over whose reality reigns supreme. It’s impossible to deny this. Just take a look at the contentious presidential election we’ve just had. Over 80 million people voted for a new president, but over 70 million voted to keep the incumbent. The struggle for who gets to create reality continues.

You can buy “Necessary Fictions” either here or here. And you can see more of Cornwall’s work, here.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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