Christopher Brownfield was something of an oddity on his nuclear-powered submarine. While the other seamen hung out and watched taoks films—crew jargon for flicks involving tits, ass, ordnance, kung fu, and swordplay—the 28-year-old lieutenant was just as happy to curl up in his bunk and read T.S. Eliot. Perhaps not surprisingly, Brownfield wasn’t long for the Navy.
Last October, he was honorably discharged and returned to civilian life in his New Haven bachelor pad, which, on a recent visit, looked like it had been converted into an art gallery’s warehouse. Virtually every inch of wall and floor space was occupied by artwork. There were Cubist-like oil paintings, bronze statues, drawings so lifelike they could pass for photographs, and ornate collages that incorporated materials like old shirts, charred dolls, and election ballots written in Kurdish and Arabic. “They’re on loan from artists in Baghdad,” he explained. “I suppose I have become their agent.”
Back when he still worked for the American military, Brownfield volunteered to go to Iraq, where he was stationed at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. One day, while wandering around the Green Zone, he stumbled upon the closest thing to a museum that exists within the compound: a souvenir shop selling Persian rugs, hookahs, and a large number of oil paintings.
“The paintings were made for tourists, which means U.S. soldiers, and they featured the kind of clichéd images of Arabs and camels that would be too cheesy to make it i...