In an earlier post, I wrote of the similarity of Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand.” In each story a badly wounded Iraq war vet confronts the fact that his wife has chosen to leave him. In Fallon’s story, the vet and his wife are so tenderly portrayed that the reader is left gasping with sympathy for both of them. We want them each to somehow be happy again, if not together then in their now separate lives. In Van Reet’s story, the soldier and his wife are monsters, albeit colorful ones. They have not been just buffeted and damaged by the war, but ruined by it.
Both stories are great, just in case that needs saying.
As up-to-the-minute as they are, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and “The Last Stand” also belong to a tradition of stories about wounded male vets being jilted by wives and girlfriends. Alice Fahs remind us of that in The Imagined Civil Wars when she describes a Civil War tale called “A Leaf From a Summer” published in Harper’s Weekly in November 1862. Fahs writes:
“In that story a soldier faced an amputation hopefully because he had a letter from his beloved ‘next to his heart’; afterward, contrary to the surgeon’s expectations, he indeed ‘began to rally.’ But after receiving a letter telling him that his shallow lover had changed her mind and would not ‘marry a cripple,’ the hour quickly came ‘when they lowered him into the earth, and fired their volleys over him.’ As the narrator commented, ‘his enemy had struck him unarmed and unaware.’ As such the popular fiction revealed, the war only intensified a long-standing literary connection between love and war: numerous stories claimed not only that women’s love was vital to a successful war but that love itself equaled war in its power to kill men.”
Below is a link to a web reprint of the story as it appeared in the 8 November 1862 Harper’s Weekly, for those who can’t get enough of that breathless, clichéd, one-sided 19th-century narration.
“A Leaf From A Summer” is laughable, while the strength of Fallon’s and Van Reet’s stories is their ability to convey marital breakup with a sense of perspective, balance, nuance, and realism. Examined in isolation, however, the pain of a soldier’s heartbreak is real and consequential. A chapter called “Dear John” from Matt Gallagher’s excellent war memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War describes the carnage wrought on the soldiers in his cavalry scout platoon when they were jilted while deployed.
“Dear Johns crushed men of otherwise unquestionable strength and total resoluteness. In the time they most needed something right and theirs, it was taken away from them. It wasn’t like getting dumped—it had a far more resounding impact on the soldier. He became rougher, harsher, crueler…. Truthfully, it usually made him a better soldier, but he lost some vital slivers of his humanity in the process.”
Gallagher also explains that Dear Johns “didn’t just impact the recipient. They affected the psyches of teams, sections, platoons, and troops, bringing home to everyone the recognition that the same thing could happen to them and forcing them to wonder if it was going to. Or if it already had and they just didn’t know about it yet. This mind fuck was the worst part for many.”
Gallagher points out that a soldier’s romantic interest represents his (or her) hope that an ideal or at least better world awaits his return and thus makes the misery of the war endurable and grounds his conduct while deployed. But he also reminds us that many soldiers are shitty boyfriends or husbands. Neglectful and needy by turns, they might be outraged and hurt by unfaithfulness even while being unfaithful themselves. Gallagher doesn’t do much more to explain Dear Johns from a woman’s point of view, but Kit, the protagonist of “The Last Stand” and Sleed, the protagonist of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” also present their spouses with many issues even without the problem of their dismemberment and disfigurement. The implication seems to be that women are attracted by the idea of loving a soldier, but find the reality very difficult to deal with. Perhaps they also suspect that male soldiers love war and the military more than they do their wives and girlfriends, and thus determine to make their men pay.
Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” can be found in Fire and Forget: Short Stories, published by De Capo Press in 2012.
Siobhan Fallon’s “The Last Stand” can be found in You Know When the Men are Gone, published by Amy Einhorn Books-Putnam in 2011.
Matt Gallagher’s Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War was published by De Capo Press in 2010.
Alice Fahs’ The Imagined Civil War: Popular Literature of the North and South 1861-1865 was published in 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press.