Where’s the War in Contemporary War Novels?

The past few weeks brought two significant additions to the contemporary war literature conversation. The first was a long review essay by Michael Lokesson in the Los Angeles Review of Books called “Passive Aggression: Recent War Novels.” Lokesson’s review covers much the same ground as this blog, with extended commentaries on Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Fobbit, The Yellow Birds, and Sparta, among others. Lokesson also offers some historical musing about war and literature, going back to Homer, and finally a bit of meta-analysis on the possibilities for contemporary war lit to achieve greatness. “Reading this latest crop of accomplished soldier’s novels,” he writes, “I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe modern war and its aftermath, as told through a soldier’s eyes, simply isn’t the stuff of great novels anymore.” Contemplating the fact that much “combat” in Iraq and Afghanistan consisted of waiting for IEDs to go off or a rocket to hit the FOB, Lokesson continues:

“In warfare [today], the soldier is passive to a startling degree, and even the war effort itself is built on passively securing the population rather than actively defeating the enemy. Molding passivity into great literature is never easy, as the current harvest of soldier’s novels attests, and the novelist who sets him or herself to the task is forced to climb a very steep mountain indeed. Can a truly classic novel arise under such conditions? I’d like to say yes, but I have my doubts.”

Regarding the wars that gave us Fallujah and COP Keating, I’m not so sure Lokesson’s characterization of them is entirely correct, though he might be onto something regarding their literature. He seems to have it in mind that a great war novel must portray heroic action or striking scenes of battle, and the current war lit record is scant on both counts. To help stir the pot of discussion, also out recently is Men in Black, a stunning video rendition of a terrific combat scene from Colby Buzzell’s memoir My War. I’ve praised Buzzell’s writing before; for my money, the scenes describing combat in My War render the material detail and visceral feel–half adrenaline, half fear–better than anything I’ve read elsewhere, fact or fiction. Hat’s off too to Buzzell’s collaborator Evan Parsons for bringing My War to video-digital life with his excellent graphic-novel like illustrations. Buzzell is certainly not passive, as either a fighter and writer, which is good, but he’s also not especially reflective. From his grunt’s eye perspective, war is about kill-or-be-killed, with factors that might require thought before, during, or after action of second import. Nor does he portray himself or anyone else heroically.

A great battle scene that unabashedly depicts a war hero can be found in another memoir, Lone Survivor, written by Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell with the assistance of novelist Patrick Robinson. If you haven’t read the scene lately, or at all, describing the death of Lieutenant Michael Murphy, please check it out. The description of the battle leading up to Murphy’s death is also terrific, with Luttrell and Robinson vividly portraying the terror that comes from being shot at from all sides. While Buzzell’s as irreverent as they come, Luttrell’s 180 degrees the opposite—Lone Survivor is a glowing elegy to an officer whose last moments inspired Luttrell to write, “If they build a memorial to him as high as the Empire State Building, it won’t ever be high enough for me.” The passage gives me the shivers every time I read it, but it’s such an uncomplicated encomium I couldn’t imagine it in a “serious” novel, full of doubt and irony.

So, My War and Lone Survivor demarcate a range of possibilities, but they are memoirs, not fiction. In the major novels, there’s not much combat on display, let alone brave acts. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk contains about a page’s worth of fighting detail. The Yellow Birds and Fobbit both depict scenes in which friendly and enemy soldiers and civilians kill and get killed, but the climatic “battle” scene in each is an incoming mortar or rocket round that takes the life of key character while unawares on the FOB. A true enough possibility, I well know, but not exactly a heroic way to go out. Or one that allows an author to portray combat at any length.

A Camp Clark, Afghanistan, barracks showing the results of a direct hit by a 107mm rocket.  Fortunately no one was inside at the time and no one was hurt.
A Camp Clark, Afghanistan, barracks after a direct hit by a 107mm rocket. Ouch.

But Fobbit–contra to its title–actually does quite well depicting two episodes set outside the wire. In these, author David Abrams portrays dispute and potential violence between Americans and Iraqis that place American soldiers in the crucible of real-time, on-the ground decision-making, with many eyes watching, about whether to take a life or not. In the two scenes, a hapless officer underreacts in one tense stand-off involving a suicide bomber and overreacts in the other. In the first scenario, Abrams writes, “If someone had taken immediate action forty minutes ago, none of this would be an issue, but the commander on the scene–a pinch-faced captain named Shrinkle, known for his hems and haws–had waited too long.” A bold sergeant named Lumley takes charge, which needs to happen, but Abrams hints at the after-effects: “It would be a long time, years and years of therapy, before he could wipe from his mind the sight of that head erupting in a bloody geyser. He’d pulled the trigger without thinking through the consequences. He was not sorry he hadn’t hesitated but there was always that nagging, niggling doubt: maybe haji wasn’t going for the grenade….”

Abrams is on to something here; he seems to be saying that successful performance in combat isn’t so much a matter of bravery but of incisive decision-making under pressure. Here may be the gold waiting for extraction by future war novelists: not scenes of valor, but scenes of the mind as it decides what to do next, continuously, again and again, in difficult circumstances with important consequences.

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