“Peebles’ thesis is that that memoirs, poetry, and movies by and about Iraq veterans document veteran struggles to reconcile military and civilian identities. The authors and artists she studies join the military willingly, but subsequently find themselves at odds with martial culture and ideals….. They enlist confident they can handle the worst they might see. But military life, and more specifically the experience of war, overwhelms them. Still proud of their service and eager to remember positive aspects of it, their nostalgic fondness rests uneasily alongside messed-up minds and damaged bodies.”
Today, while reading J.K. Rowling’s 2013 detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling (published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith), I came across a passage that reflects the same ideas. The Cuckoo’s Calling’s protagonist is Cormoran Strike, a disabled British Afghanistan vet now working as a detective in London. When asked why he left the army, he replies:
“’Got my leg blown off,’ said Strike, with an honesty that was not habitual.”
“It was only part of the truth, but the easiest part to communicate to a stranger. He could have stayed; they had been keen to keep him; but the loss of his calf and foot had merely precipitated a decision he felt stealing towards him the past couple of years. He knew that his personal tipping point was drawing nearer; that moment by which, unless he left, he would find it too onerous to go, to readjust to civilian life. The army shaped you, almost imperceptibly, with the years; wore you into a surface conformity that made it easier to be swept along by the tidal force of military life. Strike had never become entirely submerged, and had chosen to go before that happened. Even so, he remembered [the army] with a fondness that was unaffected by the loss of half a limb….”
I haven’t yet finished The Cuckoo’s Calling, so I don’t know in what other ways Rowling infuses Strike with the habits and perspectives of a contemporary war vet, but I find her choice to make military service an important facet of the novel significant. From where comes the interest? What is she trying to say? Is she cravenly capitalizing on a trendy motif, or is Strike an Ahab-like crusader for truth, justice, and vengeance? I’ve never read a Harry Potter novel, but I’m reminded of the several soldiers I knew who used their idle deployment time to read the entire series. And if there’s any author in common I’ll bet the majority of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans—to include the veteran writers–have read it would have to be Rowling. The series appeared almost simultaneously with the coming-of-age of those who fought the wars, and individual titles came out like tick-marks during the years the wars escalated and reached their fullest fury. Smarter minds than mine can make the connections that undoubtedly exist between the make-believe world of Hogwarts, the fantastical battle zones of the middle-East, and the psyches of soldiers. “Seek and ye shall find” the saying goes, and the following quotation from the Wikipedia entry on Harry Potter could be a good start point for the inquiry:
“According to Rowling, a major theme in the series is death: ‘My books are largely about death. They open with the death of Harry’s parents. There is Voldemort’s obsession with conquering death and his quest for immortality at any price, the goal of anyone with magic. I so understand why Voldemort wants to conquer death. We’re all frightened of it.'”
Kudos to Rowling for donating the proceeds from The Cuckoo’s Calling to the The Soldier’s Charity, an organization that for many years has rendered aid to British veterans. Finally, if anyone is aware of novels and poetry written by British contemporary war veterans, please let us know about them.
J.K. Rowling (aka Robert Galbraith), The Cuckoo’s Calling. Mulholland Books, 2013.