Something Wicked This Way Comes: The Future of War Literature

Graffiti at the ruined and abandoned Darul Aman Palace, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2008. “Darul Aman” means “Abode of Peace.”

“I have written a wicked book, and feel spotless as a lamb,” wrote Herman Melville to Nathaniel Hawthorne after completing Moby-Dick. I don’t know if Moby-Dick is exactly wicked, or about the “spotless as a lamb” business, but I am ready for a wicked book about American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. So far, stories and novels about the wars have been remarkably dainty about depicting American soldiers’ capacity for killing, torture, carnage, malevolence, and other forms of evil. At some level, it seems, they try to hold a kernel of life-affirming goodness at the center of the war experience, whether it be located in the characters, the narrators, or within themselves.

That’s a great strategy for real life. “Be kind, for everyone is fighting a great battle inside,” are words to live by. But it’s limited when it comes to fiction, a virtue of which is its ability to take readers to forbidden places. Another nineteenth-century author, John Neal, wrote that novels were places “where imaginary creatures, invested with all the attributes of humanity, agitated by the passions of our nature, are put to the task of entertaining or terrifying us.” The greatest characters, Neal continued, are “scoundrels,” while virtuous characters “are altogether subordinate and pitiably destitute of energy and wholly without character.” Edgar Allan Poe knew Neal’s work, it would seem, or at least felt the same. No one’s asking for a war story as related by the berserk narrator of “The Cask of Amontillado,” but would you agree that Poe’s narrator is more memorable than all the protagonists of contemporary war fiction put together? And his narrative voice even more so?

Poe and Melville are tough standards by which to judge, but great examples from which to learn. Iraqi author Hassan Blasim, in the tales that make up The Corpse Exhibition (2014), has crafted spell-binding tales that portray, not Americans, but his own countrymen as capable of any evil, first by nature and then made even more so by the pressure of war. Contemporary war literature written by Americans, on the other hand, has by-and-large shied away from depicting truly reprehensible–which is to say truly remarkable–characters in ways that are not mediated by other, more sympathetic voices. The only story I know by an American author that entertainingly plumbs depravity is Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” from the Fire and Forget anthology (2013). Compared to the solemnity of most modern war stories, the vitality of “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is exceptional, and the story’s depiction of its charismatically ruined protagonists Sleed and Rooster startling. It’s a wicked tale indeed, and though I don’t know if Van Reet feels as spotless as a lamb, if it’s any solace I think more of him, not less, for writing it.

A spate of articles have appeared recently by civilian authors asserting their right to write about war and the military. A representative example is Sparta (2013) author Roxana Robinson’s essay “The Right to Write” that appeared in the New York Times. But Robinson, right as she is, and accomplished as she is, need not worry so much. I for one count on civilian authors to lead the way by demonstrating exactly how wide and deep are the boundaries of imaginative possibility, because, tales such as “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” excepted, vet authors are not yet so skilled at getting beyond the basic first steps of realistic description and gussied-up reportage of their own experiences. Or, maybe the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are still too fresh and hot, and the most visionary writing about contemporary war can only be found displaced in stories about past wars. Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (2010), an opus about Marines in Vietnam, begs to be read as a commentary not just on Iraq and Afghanistan, but on Iraq and Afghanistan war literature. Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison’s novel Home (2012), for another example, depicts an African-American Korean War soldier’s sexual attraction to and subsequent murder of a young girl. An up-and-coming author, Julian Zabalbeascoa, published in Ploughshares a fantastic story called “498” (not currently available online, but hopefully will be again soon) that portrays a soldier in the Spanish Civil War who uses the pretext of war to become a mass murderer. Guess what the number in the title refers to?

Brian Van Reet’s article “A Problematic Genre: the ‘Kill Memoir'” exposes the limitations of first-person reminiscences by ex-snipers that jumble reflection and braggadocio about the military business of killing. In my mind, and I think Van Reet would agree, fiction such as Zabalbeascoa’s most compellingly explores the complicated emotions and social context that kill memoir authors struggle to explain. But so far, our authors of war fiction have written much about soldiers preoccupied by the way the big, bad wars have impinged on the sensibilities of those who fight, and little about soldiers who find themselves on other terms—if not delight, then an ambivalent complicity—with violence, force, hate, sadism, greed, ambition, selfishness, self-preservation, and killing. Let’s see what the future brings.

UPDATE, 3 August 2014.  In this post, I speculate that the darkest war fiction written about Iraq and Afghanistan might have to take as its setting another war.  In the Letters, I suggest that Hollywood might make a dark, bleak war film before our authors and publishers bring us such a book.  Now, two weeks later, comes notice of a new film called Fury, starring Brad Pitt and directed by David Ayers.  Read the New York Times review of Fury for what appears to be confirmations of my assertions.

14 thoughts on “Something Wicked This Way Comes: The Future of War Literature”

  1. Peter, I believe what you wrote is true…but, then, there’s O’Brien’s books on the Vietnam War, quite to the point of what you are talking of; also, my own novel “The Things We Do To Make It Home,” about the Vietnam vets back in the USA. My most recent novel “Stop Here,” deals with the attempt of parents to keep the “volunteers” at home to little avail and goes on to illustrate the emotional aspects of endurance. But, yes, seeing soldiers in as human a way as possible is quite humane of course. Thanks for the essay. All best, Beverly Gologorsky

    1. Thanks, Beverly. I like fiction of all stripes, from the most humane to the most diabolical. I’m looking forward to reading Stop Here–no promises when, but I’m working around to another piece on the homefront, and am eager to see your depiction of a parent-soldier relationship. I’m not sure yet what you are getting at by putting “volunteers” in quotes, but in my mind the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan war soldiers were not drafted, but joined and deployed of their own accord is incredibly important for thinking well about how the wars were experienced.

      1. Thanks so much for your reply. Just to clarify…what I meant by “Volunteers,” in this instance was to illustrate the difference between those drafted into Vietnam and those not drafted into the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. For the volunteer, it was possible for people on the home front to try to engage their sons/daughters, others, not to go without forcing them to face jail or Canada. Also I think a volunteer army changes the way the public at large views war.

  2. Great post, Pete. You know my predilection for exploring limit cases, so I hope you might forgive me for asking a perhaps obvious question: if contemporary American war fiction were to “take the gloves off,” as you seem to be urging, what might the OEF/OIF equivalent of Ellis’s brilliant but viciously and hideously dark satire “American Psycho” look like?

    By the way — you may recall that Margaret and Scott and Jessica took Lauralea to see the Royal Theatre of Scotland’s production of “Black Watch,” and Lauralea and I have now seen it twice. It’s a brutal, wonderful performance about Scottish soldiers in Iraq. I’ve gotten choked up each time.

    1. Mike, psychotic war fiction as you describe it is probably going to bubble up from the underground–maybe from the comic book/graphic novel scene–or come to us via a half-demented/half-sensationalist Hollywood director. It’s probably already out there, at least as an idea in somebody’s head. Re Black Watch, I’ve heard so much about it, but never seen a performance. For those who don’t know, Black Watch is a play about a British army unit in Iraq that was first staged in Edinburgh in 2006 and in many other places after that.

  3. Even if novelists are skittish about writing “diabolical vet” narrators at this point in time, I think both Kevin Powers and Aaron Gwynn (“Wynne’s War”) had some fun with, if not purely evil, at least seriously-sketchy Sergeants! I remember Sgt. Sterling from ‘The Yellow Birds’ — with his murder of the civilian cart-driver, his bad brothel behavior, and his creepy habit of sprinkling salt on his platoon’s path for vague “Biblical reasons” — almost more clearly than I remember that novel’s narrator.

    Maybe as the Sergeants of war fiction go, the narrators will soon follow, when our cultural comfort level allows it?

  4. (Whoops — caught myself! — In “Wynne’s War,” Wynne is a captain, not a sergeant. Well, leadership anyway…)

  5. Andria, I think Sergeant Sterling in The Yellow Birds is a good example of John Neal’s point about a novel’s “scoundrel” having more life-force and interest than its “good” characters. Sergeant Dime in BLLHW, though not a scoundrel, is another example of a minor character who is more dynamic than the protagonist. Something similar happens in Fobbit, so there’s a lot to be said about the portrayal of sergeants in contemporary war fiction.

  6. Soldiers can be victims of war. But we need a different kind of war literature, particularly now in the Gaza/Syria age, one that focuses on the civilian victims.

    1. Adam, I’m keeping the blog focused on Afghanistan and Iraq, but your point about civilian victims of war is a good one. I’m always on the lookout for stories portraying the viewpoints and especially the suffering of noncombatants. One of the ways that war literature has redefined itself in the 21st century is through its blurring of what constitutes a “war story” by focusing on portraits of civilians affected by war.

  7. Hi Jehanne, long time no talk. Thanks for the link, and I look forward to seeing your panel at AWP15. I’ll be there too, with Ron Capps, Kayla Williams, and Colin Halloran, and if our panels overlap I’ll be severely pissed. For readers who don’t know Jehanne Dubrow, she is the author of a superb volume of poems called Stateside–highly recommended, so please check it out.

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