War Lit 2014: Here Here! But What’s the There There?

Here here to war lit 2014, a year that brought us Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition, and Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country, among many excellent others. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars, ferocious as they were at times, never captured the nation’s undivided attention. Now nine years after Fallujah, five full years after my own redeployment, fighting in Iraq flickers back to life while conflict in Afghanistan drizzles on. Time will tell what recent events mean in terms of American soldier boots on the ground, but the wars now seem to burn more hotly in the nation’s literary imagination than they ever did in its political awareness. War lit has established itself as a steady persistent presence in the minds of authors, publishers, critics, and readers. Not the biggest deal going, by any means, but book people seem far more willing now to give the wars their due than when 20 American soldiers a week were dying.

Phil Klay and Hassan Blasim
Brian Turner at Custer's grave, West Point, New York.
Brian Turner at Custer’s grave, West Point, New York.

What is the right relationship of high-minded war literature and the nation at large? In World War II and even more so Vietnam, war literature, or at least a lot of it, acted subversively to question and undermine official pronouncements and stabs at controlling speech and thought. But in the 2000s and current decade, there seems to be no “there there” in terms of a dominant narrative or popular consensus against which our most sensitive and imaginative authors might set themselves, no greater truth on whose behalf they wield their words and stories. Leaving Blasim, an Iraqi expatriate, out of it, Klay and Turner, good as they are, rarely mock the wielders of power, so it’s hard to say how dangerous they are to the status quo. What government policy, cultural understanding, or body of literature, art, and film do they resist or subvert? Official sanctioning of torture and cross-border drone strikes? The “support the troops” ethos and the caricature of the troubled vet? The Navy SEAL and sniper memoir and Hollywood war sagas such as Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor, and Fury? Yes to all, but the best might be to come. War lit doesn’t need to more polemical, just more expansive. Its focus on the lived life of individual soldiers and the plight of veterans, noble as it is, also feels somewhat preparatory, as if the genre in toto might be waiting for even more acute and impassioned observers to capture in the most accurate proportions the vexed connectivity of soldier experience, the wars at large, and the national mood.

The novel would seem to be the medium for just such a project, and we might remember the excitement of 2012 when The Yellow Birds, The Watch, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and Fobbit lit up the war lit scene. 2013 and 2014 seem not to have delivered the same wallop, but I’ve probably missed a thing or two. In the coming weeks I’ll turn my attention to a slew of 2014 (and older) releases. Waiting on my shelf are Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Masha Hamilton’s What Changes Everything, Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War, Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, and Nadeem Aslam’s The Blind Man’s Garden. And 2015 will bring Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, and Matt Gallagher’s Young Blood. Ackerman, Goolsby, and Gallagher combine significant war experience and impressive writing talent, so as I pitch into my New Year’s reading, my hopes are high, very high. I hope yours are, too.

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