A Golden Age of War Writing? A Critical Companion to Contemporary War Lit

Afghanistan 109

Below are ten articles on contemporary war literature published in reputable mainstream press venues in the last two years. Some are by veterans, one is by a non-veteran author of fiction, and the rest are by critics and in-house book-reviewers, but all in my mind are major statements in regard to the imaginative literature written by Americans about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’ve listed them in chronological order, added a few notes and a quotation from each, and offered a few overarching comments at the end.

1. Brian Van Reet, “A Problematic Genre: The Kill Memoir,” New York Times. Van Reet asserts the superiority of war fiction over the glut of memoirs by service members a little too proud of the lives they took in Iraq and Afghanistan. Specifically praising David Abrams’ Fobbit and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Van Reet writes, “Though they are fictional, they read, in my mind, like more accurate depictions of the totality of what happened in Iraq than any of the supposedly factual accounts I have mentioned.” July 16, 2013.

2. Ryan Bubalo, “Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction,” Los Angeles Review of Books. Bubalo calls Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk “the best of them,” and proposes a means of understanding the genre’s achievement as a whole: “In fact, the most striking similarity of these fictions is their overarching orientation toward the war. These are writers of different backgrounds and abilities, writing different types of war tales that independently confirm our national sense of the Iraq War as a great folly.” December 25, 2013.

3. Phil Klay, “After War, a Failure of Imagination,” New York Times. Klay asserts that it is an ethical imperative for both veteran authors and civilian audiences to understand war imaginatively. “To enter into that commonality of consciousness, though, veterans need an audience that is both receptive and critical,” Klay writes, “Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility — it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain.” February 8, 2014.

4. George Packer, “Home Fires: How Soldiers Write Their Wars,” The New Yorker. Packer surveys fiction, poetry, and memoir written by veteran and offers the following categorical assessment: “Their work lacks context, but it gets closer to the lived experience of war than almost any journalism. It deals in particulars, which is where the heightened alertness of combatants has to remain, and it’s more likely to notice things.” Packer singles out Brian Turner’s poem “Al-A’imaa Bridge” and Phil Klay’s Redeployment, especially the story “Prayer in the Furnace,” for praise. April 7, 2014.

5. Roxana Robinson, “The Right to Write,” New York Times. Robinson argues that non-veteran voices should be welcomed in the war literature conversation. She reminds us that “Some of the greatest war writers were not soldiers: Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Crane, the blind Homer. They entered the world of war through compassion, not combat. We judge them by their work, not their military service. And we benefit from that work; they have widened our understanding of war.” June 28, 2014.

6. Jeff Turrentine, “Review: Fives and Twenty-Fives, by Michael Pitre, a Tale of Dangerous Duty in Iraq,” Washington Post. In the course of his review, Turrentine calls the recent boom in war literature “a Golden Age,” and offers examples of excellence and a reason for the boom: “Although we’re still a few years away from being able to view the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through the clarifying lens of closure, a number of writers have taken it upon themselves to put together the beginnings of a canon. The best of them, like the short-story writer Phil Klay (Redeployment) and the novelists David Abrams (Fobbit) and Ben Fountain (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk), seem to understand that the protracted nature of modern war … can easily lead to chronic moral fatigue. That’s a highly troubling state for our fighting men and women to find themselves in. But for a fiction writer who’s striving to create believably complex characters, there’s no better place to start.” August 25, 2014.

7. Brian Castner, “Afghanistan: A Stage Without a Play,” Los Angeles Review of Books. Castner explores why so much fiction has been written about war in Iraq and so little about Afghanistan. After surveying a number of authors, veterans, and critics (including me), he writes, “All agreed on this: there is something different about Afghanistan, and it has affected our nascent literature on the war. Consider three factors: the United States’ relationship with the conflict, the type of soldier who served each theater, and the topography — cultural, historic, geographic — of Afghanistan itself.” October 2, 2014.

8. Michiko Kakutani, “Human Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill a Bookshelf,” New York Times. Kakutani writes, “So far, fiction about the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has tended to have a chamber music quality, using short stories, fable-like allegories or keyhole views (from individuals and platoons) to open small windows on those conflicts. Why has there been no big, symphonic Iraq or Afghanistan novel?” Kakutani praises Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and Brian Castner’s and Kayla Williams’ memoirs, among others, but saves her highest plaudits for Dexter Filkins’ journalistic The Forever War for how it combines “micro” and “macro” level reportage of damage done in Iraq. December 25, 2014.

9. Michiko Kakutani, “A Reading List of Modern War Stories,” New York Times. In a companion piece to the critical survey published on the same day, Kakutani names 39 memoirs, novels, and non-fiction accounts that, presumably, constitute the works about war in Iraq and Afghanistan to which we should pay attention to first. The list is idiosyncratic–why 39 titles?–and subjective—no Brian Turner Here, Bullet, for example, yet three novels unpublished at the time the article appeared—but conversation-starting, at least, if not canon-forming. December 25, 2014.

10. Roy Scranton, The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment and American Sniper, Los Angeles Review of Books. Scranton traces a war literature genealogy centered on what he calls the “trauma hero”—soldiers pained by their participation in war who then need therapeutic recoupment to become whole again upon return home. “By focusing so insistently on the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure, we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for,” Scranton writes. January 25, 2015.

And so we can see the outlines of a general angle of critique and praise: The wars as folly, though experienced painfully by participants. An interest in the homefront and the aftermath of war. The short story as the form best suited to wars that have resisted closure and were experienced fragmentally. A sense that what counts most are soldiers’ accounts—not civilians’–written by those with some reflective purchase on their experience and who question their choices, wrangle with their responsibility and complicity, and come to understanding of the immense wrongness of war and militaristic thinking. One subject our intellectual tastemakers don’t yet seem interested in is the new, substantial, and important presence of women in the ranks of war authors, which is curious, nor have we seen much effort to assay new war literature written by non-Americans.

We might add a few other features that are touched on only here-and-there by the critics: The corpus’s affinities and deviations from the writing inspired by other wars, especially that of Vietnam, World War I, and—going way back—the Homeric wars of ancient Greece. The quickness with which highly literary works began appearing so soon after the cessation of combat. In contrast to what the critics have noticed, the field’s inclusiveness of non-veteran authors eager to write about military and war-related subjects and themes. An interest, manifested fitfully, in depicting Iraqi and Afghan characters, and perspectives on war from those on the homefront or soldiers and Marines other than combat infantrymen. The implications of a small all-volunteer force that experiences war first-hand while the nation-at-large pays attention or not, as it will. Wars newly-defined by reliance on strategies and techniques—torture, drones, Special Operation raids, cross-international-boundary strikes never officially acknowledged, counterinsurgency and nation-building operations—ethically frowned upon or considered unimportant previously. A national war rhetoric characterized by respect for individual soldier service but ambivalent about war aims articulated by first President Bush and then President Obama. A war carried out by a citizenry and fighting force completely immersed in a new communicative realm made possible by technology. The difficulty of finding equitable ground for dialogue between veterans and civilians.

The critical evaluations so far have been complimentary, by-and-large, which is cool, but sharper-edged critique by sterner critics is sure to come. Speaking of which, Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq (2011) aside, we also await the academic community’s assessment of contemporary war literature using the current methodologies of literary analysis. In fact, we will soon have a survey of war literature written by Iraqis—Ikram Masmoudi’s War and Occupation in Iraq War Fiction (2015)—before we have one written about contemporary American war novels–another curious state of affairs. For any interested academics, Peebles and Aaron DeRosa are co-editing an upcoming issue of Modern Fiction Studies devoted to contemporary war literature, a welcome effort that will greatly accelerate the critical evaluation of our “Golden Age” of war literature.

The Morale, Welfare, and Recreation bookshelf, Camp Clark, Afghanistan
The “take-one/leave-one” bookshelf, Camp Clark, Afghanistan

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