Contemporary War Fiction: Is The Best Yet to Come?

Camps Parsa and Clark, Khost Province, Afghanistan
Camps Parsa and Clark, Khost Province, Afghanistan

In an essay published online in Harper’s this week titled “First-Person Shooters: What’s Missing in Contemporary War Fiction,” Sam Sacks takes millennial war authors to task for writing solipsistic stories that focus on the plight of woebegone individual soldiers traumatized by their deployments. Childlike innocents more than hardened warriors, the protagonists of war fiction bumble through their tours without doing any real fighting and then wallow in self-pity upon return. Their constant complaints that they don’t understand what they have experienced are matched only by their assertions that even if they could explain what happened on deployment, readers who hadn’t been there wouldn’t get it. The whole thing, Sacks asserts, is “pitiable,” coming from soldiers who were supposed to have fought competently and bravely, and made worse by MFA programs that have transformed veteran would-be writers into morose belly-button gazers too dull and chicken to address the moral and political implications of their service.

Thus Sacks seems not very impressed by the war lit he’s read so far, giving it what feels like a grade of C- or even D-  for its failure to achieve all that it might have. “One of the jobs of literature is to wake us from stupor,” he concludes, “and the best attempts of today’s veterans have done little to disturb it.” Though Sacks doesn’t mention American Sniper, the logic of his critique explains why the memoir and film were so popular. While fiction protagonists fret about buddies killed by random mortar rounds, Chris Kyle shot bad guys left and right, didn’t feel a lick of remorse, wrote about it candidly, and was subsequently rewarded with adoration and riches. Kyle’s claim that “For myself and the SEALs I was with, patriotism and getting into the heat of the battle were deeply connected” doesn’t reflect Sacks’ politics, but Sacks would probably find it a more profound and honorable statement about the larger dimensions of Iraq and Afghanistan than anything in name-your-favorite-novel by name-your-favorite-author-of-war-fiction.

Sacks is a lively writer, and he knows how to insert a knife and twist it so it really hurts. I don’t disagree with most of his observations, though, just the final assessment. The trends and patterns Sacks identifies are writ large in the pages of the stories he examines. But rather than taking the measure of contemporary war fiction in order to damn its authors, I value what the corpus of war fiction has accomplished so far and for what it promises in the future. Most soldiers were not heroes, the wars were damn confusing, and that confusion is clearly and smartly reflected in the writing about it so far. “Write-what-you-know,” an MFA precept that irritates Sacks to no end, seems prudent for vet novelists the first time out, even if it leads to the “the abyss of subjectivity,” as Sacks claims. Holding veteran authors responsible for exacerbating the civil-military divide also seems a little harsh, given what so far has been a better effort than anyone else has attempted to bridge that divide. Sacks thinks it is a problem that no veteran has yet written a work that combines the imaginative sweep of War and Peace with the cultural punch of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But the issues he identifies as structural and endemic are better seen as challenges for the next round of war fiction writers to figure out and transcend—which I’m pretty sure they are already in the process of doing.

4 thoughts on “Contemporary War Fiction: Is The Best Yet to Come?”

  1. Nice response to a sticky essay. I defend a dissertation tomorrow that tries to walk the same line as Sacks with a little less blame assignment. Thanks for the unintentional pep talk.

  2. Thanks and good luck with it, but if your committee is allowing you to defend, it’s pretty much in the bag, right? Congrats on completing.

  3. You offer yet another thoughtful consideration of a provocative piece, the earlier one in mind being your commentary on Scranton’s screed. I find these percolating critiques of an emerging generation of war writers indicative of the long-established and increasingly festering abyss between veterans, even veterans who have never fired or themselves been the target of a shot fired in anger, and the larger society those veterans served. Throughout Sacks’ piece, which I appreciate you pointing your readers toward, there seems to my sense a selectivity that drives a conclusion. He could have profiled works that refuted his conclusions. Just as one example, David Abrams’ ‘Fobbit’ hardly serves as self-pitying self-immersion, and harkens back to a parallel tradition of war writing that makes serious, broad statements using satire or comic critique such as ‘Catch-22,’ ‘Slaughterhouse-Five,’ David Willson’s ‘REMF Diary’ (about Vietnam), and others.

    Sacks, for example, might have considered the centrality of hypothesis to O’Brien’s ‘In the Lake of the Woods,’ since he decides to make O’Brien his fulcrum for many points of comparison. It’s not of small consequence that O’Brien considers that book his most successful, and he doesn’t evaluate such success in monetary terms. But undoubtedly faulting Sacks for not doing what he wasn’t trying to do would unhelpfully replicate his tendency to reduce the works he considers deficient for not having accomplished what they did not seek to accomplish.

    At any rate, the articles that seem to appear fairly regularly and announce their intent to place the emerging literature into its proper place in the pecking order do mark a willingness to engage in the conversation about what we have been doing, what it means, and what we might do better or different in the days ahead. That public service is necessary and useful, perhaps to an aspiring writer who has yet to find her own voice.

  4. Thanks, Brian, to whom I defer on all things related to Tim O’Brien. I’ll be in Austin in January and hope we can catch up.

    Sacks could have helped himself if he’d explained why he examined the stories and books that he did. They represent a strain of war fiction but not the totality of it, yet he writes as if they did. Notably lacking in his analysis were civilian authors (save Joydeep-Roy Bhattacharya, whom I like, too), women authors, and international authors.

    Sacks didn’t seem very sympathetic to the cause of war lit, but I’m glad he’s been paying attention and on some level he’s trying to help. And it’s not as if contemporary war lit is above criticism.

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