Is War Academic? Contemporary War Literature Scholarship

The anatopic presence of antenna on a hundreds-year-old fortress in Afghanistan.

The anatopic presence of antenna on a century-old fortress in Afghanistan.

The raucous digital media sphere spits out opinions in near real-time, but academics—PhD-wielding faculty members at colleges and universities—take longer to make up their minds. When ready, they publish their findings in “scholarly journals” viewed, if their authors are lucky, by a few dozen other professors and graduate students. Shrouded in technical jargon and ponderously paced, academic discourse is off-putting to many. But what academics sacrifice in mass appeal, they hope to regain by influence and by playing for the long-haul. They bargain that their ideas and arguments might wow their peers and their impressionable students and then through them enter the mainstream.

Recently, academics have begun to take the measure of contemporary war literature, and I’ve got some skin in the game.

The Modern Language Association conference is the biggest and most prestigious conference of the year for scholars of English and world literature. At the upcoming “MLA,” in Austin, Texas, in January, I’ll participate in a panel titled  “Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars.” Also on the panel are Roy Scranton and Stacey Peebles, about whom I’ve written often on this blog, and Aaron DeRosa, Patrick Deer, Ikram Masmoudi, and A.B. Huber—all exciting scholars with formidable intellectual energy and talent. A website we’ve created to accompany our panel is up, and Peebles, Scranton, and I have already posted short pieces we hope will jumpstart conversations in advance of MLA. My entry discusses the significant presence of women in the ranks of war-writing authors, Scranton addresses representations of Iraqi and Afghans in contemporary war lit, while Peebles inquires about the shifting depictions of masculinity in modern war stories and memoirs.

I’m also honored to have placed an essay in the latest War, Literature, and the Arts journal, published by the Department of English & Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy. The essay’s titled “’A Phrase Too Cute to Do Our Ugliness Justice’: Portraying ‘Wounded Warriors’ in Contemporary War Fiction.” The title derives from a great Brian Van Reet short story called “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek”; my subject is representations of physical disability in contemporary war literature. WLA is not only about Iraq and Afghanistan, but much of it is. The current issue, for example, features writing or interviews featuring Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Angela Ricketts, Brian Doerries, Jesse Goolsby, Richard Johnson, Brandon Lingle, Brooke King, and many other authors and artists associated with 21st-century war. There are also at least two other scholarly investigations of contemporary war literature: Jennifer Haytock’s “Women’s/War Stories: The Female Gothic and Women’s War Trauma in Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen” and Hilary Lithgow’s “’It’s All Good’”: Forms of Belief and the Limits of Irony in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers.”

Finally, Brian J. Williams, who teaches at Tennessee Tech, published this summer an article in the scholarly journal American Literature an article titled “The Desert of Anatopism: War in the Age of Globalization.” As if Roy Scranton’s big word “anthropocene” wasn’t enough to make our heads hurt, now Williams asks us to contend with “anatopism,” which means “something that is out of its proper place.” But Williams, like Scranton, is on to something: he examines the presence in war film, television, and literature—mostly the early-on HBO TV series Generation Kill–of objects that you wouldn’t expect to see in a war zone, or in Iraq or Afghanistan generally, specifically consumer or high-tech items of the West. Think, readers who have deployed, of your sense of dislocation when you realized that cell phones and DVDs were a fact of life in nations that otherwise seemed stuck in poverty and pre-modernity. Williams’ point is that such anatopic moments created cognitive dissonance for American soldiers that made it hard to distinguish between war and peace, enemy and noncombatant, and, within themselves, their soldierly and civilian identities. Here’s how Williams describes one such occurence:

This scene, like so many other moments finding their way into the US corpus emerging from the Gulf Wars, highlights the increasing presence of anatopism in contemporary war texts—the presence of items that seem spatially out of place, as foreign to their location as anachronisms are foreign to their times. Such things shouldn’t be found in the desert; these material signs of home are as out of place as the soldiers themselves, according to the cognitive map most soldiers carry into the combat zone.

In this piece, I examine the ways that traces of the home front appearing in the war zone and depictions of the war in US representations (films, texts, videogames) create an environment neither comfortably alien nor recognizably familiar. The modern soldier in Iraq provides a key position from which to chart the ways in which globalization paradoxically makes the foreign more uncanny by making it familiar, an instability reflective of the larger politics of the war on terror as a whole.

I can think of dozens of examples of anatopism from my own experiences and from the war literature that I have read. The omnipresent water bottles and plastic shopping bags, for example, littered around kalat walls and along thousand-year-old goat trails in the Afghanistan mountains. There’s a great instance of anatopism in Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, too, though the observer of the out-of-place item is a Pashtun, not an American. In a compound in a remote dirt-poor village where generators provide the only electric power, Ackerman’s narrator notes, “In the corner an enormous Hitachi television leaned against the ground. I could hear low murmurs of Urdu as programs from Pakistan flashed across its plasma screen.” Another prime example comes in Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. Three American soldiers on checkpoint duty observe a young woman walking toward them. She’s just a girl, it turns out, but she doesn’t listen to the soldiers’ commands to stop and be searched. Adding to the menace is the threatening incongruity of the soccer ball she carries, which the soldiers fixate on when she finally halts: “For a moment everything stops save the girl, standing still, turning the soccer ball in her hands, her small hands on the ball. They scope her as she turns the ball. Quiet.” Then the girl drops the ball and begins running toward the checkpoint, and the confused and panic-stricken Americans shoot her dead. The anatopic soccer ball has helped unhinge them and cost the young girl her life.

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