Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s War of the Encyclopaedists

War of theA lieutenant’s story should always be interesting. Whether expressed in memoir, fiction, or poetry, tales of promising youth crashing against the chaos of battle and the colossus of military culture and tradition provide ample grounds for dramatic conflict and inward soul-searching. But when I got around to reading the first wave of lieutenant memoirs written by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, they struck me as off-key and dated. Not to name names, but the memoirs published in the 2000s seemed rooted in pre-9/11, pre-digital-age notions of how young officers might respond to their ordeals. The tone’s a little stiff, as if the authors were overly indebted to leadership homilies learned in officer training programs, from Hollywood movies such as Platoon, and from a heroic tradition of war literature rooted in ancient Greece and culminating in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” The authors seemed preoccupied with testing themselves as leaders of men in battle, and oblivious to other dimensions of the wars they were fighting, such as actual Iraqis and Afghans and the complicated mission of occupation. The authors, too full of respect for a military that was seriously struggling, didn’t much resemble the young officers I met during deployment to Afghanistan in 2008-2009 or knew generally.

By 2010, a generational divide between junior officers—lieutenants and captains—and field grade officers—majors and up—divided the officer corps in ways unforeseen in 2005. According to the field grades, junior officers were undisciplined and disrespectful, even as senior officers acknowledged that lieutenants and captains were combat-experienced and deployment-tested like they themselves never had been. The view from below was even more antagonistic: to the juniors, anyone commissioned before 2001 was apt to be a dinosaur, or a blustering paper-maché tiger, oddly-motivated by concern for career and appearances and devoid of practical wisdom. Army captain Matt Gallagher’s 2010 Kaboom was first officer’s memoir in which something resembling this modern voice and mentality—way less self-serious and very ambivalent about the bigger military being served—appeared. Elizabeth Samet’s 2014 No Man’s Land, based on her friendship with dozens of West Point-educated young officers, also sympathetically catalogued this perspectival divide between young and old. Contemporary war fiction was slower to channel such up-to-the-moment sentiments, but recently has begun to catch up. Novels such as Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives, John Renehen’s The Valley, Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite’s War of the Encyclopaedists, and now Gallagher’s own Youngblood portray lieutenants at war in ways that seem very aware of how 25-year-olds actually are these days, especially those in uniform and wearing brass.

By some rights, I’m the ideal reader for Robinson and Kovite’s War of the Encyclopaedists. The novel’s two subjects—friends Halifax Corderoy, a neurotic English grad student, and Mickey Montauk, a second lieutenant in charge of an infantry platoon in Iraq—reflect components of my own young adulthood as an MA English student who left grad school to join the infantry,–and indeed I related to much that each respectively undergoes in grad school and the Army. A central conceit of the novel—that Corderoy and Montauk are co-authors of a clandestine Wikipedia page called “The Encylopaedists” in which they imaginatively refract the major events of their friendship—reminds me of my own experiments in Wiki-writing in its early days. My grad school and lieutenant days were some thirty years ago, however, and War of the Encyclopeadists’ jacket cover resolutely announces itself as “one of the most revealing novels yet about the millennial generation.” The “m-word,” dare I speak its name? Writers under 30, I’ve noticed, are suspicious that boomers and Gen Xers have anything meaningful to say to them or about them, and they aggressively patrol the boundaries of who can speak for their generation. The “m-word” is related to the equally fraught “h-word”—hipster—and Corderoy and Montauk, who at novel’s opening are throwing art-themed parties in Seattle’s groovy Capital Hill district, are clearly members of the intellectual and military wings of the cool crowd. These factors made my retired-lieutenant-colonel-self a little hesitant about testing Robinson and Kovite’s waters.

But fools rush in, as they say, as they also say no fool like an old fool, so here goes. I quite enjoyed the worlds and worldviews of Corderoy and Montauk, as well as those of the women in their lives, Mani Saheli and Tricia Burnham, and am glad Robinson and Kovite have generously allowed me, and all of us, to peep, eavesdrop, and lurk in their presence. I found their life stories interesting, laughed at their observations, sympathized with their mishaps and lows, and celebrated their triumphs, such as they were. Which is good, because if I didn’t have such a fine time reading War of the Encylopeadists, prolonged exposure to Corderoy’s, Montauk’s, Mani’s, and Tricia’s 20-something effervescence would have been depressing and their antagonism to age painful. Young as I no longer am, they reminded me at every turn what a blessing youth is, even when defined by anxiety, doubt, setbacks, and missed opportunities. The characters themselves wouldn’t see it this way, but from the vantage point of age they are clearly in the middle of the most exciting time of their lives, which the authors make palpable on the page.

So if Corderoy and Montauk are millennials, what’s so millenial about them? The most prominent trait I noticed is their ruthless tendency to “judge the living shit” (to use a phrase offered by Robinson and Kovite) out of people who strike them as douchebags, bores, or representative of authority, which is almost everyone. To the extreme, they prefer their own company, and the company of like-minded women such as Mina and Tricia, and though in-your-face-rudeness is not their style, they are miserable when forced to spend time with people who don’t please them. The second thing I noticed is their emotional armor, suspicious of sentimentalism and lacking vocabulary, know-how, and courage to express feelings. Their reserve and ironic attitudes makes them, well, cool, especially Mina and Tricia, who are so emotionally tough as to be practically bullet-proof, but it also causes problems: their friendships grow distorted, their romantic relationships contorted, drugging and drinking (“partying”!) consume them, they have definite purpose and commitment issues, and the fanciful Wikipedia page Corderoy and Montauk devise soon becomes the sincerest means by which the two friends communicate with each other. Perhaps youth was ever so, but the tendencies seem decidedly pronounced in this “millennial” novel. The good news is that none of this precludes Montauk from being a pretty fair lieutenant once he swings into action. While Corderoy drifts and wilts in graduate school, the demands of Army missions and the needs of his soldiers draw Montauk out of himself and show him to be both a reasonably competent leader and damn decent person, too. It’s pretty clear, though, that he would not be happy in the slow-moving, tradition-bound Army should he survive combat and try to make it a career.

Montauk reminds me of many lieutenants I knew who weren’t hung up on proving themselves hard at every opportunity. Free of ridiculous self-identification as a “warrior,” he executes missions, takes care of soldiers, and confronts problems sensibly and independently. His platoon’s mission to man a Green Zone checkpoint is not a high-speed one, but it’s intriguing and dangerous enough to keep Montauk and his platoon on their toes. Robinson and Kovite to their credit never once have Montauk complain about boredom or the heat—two duller-than-dirt sentiments that should be banished from future writing about Iraq. Montauk makes a few mistakes, chief among them a crack-pot idea to offer a bounty for information about the murder of one of his interpreter, but that’s the nature of being a second lieutenant. A very interesting scene portrays Montauk being rebuked by his company commander, Captain Byrd. Field grade officers in War of the Encyclopaedists offer Montauk nothing, but Byrd sympathetically details Montauk’s good qualities and his limitations:

“Montauk, let me tell you what your mission is. Your mission is to secure the southern entrance into the Green Zone. It’s to ensure that the Green Zone doesn’t get blown up by anything coming through your checkpoint. It’s also to accomplish that while taking care of the troops in your platoon and following my orders. Which, by the way, means informing when you intend to something novel like post personal rewards for information leading to the death or capture of a terrorist.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t want to stifle your initiative. You’re all about finding ways to accomplish the mission, and that’s good. You’ll be a good company commander someday. But this reward shit is dumb. It’s just going to lead to a bunch of Iraqis coming up to try to your cash.” He spat in the bottle again. “But maybe the real issue is that it makes you look like a weirdo in front of your platoon. You know what most guys read around here? Maxim.”

“Uh, hooah?”

“You’ve got a bunch of highbrow shit coming in, like your book review newspapers. And a big old copy of The Canterbury Tales. It’s good that your troops think you’re a smart guy. That’s going to give them confidence. But you need to understand how you come off to your platoon. They need to know that you’re not making decisions affecting their personal health and safety based on some criteria from some cuckoo-cloud Montauk-land. And what I this is that your reward scheme comes across to your guys as a weirdo obsession. That you’re thinking about revenge rather than your mission, or that you’re somehow more attached to your translator than your men. Understand what I’m saying?

“Roger, sir.”

“So, with that in mind, shit-can the reward. Any questions?”

“No, sir.”

“All right. Dismissed.”

Montauk slung Molly [his weapon] over his shoulder and headed out the door.

“And go read a copy of Men’s Health or Low Rider or something,” Byrd said.

Montauk resents authority figures and hates speechifying, as I suspect do Robinson and Kovite, but Byrd isn’t wrong and Montauk needs to hear what he has to say. The talk is not meant by the authors to be a beat-down, and Montauk doesn’t take it that way. His relationship with his platoon is actually fine, but not all his ideas are good ones. Being a second lieutenant is a constant, very intense, often painful process of matching one’s own thoughts about matters against real possibility, and good company commanders such as Byrd serve as reality-principle agents aiding the learning process. That’s the kind of stuff that makes lieutenants’ stories memorable, and War of the Encylopaedists commendably gives this ages-old tale modern expression.

Christopher Robinson and Gavin Kovite, War of the Encyclopaedists. Scribner, 2015.

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