Mothers figure prominently in Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, though the portraits are focalized through the eyes of their soldier sons and the view is not especially appealing—the moms are withered, negligible figures battered by life and exercising little influence over their children. Roxana Robinson’s Sparta fulsomely portrays the thoughts of a much more vital mother as she observes the deterioration of her beloved son, a Marine Corps officer home from Iraq. Unfortunately, however, her efforts to understand and help her son are ultimately as futile as those of the mothers in Powers’ and Fountain’s novels. Masha Hamilton’s What Changes Everything and Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days depict “proactive” (military-speak, apologies) mothers who travel to Afghanistan to investigate the circumstances of their sons’ injury and death, respectively. Their Tiger/Helicopter Mom impulse is understandable in concept if far-fetched in probability, but even these Herculean or Amazonian efforts to remain important in the lives of their military-minded sons are useless practically, though important emotionally in terms of closure.
Outside of fictional portraits, a passage from Benjamin Busch’s memoir Dust to Dust describes his mother’s response to the news that he has joined the Marines:
My mother took a deep breath, her hands clamped to the edge of the table as if she were watching an accident happen in the street. Her father had been a Marine, had gone to war and almost not come back.
A New York Times essay by Matt Gallagher’s mother, Deborah Scott Gallagher, captures her anguish at seeing her son go off to war:
“I will be stalwart,” I had said to myself on the drive home from the airport the morning I said goodbye to him. “I will be steadfast. I will read and listen to the reputable war reporters, and I will write my senators and congressmen, but I will not lose faith in my country. I will concentrate on sustaining my son rather than myself, and I will not confuse self-pity with legitimate worry and concern over him and his men. I will be proud, justifiably proud, but I will not be vainglorious! And I will never, never, never let him know how frightened I am for him.”
But, within moments of returning home, I had broken all but one of these promises to myself. I was doing laundry and, as I measured detergent into the washer, the Christmas carol CD I was playing turned to Kate Smith’s magnificent contralto, singing, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
“And in despair, I bowed my head,” she sang. “There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.”
And, at that moment, for only the third time in my adult life, I began to sob — not cry, not weep — but sob uncontrollably, sitting on the floor of my laundry room, surrounded by sorted piles of bed linens and dirty clothes.
Siobhan Fallon describes a trip to Walter Reed to meet soldiers recovering from wounds and their families:
And there were mothers. Unlike the military members and their spouses, who somehow all seemed in great and hopeful spirits, the mothers looked stunned. They seemed to be trying to grip their emotions tightly, but their faces hid nothing. Their faces said: “Why did this happen to my beautiful boy?”
Taken together, the portraits suggest that one of the deepest fissures in the civil-military divide is the one separating mothers from their soldier, sailor, Marine, and airman male children.
This brief survey of mothers in contemporary war literature brings us to Elizabeth Marro’s 2016 novel Casualties, about a woman named Ruth Nolan whose son Robbie commits suicide after returning from a tour in Iraq with the Marines. As it happens, Ruth, divorced from her son’s father, is a senior executive for a large defense contractor, so she’s part of the money-making apparatus more-or-less complicit in her son’s death. As Robbie sinks downward following redeployment, so too does Ruth’s career, as she is out-maneuvered by a wily colleague gunning for her job. After losing both her son and her position, the benumbed Ruth begins driving cross-country from her home in San Diego, but gets only as far as Nevada before further calamity ensues. Following a parking lot accident, Ruth is fleeced by a one-legged Gulf War veteran. Next she drinks herself blind and is subsequently relieved of her credit and bank cards, and then is saved from sexual assault by the same peg-legged con man who just connived her out of a couple of thousand dollars. Ruth and her rescuer, Casey MacInerney by name, then strike an unlikely partnership to travel cross-country together in search of…. what? For Ruth, reunion with her brother and parents in rustic, grounded New Hampshire, and for Casey, reconnection with an abandoned daughter in New Jersey. Ruth and Casey’s relationship, at first frosty, go figure, warms as they travel. Getting to know each other’s stories, solving a few financial and logistical problems together (the money he’s scammed from her is quickly gone), a common interest in Melville, a little booze, a little weed, and soon they aren’t just surly fellow-travelers, but lovers, at least for a night or two.
Sketched so schematically, the lost-soul characters and road-trip plot seem a little contrived, but Marro’s deft telling redeems the creaks. I found a lot to like about Ruth—I sympathized with a woman within shouting distance of my own age who is both life-tested and life-scarred, and who now must endure an extremely rough patch. Not to be prurient, but the portrait of a powerful middle-aged woman who gets blotto drunk by herself in public and later sleeps with a man from a far different station in life made me wonder. I don’t know how these things might happen in real life, but in Casualties’ novelistic world, Marro’s weaving of character and circumstance generates a sequence of events that seem not just plausible but inevitable, in the way that fate and character organically intertwine in good fiction. Ruth has had for years misgivings about her performance as a mother and for months ignored threats to her job. Like many might, she foregoes dealing with these festering issues until they blossom like twin flowers of evil, at the worst possible time and with the most consequential damage.
Casey’s portrait is more uneven; in the early scenes he appears as a dangerous lout without potentially redeeming qualities, so his transformation into an American version of JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith’s Cormorant Strike—a grizzled, one-legged veteran whose gruff integrity appeals like catnip to women searching for something real—is a stretch. But once past the unpromising start, Casey too comes alive as a character and his shared journey with Ruth in search of emotional connection believable. Even better, I found Marro’s portrait of Robbie very compelling and even moving. Robbie reminded me of many young white California men I’ve known or observed, guys who lose interest in school and home by age 15 and subsequently drift into the alternative worlds of surfing, skateboarding, punk rock, or, as in Robbie’s case, off-road racing, accompanied by nascent alcohol and drug abuse. Distressed veterans populate virtually every novel about war in Iraq and Afghanistan, but Marro is among the few authors who dare bring their heroes to actual suicide. Though Robbie’s death comes one-half of the novel in and occurs off-page, before he dies Marro offers many astute, empathetic glimpses of a confused man-child already lost before joining the Marines and whose time in service speeds his unraveling.
He didn’t know who or what he was when he enlisted. He just knew what he wasn’t. He wasn’t the college kid like Ruth wanted. He wasn’t headed for any corner office like she had with a secretary and a bunch of people running around while she cracked the whip. He was no surfer, no skinny golden boy like her boss’s kid. It used to scare the shit out of him when he tried to imagine what he wanted or who he was supposed to be and nothing came to him. Nothing that mattered.
The Marines didn’t care, though. They were going to make him part of something bigger than whatever the hell he thought he was.
Even more commendable than the portrait of Robbie is Casualties’ rendering of the basic lack of humanity undergirding corporate war profiteering. Like suicide, defense industry maleficence and hypocrisy has been left largely untouched by war novelists, perhaps because they struggle to find ways to dramatize big money shenanigans as they impact the lives of common soldiers. Perhaps also, they, confused by their own moral authority, are ambivalent about war sins of which they too are guilty when they are writ large in the American money-making landscape. Ben Fountain’s portrait of Norman Oglesby, the richy-rich Dallas Cowboys owner featured in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a notable exception to the rule. Marro’s depiction of Don Ryland, the wolfish impresario of RyCom, the defense contractor for whom Ruth works, lacks Fountain’s satirical and stylistic élan, but is more direct and damning. While Ruth tries to welcome Robbie home, at work she is dealing with charges that RyCom has not adequately insured the contracted workers it has sent into the Iraq war zone:
Ruth looked from the names on the single page in front of her to the eleven-inch stack of files Sylvia had dumped on her desk. The “pending” files. Some of the claims had been “pending” for eleven months. Some longer. Ruth had opened the files before she stopped, rattled by the juxtaposition of ordinary job descriptions and extraordinary injuries: interpreter, double amputee; truck driver, quadriplegic; medical technician, brain trauma. She tried not to read the names but they were right there, on the first page, their stories crammed into small boxes below: Ahmed Hazazi, born in Detroit, fluent in Arabic, IED blast. Marissa Albertson, age twenty-seven, caught when a newly built clinic she was working in collapsed after a nearby explosion; the truck driver, Clayton Massey, spinal cord severed after his caravan was ambushed.
Each name clawed at her in a way she’d never expected.
Ruth soon learns that RyCom has no intention of admitting guilt or compensating the wounded contractors, and her efforts on their behalf are perceived as soft and disloyal by Ryland and the hard-hearted, self-serving lacky who uses Ruth’s vulnerability following the death of her son to instigate her dismissal. What can a mother do when the military-industrial beast that has comfortably supported her professional ambition bares its blood-and-lucre stained teeth? Not much apparently, except run like hell.
Elizabeth Marro, Casualties. Berkley Books, 2016.
3 thoughts on “Elizabeth Marro’s Casualties: What’s a Mother to Do?”
You’re close to the mark, Peter, asserting, “Distressed veterans populate virtually every novel about war in Iraq and Afghanistan”. That’s my biggest frustration about all the MFA-sanctioned fiction coming from the wars–the distressed soldier, the soldier as victim, as pawn, as corrupted by the immorality of war.
Note though, Peter, it’s not “virtually every novel”. Just the sanctioned ones, the approved ones, the touted ones–the echo-chamber ones that conform with the literary elite intelligentsia’s concept of war and soldier.
Nothing new or earth-shattering about it, though, going back to our close previous war, from Tim O’Brien to Larry Heinemann to Stephen Wright to Philip Caputo to You-Name-It, with some few notable exceptions like John Del Vecchio and John McAfee.
“Distressed veterans”, enough already.
Hi Paul, thanks for the comment. I’m looking forward to reading Tattoo Zoo later this summer. I think Marrow’s portrait of Robbie is excellent relative to the thirty or more other depictions of “distressed veterans” I’ve read, so it’s not as if I’m immune to sensitive representations of the type, but I get your point. It’s hard to tell whether all the traumatized veterans in contemporary fiction reflect a cultural phenomenon, a publishing fad, or a real preoccupation of war writers. Though PTSD and veteran suicide are real, the popularity of fictional portraits of damaged veterans might say as much about the guilt or anxiety of authors and audiences as it does about the problems of veterans. I like Kyle Larkin’s formulation that the veterans he knows are not traumatized, but frustrated. I might say that many veterans are not even frustrated, but just curious about what they experienced, so they think about it a lot, or from time to time, or when in the company of other veterans and the conversation moves in that direction.
Peter- Your response is quite thought-provoking.
The single theme in contemporary war literary fiction (the qualifier “literary” is important) might just be a combination of all three: a cultural phenomenon, a publishing fad, and a real preoccupation of war writers.
#1 — A cultural phenomenon. Think of a kid, a three-year-old, on a tricycle in the driveway….wearing a helmet. Think of infant car seats for ten-year-olds, then remember little Peter riding up front, no seat belts, eyeballs level with the steel dashboard of that 1966 Dodge. Think of a parent questioned by police and Child Protective Services for a simple two-swat spanking on a child’s rear in the supermarket for tossing jelly jars onto the floor. Think of a parent in the principal’s office passionately defending (with threats of lawsuits) her high school boy caught spray-painting lockers and cursing teachers and pulling down the panties of the ugly-duckling shy pig-tailed home-ec geek band flutist. You know where I’m going here, Peter. Think of the pampered West Point cadet of today compared with the harassed, hazed cadets of 1940 or 1963 (yes, Rick Atkinson’s “Long Gray Line”). Think of the mental and physical hell dished out daily at boot camp in 1968 compared with the stress cards of today. Need I mention, safe spaces? Weakness, helplessness, victim-hood, nanny-fication, perpetual childhood (what, you’re still on your parent’s health plan at 26, are you kidding me?!) are predominant in the culture, why should it be less so with GIs? Traumatized veterans, you’re damn right it’s got a great deal to do with the culture, cultural acceptance. Cultural expectation. Life takes the path of least resistance–even the tree root seeks out the soft moist soil, rejecting the hard, dry sand. The culture rewards weakness with sympathy and physical sustenance (in the military it’s called “medical retirement pay and benefits”), how can we expect there not to be an excess of traumatized veterans–the root seeking the soft moist soil? A culture that coddles weakness will coddle those traumatized and will seek to find rational justification for that belief, which leads to #2, the publishing fad, and #3, the writers’ preoccupation.
#2 — A publishing fad. You will note that this “traumatized veteran” meme is the entire foundation of today’s literary war fiction, but NOT the war memoirs. It is the “fad” of literary war fiction, not of the war memoir. You know why; it goes back to that “elite intelligentsia” I spoke of before. It’s the chicken-or-the-egg, which came first? The literary fiction writers write of the traumatized veteran because they know that that is all that is accepted in the literary world to which they yearn and strive to achieve success, as defined by publishing and high-echelon reviews, (starting with the creative writing programs, from Iowa Workshop to NYU, etc), that is incestuous up into the high echelons of publishing (from agents to editors to houses), and the literary world believes that veterans are traumatized by war by default, and vice-versa and verse-vica in a vicious circle, all feeding on themselves. And it’s a “fad” yes, but, actually, for the publishing industry the approved literary war fiction is not the money-maker. Just the opposite–and it is looked upon in those elite enclaves as a haughty distinguishing trait–a superiority. The publishing money in today’s wars is in the war memoir, which is the poor, ragged, disrespected distant cousin of literary war fiction. And the war memoirs are everything BUT about the traumatized veteran. Go ahead, you know them: Lone Survivor, Outlaw Platoon, American Sniper, Red Platoon. The very fact that those (Red Platoon is on its way) are the real fads among the general public–million sellers, huge movies–makes the elites even more sure of their own superiority, for the peons in the mass general public go for the rah-rah razzle-dazzle of war as heroics (found in those memoirs) designed to promote war and warfighting, etc etc etc. Whereas, the depths of character and trauma and morality found in the literary war fiction of the traumatized veteran, that is TRUTH. The-chicken-or-the-egg again. TRUTH is that war traumatizes soldiers, artsy serious literary war fiction is about traumatized soldiers, that literature is TRUTH, the only TRUTH, and those gung-ho memoirs (formula-written, yes, for a fact) are, in a sense, the real fiction–pulp fiction, throwaway, casual airport reads, not worthy of any serious discussion, never mind serious consideration or respect.
#3 — The writers’ preoccupation. Of course the traumatized vet (soldier) is going to be the writers’ preoccupation; the serious writers know it’s their surest entry into publishing, from the literary war fiction angle. We’re not talking the Vince Flynn-type fiction stuff here, which, by other writers is making its way into war fiction (minus the qualifier “literary”). I’m not really up on that genre (it doesn’t satisfy me as a reader), so I’m only familiar with the few titles I’ve read: for example, Mullah’s Storm, and Clear By Fire. Pure action thriller war fiction. But that’s not the genre that serious MFA veteran writers want to write nor be recognized by, nor is it the clique they wish to be associated with. It seems that the rules of the game of serious literary war fiction starts with The Traumatized Veteran (Soldier), and, unless someone is already an established writer, he cannot break that first rule. (Actually, already-established writer Ben Fountain did not break that rule with Billy Lynn’s Long Walk, but, then again, he’s not been a soldier, he’s not been to war, he only knows what he’s been taught to know (by soldiers his like-minded civilian “thinkers”), and he failed to understand that one cannot believe a soldier’s war stories, for a variety of reasons, starting with the old adage, “A GI will gripe if he’s hung with a new rope.” Ironically combined with a second, “If you ain’t braggin’ you ain’t storytellin’.”) It is perhaps inarguable that gaining entry into the publishing world of literary war fiction is extremely limited, with strong gatekeepers that begin with those profs of those MFA programs. Come on, does anyone believe that the great majority of those profs aren’t firmly steeped in “war is immoral”, “GI is Neanderthal”, “give peace a chance” philosophy? The-chicken-or-the-egg again. Even if an apostate were to breach those walls, coming into the programs with fine craftsman writing skills, a wonderful imagination and a TRUTH poetically and richly and emotionally argued but that is counter to the prevailing TRUTH, he would be the odd man out among his student peers, rejected and ostracized, not to mention shown no respect by the profs. Tell me otherwise. Show me otherwise. So, yes, even the odd man out will wisely preoccupy himself with what the establishment of serious literary war fiction deems the TRUTH that warrants telling.
I’m impressed that you, Peter, have raised the above possibilities yet do not yourself fall for the traumatized veteran (soldier) TRUTH. Perhaps it’s because you were a soldier for too many years, you’ve known soldiers in war too intimately, and you know them today still after they’ve returned from war. On the surface I agree with Larkin’s theory of the frustration of the veteran/soldier, and I’ll be thinking more about your theory of the soldier’s curiosity. Frustration and curiosity, both maybe compounded by the non-winning of the wars, the apparent futility of the wars, the senselessness, and the fighting without a purpose. To have the soldier next to you take a bullet to the face for no comprehensible national strategic purpose, yes, one should be frustrated and curious.
Then we get to the little gem you hid there in your review of “Casualties”, about there being no war fiction coming out about the dollars behind the wars–the military industrial complex. These endless wars being fought not for national strategic purpose but for the war manufacturers, via politicians enriching themselves as well through the “war is good business” economy.
That, I’m afraid, leads to a cynicism that is a step beyond where I’m knowledgeable, and it’s a cynicism that America does not want to accept as TRUTH. Today, Americans may have little or no trust in their leaders, but even so they just don’t want to believe that those leaders would fight these wars just to enrich themselves and their kind. Even you, in mentioning Ben Fountain’s mockery of the Cowboy’s owner, must see that it was simplistic, easy, unfair and ineffective. On this one, Peter, I don’t have the answer. Even I don’t want to believe that we’re spending a few trillion dollars and tossing away lives in wars waged simply to enrich the moneyed and powerful, and I’m no Pollyanna, I’m the one who, leaving Afghanistan as a Green Beret in 2003, argued in writing that we needed to close the entire war down tomorrow, yesterday, lock, stock and barrel–that we were wasting money and lives and spirit for no good purpose. In 2003.
So, it seems that we’re stuck with just two options: the cheap war fiction of the Clear By Fire throw-away ilk or the serious literary war fiction of the Yellow Birds holier-than-thou poetic ilk. Different voices aiming for different audiences. The former presenting cardboard heroes, the latter presenting traumatized victims. Am I off the mark? Entry into the publishing world of the former requires a strict adherence to the formula of language, structure, plot-turns, character arcs, length, etc., along with a clever tag-line concept and a bronzed stud protagonist (preferably an ex-SEAL, of course) and a Christopher Walken-esque (even as a Middle-Easterner) villain. Entry into the publishing world of the latter begins with an acceptance of the TRUTH that is diametrically opposed to that of the former. I’m talking present-day literary war fiction standards here, not those of the 1950’s, when a Wouk and a Shaw and a Jones could be hailed as serious storytellers, serious chroniclers of their war through fiction, respected and read, successful among both audiences, the former and latter. (I left Mailer out of that mix for a reason, and it ain’t pleasant, better left for another day.)
And that’s my two cents, for what it’s worth, surely to some much less.