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.