Elizabeth Samet’s Washington Post review of J. Kael Weston’s The Mirror Test intrigued me. Samet, in my reading, simultaneously approves of Weston’s fiery indictment of the United States’ poor execution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is irritated by it. Weston, a veteran of many tours in both countries as a US State Department political advisor, castigates US policy makers in Washington and generals in the big command headquarters while celebrating the bravery and grunt’s-eye view of reality of the Marines and soldiers with whom he often confronted Iraqis and Afghans “outside the wire” and “on the ground.” Those are fair positions, Samet posits, based on Weston’s extensive experience and the reports of many others. The problem, Samet seems to be saying, is that Weston’s arguments aren’t exactly novel, especially coming this late in the game from someone with all the advantages of education and position Weston possesses and now expresses so righteously as if no one had ever said them before. Declaring one’s hatred for Beltway insiders and rear-echelon fobbits, while pronouncing one’s affiliation with common soldiers, are ideas that the nation might still benefit from by heeding, but in June 2016, they’re hardly the basis of an original critique of government and military policy and operations. Anyone who cares has heard the song many times, and no one who has not already memorized the words will begin singing it now.
What’s needed, if I read Samet correctly, or maybe it’s just me, are new ideas about what the wars entailed and what they mean. Fresher thinking about the experience of soldiers. Deeper exploration of American militarism in national and global affairs. Intriguing new terms and more complex arguments and counter-arguments, more ingenious processing of the data about what happened, and surprising discoveries of heretofore unobserved connections. It’s all well-and-good that someone’s been outside the wire to face danger and complexity, but how can one’s writing and thinking also venture outside the wire?
In other domains—medicine, technology, education, science, for examples,—”longform” journalism is typically a place, maybe the place, where new ideas by authors of skill and gravitas are seriously proposed and tried out. I was recently asked to compile a list of articles, web postings, and book excerpts, publicly available on the Internet, that did some of that work in regard to America’s twenty-first century wars, and the results are below. Most of the articles I read when they appeared, while others are new finds discovered just the last couple of weeks. A few are buried behind pay-and-registration walls, for which I apologize, but all are well worth seeking out. Many corroborate my own impressions and war experiences and serve as the intellectual basis for my understanding of how the wars unfolded and what have been their consequences. Others, however, contradict my own thoughts, or report on facets of the war of which I have little other knowledge. The best don’t just report events, but make bold judgments about assumptions and values underwriting the things they describe.
- “Force and Futility: Is It Time to Leave Afghanistan?” Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker (2010).
- “American Imperium: Uncovering Truth and Fiction in an Age of Perpetual War.” Andrew J. Bacevich, Harpers (2016).
- “The Killing Machines: How to Think About Drones.” Mark Bowden, The Atlantic (2013).
- “Today is Better Than Yesterday: A Marine Returns to a Divided Iraq.” Ben Busch, Harpers (2014).
- “The Real Muslims of Irving, Texas.” Colby Buzzell, Esquire (2016).
- “One Degree of Separation in the Forever Wars.” Brian Castner, Vice-Motherboard (2015).
- “The Problem With Biometrics at War.” Brian Castner, Vice-Motherboard (2016). Excerpt from All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016).
- “Words in a Time of War: On Rhetoric, Truth, and Power.” Mark Danner, excerpt from What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics (2007).
- “The Tragedy of the American Military.” James Fallows, The Atlantic (2015).
- “Excerpt from The Good Soldiers.” David Finkel, The Washington Post (2009).
- “Prologue to Thank You For Your Service.” David Finkel, MSNBC (2013).
- “Crimes in Iraqi’s Triangle of Death.” Jim Frederick, Time. Excerpt from Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraqi’s Triangle of Death (2010).
- “Soldiers on the Fault Line: War, Rhetoric, and Reality.” Ben Fountain, War, Literature, and the Arts (2013).
- “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.” Sebastian Junger, Vanity Fair (2015).
- “The Citizen Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.” Phil Klay, Brookings Institute (2016).
- “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, But Alan Rogers Was a Hero to Everyone Who Knew Him.” Ben McGrath, The New Yorker (2008).
- “Introduction: Moral Injury Then and Now.” Robert Emmet Meagher. Excerpt from Killing From the Inside Out (2014).
- “Playing Defense Against Drones.” Amanda Ripley, Atlantic (2015).
- “Between Scylla and Charybdis.” Elizabeth Samet. Excerpt from No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014).
- “Inside America’s Dirty Wars: How Three US Citizens Were Killed by Their Own Government in the Space of One Month in 2011.” Jeremy Scahill, The Nation (2013). Excerpt from Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (2016).
- “Reborn But Not Dead.” Nancy Sherman. Excerpt from Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Soldiers (2015).
- “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.” Roy Scranton, The New York Times (2013).
- “Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom.” Roy Scranton, Rolling Stone (2014).
- “The Trauma Hero from Wilfred Owen to American Sniper and Redeployment.” Roy Scranton, The Los Angeles Review of Books. (2015).
- “I Said Infantry.” Brian Turner, Guernica. Adapted from My Life as a Foreign Country (2015).
Bonus reading: “Jumpstarting a Discussion: Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars.” Stacey Peebles, Roy Scranton, Patrick Deer, AB Huber, Ikram Masmoudi, and Peter Molin, An MLA Roundtable (2016).
Many apologies for the great writers and articles I’ve left out. I could compile a second list, and probably will someday, composed of dozens of worthy articles on less prominent sites than the Harpers/Atlantic/New Yorker -type web places I’ve privileged here. Another list could also feature more diverse voices, by gender, race, religion, and country of origin. Many articles address PTSD and technology, but there’s a few subjects, such as the repeal of DADT, the rise of special operations, the expanded role of women in the military, and the revaluation of the laws of war occasioned by Islamic terrorism that are underrepresented in my list. I looked, maybe not hard enough, entirely possible, but my initial search found few on those subjects that rose above the level of reportage and advocacy to the realm of idea and concept.
Call me greedy, but I want even more. The articles above, good as they are, might now serve most usefully as a seedbed for better things to come, as if everything they propose had to be said first in order now that more creative and perceptive writers can build on them. Here’s an example of what I have in mind, taken from the literary domain I know best. Say what you will about Roy Scranton’s concept of the “trauma hero,” describing a veteran who seems to relish a little too much his or her post-war distress, it got everyone’s attention when it first appeared in a Los Angeles Review of Books essay early in 2015. The memorable phrase defines both a common way that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are being represented in fiction, poetry, and film, and suggests some of the motif’s moral implications and cultural significance, little of which Scranton approved. Many didn’t like Scranton’s essay; they said it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t subtle, and even if it were true, the tone was off, as if Scranton were guilty of not being supportive either of veterans or veteran-authors—the sum total of the responses reinforcing the notion that Scranton’s darts had struck close to the bone.
Phil Klay, for one, might not have liked the not-so-implicit sneer inherit in the phrase “trauma hero,” since his striking short-story “Redeployment” was singled out by Scranton as definitively portraying a veteran confused and reeling from his tour-of-duty. Recently, in a Brookings non-fiction think-piece, Klay refined his sense of the ethical landscape inhabited by those who volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and who continue to weigh the consequences of their decision. Klay advances the notion that the war service of “citizen-soldiers” (he thankfully refrains from using “warriors,” though he might have interrogated how that term has come to serve as a popular descriptor for men and women in uniform) has put them in a position of “moral risk”: a heightened capacity for understanding the complexity of human experience, based on their personal engagement with war folly and darkness, their own and the nation’s, naively volunteered for when young, true, but still an experience they must own and be responsible toward going forward. But knowing how military service might lead to ethical compromise, Klay’s argument goes, is not necessarily debilitating. It can also, Klay argues hopefully and with examples, generate purposeful commitment to being as good as one can be in the aftermath.
The essay is learned and eloquent; Klay fights like the devil to keep from celebrating veterans as forged-by-fire explorers of morally ambiguous wastelands who now know better than the rest of Americans, even as his essay conjures this possible understanding of them into being. But it’s not really so important whether Klay wins the war of ideas by more fully and accurately sketching the moral psychology of veterans better than Scranton. What counts first is that engaged readers consider for themselves the logic and evidence for his claims. What counts second is consideration of the tension now in play, with the self-indulgent distressed veteran constituting one pole of an interpretive force-field and the veteran as ethical avatar the other. And what counts even more is not what either Scranton or Klay has already said, but the response to come by an equally formidable commentator.
Whether that writer splits the difference between Scranton and Klay or takes the argument in a new direction remains to be seen, but the result will certainly be exciting and helpful. It’s not just an intellectual exercise, either; consequential decisions affecting the lives of real people are on the line. The debate’s importance isn’t best measured looking backward at events that have already occurred, but in how its implications will influence difficult choices to come and how they are absorbed internally by those whom they affect most. And to bring things back to fiction, which I love most, we’ll all be able to see how Scranton himself riffs on the trauma hero theme in his soon-to-be-published novel War Porn. I don’t know if Klay’s next fictional work will portray war and veterans, but I’m betting it features characters dealing with intensely problematic experiences they lived through when young.
5 thoughts on “War Writing Longform: Thinking Outside the Wire”
I’m not sure you read Weston’s book because he covers a lot of what you say is missing. Professor Samet also read it wrong I think, focusing on minor issues or a few sentences and not the big war issues that Weston does better than anyone so far. Her whole tone is off putting and she seemed very biased. His book is not about Fobbits. He writes about the JSOC way of war and its risks, collaborating with Iraqis and Afghans, paying blood money, how they lived the wars, policymaking between State and Pentagon, and a lot more. All well beyond a typical war memoir focused on the US soldier or American side. It is not a quick or easy read. But it gets to wartime accountability and those most affected better than any book I’ve read from these wars. His Iraqi and Afghan characters and their stories stand out. I read it as written as a former government insider with an layered experience in both wars and who brings important new questions and new issues to the current war literature. I think your blog post might need to be revised and updated after you read and summarize not just the Samet review but Weston’s book. I’m telling all my vet friends to read it.
You do a large disservice to Klay here by equating Scranton’s work to his. Klay is a heavyweight, a writer every one in this emerging landscape has to deal with, even as they disagree. While his novel may prove otherwise, Scranton is now nothing more than an irritant, someone who responds to others’ work with a lot of nasty eloquence and little substance. That trauma hero essay is just foolishness, and intended to do nothing but provoke. It’s exactly what Samet says of Weston’s book in her review, anger that swerves into indignation when it instead needs to be thoughtful and nuanced.
There are writers that deserve to be mentioned alongside Klay: Powers, Fountain, Robinson, Turner, Terrell, Gallagher, Parker, all come to mind. Scranton’s not the other “pole” of this world, Colonel. He’s a gadfly.
This list of writers and articles has some good names on it. I like Klay’s book. I also look forward to Scranton’s. Gadflies have a role. Having slowly read Weston’s book over three weeks, his is not anger or indignation but honesty. I found it nuanced and yet not afraid to get to underlying war policy decisions and their consequences. If anything, in a war in Iraq that led to millions displaced and hundreds of thousands dead and wounded, we need more anger. The mirror he holds before readers is long overdue.
Fountain’s book is the best fiction so far. Weston’s the best nonfiction so far. I’ve read dozens and these two stand out. Neither author hides behind hazy words or detached literary distancing as some writers prefer to do. Our wars since 9-11 need these blunt accounts. I imagine that plenty of Iraqis, Syrians, and so on might wonder why our war literature is not more angry and more political and more honest.
You do a large disservice to Klay here by equating Scranton’s work to his, as well as a short story collection to one essay. Klay is a heavyweight, a writer every one in this emerging landscape has to deal with, even as they disagree. While his novel may prove otherwise, Scranton is nothing more than an irritant, someone who reacts to others’ work with a lot of nasty eloquence and little substance. That trauma hero essay is just foolishness, and intended to do nothing but provoke. It’s exactly what Samet says of Weston’s book in her review, anger that swerves into indignation when it instead needs to be thoughtful and nuanced.
There are writers that deserve to be mentioned alongside Klay: Powers, Fountain, Robinson, Turner, Terrell, Fallon, Gallagher, Parker, all come to mind. Scranton’s not the other “pole” of this world, Colonel. He’s a gadfly and I suspect you already know that, as this post has more than a whiff of the same provoking style to it, I’m sorry to say.
All comments aimed at the relative merits of an author’s works, ideas, and arguments are welcome, personal attacks, not so much. Observing Samet, Klay, Scranton, Weston, and all the other authors I’ve listed in intellectual battle is akin to watching the heavyweight boxing ranks circa 1980, when Ali, Frazier, Holmes, Foreman, and Spinks were at the top of their game, and each had distinctive styles, strengths, weaknesses, and career arcs. In other words, it’s a privilege, and we’re lucky to have them.