War writing, particularly fiction, redefined itself during the Global War on Terror. World War II and Vietnam War stories relentlessly focused on the combat experience of young men. The exploits of soldiers other than infantrymen and fighter pilots, adventures other than combat, and the travails of life after war, subjects that are central to contemporary war writing, were then on the periphery. I’m not speaking of war pulp fiction, either, the kind that sensationally portrays combat and glorifies fighting prowess. That genre, which formerly was plentiful, now is rare, and exists in refashioned form mainly in the “kill memoir” genre authored by snipers and special operators. My subject is work considered “literary”—fiction written by well-educated writers whose works are published by major publishing houses and high-brow journals and which compete for critical attention and book awards. The James Jones, Norman Mailers, Tim O’Briens, and Larry Heinemanns, to name names, of yesterday. The Ben Fountains, Phil Klays, and Brian Turners of today.
The old era has largely passed, but the allure of combat narratives has not completely vanished. Whether written by a veteran trying to explain “what it was like” or a civilian author exercising fantastical powers of imagination, sensational scenes of bullets flying, bombs exploding, and soldiers fighting still make war writing vivid and generate intense emotional responses. And why not? People are curious about exotic events and surely one of the tenets of fiction is to present readers with descriptions of aspects of life they are unlikely to have seen personally. In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain has Billy Lynn wonder, “How do you describe the worst day of your life?” but many contemporary war writers have not shied from the challenge. Surveying the field briefly, I easily recall the great battle scene that opens Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, the taut face-offs on Baghdad streets described in David Abrams’ Fobbit (as well as a beautiful passage written from a mortar round’s point-of-view), and the brief description of combat tersely rendered by Atticus Lish in Preparation for the Next Life. One of the best and longest descriptions of men fighting comes in Aaron Gwyn’s Wynne’s War, the last half of which unabashedly and reverently pays homage to movie and pulp fiction Westerns by portraying a group of Special Forces soldiers (on horseback, no less) fighting it out over a period of days–not exactly my own experience of combat, or anything that probably happened often in Iraq or Afghanistan, but very exciting to read. The post-IED strike battle thrillingly described in Matthew Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, on the other hand, replicated experiences similar to ones I have lived through, and I’m sure many other veterans as well, and consequently triggered in my mind memories and comparisons. But still… though passages describing combat occupy some 50% of Wynne’s War’s page space, the percentage is probably less than 10 or even 5% of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, A Hard and Heavy Thing, Preparation for the Next Life, Fobbit, and The Watch.
Short fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan abounds, but as I recollect stories about soldiers set entirely or mostly “outside the wire” and which depict soldiers, as the mission of the infantry states, “closing with and destroying or capturing the enemy,” not-so-many examples present themselves. To repurpose terminology from the world of club music describing a song that is “extremely tight or just unbelievably awesome” and radiates “unbelievable swell or swag” (Urban Dictionary), in a way that seems right given we’re talking about gunshots and explosions, here’s a short list of contemporary war short fiction “bangers.” Or, to give it the cool modern flair of a Miley Cyrus album title, “bangerz”:
Nathan Bethea, “Agincourt” (published under the headline “Whatever You Do Someone Will Die: A Short Story About Impossible Choices in Iraq” on The Daily Beast). Short quote from the beginning: “This will be the worst day of your life. In years to come you will recount the most intricate details to yourself with obsessive precision, as if tracing the wood grain of a childhood bunk bed from memory. It is not a healthy kind of remembrance.”
Ted Janis, “Raid” (from the Fire and Forget anthology). One of the first modern stories to portray military special operations forces, in this case Army Rangers, in action. Also one of the few stories to describe American soldiers grievously wounded in battle.
Gavin Ford Kovite, “When Engaging Targets, Remember” (from the Fire and Forget anthology). Maybe the first and definitely one of the best of many modern war stories to play dialogically with the rhetoric of official Army documents and manuals.
Kyle Larkin, “Minarets” and “The Night Before Christmas” (both published on the Military Experience and the Arts website). In the former, an infantry platoon in Iraq wakes up to the sound of Islamic prayer, and in the latter, death, not Santa, comes calling for an American soldier.
Katey Schultz, “The Ghost of Sanchez” (from Flashes of War). I could have chosen a number of excellent stories by Schultz, the only non-veteran and only woman on the list, but this one rocks hardest. Set in Afghanistan, which raises the question–why are there so few stories portraying Operation Enduring Freedom?
Roman Skaskiw, “Television” (from the Fire and Forget anthology). I don’t know why this story is called what it is, but OK, it’s a great and maybe the first portrait of a common subject in Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction: a lieutenant who is challenged by a tougher, more aggressive NCO.
Brian Turner, “The Wave That Takes Them Under” (from the Fire and Forget anthology). A speculative fiction war narrative complement to Turner’s great poem “To Sand” in Here, Bullet. And because you can never get enough Brian Turner, the passage titled “The Soldiers Enter the House,” from My Life as a Foreign Country, published as a stand-alone story on Medium.
Brian Van Reet, “Eat the Spoil” (originally published in The Missouri Review). A tank platoon dismounts to chase insurgent mortarmen through an Iraqi insane asylum and into a swamp. Also, perhaps the craziest “we shot dogs” story ever.
Honorable Mention–stories about artillerymen who wield death and destruction by firing big guns from inside FOB walls:
Phil Klay, “Ten Kliks South” (from Redeployment). An earnest, clever, and cute (a rare combination) story about an artilleryman who tries to calculate his share of the responsibility for the deaths caused by the rounds he helps fire.
Will Mackin, “Kattekoppen” (first published in the New Yorker). Selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2014. More please, Will Mackin, it’s been too long.
I don’t want to canonize these stories, overly privilege their authors, or suggest they are the best tales yet written about the wars. Rather, I just want to give them their due as a body of work, while wondering why there aren’t more, and propose we read them alongside Jones, Mailer, O’Brien, and Heinemann to judge just how writing about combat in the 21st century resembles or differs from writing about combat in the 20th century.