2017 brings novels by three contemporary war lit “plank-holders”–Navy SEAL-speak for members who were in on the game at its founding. Helen Benedict’s Wolf Season takes contemporary war-and-mil-writing preoccupation with dogs to its fantastical-yet-logical extension; Brian Van Reet’s Spoils reimagines the female-soldier captivity narrative first presented by Jessica Lynch’s and Shoshana Johnson’s memoirs, and David Abrams’ Brave Deeds riffs on the rogue soldier motif familiar from Bowe Bergdahl’s and Robert Bale’s real-life sagas.
Helen Benedict’s 2011 Sand Queen was by my count the first Iraq War novel; if I’m wrong, someone please correct me. A story about the intersecting lives of two women, an American soldier named Kate and an Iraqi medical student named Naema Jassim, Sand Queen eviscerated the American conduct of Operation Iraqi Freedom by portraying the ruin of its two protagonists’ lives as a result, primarily, of the American military’s toxic masculine culture. The sequel to Sand Queen, Wolf Season takes place in America, where Naema has unexpectedly taken up residence in a small upstate New York town where she serves as a doctor in a VA clinic. One of her patients is, not Kate, who doesn’t figure in Wolf Season, but another female veteran named Rin Drummond. Rin’s time in service has ended badly, leaving her widowed, badly wracked by PTSD, the mother of a blind daughter, and the caretaker of three semi-domesticated wolves. Rin wants nothing more than to be left alone, protected by and protective of her wolfpack, but life in a small-town home to Iraqi refugees and overly-macho military men still on frequent deployment cycle to America’s forever wars ensure that’s not going to happen. Rin and Naema are compellingly drawn, as are Rin’s daughter Juney and Naema’s son Tariq and the three wolves, Gray, Silver, and Ebony. Most striking, however, are two male characters, Louis Martin and Todd Wycombe, both veterans struggling to be men worthy of respect. Benedict’s not completely hostile to the idea that military service might be improving or even ennobling, but two novels’ worth of portraits of America boy-men whose propensity for self-delusion, misogyny, and violence are exacerbated by time in uniform make it clear she’s skeptical that those things are happening very often these days. One could almost feel sorry for Benedict’s male veterans, if they didn’t bring on so much trouble for themselves through their stupidity and vanity, and if they didn’t fuck things up so badly for everyone around them.
Spoils, US Army veteran Brian Van Reet’s long-anticipated novel of war in Iraq, comes many years after the author established his reputation as a war short-story author par excellence. Even before the fine “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” appeared in the 2013 Fire and Forget anthology, Van Reet was placing striking short fiction in literary journals, and “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” is, if anything, surpassed by a story titled “Eat the Spoil” published in the Spring 2014 Missouri Review. Van Reet attended, as did I, the University of Virginia, where he was an Echols Scholar, which I most definitely wasn’t, so I have a high regard for the intellect he brings to bear on the consideration of war. Van Reet was a tank crewman in the early days of Iraq, where he earned a Bronze Star with a V device for valor, which is also saying something. A tanker named Specialist Sleed figures in both the aforementioned stories and now appears again in Spoils, but he’s not much of a scholar and as a soldier one more likely to get an Article 15 for misconduct than a medal. A follower rather than a leader of soldiers even more indifferently motivated than he is, Sleed, in true “E4-Mafia” fashion, is good in spurts but more typically wavers between commitment to mission and impulses to “get over.” Scenes describing tank battle in Iraq especially intrigue, but Sleed’s just one of a trio of protagonists in Spoils; another is a young woman named Cassandra Wigheard who serves in Sleed’s unit. Wigheard’s not exactly a super-soldier, either, but she tries, and she can’t be blamed when she is captured by a group of insurgents led by the third principal, a very conflicted and not especially fanatical Egyptian jihadist named Abu Al-Hool. Van Reet seems to be making a point about how war unfolds in the contemporary trenches—whatever the clarity, fervor, and righteousness of the political and ideological rhetoric, for the participants on both sides it’s a haphazard, highly contingent, badly conceptualized and realized mess that’s likely to get them killed through sheer sloppiness. We can see Sleed as Van Reet’s alter ego, while Al-Hool joins the Pashtun protagonist of Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue as a rounded literary portrait of one of our War on Terror opponents, but it’s the depiction of Cassandra that really stands out as the author’s effort to represent “the Other,” with all the attendant risks that endeavor brings. Sleed and Al-Hool narrate their stories in first-person, but Van Reet, UVa-educated gentleman that he is, circumspectly renders Cassandra’s voice and thoughts in third-person, perhaps thinking graciously that full, extended novelistic inhabitation of a woman warrior’s subjectivity and depiction of perspective should be left to, well, a woman veteran. That will come, in time, but what Van Reet offers here rings true; for example, on Cassandra contemplating a career in the Army: “Yet more and more, the thought of going for a twenty-year pension has begun to feel like prolonged suffocation in a cavernous, airtight room.”
Few things could possibly be more welcome than a second novel from David Abrams, the author of 2012’s highly entertaining and shrewdly perceptive black comedy Fobbit. No one would blame Abrams if he moved on from Iraq—surely he has it in him and will do so one day—but I for one am glad that he has kept his eye on the Tigris and Euphrates battlefield for at least one more novel, this summer’s Brave Deeds. If anything, Brave Deeds is more of a war novel than Fobbit, a work that has its boom-boom moments, but which is largely more interested in military culture than combat action. Where Fobbit explored a wide range of Army types and ranks as they frittered away their deployments doing busy work on the FOB, Brave Deeds relentlessly focuses on the actions of fighting men outside the wire, observing the unities of time and place to follow the journey of six junior enlisted infantry soldiers as they cross Baghdad, AWOL, to attend the memorial service of a beloved, at least by some, squad leader. Along the way, adventures ensue, distinctiveness of character emerges, and back-stories get told in the manner of picaresque war tales ranging from the Odyssey to Going After Cacciato, but Brave Deeds feels far from derivative. Rather, it is fired up, that is to say inspired, by an animus that Fobbit hinted at but softened with its comic punch-pulling: Abrams’ interest in, which is to say love for, young enlisted soldiers bereft of the quote-unquote leadership of NCOs and officers, two military demographics whose authority and credibility are discredited in the eyes of the Brave Deeds soldiers, probably Abrams’ as well, and, frankly, my own, looking back at the negligible achievements of long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The David Abrams I know—a career NCO, for what it’s worth–is a kind, gentle, and sweet soul, but Brave Deeds reflects an intense class-war and age-based generation gap sensibility that exposes military lifers as the vapid and ultimately incompetent self-servers that many junior enlisted suspect them to be within weeks of joining. Abrams’ achievement here, people, is immense: many contemporary war fiction titles strive to portray the worldview of junior enlisted service members—“Joe” in Army-speak, or the “Terminal Lance” as they are known in the Marines—and much of it falters for want of craft, over-reliance on clichés, and limitation of vision. Those are not Abrams’ problems in the least; Brave Deeds‘ focus on the infantry squad and young male soldier may be traditional, but the view rendered through Abrams’ eyes is up-to-the-minute.