Everyone’s a Critic/War Writing Becomes Aware of Itself

Scene from Our Trojan War

2017 has brought new creative work by war literature stalwarts Elliot Ackerman, Siobhan Fallon, David Abrams, Brian Van Reet, Helen Benedict, Jehanne Dubrow, and Elyse Fenton. Less noticed is that, beginning in late 2016, a steady flow of interesting reviews and scholarship has interrogated and deployed (block those military metaphors!) war writing in the name of deeper insights and larger arguments. Below’s a chronicle of some of it, done quick-and-fast, down-and-dirty, leaving the hard work of assessment and synthesis to more capable students of the genre. Still, no excuse now for not knowing what’s going on, nor for failing to recognize opportunities to make fresh contributions….

In fall 2016 appeared Joseph Darda’s essay in the scholarly journal Contemporary Literature titled “The Ethnicization of Veteran America: Larry Heinemann, Toni Morrison, and Military Whiteness after Vietnam.” Singling out Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Darda posits that “military whiteness,” a racially-charged backlash formation that privileges the heroic suffering of white veterans, characterizes not just Vietnam war fiction, but Afghanistan and Iraq war fiction, too.

The winter 2016 Contemporary Literature features Patrick Deer’s “Mapping Contemporary American War Culture,” in which Deer traces the militarization and weaponization of American domestic life in the wake of fifteen years of continuous war in works such as Redeployment, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and The Wire. Most interesting, arguably, is his take on Brian Turner’s memoir My Life as a Foreign Country, which Deer reads as subverting the dictates of “military futurism”—drones, paramilitary police, cyberwar, etc.—through its jagged, non-linear blending of personal, national, and global history.

Following the production of Our Trojan War, a NYC vet-centric play that stitched together scenes of war in Iraq with scenes and passages from classical texts, the online New Yorker ran a scathing review by James Romm titled “A Misguided Impulse to Update the Greek Classics.” Among other zingers, Romm writes, “The sight of Achilles in a flak jacket, searching for I.E.D.s with shaky hands and a twitchy trigger finger, gives us too simple and reassuring a peg on which to hang these noble old poems.”

New York City Veterans Alliance founder and director and The Road Ahead contributor Kristen Rouse fired back in a letter to the New Yorker (never published, but shared with me):

We’re not simply repackaging great literature in our tired military uniforms to feel better about ourselves. We are a new generation of veterans who are emerging as leaders, as writers, and as artists who have made it our lives’ work to let our fellow Americans know the complexity and impacts of our current wars that Americans keep failing to connect with, and that none of this is new—these lessons applied as much to the ancient hoplite as to today’s infantryman patrolling the mountains of Khost Province, Afghanistan. As a new generation of veterans, many of us are determined to use art as maybe the most urgent and important medium to connect with audiences and shake them from their boredom and disengagement…. If James Romm and the editors of The New Yorker are determined to remain unmoved—along with our still-disengaged American elites who have invested little in our wars or the men and women who have waged them—then so be it. But know that we will keep trying to shake you from your apathy.

In April, the Los Angeles Review of Books published Adin Dobkin’s “The Never-Ending Book of War,” a complex and ambitious piece in which Dobkin connects the long duration of war in Iraq and Afghanistan with literary genre instability. Drawing on theories of history promulgated by heavy-hitters such as Alfred Toynbee and Oswald Spengler, Dobkin expresses hope that a valiant “creative minority” of “soldier-authors” might yet break the impasse wrought by stalled wars and blocked imaginations.

Dobkin’s roll call of potential impasse-breakers includes Siobhan Fallon, but otherwise tilts heavily male: Roy Scranton, Elliot Ackerman, and Eric Fair, among others. The omission of more women writers didn’t pass unnoticed by Andria Williams, who writes in a Military Spouse Book Review blog post titled “Existing for Our Own Sake: Adin Dobkin’s Take on the State of War Writing,”:

I can’t help wonder what made Dobkin feel like he could write an “update” to the state of recent war literature without accounting for a single female veteran-writer, or writer of color…. the communities Dobkin fails to reference may be the very communities from which we’ll see the most, and most experimental, writing over the next few years.

Also riffing on Dobkin’s article was a Canadian Army chaplain named Michael Peterson, who blogs under the nom-de-digit The Mad Padre. Peterson wrote a helpful post titled “War and Remembrance: Notes Toward a Taxonomy of Contemporary War Literature” that covers a wide swath of familiar contemporary war-writing names to explain how easily their work fulfills the expectations of classical forms such as epic, mimesis, satire, soul work, and art.

The spring 2017 issue of The Hedgehog Review published a very interesting article titled, A Guest on This Earth: Humān al-Balwī and the Birth of Jihadist Fiction” by Nadav Samin. Samin inquires whether the terrorist who blew himself up and also seven CIA agents in a 2009 infiltration of Camp Chapman in Afghanistan was also a highly-popular author of jihadist fiction published on the Internet. Samin writes,

If the jihadist movement is at the forefront of a globally resurgent religious politics, it is in no small part because of its masterful capturing of the new mediascape with propaganda that is grandiose, macabre, and even cautiously, awfully literary.

A special edition of Modern Fiction Studies titled “Enduring Operations: The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” co-edited by Aaron DeRosa and Stacey Peebles, is dedicated to contemporary war writing. In the interest of space I’ll only list the titles of articles and their authors (while thanking all), save to say that at least four of them seem to work the same literature-history-form triad as Dobkin. Knowing and curious readers will gather the titles’ drift and seek them out if interested:

“Combat Prosthetics: Recovering the Literature of the Wounded Female Soldier in the War on Terror,” Brenda Sanfilippo

“Home/Land Insecurity, Or, un Desmadre en Aztlán: Virginia Grise’s blu,” Belinda Linn Rincón

“Domestic Aerial Photography in the Era of Drone Warfare,” J. D. Schnepf

“Imagining Afghanistan in Deep Time: Nadeem Aslam and the Aesthetics of the Geologic Turn,” Alla Ivanchikova

“Beyond Recovery: Representing History and Memory in Iraq War Writing,” Patrick Deer

“Reframing War Stories: Multivoiced Novels of the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Jennifer Haytock

“Iraq War Body Counts: Reportage, Photography, and Fiction,” Roger Luckhurst

“Spectator-Citizen-Soldier: History, Genre, and Gender in The Hurt Locker,” Alex Vernon

Scott Beauchamp—a man clearly not afraid to make enemies–published an article titled “The Detached Literature of Remote Wars” for the American Affairs website that begins with a bang:

…our stories have struggled to convey the novelty of contemporary combat with the depth and significance that literature demands.  Most often, recent war fiction ends up collapsing into exhausted and facile sentimentality, or confining itself to very limited psychological renderings foregrounded by tepid and predictable political sympathies.

Beauchamp’s takedown of Klay, Ackerman, Gallagher, Fountain, et al, is accompanied by the announcement of the upcoming release of his own memoir of service in Iraq–I think we can all agree it better be good.

My own offerings to the discourse have been two-fold: I chaired a panel titled 21st-Century Veterans: Heroes or Victims? at this year’s American Literature Association conference. Below are the names of the panelists and their papers (thank you all):

“Facing Walls and Mending Wounds: Frost, Komunyakaa, and the Modern Veteran,” James Dubinsky

“Gazing at Veterans in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Sand Queen,” Deborah Daley

“Resisting Idyllic Masculinities in Luke Mogelson’s These Heroic, Happy Dead,” Steven Johnson

I also contributed an article titled “Frederick Busch and Annie Proulx: Forebears of Contemporary War Fiction” to the current issue of War, Literature, and the Arts, the United States Air Force Academy journal that has been showcasing war writing, art, and scholarship longer than anyone else around. I’m happy to be included alongside a number of strong contributors and even happier to know that USAFA will host a conference featuring both creative artists and academic scholars titled “Representing and Remembering War,” September 20-21, 2018. Put it on the calendar, everyone.

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4 Comments on “Everyone’s a Critic/War Writing Becomes Aware of Itself”

  1. Jeff Loeb Says:

    Nicely argued, Peter. I enjoyed reading it (as always).

  2. Christine Sylvester Says:

    Hi,
    Really interesting article full of insights that are more than useful, particularly as I’m currently working on a book ‘Curating and Recurating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq.’ I’d like to cite this article but find that the link does not work.

    • Peter Molin Says:

      Hi Christine, thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad to hear about your book project, but I’m not sure what you mean about the problem with the link. Write me at the email address on the blog page with specifics.


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