War Fiction: Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier

Despite noting the reviews of Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier upon its release last year, I somehow had missed a key piece of Parker’s biography when I began reading the novel itself this month. Over 200 pages in, while marveling at the acuity of Parker’s portrait of soldier disability following battlefield wounding, I rediscovered a review that reminded me that Anatomy of a Soldier is based on personal experience. Parker, it turns out, like his novel’s protagonist, Captain Tom Barnes, unfortunately lost both legs to an IED in Afghanistan while serving in the British army as an infantry officer. The realization immediately recast my reception of Anatomy of a Soldier. Rather than suggesting the exciting possibilities of a highly curious and empathic imagination, the novel now traversed somewhat less interesting terrain: the aesthetic borderland dividing reported experience and fictional dramatization.

Somewhat less interesting, though by no means entirely so. It’s mostly that I’ve read dozens of soldier memoirs and war novels, and am so used to peregrinations back-and-forth across the divide between fact and fiction, whether literary, naïve, or disingenuous, that you’d be hard-pressed to write a war memoir that impressed me as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or a war novel that I didn’t think drew on events you witnessed or participated in. Vietnam War veteran-author Larry Heinemann’s description of his first novel Close Quarters as “straight-up fictionalized memoir” seems to me a phrase that gets at the heart of the genre-anxiety of much war-writing, but my head begins to hurt and I grow tired when pondering the matter.

The point of all this me-centric musing is that Parker has also confronted these issues and has made a number of interesting authorial decisions to resolve them. The decision not to write a memoir is first and foremost, and almost every review of Anatomy of a Soldier considers Parker’s motivation for the choice and what he might have gained or lost. It’s not impossible to fathom why he did not write a memoir: fear of mawkish self-regard or promotion, hesitancy about naming names, suppression of uncomfortable truths, and so on. Given the stiff upper lip and occasional glimpses of black humor on display in Anatomy of a Soldier, I’m sure the last thing Parker would claim is that he wrote it as a therapeutic means of dealing with trauma, even if he did. In any case, a more interesting point to consider is the extremely exotic narrative technique Parker employs, I take it, to further sever the tale from the teller. Each chapter in Anatomy of a Soldier is related from the point-of-view, if that is the right word, of a material object that plays a role in Barnes’ wounding, recovery, and rehabilitation. For example, one chapter is narrated by the bomb that blows him up, another by his helmet, another by the catheter inserted in his penis, etc. Other chapters are related by material objects associated with the Afghans who Barnes tries to help and those he fights, such as a bicycle, a bag of fertilizer, and a wheelbarrow. Here’s an example, related by one of the bullets Barnes loads into a magazine before a mission:

I was spilt with twenty identical others from the cardboard box we were packaged in. I clinked against them as we rolled out across the green mattress.”

BA5799 lined us up into rows of ten and then thirty and pushed us one by one into a magazine.

BA5799—Barnes’ soldier identification number–is how the novel’s object-narrators refer to their owner, a rather obvious way of suggesting that Barnes himself is also just a cog in the big war machine and that the novel is not so much about psychology and emotion but techno-determinism. Giving voice to military equipment might be the logical culmination of the fetishizing of military gear begun by Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” but on the whole the business is a little gimmicky—the stuff of a creative writing class or an experimental modernist novel. That it succeeds as well as it does is a huge testament to Barnes’ powers of observation and creativity. None of the objects brought to life channels an individualized speaking style or consciousness that inflects our understanding of Barnes or Afghans in some way appropriate to the physical functionality of the thing doing the describing—the bullet doesn’t express itself in bullet points, for example, or short, piercing prose stabs of death-dealing wisdom (which frankly would be dumb and tedious). Instead, they have a generic, objective, understated feel that only fitfully and shallowly probes the inner workings of the characters’ minds or suggests bigger implications of the story being told. That’s partly Parker’s intent, I assume, but it’s also a tactic that forfeits two of the novel genre’s great virtues. That said, Anatomy of a Soldier provides very interesting oblique glimpses of soldier and Afghan life and medical and rehabilitative process that suggest that Parker took very good notes while living through his truncated deployment, horrific wounding, and grueling recovery. The chapters describing Afghan family-and-community mores and farm-field and water-management systems are first-in-class among the war lit depictions I’ve read and those portraying disability and rehabilitation haven’t even been attempted to the degree that Anatomy of a Soldier does very well.

To further confound reader expectation and destabilize narrative conventions, Anatomy of a Soldier unfolds Barnes’ story in a decidedly non-linear fashion, so the chronological understanding of it all doesn’t come clear until very near the end. Once revealed, the plot shows itself to have much in common with many other junior officer sagas: the tale of an idealistic young man who wants nothing more than to prove himself battle-worthy in the eyes of his superiors, peers, and subordinates. That’s some extremely old wine that Parker pours into an extravagantly fashioned new bottle, and, like many other reviewers, I wonder if the effort was worth it, for Parker has the life experience and writing chops to have written a more conventional junior officer memoir that still stands out from the pack. Platoon leader memoirs typically culminate in either triumph—things go well, with just enough failure and blackness to say you’ve tasted them—or disaster—the author doesn’t get to be the hero he dreamed of being, leaving him feeling frustrated, cheated, and somehow deficient; if wounded, his wounds proof that he wasn’t cut out for successful officership in the first place. Anatomy of a Soldier is of the second type, and the parts that pack the most emotional wallop trace the contours of Barnes’ triumph and disappointment. His helmet describes the high-water mark, when his sense of pride swells at having successfully led his men into and out of battle:

He had wondered why people thought soldiering was romantic, and knew if they swapped places with any of his men most would crumple under the pressure and fear, the smell and the heat. But he could feel the romance now as he watched the single file of men, with their day-sacks and helmets and antennas, bobbing up and down across this foreign land.

He went through the platoon from the back and smiled at every man as he passed. They crouched by walls or sat on rocks to take the weight off their backs. Their faces were exhausted and grimy with dirt. He knew and trusted each of them. They were his: he could order them into danger and they would go, but he also belonged to them and would lead them there. Each grin and nod, every gesture was trust and the bond that had tightened again that morning.

Moments later, Barnes is wounded, and the colossal import of the event on Barnes’ sense of himself as a worthy leader of fighting men is rendered by his deployment achievement medal as Barnes watches his unit march in parade upon return to England:

BA5799 watched them come. He knew them all. He’d been part of them, one of their best; he didn’t mind the arrogance of thinking that—it didn’t matter now. He’d made a mistake that confined him to the small group that looked on. Even if he’d wanted to march with them he couldn’t.

His hand tightened around me and I pushed a red mark into the folded creases of his palm. He was embarrassed that he was the one who’d made a mistake. He was supposed to be good at his job—some of them had even looked up to him, depended on him to make decisions—and it was never going to happen to him, he was meant to be lucky. But he wasn’t, and it had, and he’d failed.

Suddenly he hated the thought of them seeing him like this, broken and maimed. He didn’t want to walk out there in front of the watching crowd. He wanted to go back to the centre and its different rules and measures of achievement that none of them would understand. Where he could be the best.

He looked down at me and swept his thumb across my surface and felt the ridges and mounds of the head moulded on me. He was a maimed relic that everyone wanted to forget. None of the men in those ranks wanted to be reminded of the truth—of what might happen. I am that truth, he thought.

He watched them go and knew he would never feel part of them again. They were heading away to their R and R, convinced they were invincible and knowing it would never happen to them, while he was going back to the centre to adapt to what had happened to him. My fight goes on, he thought and slipped me into his pocket.

That’s a very honest reckoning, in my opinion, and one that for my money should be offered to the world from something other than the perspective of a bit of brass and ribbon. I could easily place Anatomy of a Soldier in dialogue with Iraq and Afghanistan junior officer memoirs written by Americans, such as those by Nathaniel Fick, Craig Mullaney, Matt Gallagher, Adrian Bonenberger, Sean Parnell, Benjamin Tupper, and Laura Westly, or, given Parker’s protagonist’s name, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Perhaps though it’s best to find English fictional antecedents to understand Parker’s achievement. One might first turn to J.K. Rowling’s Robert Galbraith novels featuring a one-legged Afghanistan vet named Cormorant Strike—Anatomy of a Soldier might well be the prequel that helps explain Strike’s stoic independence and contempt for pretense.

But the book that Anatomy of a Soldier most resembles is another fictionalized memoir written by Siegfried Sassoon, another Englishman from another war. In Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, Sassoon, who like his protagonist George Sherston, temporarily escaped the World War I trenches by pronouncing his conscientious objection to the war, seems most excited to describe how Sherston upon return to the frontlines proves himself a brave, competent, respected leader of an infantry unit in combat before suffering his own war-ending wound. For Sassoon, as with Parker, as with, I would say, virtually any young man who tries to turn himself into an infantry or combat arms officer, the moment of validation that comes with successful battlefield leadership is worth every danger and every cost, the first thing and most important thing he wants the world to know about him forever afterwards.

An informative article on Harry Parker and his thoughts about writing Anatomy of a Soldier here. Among other things, Parker clears up a bit of confusion:  Afghanistan is never mentioned in Anatomy of a Soldier, but it is, as Parker states in the article, obviously set there.

A post from my old blog with some relevance to the subject-at-hand.

Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier. Knopf, 2016.

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