The battle roster number was EAJ-0888, and we were trying to think of who that was. We knew it was a guy from First Platoon because Staff Sergeant White had called it in. We knew it wasn’t Specialist Jackson, First Platoon’s medic, since line medics weren’t attached to Bravo from HHC and if the dead guy were Jackson the battle roster number would have started with HHC and not E. The first initial A wasn’t much help was we weren’t in the habit of calling one another by our first name. It took us the better part of ten minutes to come up with a guy from Third Platoon whose last name started with the letter J.
Brian Van Reet, in a recent speech given at the American Library in Paris titled “The Red and the Blue: Writing War in a Divided America,” proposes that the contemporary war-writing landscape reflects the geo-political realities of the Age of Trump. Expanding on ideas suggested to him by veteran-writer Brian Castner, Van Reet argues that there are “red” war books that appeal to conservative, Red-State readers and “blue” war books popular among liberal Blue-State readers. Red war books, in this dichotomy, unproblematically extoll fighting-and-killing prowess and patriotic fervor as virtues, while blue war books ambivalently brood about these qualities. Blue books are marked by literary aspirations, while red books play for, and often receive, mass approval.
We cleared houses like we normally did when these things happened. It had been just a klick away, south of us, past the bend in the road, down a little past OP1, so we didn’t need to go anywhere. And with nothing to the west but a short field and the river, we turned east off the road and went about it.
As examples of red war books, Van Reet names American Sniper, Lone Survivor, No Easy Day, and “kill memoirs” (a phrase Van Reet coined) such as Dillard Johnson’s Carnivore. As examples of blue books, Van Reet names fiction such as Redeployment, The Yellow Birds, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and journalism such as Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War and Sebastian Junger’s War.
A blind retard was chained to a palm tree in front of the first house we came to. An old woman, presumably the retard’s mother, stood near the gate of the courtyard, and some of us filed in. There were four rooms around the courtyard so we split off to see about each one and I kicked a door in and went into an unlit room. The room was empty except for a haji lying on the floor with his eyes closed. I said, “Get the fuck up, motherfucker.”
But he didn’t move.
I moved closer to him, rifle trained down on him. “GET THE FUCK UP, MOTHERFUCKER.”
He opened one eye and looked at me, stayed unmoved, closed the eye. So I had my mind made up to kick him in the face. I didn’t go around kicking hajis in the face for no reason and I didn’t know anyone who did, but Jimenez was dead and I was going to kick the haji in the face. I brought the kick as hard as I could, aiming center mass. But I stopped halfway to connecting. It was all I could do to stay on the one foot and not fall on my ass. The haji got up and stretched and he shuffled out of the room. I can’t remember when it had occurred to me that maybe he was also retarded. I unfucked myself and went outside to see where the haji had gone. He was heading off into the fields, looking up into the sun. Nobody touched him.
Breaking down binary distinctions is always possible and tempting, but that Van Reet is basically correct, there can be no doubt. Beyond the evidence he provides, one can point to the fact that President Obama several times praised Phil Klay’s Redeployment. It’s impossible to imagine President Trump reading Redeployment, but if he did, it’s easy to think that he would hate it and Tweet that if it didn’t demonstrate why America should never have gone to war in Iraq (he wouldn’t be so wrong about that), then it was proof positive that the American military was full of losers and sissies who didn’t have the balls to crush their enemies.
Jimenez was a cherry. He was one of the replacements who had come to the company after First Platoon lost the four guys killed out on Route Polk. He hadn’t been around two months and he was dead. It was unlucky.
Sometimes the dead guy was really an asshole, or you could make the case that he was. Not so with Jimenez. For all intents and purposes, Jimenez was a saint. That’s why he stuck out like a sore thumb in an infantry company.
The thing is your average infantryman is no worse than your garden-variety sonofabitch. But he talks in dick jokes and aspires to murder and it doesn’t come off as a very saintly mode of being. Yet Jimenez was a saint. It wasn’t like he was soft or anything like that; he was a tough kid. He’d only just turned 19 but he was strong with a deep chest and the kind of unbreakable wrists one gets from working with his hands. And he’d work. The sergeants liked him for that. But he was so goddamn nice that he drove people crazy sometimes. Like he’d play poker with the poker players and he’d play bad hands. Dealt a queen-four off-suited, he was liable to call two preflop raises and hit a boat on the river. And when people got mad at him for playing garbage he’d apologize and try to give them back their chips. But it didn’t work like that.
The last time I saw Jimenez was about eight hours before Haji killed him. He’d been boxing Staff Sergeant Castro in the weight room, sparring, and Castro had popped him on the nose pretty good so his nose was bleeding—not broken or anything, just bleeding. And Castro told him to go see a medic and Jimenez did what he was told and when he came around looking for a medic I gave him a hard time. I said, “What the fuck are you coming to me about a bloody fucking nose for, cherry?”
And he didn’t say anything. He just smiled, all awkward, like he was embarrassed for me.
I said, “C’mon, cherry. I’m tired. Please don’t come to me with dumb shit, okay? I’m really fucking tired, you know?”
In the course of his speech, Van Reet includes Nico Walker’s Cherry as an example par excellence of a “blue” literary war novel. That’s interesting to me, because Cherry presents itself as a very raw, un-doctored, and un-mannered account by a junior-enlisted soldier who unapologetically describes life-in-the-ranks on deployment with brutal honesty. If I were to point to a war novel released last year that demonstrated serious literary chops and aspirations, it would be Will Mackin’s Bring Out the Dog, not Cherry. Still, that Walker’s author-narrator persona is a bit of a façade is revealed by the narrator’s admission that post-deployment, even while in the grips of serious heroin addiction, he was submitting poems to the New Yorker, and corroborated in the Acknowledgements where Walker reveals that he rewrote Cherry endlessly under the tutelage of literary publishing pros. So, a little like American Sniper, which was ghost-written by a seasoned novelist, Cherry manages to convey authenticity despite all the evidence that it was highly stylized and worked-over by a young man with serious literary ambitions and a team of helpmates.
He went out with a fire team in the morning. They set up a TCP on Route Martha. They’d gone out when it was still dark and they hadn’t had a good look at the spot where they were set up and they didn’t know Haji had laid a one-five-five round underneath the road there. The road was just a paved berm and it was easy to mine. And the Haj was watching them. He saw Jimenez stand on the spot he had mined.
I heard Koljo talk about it. It was later in that same day. He was telling some joes what it had been like. He said, “It looked like something out of a horror movie.”
The one-five-five round took off both Jimenez’s legs and severed one of his arms almost completely. But he was still awake and he knew what was happening. He was screaming. The fire team traded shots with two fucking murderers, but the murderers got away, north through a palm grove. The fire team couldn’t go after them because they couldn’t leave Jimenez there by himself.
Be that as it may, many passages in Cherry are strikingly vivid and moving, to include the one I’ve been excerpting, which come from Chapter 33. Though the chapter is unnamed in the book, it might be called “The Death of Jimenez.” For me, it’s up there, if not quite better than, the portrait of the death of Snowden at the end of Catch-22, which sets the bar high for depiction of the death of American soldiers in combat. Read Chapter 33, read Cherry entire, and judge for yourself.
Nico Walker, Cherry. Alfred A. Knopf, 2018.
9 thoughts on “Red and Blue: The Death of Jimenez”
Good points. In any writing, the quality of authenticity (trueness, genuineness, originality) must always be conveyed using artifice. One of the paradoxes of the craft.
It’s a huge issue particularly at stake in war-writing, and I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here. What Walker’s achieved in Cherry to me resembles what Vietnam War writer Larry Heinemann achieved with his first novel, Close Quarters, which he called “straight-up fictionalized memoir.” Close Quarters uses blunt, graphic language to describe with raw immediacy how Vietnam turned its Heinemann-like protagonist into a beast. Heinemann, however, worked on it for nine years and gives great credit to a teacher he had upon return from Vietnam who nourished him along the way. Most interestingly, Heinemann, young, innocent, and naive as he might have been upon shipping out, had aspired to be a stage actor and had performed summer-stock. That doesn’t mean he was corrupted by a tendency to see his life in artistic and dramatic ways, but it’s contra the presentation of his protagonist in Close Quarters as an untutored primitive whose words achieve vividness and authority through their “naturalness,” rather than being performative. My blog post on “The Raw and the Cooked” would also seem to have some application here.
That was a good post (“Raw and Cooked.”). Agree, the authenticity issue is paramount to understanding the reception of modern war lit.
If fiction is trying to get at the truth through art, and “blue” fiction tends to be more “literary” then maybe what you’re saying is that the attempts at literary fiction (i.e. highbrow or “better”) are actually attempts to be more truthful. The whole red/blue thing makes me uncomfortable. I think it’s more accurate to say it’s a sliding scale/spectrum from false to true. More simply expressed as from Red to Blue.
Thanks, Eric, it’s all complicated, right, and what constitutes “truth” is one of the complicating factors. There are simple truths and complicated truths, and truths as they are understood by twenty-year-olds with American high school educations while they are at war, and truths that emerge out of years of reflection, study, and longer, wider perspectives. There are truths that are particular to one person and truths that emanate from collective evaluation of evidence, logic, and many people’s experiences. And the ways to represent truth vary, too, from the simply expressed to the highly wrought, which includes highly-wrought representations of simplicity. What registers as “false” or “fake” is just as variable.
The narrator-protagonist of Cherry strikes many reviewers as a very realistic example of an indifferently-motivated young soldier confused by war. He’s not a philosopher and he’s not a culture critic, so he relates interesting stories of things he saw and did and people he met and some thoughts about those events and people in an idiom you might easily imagine a young man using, and he’s kind of a funny guy. Billy Lynn, of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is also an indifferently-motivated and barely articulate young soldier confused by war. He too is neither a philosopher nor culture critic, but Ben Fountain masterfully puts words to Billy’s vague intuitions and impressions, while filling in a shit-ton of cultural context that’s missing in Cherry. So which novel rings “true” and which one rings “false,” and on what grounds?
Yeah, it would be impossible to judge who came closer to the truth. But you could make a pretty good assessment, as you just did, about which literary attempts were more complex/nuanced and which ones were simpler. I’ve been researching something else and I ran across Bonini’s paradox which says that when you’re trying to model something, the more realistic a model is, the more complex it is, and thus, it’s less useful. Put another way, the simpler a model is, the less realistic it is, but the more useful it is. Brian alludes to this in his talk: he suspects, like I do, that the “red” books sell better. So, maybe instead of a red/blue spectrum there is a simple/complex spectrum. If literature is a model of “what the war was like,” then maybe the simpler tales are more palatable and sell better. Easier to digest. ‘Murica. Maybe it’s not about truth, but what the consumer wants. If they want a simple message maybe that’s the red/simple message that’s easier to digest that sells more. If the consumer/reader wants a complex message, they buy a book that’s blue/complex and sells less. You could infer something about intelligence, but I think it’s driven more by what people want. What the customer wants. I somehow think truth is woven in somehow because in the Bonini’s Paradox wikipedia thing there’s a Valery quote that addresses this too and puts it pretty well: “A simple statement is bound to be untrue. One that is not simple cannot be utilized.”
I’ve never heard of Bonini’s Paradox before but it makes a lot of sense, especially in regard to teaching, where I’m constantly making decisions about how much detail I want to go into when explaining an idea, skill, activity, or event to students. It makes even more sense for sports and military training and coaching, where keeping things simple is definitely a virtue.
I’d hate to overvalue simplicity, however, especially in the service of “usefulness”–a very dubious concept when applied to art. Somethings just are complex, and for some people, considering complexity is enjoyable, while reducing complexity to simplicity is irritating.
Keep the conversation going as you will!
I think it’s a distinction both valid and helpful. For instance, I’d put the VN novel Fields of Fire in the Red because of its reactionary intent, even though it pretty much eschews action, whereas Cherry, for all its jagged realism, seems to be making the opposite point. Thanks for this essay. It’s very thoughtful, as always.
Thanks, Jeff. Jim Webb, the author of Fields of Fire, would seem to be an important figure in these discussions, since he wore his politics on his sleeve, first serving under President Reagan as Secretary of the Navy and then running for Senate as a Democrat. I haven’t read Fields of Fire, though, so I can’t comment in any detail, but how a political consciousness is channeled through a literary-artistic performance is complicated–with the end result sometimes but not always reflecting the author’s views and intentions, and often remaining very open for debate.