Roy Scranton’s Iraq war novel War Porn, out this week, by all accounts was substantially complete by 2011. Indeed, Scranton reports that he began writing War Porn while he was still in the Army in 2005, about the time of the events he portrays in the novel. That War Porn now appears in 2016 raises interesting questions. According to a 2011 The Atlantic article by Matt Gallagher, Scranton could not at the time find a publisher. As Gallagher points out, no major house had yet put out a novel about Iraq or Afghanistan, and Scranton at the time was a fledgling, far-from-established author. Six years later, however, much has changed. War writing as a publishing genre has grown exponentially, and Scranton has compiled an impressive body of work. No doubt these factors help explain why War Porn now sees the light-of-day, but almost certainly there’s more.
In conversation a couple of years back, Scranton stated that he had maintained a “consistent line-of-thinking” throughout his writing ventures, which include editorial oversight and a contribution to the war story anthology Fire and Forget, a striking essay published in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the war literature “trauma hero,” the end-of-the-world treatise Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, a PhD dissertation on post-WWII poetry, and numerous essays and articles in both the popular press and scholarly journals. Be that as it may, if we read War Porn as a 2011 novel it’s one thing: not just a topical novel about matters of extremely recent national interest and not just a work that anticipated major themes Scranton would revisit often, but a missed opportunity, historically, that might have significantly influenced the wave of war novels to follow, which by Scranton’s lights consistently fell into a trap of over-extending sympathy toward US soldiers with bruised feelings. If we read War Porn as a 2016 novel, it’s a look backwards at an era and events rapidly vanishing from public memory, and it also comments retroactively on the slew of Iraq and Afghanistan war novels written since 2011. But it also announces new approaches and inflections, better late-than-never, that might significantly impact war writing to come. How to reconcile the two possibilities?
War Porn consists of three interrelated storylines. One is narrated by an American soldier, Specialist Wilson, and describes Wilson’s service as a Humvee driver in Iraq in the war’s early years. Wilson is arguably no-better-and-no-worse than he should be as a person or soldier, but his banal complicity in the Army’s military occupation of Iraq illustrates how the military dehumanizes even those “just doing their duty.” The consequential damage on Iraqi civil society of an occupation force made up of 100,000+ men-and-women much like Wilson are illustrated in a second storyline depicting an Iraqi US Army interpreter named Qasim al-Zabadi. Things end badly for Qasim, and though he is more victim than victimizer, with far less options than Wilson, and no escape at the end of a year’s deployment, he too has made at least one disastrous choice and must now must endure the consequences of foolishly trusting Americans. The third storyline involves a group of liberal, late-20-something residents of Utah, whose comfy life and beliefs are upset by the arrival to their Columbus Day barbecue of an Iraq War vet named Aaron. Aaron has been a guard at a US military detention facility, and he has a thumb drive full of photos to prove it—the “war porn” of the novel’s title. Aaron even more than Wilson is unrepentant about his involvement in war atrocity and not above using his stash of prison photos to titillate the other party-goers. Far from being “traumatized” and equally far from being a dedicated citizen-soldier ennobled by his time in service, Aaron’s roguish familiarity with evil intimidates the hell out of his male host while dizzying up his host’s wife’s libido. Linking the three storylines are prose-poem interludes in which Scranton channels a collective unconscious voice declaiming the amalgamated collection of fables, lies, half-truths, myths, delusions, and anxieties that underwrote the Iraq War in the American and Iraqi cultural climate.
It’s a lot to take in, but the storylines, scenes, and episodes are carefully integrated, while also serving the purpose of providing a kaleidoscopic view of war experience without privileging the perspective of any one participant, particularly that of a twenty-year-old American male combatant. The prose-poems can be a little polemical, though the one I like best, an hallucinogenic deconstruction of the allure of movie war heroes, worked beautifully when read by Scranton at War Porn’s book launch last week in New York. In contrast to the fired-up prose-poems, Scranton’s narrative prose voice is understated, somehow millennial slacker-ish, focused on acts and words rather than thoughts and emotions, a textural effect that schmoozes the reader into underestimating the grimness of Scranton’s vision until the book’s concluding pages. The chapters featuring Qasim portray Iraqi discourse as laden with Islamic parables and platitudes, which I guess has some relation to the way Muslims really speak in their native languages, though it may also be as much a Western literary mode of representing exotic speech as anything. A passage such as the following, on the other hand, which describes Qasim’s short stay in Scotland as a student, shows Scranton’s talent as a lyrical prose stylist:
Qasim had been north only a few gloomy months–cold, humiliating months full of unnerving lessons in the limits of his talent; dismal months of constipation, headaches, and a constantly running nose; lonesome months where the English he so struggled to master always seemed to bend back on his tongue into gibberish; nightmare months where he wandered the streets in a muddle, baffled and awed by the strange stone city around him and the cruel, doughy faces of the Scots who lived there; despairing months where each night, curled under his duvet with the door shut against his roommates, he struggled desperately to keep from weeping, to keep them from hearing him weep, despondent for home and exhausted from working so hard and falling behind and the unending gray skies pissing rain–when at last the phone rang and his mother told him in a stern, quiet voice that his father was ill and the doctors did not expect him to survive the winter.
The chapters featuring Wilson and Aaron are heavily conversational, and Scranton’s ear for distinguishing between characters by the shape and flavor of their speech rings true to me. The characters banter and parry with each other in that way that signifies cleverness and relaxed conviviality from the inside, but from the outside seems like just a lot of aggressive posturing, as if so-called pals were really “frenemies” who secretly hated and were in competition with each other–which they do and which they are.
All the characters are interesting, even charismatic to a degree, but War Porn’s final scenes makes clear that Scranton’s not interested in giving any of them, save Qasim, a break. The word “choice” appears often in the mouths of the novel’s characters, and the accumulated effect makes the point that if you are an American, your attitude and ideas about Iraq, as well as your actions, whether you served there or not, are the result of decisions, and not just things you drifted into unwittingly when you were young and thus easily excusable. Once stained by the war in Iraq, the American veterans in War Porn in the name of honesty pretty much stop trying to be good people, as they learn just how capable they are of sadistically manipulating and dominating those over whom they hold authority. Much as the civilians at the Utah barbecue must recalibrate their ideas about Iraq when troubled by Aaron and his photos, so the novel’s readers will also have to perform mental gyrations to reestablish their moral equilibrium in regard to a war most experienced only second-hand–pornographically?–through the words and images of those who have fought.
So why wasn’t War Porn published in 2011? At his book launch, Scranton offered a couple of reasons that went beyond the facts that he was a young unknown and war novels were not yet a thing. 2011, he reminded the audience, was a time when “supporting the troops” and “thanking soldiers for their service” was all the rage. War Porn, alas, offers precious little grounds for thanking any of its soldier-characters for anything. Further, Scranton continued, a tenuous truce characterized Iraq circa 2011, which made it not the time for unremittingly bleak novels about a failed invasion, populated with unredeemable characters. Instead, the national literary appetite pined for stories about sensitive soldiers buffeted by service and combat, the sentiment against which Scranton’s “trauma hero” essay seethed. In War Porn, Scranton spends little time tracing the psychology and mental processes of his characters, as if to make a statement that it’s by one’s acts and words that one’s character and morality must be judged, not by some impossible-to-prove literary sketch of a person’s interior landscape.
In the last three years, the rise of ISIS and the disintegration of peace in Iraq have created space for more skeptical looks at the Iraq War, especially the early years, when the ethical rottenness and intellectual ineptitude, in addition to the practical difficulty, of the occupation was on display for anyone who cared to look closely. Also, the simplistic sanctimony of uncritically thanking guys like Wilson and Aaron for their service has begun to wane, making unflattering literary portraits of veterans possible in the name of somehow working toward a more even-handed consensus on what it actually means to be a veteran. Scranton’s notion that war “dehumanizes” its participants might be said to be as much a trope as the idea that it “traumatizes” them, and critics will object that Scranton himself lacks a basic humane attitude toward his characters and that he willfully neglects the sacrifice, patriotism, courage, and real suffering of young Americans sent to war. Let it happen–the conversation needs to take place, and Scranton’s literary skill and fierceness of vision make him a stout antagonist for anyone who wants to take him on. War Porn, written in the 00s, finds its moment in 2016, five-to-ten years late, but also right on time. Here’s to Scranton for reminding us not to repeat the military mistakes of 2003-2005 nor replicate the publishing trends of 2011-2015, though we probably will, as these things go, in both cases, despite his fine warning.
Roy Scranton, War Porn. Soho, 2016.