Posted tagged ‘Roy Scranton’

Right on Time, Five Years Later: Roy Scranton’s War Porn

August 3, 2016

War PornRoy 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 GallagherScranton 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.

War Writing Longform: Thinking Outside the Wire

June 15, 2016
USAFA Photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez (in 2009, TSGt Chavez and I served together on FOB Lightning, Afghanistan)

USAF photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez

Elizabeth Samet’s Washington Post review of J. Kael Weston’s The Mirror Test intrigued me. Samet, in my reading, simultaneously approves of Weston’s fiery indictment of the United States’ poor execution of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and is irritated by it. Weston, a veteran of many tours in both countries as a US State Department political advisor, castigates US policy makers in Washington and generals in the big command headquarters while celebrating the bravery and grunt’s-eye view of reality of the Marines and soldiers with whom he often confronted Iraqis and Afghans “outside the wire” and “on the ground.” Those are fair positions, Samet posits, based on Weston’s extensive experience and the reports of many others. The problem, Samet seems to be saying, is that Weston’s arguments aren’t exactly novel, especially coming this late in the game from someone with all the advantages of education and position Weston possesses and now expresses so righteously as if no one had ever said them before. Declaring one’s hatred for Beltway insiders and rear-echelon fobbits, while pronouncing one’s affiliation with common soldiers, are ideas that the nation might still benefit from by heeding, but in June 2016, they’re hardly the basis of an original critique of government and military policy and operations. Anyone who cares has heard the song many times, and no one who has not already memorized the words will begin singing it now.

What’s needed, if I read Samet correctly, or maybe it’s just me, are new ideas about what the wars entailed and what they mean. Fresher thinking about the experience of soldiers. Deeper exploration of American militarism in national and global affairs. Intriguing new terms and more complex arguments and counter-arguments, more ingenious processing of the data about what happened, and surprising discoveries of heretofore unobserved connections. It’s all well-and-good that someone’s been outside the wire to face danger and complexity, but how can one’s writing and thinking also venture outside the wire?

In other domains—medicine, technology, education, science, for examples,—”longform” journalism is typically a place, maybe the place, where new ideas by authors of skill and gravitas are seriously proposed and tried out. I was recently asked to compile a list of articles, web postings, and book excerpts, publicly available on the Internet, that did some of that work in regard to America’s twenty-first century wars, and the results are below. Most of the articles I read when they appeared, while others are new finds discovered just the last couple of weeks. A few are buried behind pay-and-registration walls, for which I apologize, but all are well worth seeking out. Many corroborate my own impressions and war experiences and serve as the intellectual basis for my understanding of how the wars unfolded and what have been their consequences. Others, however, contradict my own thoughts, or report on facets of the war of which I have little other knowledge. The best don’t just report events, but make bold judgments about assumptions and values underwriting the things they describe.

  1. “Force and Futility: Is It Time to Leave Afghanistan?” Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker (2010).
  2. “American Imperium: Uncovering Truth and Fiction in an Age of Perpetual War.” Andrew J. Bacevich, Harpers (2016).
  3. “The Killing Machines: How to Think About Drones.” Mark Bowden, The Atlantic (2013).
  4. “Today is Better Than Yesterday: A Marine Returns to a Divided Iraq.” Ben Busch, Harpers (2014).
  5. “The Real Muslims of Irving, Texas.” Colby Buzzell, Esquire (2016).
  6. “One Degree of Separation in the Forever Wars.” Brian Castner, Vice-Motherboard (2015).
  7. “The Problem With Biometrics at War.” Brian Castner, Vice-Motherboard (2016). Excerpt from All the Ways We Kill and Die (2016).
  8. “Words in a Time of War: On Rhetoric, Truth, and Power.” Mark Danner, excerpt from What Orwell Didn’t Know: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics (2007).
  9. “The Tragedy of the American Military.” James Fallows, The Atlantic (2015).
  10. “Excerpt from The Good Soldiers.” David Finkel, The Washington Post (2009).
  11. “Prologue to Thank You For Your Service.” David Finkel, MSNBC (2013).
  12. “Crimes in Iraqi’s Triangle of Death.” Jim Frederick, Time. Excerpt from Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent into Madness in Iraqi’s Triangle of Death (2010).
  13. “Soldiers on the Fault Line: War, Rhetoric, and Reality.” Ben Fountain, War, Literature, and the Arts (2013).
  14. “How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield.” Sebastian Junger, Vanity Fair (2015).
  15. “The Citizen Soldier: Moral Risk and the Modern Military.”  Phil Klay, Brookings Institute (2016).
  16. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, But Alan Rogers Was a Hero to Everyone Who Knew Him.” Ben McGrath, The New Yorker (2008).
  17. “Introduction: Moral Injury Then and Now.” Robert Emmet Meagher. Excerpt from Killing From the Inside Out (2014).
  18. “Playing Defense Against Drones.” Amanda Ripley, Atlantic (2015).
  19. “Between Scylla and Charybdis.” Elizabeth Samet. Excerpt from No Man’s Land: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America (2014).
  20. “Inside America’s Dirty Wars: How Three US Citizens Were Killed by Their Own Government in the Space of One Month in 2011.” Jeremy Scahill, The Nation (2013). Excerpt from Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (2016).
  21. “Reborn But Not Dead.” Nancy Sherman. Excerpt from Afterwar: Healing the Moral Wounds of Soldiers (2015).
  22. “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene.” Roy Scranton, The New York Times (2013).
  23. “Back to Baghdad: Life in the City of Doom.” Roy Scranton, Rolling Stone (2014).
  24. “The Trauma Hero from Wilfred Owen to American Sniper and Redeployment.” Roy Scranton, The Los Angeles Review of Books. (2015).
  25. “I Said Infantry.” Brian Turner, Guernica. Adapted from My Life as a Foreign Country (2015).

Bonus reading: “Jumpstarting a Discussion: Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars.” Stacey Peebles, Roy Scranton, Patrick Deer, AB Huber, Ikram Masmoudi, and Peter Molin, An MLA Roundtable (2016).

Many apologies for the great writers and articles I’ve left out. I could compile a second list, and probably will someday, composed of dozens of worthy articles on less prominent sites than the Harpers/Atlantic/New Yorker -type web places I’ve privileged here. Another list could also feature more diverse voices, by gender, race, religion, and country of origin. Many articles address PTSD and technology, but there’s a few subjects, such as the repeal of DADT, the rise of special operations, the expanded role of women in the military, and the revaluation of the laws of war occasioned by Islamic terrorism that are underrepresented in my list. I looked, maybe not hard enough, entirely possible, but my initial search found few on those subjects that rose above the level of reportage and advocacy to the realm of idea and concept.

Call me greedy, but I want even more. The articles above, good as they are, might now serve most usefully as a seedbed for better things to come, as if everything they propose had to be said first in order now that more creative and perceptive writers can build on them. Here’s an example of what I have in mind, taken from the literary domain I know best. Say what you will about Roy Scranton’s concept of the “trauma hero,” describing a veteran who seems to relish a little too much his or her post-war distress, it got everyone’s attention when it first appeared in a Los Angeles Review of Books essay early in 2015. The memorable phrase defines both a common way that Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are being represented in fiction, poetry, and film, and suggests some of the motif’s moral implications and cultural significance, little of which Scranton approved. Many didn’t like Scranton’s essay; they said it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t subtle, and even if it were true, the tone was off, as if Scranton were guilty of not being supportive either of veterans or veteran-authors—the sum total of the responses reinforcing the notion that Scranton’s darts had struck close to the bone.

Phil Klay, for one, might not have liked the not-so-implicit sneer inherit in the phrase “trauma hero,” since his striking short-story “Redeployment” was singled out by Scranton as definitively portraying a veteran confused and reeling from his tour-of-duty. Recently, in a Brookings non-fiction think-piece, Klay refined his sense of the ethical landscape inhabited by those who volunteered to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan and who continue to weigh the consequences of their decision. Klay advances the notion that the war service of “citizen-soldiers” (he thankfully refrains from using “warriors,” though he might have interrogated how that term has come to serve as a popular descriptor for men and women in uniform) has put them in a position of “moral risk”: a heightened capacity for understanding the complexity of human experience, based on their personal engagement with war folly and darkness, their own and the nation’s, naively volunteered for when young, true, but still an experience they must own and be responsible toward going forward. But knowing how military service might lead to ethical compromise, Klay’s argument goes, is not necessarily debilitating. It can also, Klay argues hopefully and with examples, generate purposeful commitment to being as good as one can be in the aftermath.

The essay is learned and eloquent; Klay fights like the devil to keep from celebrating veterans as forged-by-fire explorers of morally ambiguous wastelands who now know better than the rest of Americans, even as his essay conjures this possible understanding of them into being. But it’s not really so important whether Klay wins the war of ideas by more fully and accurately sketching the moral psychology of veterans better than Scranton. What counts first is that engaged readers consider for themselves the logic and evidence for his claims. What counts second is consideration of the tension now in play, with the self-indulgent distressed veteran constituting one pole of an interpretive force-field and the veteran as ethical avatar the other. And what counts even more is not what either Scranton or Klay has already said, but the response to come by an equally formidable commentator.

Whether that writer splits the difference between Scranton and Klay or takes the argument in a new direction remains to be seen, but the result will certainly be exciting and helpful. It’s not just an intellectual exercise, either; consequential decisions affecting the lives of real people are on the line. The debate’s importance isn’t best measured looking backward at events that have already occurred, but in how its implications will influence difficult choices to come and how they are absorbed internally by those whom they affect most. And to bring things back to fiction, which I love most, we’ll all be able to see how Scranton himself riffs on the trauma hero theme in his soon-to-be-published novel War Porn. I don’t know if Klay’s next fictional work will portray war and veterans, but I’m betting it features characters dealing with intensely problematic experiences they lived through when young.

Photo by USAFA Staff Sergeant Evelyn Chavez, with whom I served on FOB Lightning, Afghanistan, 2009.

USAF photo by TSgt Evelyn Chavez. In 2009, TSgt Chavez and I served together on FOB Lightning, Paktya Province, Afghanistan.

Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars: MLA 2016

January 17, 2016

Austin-MLA-2016At the recent Modern Language Association (MLA)  conference in Austin, Texas, six of us convened a panel titled “Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars” to discuss the memoirs, fiction, and poetry of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ikram Masmoudi, whose War and Occupation in Iraqi Fiction I recently reviewed, wasn’t able to join us, unfortunately, but Stacey Peebles, Patrick Deer, Roy Scranton, AB Huber, and I reiterated and expanded upon remarks we have posted on our panel website. Our moderator, Aaron DeRosa, offered brief introductory remarks that set the tone for the panel, and, it should be noted that he and Peebles are coediting an upcoming issue of Modern Fiction Studies devoted to Iraq and Afghanistan war literature—the call for papers of which can be found here.

DeRosa had us speak in order of increasingly speculative and conceptual slant, so while Peebles, Deer, and I began by taking mostly backward looks at works already written, Scranton’s and Huber’s concluding comments made provocative challenges to future war writers. Scranton reminded us that war writing, whatever its virtues, owes its existence to war’s victims, a fact depressing enough to contemplate when we’re talking about Americans and even worse when war lit’s triumphs are predicated on the dead bodies of Iraqis and Afghans who neither asked for war nor benefited from it. To make his point, Scranton suggested that Hassan Blasim’s “The Corpse Exhibition,” about an Iraqi virtuoso of artistic war-death, is arguably the most apt war story written to date for how it dramatizes the moral reprehensibility of producing art about killing. In its wake, Scranton warned, less self-conscious war fiction risks naivety and ethical undernourishment.

Huber took the discussion to even more intriguing places. Riffing on the latent implications of “unmanned” in the phrase “unmanned aerial devices,” Huber inquired what it meant for war fiction when its heroes are displaced from the battlefield to drone command centers 1000s of miles away. Speculating that new ways of war, such as drone-fighting, that don’t have men staring death in the face are rendering conventional war fiction, poetry, and memoir obsolete, Huber suggested that modern war has generated new textual forms such as “the leak”: depersonalized, de-narrativized documents stripped of authorial experience and authority and creative origin and which fuzz the borders between official and unofficial. Sporting with one of my own lines, “When the great work about war in Iraq and Afghanistan is written, it will be written by a woman,” Huber suggested that battlefield records placed into public view by Chelsea Manning’s Wikileaks already constituted the exemplary literary artifact of 21st-century war.

Huber’s comments might be considered fanciful by non-academic audiences, but they got the roomful of scholars thinking—exactly the kind of visionary re-imagining of the possibilities of war literature we all hoped the panel would inspire. The body of modern war literature so far produced, centered on the experience of author-combatants, earnestly tries to set the conditions for its understanding. Discerning readers, however, accept neither war writing’s ideas nor its premises as either self-evident or given, and have begun to work it over hard. Once more, I encourage you to read the statements posted on our MLA panel website–they are important first words in the process.

***

Austin was full of pleasures other than MLA, and a real highlight for me was meeting and having lunch with Brian Van Reet, the author of two of my favorite short stories about war in Iraq, “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” and “Eat the Spoil.” Van Reet’s novel Spoils, he is happy to report, will be out in 2017.

Brian Van Reet, Austin, Texas, January 2016.

Brian Van Reet, Austin, Texas, January 2016.

Is War Academic? Contemporary War Literature Scholarship

November 26, 2015
The anatopic presence of antenna on a hundreds-year-old fortress in Afghanistan.

The anatopic presence of antenna on a century-old fortress in Afghanistan.

The raucous digital media sphere spits out opinions in near real-time, but academics—PhD-wielding faculty members at colleges and universities—take longer to make up their minds. When ready, they publish their findings in “scholarly journals” viewed, if their authors are lucky, by a few dozen other professors and graduate students. Shrouded in technical jargon and ponderously paced, academic discourse is off-putting to many. But what academics sacrifice in mass appeal, they hope to regain by influence and by playing for the long-haul. They bargain that their ideas and arguments might wow their peers and their impressionable students and then through them enter the mainstream.

Recently, academics have begun to take the measure of contemporary war literature, and I’ve got some skin in the game.

The Modern Language Association conference is the biggest and most prestigious conference of the year for scholars of English and world literature. At the upcoming “MLA,” in Austin, Texas, in January, I’ll participate in a panel titled  “Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars.” Also on the panel are Roy Scranton and Stacey Peebles, about whom I’ve written often on this blog, and Aaron DeRosa, Patrick Deer, Ikram Masmoudi, and A.B. Huber—all exciting scholars with formidable intellectual energy and talent. A website we’ve created to accompany our panel is up, and Peebles, Scranton, and I have already posted short pieces we hope will jumpstart conversations in advance of MLA. My entry discusses the significant presence of women in the ranks of war-writing authors, Scranton addresses representations of Iraqi and Afghans in contemporary war lit, while Peebles inquires about the shifting depictions of masculinity in modern war stories and memoirs.

I’m also honored to have placed an essay in the latest War, Literature, and the Arts journal, published by the Department of English & Fine Arts at the United States Air Force Academy. The essay’s titled “’A Phrase Too Cute to Do Our Ugliness Justice’: Portraying ‘Wounded Warriors’ in Contemporary War Fiction.” The title derives from a great Brian Van Reet short story called “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek”; my subject is representations of physical disability in contemporary war literature. WLA is not only about Iraq and Afghanistan, but much of it is. The current issue, for example, features writing or interviews featuring Brian Turner, Katey Schultz, Angela Ricketts, Brian Doerries, Jesse Goolsby, Richard Johnson, Brandon Lingle, Brooke King, and many other authors and artists associated with 21st-century war. There are also at least two other scholarly investigations of contemporary war literature: Jennifer Haytock’s “Women’s/War Stories: The Female Gothic and Women’s War Trauma in Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen” and Hilary Lithgow’s “’It’s All Good’”: Forms of Belief and the Limits of Irony in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers.”

Finally, Brian J. Williams, who teaches at Tennessee Tech, published this summer an article in the scholarly journal American Literature an article titled “The Desert of Anatopism: War in the Age of Globalization.” As if Roy Scranton’s big word “anthropocene” wasn’t enough to make our heads hurt, now Williams asks us to contend with “anatopism,” which means “something that is out of its proper place.” But Williams, like Scranton, is on to something: he examines the presence in war film, television, and literature—mostly the early-on HBO TV series Generation Kill–of objects that you wouldn’t expect to see in a war zone, or in Iraq or Afghanistan generally, specifically consumer or high-tech items of the West. Think, readers who have deployed, of your sense of dislocation when you realized that cell phones and DVDs were a fact of life in nations that otherwise seemed stuck in poverty and pre-modernity. Williams’ point is that such anatopic moments created cognitive dissonance for American soldiers that made it hard to distinguish between war and peace, enemy and noncombatant, and, within themselves, their soldierly and civilian identities. Here’s how Williams describes one such occurence:

This scene, like so many other moments finding their way into the US corpus emerging from the Gulf Wars, highlights the increasing presence of anatopism in contemporary war texts—the presence of items that seem spatially out of place, as foreign to their location as anachronisms are foreign to their times. Such things shouldn’t be found in the desert; these material signs of home are as out of place as the soldiers themselves, according to the cognitive map most soldiers carry into the combat zone.

In this piece, I examine the ways that traces of the home front appearing in the war zone and depictions of the war in US representations (films, texts, videogames) create an environment neither comfortably alien nor recognizably familiar. The modern soldier in Iraq provides a key position from which to chart the ways in which globalization paradoxically makes the foreign more uncanny by making it familiar, an instability reflective of the larger politics of the war on terror as a whole.

I can think of dozens of examples of anatopism from my own experiences and from the war literature that I have read. The omnipresent water bottles and plastic shopping bags, for example, littered around kalat walls and along thousand-year-old goat trails in the Afghanistan mountains. There’s a great instance of anatopism in Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, too, though the observer of the out-of-place item is a Pashtun, not an American. In a compound in a remote dirt-poor village where generators provide the only electric power, Ackerman’s narrator notes, “In the corner an enormous Hitachi television leaned against the ground. I could hear low murmurs of Urdu as programs from Pakistan flashed across its plasma screen.” Another prime example comes in Jesse Goolsby’s I’d Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them. Three American soldiers on checkpoint duty observe a young woman walking toward them. She’s just a girl, it turns out, but she doesn’t listen to the soldiers’ commands to stop and be searched. Adding to the menace is the threatening incongruity of the soccer ball she carries, which the soldiers fixate on when she finally halts: “For a moment everything stops save the girl, standing still, turning the soccer ball in her hands, her small hands on the ball. They scope her as she turns the ball. Quiet.” Then the girl drops the ball and begins running toward the checkpoint, and the confused and panic-stricken Americans shoot her dead. The anatopic soccer ball has helped unhinge them and cost the young girl her life.

Roy Scranton’s Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Bleakly Optimistic or Brightly Pessimistic?

November 3, 2015

Learning to DieRoy Scranton has consistently staked out positions or operated according to a vision that however murky or shocking at first look proved prescient in time. His editorial oversight (with Matt Gallagher) of the Fire and Forget anthology of short war fiction and his arguments in essays such as “The Trauma Hero” are examples of how he’s typically been a step-or-two in advance of other veteran-authors. The nature of his writing is to make major statements, rooted in the Western intellectual tradition, that assert bold claims, introduce new ideas, clarify implications, and help the rest of us define our own inchoate thoughts. Recently, Scranton has begun to explore other subjects and themes than those associated with war in Iraq and Afghanistan. As other contemporary war veteran-authors mature and move on, Scranton’s model illustrates how they might apply the experience of war and soldiering to new realms of thought, behavior, and circumstance.

I say all this because it’s not exactly clear if Scranton’s latest work, the pamphlet-length essay titled Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, can be called war literature at all. The Anthropocene, after all, is a recently-coined word describing the new era of global warming and climate change that threatens the extinction of civilized society and possibly human life on earth. The opening passages of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, however, proclaim its war-writing bona-fides. Describing the dread he experienced during his deployment to Iraq in 2003 as a junior-enlisted artilleryman, Scranton, a Humvee driver in Baghdad, reports that he rolled out the gate each day expecting to die. The grim resolution infused him not with panic, but a stoic poise animated by vows to do everything possible to help his fellow soldiers survive the perils they would inevitably face. To learn how to die in the Anthropocene, we understand, Scranton first learned how to face death in Iraq. Later, while stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Scranton and his unit were placed on alert to deploy to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Scranton did not go to Louisiana, but the experience further honed his sense of what it meant to function in the face of catastrophic danger, this time natural rather than man-made.

The distinction between disasters natural and man-made is important, for the salient point of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is not that we are all doomed to die as a result of global warming. That’s going to happen, Scranton bluntly informs us. If we accept the scientific reports he marshals, the chain-of-events leading from melting ice caps to disease to famine to the annihilation of our species is unstoppable. Eco-activism is a feeble pipedream, and there’s no technological innovation or governmental-military-corporate plan that’s going to save us either, or even any of us. No one’s going to colonize Mars, and we’re not going to cryogenically freeze ourselves and ride out the rising waters in an icebox on top of the Rocky Mountains. Those techno-survivalist examples are mine, not Scranton’s, but they serve the point. To imagine the amalgam of power and money it would take to effect such measures is, according to Scranton’s logic, exactly what we should not be striving to do as we wait for the end of the world. Racing to save ourselves—individually, in groups, or as nations—will tear human society apart long before Mother Nature does her worst, unless we learn faster how to die better:

But while dying may be the easiest thing in the world to do, it’s the hardest thing in the world to do well—we are predisposed to avoid, ignore, flee, and fight it till the very last hour.

So what should we do? Advocating what he calls a “philosophical humanism” based on the teachings of epic and classical literature, Scranton recommends we embrace the knowledge of the ancients, who remind us endlessly to accept the transience of life and all things:

As I learned in Iraq and have had to learn again and again, the practice of learning to die is the practice of learning to let go: Learning to die means learning to let go of the ego, the idea of the self, the future, certainty, attachment, the pursuit of pleasure, permanence, and stability. Learning to let go of salvation. Learning to let go of hope. Learning to let go of death.

Acceptance of our mortality is, according to Scranton, not depressing but liberating. As the passage indicates, Scranton finds in his reading a pragmatic fatalism, blended with communitarian impulses, that matches the determined resolve with which he faced danger in Iraq. There are many flourishes to Scranton’s philosophical humanism, but a lot of it boils down to “Stay calm, treat each other well, remember the wisdom of the ages, do what you can while resigning yourself to the worst.” Looked at squarely, enacting Scranton’s prescription of “letting go” on a mass world-wide scale seems harder to imagine than building everyone a personal rocketship to Mars, but maybe. Though it seems likely we’ll kill each other like starving, disease-ridden hyenas as the human day goes down, we might also stiffen our individual sinews, band together bravely, and figure something out. The historical record, frankly, seems uneven on this point, as does what we know about human nature.

But whether Scranton’s prognostications come true or not, as a distinctive literary performance Learning to Die in the Anthropocene casts a beautiful allure. Scranton modulates skillfully the prose registers that have enabled him to finish a dissertation at Princeton, author feature articles for Rolling Stone and The Nation, and complete a novel with the earthy title of War Porn (to be published in 2016). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene’s sober first half explains how global warning induced by “carbon-fueled capitalism” is going to kill us all, but the second half soars on the strength of Scranton’s mythopoetic and extremely-learned stylistic wings. Referencing cultural touchstones ranging from the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh to the riot grrrl band Sleater-Kinney to heavyweight thinkers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Scranton directs us to preserve that cultural heritage in our archives and, more importantly, in our minds as the ideological and inspirational seeds from which a future civilization just might spring from our wreckage:

Wars begin and end. Empires rise and fall. Buildings collapse, books burn, servers break down, cities sink into the sea. Humanity can survive the demise of fossil-fuel civilization and it can survive whatever despotism or barbarism will arise in its ruins. We may even be able to survive in a greenhouse world. Perhaps our descendants will build new cities on the shores of the Arctic Sea, when the rest of the Earth is scorching deserts and steaming jungles. If being human is to mean anything at all in the Anthropocene, if we are going to refuse to let ourselves sink into the futility of life without memory, then we must not lose our few thousand years of hard-won knowledge, accumulated at great cost and against great odds. We must not abandon the memory of the dead.

Scranton’s dreamy word web here resembles a muted variation on the cosmic encouragement to be better-than-we-are that I associate with the minor key essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson–“Circles,” maybe, or “Experience,” certainly not “Self-Reliance”–if only that antebellum intellectual giant knew when he wrote just how bad the Civil War was going to be. Hope flickers in Scranton, but only faintly.

At Scranton’s book-launch reading last month in New York City, audience questions came from both global warming activists and war veterans. The activists pleaded with Scranton to validate their frenetic cries for collective action, which Scranton, though sympathetic, resolutely refused to provide. Scranton also didn’t rise to a veteran’s urging that he riff harder on the implications of his military service in Iraq—specifically, what it was like to be with other soldiers in a Humvee in a warzone—but the vet’s question got me thinking. When I rolled out the gate in Afghanistan, I always brought something to read along with my rifle, body armor, ammo, and first-aid kit. And while prepared for danger, I also had a mission, a plan, and some expectation that things would go reasonably well. I was also in the company of solid, like-minded soldiers bound by ethos and training to support each other to the death. Going forward now to face the end of the world, I’m happy to put Learning to Die in the Anthropocene in my assault pack or cargo pocket—it’s small enough—but I’m bringing a few other things, too, and I’m not going alone. There’s no military solution to the problem of the Anthropocene, and forming human wolfpacks in the style of Mad Max won’t cut it either. But soldierly equanimity combined with small-unit cohesiveness, preparation, and purpose might serve us very well.

Scranton

Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. City Lights Books, 2015.

Roy Scranton, Phil Klay, and the American Trauma Hero

February 1, 2015

Roy Scranton set the war writer community abuzz this week when the Los Angeles Review of Books published his essay  “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to “Redeployment” to American Sniper, a takedown of the ethos and practice of contemporary war narrative. As Scranton’s co-editor of the seminal Fire and Forget anthology, Matt Gallagher, put it on Twitter: “Well @RoyScranton goes full provocative here….” Those who know Scranton understand cantankerous is often the way he rolls. Fiercely proud of his iconoclast status, he is more than capable of biting hands that feed him and precipitating his dismissal from clubs that might let him join. The club, in this case, though, is one he helped form: the third cohort of contemporary war writers, with those who published prior to 2011 being the first, the bumper crop of circa-2012 fiction authors the second, and the third being the NYC-and-MFA crowd–Phil Klay, Andrew Slater, Mariette Kalinowski, and Brian Van Reet among them–selected by Scranton and Gallagher and offered to the public in Fire and Forget. Scranton, with Gallagher, conjured that third wave into being, but now he seems to want to be the agent of its dismantling. “First I’m going to make it, then I’m going to shake it ’til it falls apart,” as the lyrics to a great song go.

Some of us like Scranton all the more for who he is, but, skipping past inside-war-writer-circle dramatics, what about the charges Scranton levies against war narrative? Is the general import of war literature from the World War I onward to glamorize “trauma heroes”—young (almost always male) veterans who seem a little bit too satisfied with their status as brutalized survivors of war? Do such representations really distract us from profound consideration of the political and moral costs of war, not to forget the injuries and deaths we have inflicted on our enemies and noncombatants? Is that what American Sniper does? And is that what Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” does, too? Really? Phil Klay either no more aware or just as craven as the makers of American Sniper?

Is war lit all about the angst of young white males?  Photo of a helicopter crewman by Bill Putnam.

Is war lit all about the angst of young white males? Photo by Bill Putnam.

I haven’t seen American Sniper yet, so I’ll forego commenting on it and focus my comments on Redeployment, the National Book Award winner for 2014. Klay’s collection of short stories are not above criticism, a bit of which was brought forth in the Twitter book chat I participated in this past week. No stories in Redeployment are told through the eyes of Iraqis, and only “Money as a Weapons System” features Iraqi characters. But “Money”–my favorite story in the collection–is a funny satire of US war aims and execution, as well as the obliviousness of the American people and government, so Klay can’t be accused of totally ignoring “the bigger picture.” A certain male-veteran-voice perspective is privileged in Redeployment, and many of the tales revolve around vets who participated in killing whose brooding thoughts about the matter are now being aesthetically rendered for our perusal. We gape at the inner devastation wrought on Rodriguez, a hardened killer who hates Iraqis, in “Prayer in the Furnace” and we ache or are even amused by the narrator of “Ten Kliks South,” a naive artillerymen obsessed with measuring his culpability for the deaths inflicted by rounds he helps fire.

The beauty of the stories is their nuance in playing with the details of the “myth of the trauma-hero,” not their crushing conformity to a mold. And overall, I’ll suggest Klay interrogates the myth as much as he might unwittingly instantiate it. Or, more specifically, stories such as “After Action Report” and “War Stories” dramatize and problematize what it means to live in the midst of the myth’s creation during war and afterwards. In “After Action Report,” for example, the narrator claims credit for a unit’s first kill in Iraq as a favor to the actual killer who doesn’t want to live with the stigma. In recounting how the narrator is newly perceived by those who don’t know better, the story portrays ironically the processes and implications of being identified as a combat killer, a pressure so real that even the narrator begins to internalize it. In “War Stories,” it’s not that war-damaged veterans especially want to be seen as traumatized heroes, it’s that civilians push them into playing the role, a role that proves irresistible, especially when there’s a chance that doing so might persuade pretty young women to join them in bed–a dynamic that leaves Jessie, a war-wounded woman veteran in the tale, in an awkward limbo as she watches swirls of erotic energy shape the actions and attitudes of her male vet friends. In the title story, the one at which Scranton aims most of his ire, I see a complexity that Scranton does not. The narrator doesn’t facilely privilege the killing of his own dog, or an Iraqi dog, over the deaths of actual Iraqis. Instead, for me, the story recounts the first-person narrator’s growing apprehension that his moral balance is out-of-skew, with Klay the author asking readers to use their distance from the narrator to understand their own ethical imbalances and blind spots.

But Scranton’s a smart guy, and he wouldn’t say what he did without being on to something. His concern certainly has more to do with how Klay’s stories are conveniently understood by undiscriminating readers than with the tales themselves. And other writers have told me that they do struggle with writing stories that don’t feature stereotypical war-damaged vets. I’ve read a draft of Scranton’s novel War Porn and know how hard he has tried to avoid enveloping his war vet protagonist in sentimental shrouds of pity and dark romance. But the trauma hero myth is insidious, by its own internal logic—how dark would you have to paint a vet to make him or her beyond sympathy? Brian Van Reet couldn’t have made the protagonists of his Fire and Forget story “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek” any more despicable, and I love them to death, go figure. Same with Hassan Blasim’s most memorable characters. The only solution, I’m thinking, is to portray vets as stupid unlikeable jerks who were jack-asses while deployed and tedious pains to be around afterwards. Lauren, the traumatized protagonist of Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You is the fictional character I’ve seen who comes the closest to this “ideal,” though as I discuss in my Time Now review, I’m not sure if that is by Hoffman’s design or not. I’m also thinking that someone will soon write a book about Iraq and Afghanistan vets that portrays them as complete buffoons–perhaps the only way the excesses of self-seriousness might be exposed, ridiculed, and deflated to sensible, manageable proportions. I’m having  lunch with Scranton later this week and look forward to talking these things out. And I plan to watch American Sniper soon, too.

Phil Klay’s Redeployment Redux

January 25, 2015

RedeploymentOn Tuesday 27 January at 4pm EST, I’ll participate in a Twitter bookchat sponsored by US Studies Online, an offshoot of the British American Studies Association. Our subject will be Phil Klay’s Redeployment and joining me will be Aaron DeRosa, a professor at Cal Poly-Ponoma, and Patrick Deer, a professor at New York University. DeRosa is guest-editing (with Stacey Peebles) an upcoming issue of Modern Fiction Studies titled “Enduring Operations: The Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Deer is the author of Culture in Camouflage: War, Empire, and Modern British Literature, a study of World War II British literature, and he has recently turned his attention to American and British contemporary war literature. I know both DeRosa and Deer and their work and am excited to enter the brave new world of Twitter scholarship with them. Our bios and other background material can be found here. Follow me on Twitter, if you aren’t already, @TimeNowBlog, while the US Studies Online tag is @BAASUSSO. Spicing things up, right on time, is Roy Scranton’s “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to “Redeployment” to American Sniper,” published today in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Scranton’s an ex-Army Iraq vet, one of the editors (with Matt Gallagher) of the seminal Fire and Forget war literature anthology, and a Princeton graduate student. A passionate advocate for environmental awareness, he published in 2013 in the New York Times an essay called “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene,” only partly about Iraq, that lit up the eco-criticism world. Now, in the LARB piece, Scranton delineates a twentieth-century way of writing about war that resolutely depicts male veterans of combat as psychologically shaken, but not so much that they don’t attract our sympathy and respect. Scranton hates this tradition, which he calls a myth, which is to suggest it is a fantasy. He doesn’t think it necessarily accords with either how war has to play out or has to be depicted in fiction and film. He considers it instead an obscene ploy that redirects attention from the real victims of war—the dead, to include dead enemy and civilians—to their killers, while nefariously allowing traumatized killer heroes to avoid culpability for the wars in which they fought. Klay’s “Redeployment,” provides fuel for Scranton’s ire, though Scranton is also quick to praise Klay’s “literary sophistication and suspended judgment” and Redeployment in its entirety. For those who haven’t read “Redeployment” lately, it begins with the striking line, “We shot dogs”—the narrator being a home-from-war Marine who parses the ethical relativity of having had to shoot both dogs and people in Iraq and the requirement now to put down his pet Lab, named Vicar. Reread “Redeployment,” read the rest of Scranton’s argument for yourself, decide whether you like it or not, and let’s talk it out 140 characters at a time next Tuesday.


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