Contemporary War Fiction: Is The Best Yet to Come?

Camps Parsa and Clark, Khost Province, Afghanistan
Camps Parsa and Clark, Khost Province, Afghanistan

In an essay published online in Harper’s this week titled “First-Person Shooters: What’s Missing in Contemporary War Fiction,” Sam Sacks takes millennial war authors to task for writing solipsistic stories that focus on the plight of woebegone individual soldiers traumatized by their deployments. Childlike innocents more than hardened warriors, the protagonists of war fiction bumble through their tours without doing any real fighting and then wallow in self-pity upon return. Their constant complaints that they don’t understand what they have experienced are matched only by their assertions that even if they could explain what happened on deployment, readers who hadn’t been there wouldn’t get it. The whole thing, Sacks asserts, is “pitiable,” coming from soldiers who were supposed to have fought competently and bravely, and made worse by MFA programs that have transformed veteran would-be writers into morose belly-button gazers too dull and chicken to address the moral and political implications of their service.

Thus Sacks seems not very impressed by the war lit he’s read so far, giving it what feels like a grade of C- or even D-  for its failure to achieve all that it might have. “One of the jobs of literature is to wake us from stupor,” he concludes, “and the best attempts of today’s veterans have done little to disturb it.” Though Sacks doesn’t mention American Sniper, the logic of his critique explains why the memoir and film were so popular. While fiction protagonists fret about buddies killed by random mortar rounds, Chris Kyle shot bad guys left and right, didn’t feel a lick of remorse, wrote about it candidly, and was subsequently rewarded with adoration and riches. Kyle’s claim that “For myself and the SEALs I was with, patriotism and getting into the heat of the battle were deeply connected” doesn’t reflect Sacks’ politics, but Sacks would probably find it a more profound and honorable statement about the larger dimensions of Iraq and Afghanistan than anything in name-your-favorite-novel by name-your-favorite-author-of-war-fiction.

Sacks is a lively writer, and he knows how to insert a knife and twist it so it really hurts. I don’t disagree with most of his observations, though, just the final assessment. The trends and patterns Sacks identifies are writ large in the pages of the stories he examines. But rather than taking the measure of contemporary war fiction in order to damn its authors, I value what the corpus of war fiction has accomplished so far and for what it promises in the future. Most soldiers were not heroes, the wars were damn confusing, and that confusion is clearly and smartly reflected in the writing about it so far. “Write-what-you-know,” an MFA precept that irritates Sacks to no end, seems prudent for vet novelists the first time out, even if it leads to the “the abyss of subjectivity,” as Sacks claims. Holding veteran authors responsible for exacerbating the civil-military divide also seems a little harsh, given what so far has been a better effort than anyone else has attempted to bridge that divide. Sacks thinks it is a problem that no veteran has yet written a work that combines the imaginative sweep of War and Peace with the cultural punch of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But the issues he identifies as structural and endemic are better seen as challenges for the next round of war fiction writers to figure out and transcend—which I’m pretty sure they are already in the process of doing.

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