War Writing: The Raw and the Cooked

Khost Province, Afghanistan. USAF Photograph
Khost Province, Afghanistan (USAF photograph).

A flutter of recent data points raise the questions whether veterans are natural storytellers and whether they are prone to adorn their stories to impress listeners. An article by “Angry Staff Officer” on the Task and Purpose website titled “Three Things That Make Service Members Great Storytellers” asserts that the combination of “mission, story, and time” allows men and women in uniform to “relate our cultural and personal experiences to a group, bring them into the story in an intimate setting, and reveal a shared identity.” Angry Staff Officer cites soldiers from the South as military tale-tellers par excellence, a notion corroborated in “Colleen,” from Odie Lindsey’s fine collection of stories about Southern veterans of the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom titled We Come to Our Senses. The narrator sets a scene in a VFW hall:

A couple of men asked Van Dorn how he was, and he held court as he blustered and bragged. They tolerated this, because storytelling—his or anyone’s—cued up the opportunity to indulge their own tales, to again revisit their trauma.

So the men did just that, they ran a story cycle, memory to memory, barstool to barstool, and on down to Colleen.

But it’s not just service members from below the Mason-Dixon Line. Last week, at a family reunion in upstate New York, my cousin’s kid Teddy, who served as an infantryman in Iraq, at a late night campfire related tales that were quite a bit more engaging than anyone else’s. Teddy didn’t speak of war, and he didn’t bluster or brag, but he smoothly turned routine events of his life into stories and the people who populated them into personalities. Like Angry Staff Officer describes in his post, as I listened to Teddy it was as if I was once more in an MRAP on a long conop in Afghanistan, eavesdropping through earphones to the crew members spin tales about past missions, past assignments, and past lives.

While Angry Staff Officer writes of how service members and veterans communicate among themselves, David Chrisinger explores how and why veterans frequently embellish the stories they tell or write for civilians. In a piece titled “The Redemptive Power of Lying” posted on Warhorse, Chrisinger writes, “I’m OK with lies—the ones my students need to tell themselves, and in turn, tell me—but I’m not OK with bullshit.” Matt Gallagher, who always has something good to say in these cases, picks up on Chrisinger’s theme. In a recent story published in Playboy titled “Babylon,” Gallagher has his protagonist, a female USMC vet living in Brooklyn, state:

Some of the biggest posers I’d known were vets. The pogue who never left Kuwait but needed to pretend he’d crossed the brink. The staff officer whose lone patrol off base became more dangerous with each of her retellings. Even the grunts, it was rare for them to stick to the truth, because the truth was never enough. War stories meant bullshit, that’s just how it was. Deep down, I knew I’d exaggerated what happened that day in Al Hillah to people, be they surly uncles I wanted to impress or lipstick dykes I wanted to screw. I wasn’t proud of it. But still. It’d happened, and it’d probably happen again.

Maybe we’d earned the right to bullshit….

Recently, the popular Humans of New York website and its even more popular Facebook page have been featuring Iraq and Afghanistan vets relating vignettes of intense wartime experiences. The vignettes, or anecdotes, exemplify the tendencies noted by Angry Staff Officer, Chrisinger, and Gallagher: short, well-turned, gripping accounts of extraordinary events experienced by the veterans, accompanied by poignant statements about the events’ lingering significance in their lives. The posts have been shared on Facebook upwards of 10,000 times, and the comments sections have generated hundreds of compliments, denunciations, and other expressions of belief, disbelief, support, and even accusations that the veterans’ stories were fictive.

If the Humans of New York posts offer a glimpse of the contemporary war-story-telling zeitgeist, the lessons are simple: 1) Go sensational. 2) Go emotional. 3) Keep your own experience at the center, and 4) Convey conviction that your perspective of the event you describe is the true one. Don’t mince around; what people want to hear about is either the worst thing that ever happened to you or the most triumphant. The worst thing is always the shock of learning that war is much worse than you could have imagined or can handle. The best thing is always that you acquitted yourself well in combat.

If you can’t hit those notes, well OK, but be ready for a less-than-enthusiastic response from the reading masses. Tell a subtle, nuanced tale reflecting perplexed anxiety about things that you observed while you were in the military, and five, 500, or 5,000 people might be interested. Tell a graphic story of harrowing adventure and personal tumult, and your audience will be 50,000, 500,000, five million, or more. Edgar Allan Poe wrote long ago, “But the simple truth is, that the writer who aims at impressing the people, is always wrong when he fails in forcing that people to receive the impression.” The lineaments of war story popular connection are right there for the taking. Hint—they look a lot like American Sniper. Reading suggestion—another story in Lindsey’s collection, titled “Chicks,” a funny one about a screenwriter trying to pitch his war-movie script to a producer, brilliantly dramatizes and complicates Poe’s notion. Just in case it’s not obvious–“Chicks” will never be as popular as American Sniper.

Many years ago the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss proposed the phrase “the raw and the cooked” to distinguish between primitive and advanced indigenous populations. Lévi-Strauss’s specific subject was food preparation—the move from eating food raw to cooking it clearly demarcated a cultural advance—but lots of critics have since used the phrase to analyze all kinds of human activities, and I’m going to do the same now. War stories, says I, come in two kinds—the raw, visceral kind that use blunt language to describe combat, killing, war brutality, and the rough aspects of military life, and the more mannered and brooding efforts I am calling “the cooked,” which might be described as an attempt to represent a thinking-person’s take on war. Both terms have connotations: when it comes to war writing, “raw” is inevitably linked with “honesty,” which makes “cooked” seem overly-analytical or even evasive. If you’ve eaten twenty straight raw meat-and-potato dinners, however, you might appreciate a little imaginative culinary preparation the next meal around. No doubt, I prefer a literary “cooked” approach, but I’m also in awe of the power of the “raw” to capture the imagination of soldiers, writers, and audiences, so, really, as you work through what I say next, try to avoid thinking of either term as inherently pejorative or complimentary. Instead, consider them as poles on a spectrum of war storytelling possibility.

The great example of contemporary “raw” war-writing is American Sniper. Never mind that Chris Kyle had extensive ghost-writing help, parts of his memoir may have been fabrication, and Kyle himself disavowed aspects of his own story. American Sniper resonated deeply because readers responded to and respected Kyle’s unapologetic and visceral account of his actions in a voice that they identified as authentically his own. Whether it was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or not, it just seemed honest:

I had a job to do as a SEAL: I killed the enemy—an enemy I saw day in and day out plotting to kill my fellow Americans.

The first time you shoot someone, you get a little nervous. You think, can I really shoot this guy? Is it really okay? But after you kill your enemy, you see it’s okay. You say, Great….

I loved what I did. I still do. I don’t regret any of it. I’d do it again.

I never once fought for the Iraqis. I could give a flying fuck about them.

There are many signature elements of a “raw” war story that help register such honesty. One of them is a blunt, hard-boiled prose style, full of profanity and tough talk, as if the author, his narrator, and his characters were really angry about something. Another is unbridled contempt for the chain-of-command; raw war stories bristle with certainty that higher-ups are stupid, vain, and selfish. A third is a thorough self-identification as a soldier or veteran and the assertion of undying brotherhood with fellow soldiers. A fourth is preoccupation with killing and battlefield carnage. A fifth is the treatment of the enemy as savages without humanity or distinction. These signature elements, in my opinion, are diluted in contemporary war writing, American Sniper excepted. If you don’t believe me compare Larry Heinemann’s Vietnam War novel Paco’s Story, which won the National Book Award in 1987, with Phil Klay’s Redeployment, which won the same award for 2014. In terms of the rawness criteria I have established, Paco’s Story rates about a 9 on a scale of 10, while Redeployment gets maybe a 3 or 4. American Sniper is up there with Paco’s Story in terms of rawness, but where Heinemann’s rawness is a stylized literary effect that impressed critics and several thousand readers in its time, Kyle’s memoir has been scorned by critics, while causing the masses to build memorials in his honor.

Kyle’s last quote above—about not giving a “flying fuck” about Iraqis—is interesting, because it brings into play something I’d like to propose is true of contemporary war writing. The signature elements of raw war stories may not appear as often in war writing across the board these days, but the fifth still persists as a demarcation point separating war writing into raw and cooked segments. The main ingredient of a “raw” war story about Iraq and Afghanistan, I would say, is lack of interest in or outright contempt for Iraqis and Afghans, while a “cooked” war story manifests curiosity about them, attempts to portray them “as people,” and worries about the cost of war on them. I could without hesitation divide the 20 or more works of fiction I’ve reviewed on Time Now and the countless works I’ve read but have not (yet) reviewed, and rate them based on their empathy for the inhabitants of the land in which the Americans portrayed were fighting. Stacey Peebles also (first, really) hit on this means of evaluation in a chapter in Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq in which she compares Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet and John Crawford’s Iraq War memoir The Last True War Story I’ll Ever Tell. Crawford left Iraq venomously disdainful of Iraqis, while Turner’s surfeit of empathy for Iraqi people, history, and culture threatened to overwhelm his effectiveness as an infantry sergeant. Peebles writes, “If Crawford takes in nothing of Iraq and empties himself out until he is a hollow shell, Turner takes in so much that he is full to bursting.” It follows then that Crawford’s memoir is “raw” and Turner’s poetry is “cooked.”

Which brings us back to the Humans of New York. The names of the veteran story-tellers are not given, but the second and third are both authors about whom I’ve written about on this blog, Jenny Pacanowski and Elliot Ackerman, respectively. Both are savvy writers and in Pacanowski’s case a seasoned performer of spoken-word poetry. In her scathing, ribald, and often extremely funny monologues, Pacanowski presents her tour-of-duty in the Army and Iraq as terrible to the point of traumatizing. Ackerman’s Afghanistan war novel Green on Blue, on the other hand, is practically void of American characters and instead places a Pashtun militia member at its narrative center. According to the schema I have set up, Pacanowski’s poetry is an example of “raw” war writing, while Ackerman’s novel represents the “cooked.” But in their Humans of New York vignettes, we can see them each moving toward a middle ground: Pacanowski fighting to demilitarize her all-consuming self-identification as an angry veteran, Ackerman letting down his guard to let the world take a better measure of who he is as a person. Be sure to read them, and salute to both.

Contemporary Literature of the Forever Wars: MLA 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

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.

More on Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck

PeeblesStacey Peebles’ 2011 Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq only discusses one book of poetry—Brian Turner’s Here, Bullet (and treats it as if it were memoir rather than verse)—and one dramatic film—In the Valley of Elah–but it should engage anyone interested in the art, film, and literature about our contemporary wars. A study of the first wave of writing and film by and about contemporary veterans, Welcome to the Suck has much to say about the Iraq War, the men and women who fought it, the nation who sent them off to fight, and the way the war is represented in text and film.

Peebles’ thesis is that that memoirs, poetry, and movies by and about Iraq veterans document veteran struggles to reconcile military and civilian identities. The authors and artists she studies join the military willingly, but subsequently find themselves at odds with martial culture and ideals. Formed by their contemporary cultural context–rapidly changing gender norms, pop cultural saturation, and digital media possibility—they enlist confident they can handle the worst they might see. But military life, and more specifically the experience of war, overwhelms them. Still proud of their service and eager to remember positive aspects of it, their nostalgic fondness rests uneasily alongside messed-up minds and damaged bodies. The texts they write and the movies made about them record this confused and fragmented sense of self.

In chapter one, “Lines of Sight: Watching War in Jarhead and My War: Killing Time in Iraq,” Peebles discusses two early war memoirs, Anthony Swofford’s 2003 Jarhead and Colby Buzzell’s 2005 My War: Killing Time in Iraq. Each describes how their authors’ fascination with pop culture, especially movies about Vietnam, influences both their time in service and how they write about it later. The chapter also dissects how Iraq differed from Vietnam, how the perspective of contemporary soldiers was shaped by their times and sense of history, and how new technologies—such as the DVD and the blog–impacted the fighting of the war tactically and personally.

In chapter two, “Making a Military Man: Iraq, Gender, and the Failure of the Masculine Collective,” Peebles explores three memoirs that illustrate how modern soldier identities clash with traditional military stereotypes and the concept of the military as a “masculine collective.” Peebles first analyzes Joel Turnipseed’s 2003 memoir Baghdad Express, in which Turnipseed presents himself as a philosopher-aesthete among the Marines with whom he deploys. Next, Peebles examines Nathaniel Fink’s 2005 memoir One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, in which Fink describes his ultimately failed attempt to project “hardness” to the soldiers under him. Finally, Peebles looks at Kayla Williams’ 2005 memoir Love My Rifle More Than You, in which Williams recounts her efforts to gain acceptance in the male-dominated units with whom she serves in Iraq.

In chapter three, “Consuming the Other: Blinding Absence in The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell and Here, Bullet,” Peebles compares the attitudes taken toward Iraqis in two works, John Crawford’s memoir The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell (2005) and Brian Turner’s volume of poetry Here, Bullet (2005). Where Crawford is “consumed” by hatred and disgust, Turner is filled with empathy and curiosity about Iraqis as people and for their history and culture. While the problems with Crawford’s point-of-view are obvious, Peebles also suggests that Turner’s surfeit of empathy also presents difficulty:  it complicates his role as a soldier and as a literary tactic risks aestheticizing the enemy “Other.”

Chapter four, “On U.S.: Combat Trauma on Film in Alive Day Memories and In the Valley of Elah,” examines two 2007 films: the HBO documentary Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq and Paul Haggis’s feature film In the Valley of Elah. Peebles suggests that both films—each about the physical and mental wounds endured by veterans—represent movie-making and storytelling as “sophisticated [narrative] prostheses” that complement therapeutic, medical, and mechanical recovery aids. While promising much, filmmaking also suffers the same limits as, say, a prosthetic leg or trauma medication—while trying to generate a return to “wholeness” that is probably not really attainable, they also exacerbate and extenuate the sense of loss and disjunction felt by the war’s casualties.

At the end of each chapter, Peebles renders a brief look at an Iraqi blog, text, or film that supplements the discussion of the American cultural artifacts under examination, and in her conclusion she compares The Hurt Locker to Vietnam movies such as Full Metal Jacket, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now. Welcome to the Suck is published by a university press and features references to literary criticism heavyweights such as Judith Butler and Jurgen Habermas. But Peebles writes lucidly and economically, and the book is as organized as a five-paragraph mission order. Without describing specific battles and barely mentioning politics, Peebles delights the eager reader with the acuity and freshness of her insights. An academic text that is accessible to the interested general audience, Welcome to the Suck sets a high bar for the critical studies that are sure to follow.

Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck:  Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq.  Cornell University Press, 2011.

The Civil-Military Divide Within: Going After Bergdahl

When Bowe Bergdahl disappeared from his small combat outpost in Paktika province in 2009, I was also in eastern Afghanistan. In the ensuing days I obtained a pretty solid first-hand understanding of the tumult the event caused. After a month the story faded from public view, but it lingered long in my mind as one of the most curious, unexplained, unfinished episodes of the war. What would have made Bergdahl do that? Why did so few other soldiers do the same thing? The furor after his release by the Taliban a couple of weeks ago confirmed my intuition that his story was captivating and important.

CacciatoEarlier this spring, I met a vet author who told me that he had written a draft of a novel based on the Bergdahl saga. For him, Bergdahl’s disappearance represented a contemporary version of Tim O’Brien’s 1978 Vietnam novel Going After Cacciato. In O’Brien’s novel, the title character slips away from his platoon while on patrol and tries to walk to Paris. It’s possible that Bergdahl, a reader and dreamy young man by all accounts, has read Going After Cacciato. But what is the larger import that accounts for the public fascination with his case? To me, Bergdahl enacted in real life a narrative that figures often in contemporary war lit, drama, and film—the dream of unofficial-but-honest unmediated contact between US service members and local national citizens. The movie The Hurt Locker provides the most available example—a soldier on his own slips the FOB perimeter to help a poor Iraqi family. I’ve seen two plays that also feature such scenarios, and I know there are others. Most portray such ad hoc interactions as kindly–soldiers now more human once free of military tyranny–but others show Americans acting evilly–enflamed by military dehumanization and now free of its discipline, they run wild.

I can surmise that such portraits represent efforts to illustrate the human side of war, but I doubt they ring true with many vets. Most I think would find them unrealistic if not downright dopey. In my experience soldiers didn’t care enough about Afghans or Iraqis to even think about risking their lives by leaving the safety of their units and their FOBs to be with them. Outside of our interpreters and military counterparts, we didn’t know Iraqis or Afghans or even really want to know them. The attitude of Rodriguez in Phil Klay’s “Prayer in the Furnace” is probably closer to the truth for many soldiers: “’The only thing I want to do is kill Iraqis,’” he says. That’s harsh, but the blighted relationships between Americans and Iraqis in Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen and Americans and Afghans in Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, marked by mutual hostility and distrust and played out within steps of FOB gates, also seem typical. To venture far outside the wire on one’s own was unfathomable.

But maybe Bergdhal was the exception that proves the rule. Maybe he really wanted to be among Afghans without the security of his weapon and squadmates, to see what happened for better or worse. Perhaps he thought there were good Afghans who would protect him or that the Taliban weren’t really interested or really so bad. Maybe his unit was just so screwed-up and unfriendly that he couldn’t stand it anymore. Or maybe he just got too much a snort of that wild Paktika air, which, as I’ve written about before, has turned other warriors into poets. Did he know Into the Wild, the story of a young man who assumes enormous risk by walking solo into the Alaskan outback? I wouldn’t be surprised.

PeeblesAs for me, I’m currently reading Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq, a study of contemporary war lit written by veterans up to about 2010. I’m only about 30 pages in, but am already impressed by Peebles’ insights about modern soldiers and how they represent themselves in memoirs, stories, and poetry. Peebles claims that the dominant theme in contemporary war lit is the desire of veteran-authors to transcend their identities as soldiers. Raised in a culture that now values diversity above almost all else, military men and women resist homogenous absorption by the martial world they have entered. And yet, Peebles continues, the anguish that fills the best books stems from the military’s way of imposing itself comprehensively on people’s sense of themselves. If not the uniforms and regulations, then the culture and the unit, or the demands of accomplishing missions. If not the mission, then fear, pain, and death. If not fear, pain, and death, then responsibility for what one has witnessed and done. As military identities and mindsets harden, they blot out memories of past lives and other selves, delimit possibilities for relationships in the present, and extinguish potential future options. It then becomes a question not of “being all you can be,” as the Army slogan would have it, but the military becoming all that you can be. Forget the divide between those who have served and those who have not, Peebles says, the real civil-military divide is within the psyches of soldiers and veterans:

“As young people, these soldiers have been encouraged to revel in their individuality, challenge restrictive categories, and make ample use of technology to do so. Contemporary American culture traffics in identities that are cyborg, hybrid, avatar…. The media savvy and extensive knowledge of pop culture, however, is anything but a balm for the realities of war, and only exacerbates their sense of isolation and impotence.”

“Other soldiers express dissatisfaction with traditional gender roles, most notably the dictates of masculinity, but their attempts to construct a viable alternative fail. Some arrive in Iraq ready to reach across national and ethnic divides and make a difference, but the invasion’s execution prohibits them from doing so, reinforcing their sense of being strangers in a strange land. Finally, traumatized and injured veterans find that after such radical changes to the mind and body, the most sophisticated treatment and technology in the world can’t always make them whole again.”

“[In contrast to soldiers in Vietnam War fiction] soldiers in these new war stories also feel betrayed—not necessarily by their nation, which many already believe is on a fool’s errand in Iraq, but by the personal resources they expect to carry them through. They are politically cynical, but personally idealistic, believing themselves to be beyond the strict categories of race and gender, to be technologically and culturally savvy. But these resources fail them as well… In war, the realities of biology, physics, and psychology can hit home with a vengeance—and there’s no way to log off.”

Peebles’ body of evidence is slim: Jarhead, My War, Here, Bullet, The Hurt Locker, and a few others. But there wasn’t much to work with as she wrote, so I think she has done well mining what was there for exciting discoveries. An interesting project would be to size up her conclusions in regard to the many novels about Iraq and Afghanistan that have emerged since she completed her study. Do Peebles’ ideas hold true for The Yellow Birds’ John Bartle? Billy Lynn of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk? Fobbit’s Abe Shrinkle? Sparta’s Conrad Farrell? Or, turning back to real life, how about Bowe Bergdahl, who grew up a writer of metaphysical manifestos and fan of Ayn Rand, who then found himself a soldier soldiering not just at the front, but in front of the front on the Pakistan border. At some point he just didn’t want to do that, or be that, anymore.

Here’s to a full physical, mental, and emotional recovery for Bowe Bergdahl and to a successful reunion with his parents. We look forward to learning much more about the facts of his disappearance and captivity.

Paktika in the distance, picture taken from Spera Combat Outpost, Khost Province, 2009.
Paktika province, Afghanistan in the distance, picture taken from Spera Combat Outpost, Khost province, 2009.

Stacey Peebles’ Welcome to the Suck: Narrating the American Soldier’s Experience in Iraq. Cornell University Press, 2011.

Note:  An earlier version of this post linked to a blog post purporting to describe Bergdahl’s World of Warcraft fascination.  That post is in fact a fabrication, though a very inspired one at that. The influence of role-playing games in the lives of modern soldiers and the art that represents them is a subject for another day.

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