What’s going on under that hat?

It seems for now that the face of the returning veteran, as far as the media is concerned, is the late Fort Hood shooter Ivan Lopez,  Yesterday on the Foreign Policy website, Gordon Lubbold noted that the media were connecting the wrong dots about Lopez.  “ It remains unclear what caused Lopez to do what he did. But his four-month tour in Iraq – in 2011, clearly not the darkest days there, and at a time when few Americans were even seeing combat – was not enough to draw the conclusion that Lopez’ mental illness was combat-related.”   This tragic episode may have more to do with the largely civilian trope of the disgruntled employee’s workplace shooting spree and suicide than it does with a soldier processing the experience of combat.   Since Lopez took his own life, we will never know for sure.

The story about Lopez broke last week just as I was digesting a very fine essay by George Packer in The New Yorker magazine on the emerging literature of war, as told by veterans, in the 21st century.   Readers of this highly intermittent blog will know that this is a subject I’ve been interested in for a while.  I’ve reviewed several books, some by veterans, on their experience of the Iraq war as told through the lens of literature and fiction.  Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, which I reviewed here in September 2012.  

Packer is much better equipped as a critic to comment on this latest generation of war writing than I am.  His essay launches from an important critical touchstone, Paul Fussell’s influential study The Great War and Modern Memory, but notes the many differences between the young soldier writers of the trenches and the ones who came home in the last decade.  Here’s an excerpt.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fully meet Fussell’s description of the ironic: they were worse than expected. Both began with hubris and false victories, turned into prolonged stalemates, and finally deserved the bitter name of defeat. The shorthand for Iraq, from “Mission Accomplished” to Falluja, Abu Ghraib, civil war, the surge, U.S. withdrawal, and the ongoing sectarian killing, is a story of exploded illusions. The first wave of literature by American combatants in these long, inconclusive wars has begun to appear—poems, memoirs, short stories, novels. Their concerns are the same as in all war writing: bravery and fear, the thin line between survival and brutality, the maddening unknowability of the enemy, tenderness, brotherhood, alienation from a former self, the ghosts of the past, the misfit of home.

But Iraq was also different from other American wars. (So far, almost all the new war literature comes from Iraq, perhaps because there weren’t many troops in Afghanistan until 2009, and the minimum lag time between deployment and publication seems to be around five years.) Without a draft, without the slightest sacrifice asked of a disengaged public, Iraq put more mental distance between soldiers and civilians than any war of its duration that I can think of. The war in Iraq, like the one in Vietnam, wasn’t popular; but the troops, at least nominally, were—wildly so. (Just watch the crowd at a sports event if someone in uniform is asked to stand and be acknowledged.) Both sides of the relationship, if they were being honest, felt its essential falseness. A tiny number of volunteers went off to fight, often two or three times, in a war and a country that seemed incomprehensible. They returned to heroes’ welcomes and a flickering curiosity. Because hardly anyone back home really wanted to know, the combatant’s status turned into a mark of otherness, a blessing and a curse. The title of David Finkel’s recent book about the struggles of soldiers returned from Iraq, “Thank You for Your Service,” captures all the bad faith of a civilian population that views itself as undeserving, and the equivocal position of celebrated warriors who don’t much feel like saying, “You’re welcome.”

Packer mentions a number of other writers that I wasn’t aware of until now, so for that reason alone his article is wroth reading.  As a chaplain, I am grateful to Packer for telling me about Iraq veteran Phil Klay’s book of short stories, particularly “A Prayer In The Furnace” which tells of a chaplain trying, and largely failing, to preach to a group of Marines.  “The story can end only in irony: the chaplain alludes to Christ’s Passion, and Rodriguez spits in the grass. Some of the men will remain alone for years, perhaps their whole lives. But some will begin to recognize their own suffering in the stories of others. That’s what literature does.”

The story of Ivan Lopez may have nothing to do with PTSD, but the way his story is being reported may say more about our trying to understand this handful of veterans in misunderstood wars, the disempowered 1% who served, than it ever will with him.  As one of Klay’s characters puts it after returning home from Iraq and meeting a girl who misunderstands him, “I don’t have PTSD, but I guess her thinking that I did is part of the weird pedestal vets are on now.”

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