For a long time it was TGWOT – The Global War on Terror, the term for the US led conflict that officially began on September 11, 2001, though one could argue that it began with the USS Cole attack in 2000, the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, or the Khobar towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, or maybe even the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983 or … well, you get the picture.
At some point, the operations fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Iraq (again) and now apparently Syria, began to be lumped into a single term, one that conjures up the titles of classic science fiction novels by the likes of Harlan Ellison: The Forever War. That term may have been coined by the US journalist Dexter Filkins, who used it for the title of his indispensable 2008 book based on his assignments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Forever War is primarily an American war, though at different times and places it has also caught up America’s friends and allies, including Canada in Kandahar, Great Britain in Basra and Helmand, Germany in Kundiz, and the Kurds in Raqqa. However, the Forever War is now part of the American experience, longer than any single conflict in US history, and it is not surprising that after a generation of conflict, American writers and poets of note, most of them military or recent veterans, are now emerging. However, one could argue that these writers have less of a shared context with their civilian readers than at any other time in US history. America’s all volunteer military, its power augmented formidably by technology, has fought and still fights a war that scarcely touches the home front.
The challenge of communicating across this civil-military disconnect unites many of the authors discussed by Adin Dobkin in his recent essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “The Never-Ending Book of War“. Some of these writers – Phil Klay, Brian Castner, and Eric Fair, have been previously reviewed on this blog.
In thinking through Dobkin’s review of recent war writing, the EngLit student in me got to wondering how I would survey the disparate voices of the Forever War. What literary modes do they work in? What traditions, genres, and literary predecessors do they draw on? Dobkin rightly notes the starting point, memory, in his opening paragraph.
“The necessity of a long memory runs throughout our conception of war. Just consider the phrase,”never forget”.
The phrase “never forget” points to a powerful moral imperative in this mode of history, a dual belief that this history should not be forgotten, and that it not be repeated. Writers like Castner would rightly have their fallen and wounded comrades remembered, while writers like Fair would not have their country fall back into the moral shame of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal.
As Dobkin notes, since modern wars do not cause “societal shocks” on the homefront, the writers and publishers of these wars have to fight headwinds of incomprehension, alienation, and indifference, as Klay’s characters do upon their return home in the short stories of his book Redeployment. Other writers, as Dobkin notes, fight the moral obfuscation of language as political change in the Trump era resurrects ideas such as enhanced interrogation/torture. For some of the current military writers, as they admit to Dobkin, it is discouraging to see that the “Never Again” moral and protest function of war literature, a tradition going back at least far as Eric Remarque and Robert Graves, has little apparent efficacy. As Eric Fair tells Dobkin, “we’re right back to where we started, and in fact, might be headed somewhere far worse”.
In the rest of this essay, I propose a few gradations of analysis, or pigeonholes, to enhance Dobkin’s summary. Perhaps its the EngLit student in me who finds taxonomies helpful in refining Dobkin’s core idea of remembrance by proposing the following categories, and if nothing else it allows me to locate contemporary war writers more easily in my mental landscape.
Remembrance as Epic – this classification would be writers working in what we might call the encomiastic tradition, in which heroism and pride win out over anti-heroism and irony within a narrative that follows a relatively uncomplicated moral trajectory, what Dobkin calls “clear-cut good versus evil”. While we see this mode in history used in accounts of recent wars, most notably in Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation (1998) or Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy (2002-2013), today’s writers live and work under the shadow of post-modernity, with its scepticism and suspicious, mordant humour. Thus The Greatest Generation gives way to Generation Kill, in which careerist officers and petty NCOs are almost as much of an adversary to the protagonists as are the enemy. Some works of military journalism fall at times into the epic mode, such as Fifteen Days, Christie Blatchford’s account of the Canadian Army in Kandahar or Where Men Win Glory, Jon Krakauer’s account of the life and death of NFLer turned Army Ranger Pat Tillman, though the later part of Krakauer’s book falls into irony as he dissects the tragic circumstances of Tillman’s death. Surely the reluctance of many authors to identify with the Epic mode has to do with the moral ambiguity ad even moral taint of wars like the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As Tom McDermott, an Australian army officer and scholar has noted, that war, fought without a clear causus belli or UN Declaration has a morally “malignant” quality, so that the participants look back with, “if not a sense of shame, at least an absence of pride”.
Remembrance as Mimesis – this classification could also be described as the documentary mode of remembrance, in which the writer works to capture a sense of “this is what it was like” for the reader, who is often a civilian to whom the military ethos and war are compelling but foreign. To borrow two terms from the literary scholar Northrop Frye, we can subdivide this mode into the High Mimetic and Low Mimetic modes. The High Mimetic mode is something akin to Shakespearean tragedy, in that it shows us admirable but flawed figures struggling against an often inescapable feat. The EOD operatives in Brian Castner’s works, or journalist David Finkel’s portrayal of the doomed soldiers climbing into their fragile Humvees for another patrol in bomb-infested Baghdad. In this mode of memory, the writer can both offer tribute to comrades for their heroism, while also fully acknowledging their ordinary and flawed natures, as well as the terrible ambiguity of the wars to which they offer themselves. In contrast, the Low Mimetic mode is marked both by graphic realism and a sense of pathos, of a profound sympathy. In this mode, the subjects are more victims than heroes, and memory is tempered by sorrow and outrage. In war literature, the templates for this mode include well-known First World War figures such as Wilfrid Owen, particularly his poems “Anthem for Dead Youth” and “Dulce et Decorum Est”. The two perplexed heroes of Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds (2012) are good examples of the low mimetic, as are their real-world counterparts, struggling with injury, suicide, and reintegration to civilian life in David Finkel’s sequel, Thank You For Your Service.
Remembrance as Comedy and Satire – in this category the primary mode is irony. Unlike Shakespearean comedies which include strong characters and some positive new social order being established at the conclusion, the voice of this mode of remembrance in war literature is one of mocking laughter. Well known examples of military comedy and satire include Robert Grave’s Goodbye to All That, Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. The antiheroes of military comedy and satire are often junior in rank, profoundly alienated from military culture, fully aware of the incompetence of their peers and superiors, but generally helpless to do anything about it. A classic contemporary example would be David Abram’s Fobbit (2012). Examples of military parody, or snark, abound in social media circles frequented by military types, as is seen in this well known blog. Satire is directed more outwards, towards the society which largely ignores its complicity in wars and its responsibility to those who fight in them, while uttering banalities such as “thank you for your service”. A classic example of contemporary military satire is Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012), recently made as a film directed by Ang Lee (2016).
Remembrance As Soul Work – there is something therapeutic about the act of writing. The literary critic Andrew Brink once described literature as “symbolic repair”, a kind of healing by which the act of literary creation helps balance or ease a loss or grief. A rich PhD thesis or book of interviews with the Forever War generation of writers still needs to be written, perhaps noting how many of them took advantage of MFA programs or other kinds of educational opportunities as ways of easing their transition back into civilian life while processing their wartime experience in a healthy manner. The work of Phil Klay and Brian Castner would certainly bear examination from this point of view. in some cases, literature and memoir works in a penitential mode, as the author works through both the effects of moral injury and their complicity in the immoral or shadow side of these wars. A particularly good example of the penitential mode would be Eric Fair’s Consequence, describing how he ended up as an interrogator at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. One senses that atonement in Fair’s writing does not depend upon a transaction with the reader. Rather, the reader, implicated in acts done in the national cause, must uneasily reflect on his or her own complicity.
Remembrance as Art – this is perhaps the most challenging aspect to war literature of any generation. What distinguishes a soldier’s memoir or a journalist’s account of war from that of a poet or novelist? What are the standards by which we can assess the craft of war literature from the content? This has always been a contentious subject in literary criticism. The great poet W.B. Yeats, a master of poetry, wrote in 1936 that “passive suffering is not a theme for poetry”, yet he was surely wrong when he dismissed Wilfrid Owen’s war poetry as “blood and dirt and sucked sugar stick”. What gives Owen his power and his claim on memory is surely that the power and even sweetness of his verse conveys the horror of the subject. Consider Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, which captures the sound of battle in its first stanza, but then gives way to this graceful couplet which evokes the grief of a whole society:
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Prose writers like Klay, Power and Castner offer many examples of well worked prose, the result of long hours and revisions. Some memoirs have a highly poetic quality to their prose; Benjamin Busch`s Dust to Dust (2012) is a particularly strong example. However, poetry per se invites our attention both for the quality of the craft and whatever hard-earned truths the poet has brought back from war. Randy Brown’s 2015 collection, Welcome to FOB Haiku, is a series of near-virtuoso uses of the haiku form, but also draws on classical English forms such as the sonnet, as well as free verse. Brown moves easily between modes, from low-mimetic comedy
You’d think the poo pond
would attract more mortar rounds,
but they can’t hit sh…
to an Owenesque closing couplet that evokes the gulf of experience between civilian and veteran:
they do not grasp our names our found
on medals and on stones
and on the lips of friends who’ve seen
what sacrifice has been
Brian Turner’s 2005 collection of poems, Here Bullet, based on his experience in Iraq, has a different quality than Brown’s often colloquial tone, more formal and perhaps more introspective. Turner’s work is beautiful and haunting, and shows, as Dobkin notes in his essay, how war literature can create strains of empathy which complicate and even overcome the enemy’s Otherness. In Turner’s ”In the Leuopold Scope”, a rifleman is suddenly connected with an Iraqi woman on a distant rooftop, hanging laundry. In the soldier poet’s mind, that woman becomes a muse channeling the countless war dead through her billowing clothing, creating a powerful sense that the soldier is an interloper, complicit in an eternal tragedy.
She waits for them to lean forward
into the breeze, for the wind’s breath
to return the bodies they once had,
women with breasts swollen by milk,
men with shepherd-thin bodies, children
running hard into the horizon’s curving lens.
This survey has been partial at best. I confess that I am woefully ignorant of war literature written by women veterans, whose experience of the Forever War included many combat and support roles. Likewise there are no voices of African-American or Hispanic war writers. There is a whole realm of literature from veterans of NATO armed forces that also played their part in the Forever War. The UK’s Patrick Hennessey (Junior Officer’s Reading Club, 2009) is one example. I would love to discover soldier writers and poets from Canada, Germany, and Denmark, to name just three of many allied countries.
Adin Dobkin has done us a great service by guiding us through an emerging and important body of work. I hope that my own modest refinements make a further contribution in understanding the shape, variety and importance of contemporary war literature.