Reviews — From the August 2015 issue

First-Person Shooters

What’s missing in contemporary war fiction

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Discussed in this essay:

A Big Enough Lie, by Eric Bennett. Triquarterly. 296 pages. $17.95.

The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers. Back Bay Books. 256 pages. $14.99.

Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton. Da Capo Press. 256 pages. $15.99.

Redeployment, by Phil Klay. Penguin Books. 304 pages. $16.

Fives and Twenty-Fives, by Michael Pitre. Bloomsbury. 400 pages. $17.

The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. Hogarth. 318 pages. $15.

Toward the end of 2012, when the first major fiction by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began to be published, the response from the literary world fell somewhere between celebration and relief. The books seemed to herald a sorely needed reckoning. After years of awkward silence, here, finally, were writers willing to urge a complacent and distractible public to confront the tragedies of the Terror Wars.

Critics and commentators who sensed the importance of this transformation were keen to enlist these veterans into the ranks of classic war writers. The 2014 National Book Award citation for Redeployment, Phil Klay’s story collection, argued that “if all wars ultimately find their own Homer, this brutal, piercing, sometimes darkly funny collection stakes Klay’s claim for consideration as the quintessential storyteller of America’s Iraq conflict.” In an appreciation of Klay and others, including Michael Pitre, the author of the novel Fives and Twenty-Fives, and Kevin Powers, who won the 2013 PEN/Hemingway award for The Yellow Birds, Michiko Kakutani wrote in the New York Times:

All war literature, across the centuries, bears witness to certain eternal truths: the death and chaos encountered, minute by minute; the bonds of love and loyalty among soldiers; the bad dreams and worse anxieties that afflict many of those lucky enough to return home. And today’s emerging literature . . . both reverberates with those timeless experiences and is imprinted with the particularities of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In The New Yorker, George Packer also saw continuity between this crop of young veteran authors and their forebears, but he emphasized something different: the healing role that fiction can play after the fighting is over. Calling to mind Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien’s assertion that “stories can save us,” Packer pointed to the feeling of communion that these books can inspire: “Some will begin to recognize their own suffering in the stories of others. That’s what literature does.”

Modern war writing is a strange thing to praise, because such praise ennobles the account while deploring the event. Time and distance blunt this quandary — most of us, if we are honest, are happy that there were battles at Agincourt and Borodino because of the literature they inspired — but when the dead are barely cold, it’s necessary to keep two sets of books. This is why a familiar language of acclaim is always invoked: shared suffering, eternal truths, the passion play that transmutes pain into collective redemption. War is hell, but its themes make critics purr.

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

Illustration by Jonathan Bartlett

This division awkwardly mirrors the distant, unreal nature that today’s conflicts have for most American civilians. The public’s unprecedented disconnection from the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan — wars waged by a volunteer army and funded with borrowed money — has made it all the more eager to genuflect before the writing that has emerged from these conflicts. As if in response to this public appetite for artistic redemption, veterans have been producing stories of personal struggle that are built around abstract universal truths, stories that strive to close the gap between soldier and civilian. As Private Bartle, the traumatized narrator of The Yellow Birds, says: “Nothing is more isolating than having a particular history. At least that’s what I thought. Now I know: All pain is the same. Only the details are different.”

All pain may be the same, but all wars are not, and in the search for reconciliation that distinction has gone missing. Why did we fight these wars, and what were we trying to achieve? Did we succeed or did we fail? What consequences have we wrought on the countries we attacked? What, if anything, have we learned? Questions like these rarely come up in recent war fiction, because they lie outside the scope of personal redemption, beyond the veteran’s expected journey from trauma to recovery. As one of Klay’s narrators puts it:

The weird thing with being a veteran, at least for me, is that you do feel better than most people. You risked your life for something bigger than yourself. How many people can say that? You chose to serve. Maybe you didn’t understand American foreign policy or why we were at war. Maybe you never will. But it doesn’t matter.

To be sure, Klay is not presenting this attitude without irony, but it’s representative of a genre that scrupulously avoids placing the Terror Wars within a larger political or ideological context. Redemption seems to rely on a shared incomprehension of what exactly these wars were about. Stories can save us, as O’Brien said, but they can also let us off the hook.

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is an editor at Open Letters Monthly and writes the Fiction Chronicle for the Wall Street Journal.

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