Reviews — From the August 2015 issue

First-Person Shooters

What’s missing in contemporary war fiction

Download Pdf
Read Online
( 2 of 6 )

The working template for the contemporary soldier’s story was set almost immediately with The Yellow Birds. Fire and Forget, a 2012 anthology of short stories by returning veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, appeared soon after. In his introduction, Colum McCann writes that the authors’ words “eclipse war” and “bring back the very humanity we have always desired.” The power of these stories, he suggests, comes from the way in which they transcend their contexts. It’s striking that fewer than half the stories in Fire and Forget, which was edited by Iraq veterans Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher, are about the fighting itself; most concern characters coping with post-traumatic stress or struggling to reacclimate to civilian life. In The Yellow Birds, Bartle returns home isolated and suicidal, ashamed “on a cellular level” by what he has seen and done in Iraq.

The stories also share a consistent perspective. They view the war from the restricted point of view of individual characters, to whom no larger picture of the conflict is visible. The narrator of Jacob Siegel’s “Smile, There Are I.E.D.’s Everywhere,” which opens Fire and Forget, explains,

For us, there had been no fields of battle to frame the enemy. There was no chance to throw yourself against another man and fight for life. Our shocks of battle came on the road, brief, dark, and anonymous. We were always on the road and it could always explode. There was no enemy: we had only each other to hate.

The Yellow Birds turns on the desertion and death of Bartle’s closest friend, but the scenes set in Iraq are curiously ethereal. Powers, a former Army combat engineer, has also written poetry, and he seems torn between indirect, lyrical evocations of the war zone — a desert firefight is “hazy and without sound, as if it was happening underwater” — and raw, confessional outpourings about Bartle’s feelings of blame and despair.

In his author’s note in the paperback edition, Powers writes that his intention was “to create a cartography of one man’s consciousness.” The same could be said of almost all contemporary war fiction: to hear these books tell it, the soldier’s consciousness is the field of battle. You find the same close focus throughout the lengthening list of fiction by veterans: Fives and Twenty-Fives; The Knife, by Ross Ritchell; War of the Encyclopaedists, which was co-written by Gavin Kovite and Christopher Robinson; and, most recently, I’d Walk with My Friends If I Could Find Them, by Jesse Goolsby. (That these books are all by men shows how traditional the veteran’s narrative remains. There are more than 200,000 women on active duty in the military, but the female experience of warfare has barely been broached.)

The first-person narrators in Phil Klay’s well-crafted Redeployment share this self-involvement. The running theme of the book is uncertainty, both in the nature of combat and in the stories that people tell about it. Klay, a Marine Corps veteran, occasionally widens his lens to examine the cruelty and dysfunction of the war at large. “Ten Kliks South” reveals the workings of an artillery unit whose target areas are more than six miles away, and who therefore have little idea how many people they’ve killed or who those people are: “Wherever we hit, everything within a hundred yards, everything within a circle with a radius as long as a football field, everything died.” The follies of nation-building are exposed in the Helleresque “Money as a Weapons System,” which is set within the compound of an incompetently run Provincial Reconstruction Team.

Ultimately, however, Redeployment returns to the confined viewpoints of individual soldiers who can’t comprehend what they’ve experienced. “You can’t describe it to someone who wasn’t there, you can hardly remember how it was yourself because it makes so little sense,” says one of Klay’s characters. This sort of anxious metafictional meditation seems to have become almost compulsory for contemporary chroniclers of war. Here is Siegel:

I got up every day after Annie went to work and tried to make sense of what happened over there, how it all fit together, why it counted for so much if I wasn’t even sure how to add it up. . . . I couldn’t write the things that haunted me for fear of dishonesty and cheap manipulation, which I blamed on not being haunted enough.


It’s not smart for me to tell stories. Makes people uncomfortable. . . . Even the memories that seem funny in my head come out sounding like the summer vacation of a psychopath.


What happened? What fucking happened? That’s not even the question, I thought. How is that the question? How do you answer the unanswerable? To say what happened, the mere facts, the disposition of events in time, would come to seem like a kind of treachery.

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

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

More from Sam Sacks:

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada


October 2019


You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.