“I’m Not the Enemy”: The New War Novels

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 7 2012 11:16 PM

“I’m Not the Enemy”

Four new novels address the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from the soldier’s perspective.

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This kind of writing is hermetic, existing in its own rarified world. It was perhaps suited to an earlier generation of war fiction, where the individual experience could stand in for something larger. But for a conflict so controversial—one based on a deadly lack of understanding of the Middle East and of the reasons why we even go to war—to write only of oneself, and in a form so uselessly stylized, seems insufficient. Bartle eventually undergoes a transformation—his consciousness and the writing open up—but it comes too late for this novel.

T. Geronimo Johnson, however, shows the pitfalls of skipping the lyricism and going straight to the politics. Achilles, the main character of Johnson's Hold It 'Til It Hurts, thinks veterans of Afghanistan, like himself, are invisible: “He'd seen a commercial where returning soldiers were applauded as they walked through an airport. What a joke.” The comment is apt, perhaps, but it's generic, lacking Bartle's emotionality or Billy's piquant sense of alienation.

Author of Hold It 'Til It Hurts, T. Geronimo Johnson.
Author of Hold It 'Til It Hurts, T. Geronimo Johnson

Courtesy of Coffee House Press.

Hold It 'Til It Hurts is the most politically sensitive of these novels, progressive through and through, but it wears its politics like a hand-me-down suit, never finding a comfortable position. The novel opens with Achilles and his brother Troy returning from deployment in Afghanistan to bury their father. (Young black men, they were raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. by white parents.) The day after the funeral, their mother gives them envelopes with their birth parents' addresses.

Achilles spends the bulk of the novel in pre-Katrina New Orleans. He begins a relationship with Ines, a committed charity worker who also worked in Afghanistan for an NGO. Ines is sexy, outspokenly liberal, and given to long speeches about race relations and the sanctimony of the city's rich. She's admirable, sure, but she more resembles a novelized Daily Kos reader than a flesh-and-blood character.

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Johnson attempts to draw a parallel between New Orleans and Afghanistan, one that becomes quite explicit after the hurricane, when Achilles, staring at a devastated New Orleans, wonders, “Was this what it was like to host a war?” He partly succeeds, especially when Achilles joins a civilian “unit” patrolling New Orleans in search of residents trapped by flooding and when he has some hostile encounters with National Guardsmen. But by this point the novel, lumbering and unfocused, had mostly lost me.

In Billy Lynn's, Fountain approaches political concerns organically, without the contrivance of Ines' oratory or the convenient dualism of her NGO work in Afghanistan and New Orleans. After an encounter with a Bush associate, Billy is pulled aside by Dime, his sergeant. Dime issues a warning: “In case you haven't noticed this is a highly partisan country we live in, Billy. Those guys are smart, they know who the enemy is. They aren't fooled by a couple of bullshit war medals.”

“I'm not the enemy,” Billy replies. To which Dime, a few years older and infinitely more experienced, responds: “Oh hooooo, you don't think? They decide, not you. They're the deciders when it comes to who's a real American, dude.” This is political speech, but it’s also dialogue, two men speaking back and forth in a style that's colloquial and intimate, arising from the urgency of the moment.

David Abrams takes a far different tack towards his material. Like Kevin Powers, Abrams is an Iraq veteran, but their experiences might as well be of different wars. Powers spent his few years in the military as a machine gunner, exposed to enemy fire in Tal Afar and Mosul, while part of Abrams’ two-decade Army career was spent as a public affairs officer on a base in Iraq. Fobbit, Abrams' comic novel about life in Baghdad, is based on the journals he kept there.