After 11 years of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq (where the war is now, officially if only ostensibly, finished), fiction writers have begun to address the campaigns. To paraphrase the philosopher Donald Rumsfeld, they may not be the war novels we want, but they’re the war novels we have. If they tell us little about the disaster that has been America's post-9/11 foreign policy, we learn much about how these wars changed our country and the soldiers tasked with fighting on our behalf. Above all, they speak to the vast disconnect between the lives of U.S. soldiers and those of us back at home, most of whom were able to live the last decade oblivious to the utter carnage wreaked upon Afghanistan and Iraq.
American novelists tend to insulate their work from political concerns—politics being one of those prickly subjects that neither plays well at a dinner party nor in fiction. But these wars were, from their inceptions, deeply political enterprises, and any novel that tries to depict war outside the crucible of politics has made the same kind of category error as those Americans who claim, axiomatically, to “support the troops” but not the war. (One Canadian columnist likened that sentiment, provocatively, to being a vegetarian but supporting butchers.)
Four new war novels—T. Geronimo Johnson's Hold It 'Til It Hurts, Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, David Abrams' Fobbit, and Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk—navigate this question of politics with varying success. All, though, seem to agree that Americans' phony war rhetoric and blinkered media have diminished our capacity to understand how violent, difficult, and soul-sapping these wars truly are.
From this group, Fountain emerges as the best observer of the American scene. A fiftysomething debut novelist lauded for his first book, the story collection Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, Fountain seeds his novel with finely honed insights that reflect the hypocrisy and jingoistic thinking that dominate discussions about the country's wars. His sentences are head-shakingly good, and his indictment of America's military-media-entertainment complex is as subversive as it is convincing.
The story mostly takes place over one day, when the young men of Bravo company are being feted at a Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game, the last leg of a victory tour ginned up after a bloody battle with Iraqi insurgents was filmed by an embedded Fox News camera crew and subsequently went viral. Under the banner of star-spangled pride, 19-year-old specialist Billy Lynn and his seven surviving comrades have been carted from airport to airport, from civic center to stadium to shopping mall. Every day they're made to recite their tale of valor and hear the responses of ordinary citizens, presented by Fountain as phonetic pablum scattered, confetti-like, across the page:
With each encounter, each too-eager expression of thanks for his service or recitation of the habitual questions (“Are we making a difference over there?”), Billy finds “something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need.” There is a sense of collective delusion, of nothing trickling down to the masses but talking points designed to obfuscate the war's brutal truth: that it is bloody and not worth fighting. “Billy suspects his fellow Americans secretly know better, but something in the land is stuck on teenage drama, on extravagant theatrics of ravaged innocence and soothing mud wallows of self-justifying pity.”
Pvt. John Bartle, the 21-year-old Iraq veteran at the center of The Yellow Birds, faces a similar disconnect. Each interaction with a civilian unleashes his reserves of anger and self-loathing. “I don't deserve anyone's gratitude,” he tells himself, “and really they should all hate me for what I've done but everyone loves me for it and it's driving me crazy.” The novel alternates between scenes in Iraq and Bartle's steady postwar disintegration. “Everyone wants to slap you on the back and you start to want to burn the whole goddamn country down, you want to burn every goddamn yellow ribbon in sight, and you can't explain it but it's just like, Fuck you.”
But these outbursts—explicit, painful, direct—are rare in The Yellow Birds, which despite a heartrending denouement, is a prisoner of its own overwrought lyricism. Powers, who is also a poet, does produce some marvelous imagery, such as “the orchestral whine of falling mortars” or when a soldier's body-shaking laugh causes his “grenades to softly tinkle against one another.”But a typical sentence is delivered in hushed reverie: “The shadows of the outbuildings reached down and covered everything and we didn't notice it was happening and then it was night.” The feigned innocence, the passive tone, the “ands” daisy-chained together (which must be Hemingway's most pernicious literary bequest)—all signal a writer uncertain about his own obvious gifts. In one scene of particular descriptive excess, Pvt. Bartle, examining a polaroid of his friend Murph and his girlfriend, notices that the mountain in the photo's background has five distinct types of trees. He names each one, of course.
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