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.
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.
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.
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.
The novel centers on Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding Jr., who, like Abrams, is a PAO, someone whose job is to issue press releases about American casualties and deal with media inquiries. “With his neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifle,” Gooding is “the poster child for the stay-back-stay-safe soldier”—the “fobbit” of the book’s title, named for the Forward Operating Base, or FOB, where he spends his days. Occasionally Abrams writes scenes outside “the wire” (that is, outside the base), but the book is, at heart, about the bureaucratic inanities of being a desk-bound soldier, one who goes to bed each night in an air-conditioned shipping crate and wakes to the sound of mortar fire.
The novel’s humor veers toward slapstick, with Gooding's useless superior officer suffering daily nosebleeds, bumping into walls, and spilling food on his uniform. Abrams recognizes the tradition he's working in, and as if to settle the point, one scene has Gooding reading Catch-22, which he says is “sort of like an owner's manual for this war.” That’s a tough comparison to subject one’s own novel to, and funny as he may be, Abrams doesn’t construct the vertiginous paradoxes of Heller's novel. He fails to seize on the absurd juxtapositions that erupt when a career soldier, engaged in a war of choice, is both cocooned from the devastating violence unleashed by his country's war machine and, indeed, tasked with spinning it for popular consumption. When one PAO suggests obscuring a potentially toxic news story with a Jessica Lynch- or Pat Tillman-like coverup, he's quickly shot down. Truth is too strange for this fiction.
Fobbit is more like an Office-style satire that happens to be set on a military base in an active war zone. Its villains aren't suicide bombers but hectoring senior officers who make impossible demands. As one general writes to Gooding and the other press officers: “There is 'sad news,' there is 'tragic news,' but there is NO 'bad news' coming out of Iraq.” (Fittingly, an incompetent captain who accidentally kills an innocent Iraqi is treated as a pathetic buffoon and quietly reassigned to manage the FOB's gym.) The novel is a kind of fantasy, with most Fobbits wanting to avoid responsibility at all costs. Lt. Col. Harkleroad, Gooding's nose-bleeding commander, writes elaborate, fictitious letters to his Bible-thumping mother in which he paints himself as a hero. For these men, the war is both near and remote, a film in which they are but extras. After Gooding learns about a suicide bombing outside the base, he realizes that he didn't hear it, “but he'd read about it online like it was a dispatch from a war he was watching through opera glasses.”
It’s clear from this scene, and from all these novels, that these new American wars have bred manifold types of isolation. Here, actual indigenous peoples are rare, whether enemy or civilian; the one named Iraqi that appears in The Yellow Birds is killed almost as soon as he's introduced. There is little attempt to explore the perspectives of the very people these wars are being waged upon. (That failing could be mitigated were publishers to translate more Iraqi and Afghan literature.) Three of these four war novels take place primarily in the United States, with the setting of Fobbit basically representing a miniaturized America plopped down in Baghdad. Even Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk—which, as a document of the mania of the Bush-Cheney years, is a near-masterpiece—is mostly a stateside affair. A decade on, we read about life over here, so we don't have to think about what we've done over there.
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. Ecco.
Fobbit by David Abrams. Black Cat.
Hold It 'Til It Hurts by T. Geronimo Johnson. Coffee House Press.
The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. Little, Brown.