The (Not So) Great Wars and Modern Memory

From online anthologies to New York Times bestsellers, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are writing short fiction as illuminating and comprehensive as war novels.


When Phil Klay's book Redeployment was delivered to my apartment a few months ago, I was about to take a long subway ride down the eighty or so blocks to Columbia. I took the book with me. It wasn’t a good idea after all, to open it up and read the title story on the 1 train — crushed into the railing, rattling southward in the dark tunnel. My throat had closed up by the time I hit my stop. When I emerged out into the sunlight from underground, Sgt. Price, the bluntly insightful narrator of “Redeployment,” walked up the stairs and out onto Broadway with me.

Klay’s collection of stories is one of new canon of contemporary fiction not just about the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, but by the people who fought in them. They come in all forms, ranging from novels to short stories (some of them very short). Phil Klay’s Redeployment came out this year, but the title story was originally published in the anthology Fire and ForgetShort Stories from the Long War, edited by Roy Scranton (once referred to as the “Ezra Pound of the war lit world”) and Matt Gallagher.

Redeployment and Fire and Forget aren’t war novels — a valorized genre; they are collections. Along with the many veteran-written short stories posted online, they make an accumulating archive of short fictional work. “While not a novel, Redeployment lights up the contemporary war fiction scene while readers wait for the next great novel to come along,” wrote Peter Molin in his Time of War blog review of Klay’s collectionRedeployment certainly makes the contemporary war fiction scene shine brighter, but it is no placeholder for an imminent Great American War Novel. The collection achieves greatness in and of itself, not as a stepping stone on the way to a higher genre.

On one level, it’s easy to review works like these. Pick from words like visceral, searing, powerful, heartbreaking. Call Phil Klay the Tim O’Brien of his generation. Say the work is complex, complicated, candid and beautifully written. And it will all be true. But it’s much harder to actually describe the impact of reading even a portion of this particular canon of work.

This fiction transports; it blurs the boundary between the fictional world and the real world. Perhaps because combat contains so many elements of the surreal, of the “you just can’t make this shit up,” war fiction seems particularly fluid about the relationship between fictional and true, between memoir and story. In Redeployment, Phil Klay is both character and author; where his own personal memories of being a Marine end and the fictional narratives of Marines like Sgt. Price begin is unclear.

Not every war story is directly autobiographical. Often veterans choose to occupy other roles and characters than ones that match their own service experience, like Don Gomez’s choice to inhabit the head of a female soldier going through training to become a Ranger (at the moment a story that can only be hypothetical, although that could change). These are stories in the tradition of Robert Olen Butler’s “Fairy Tale,” narrated by a Vietnamese prostitute enamored of the idea of American fairy tale stories.

One of Klay’s longer works, “Money as a Weapons System,” features a narrator who is not a Marine or a soldier, but a Foreign Service Officer who heads up a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Tikrit. For several years now, analysts have been peeling back the layers of counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan, attempting to deconstruct and challenge the approaches the US made central to the fights in those countries. Klay does it effortlessly through his narrator’s dealings with his enigmatic and occasionally derisive translator known as The Professor, and with Cindy — the “true believer” women’s initiative advisor who knows nothing about agriculture, but recently learned how to use Google. The layers of challenges, from the Sunni-Shi’a divide to bureaucratic ineptitude and clashes of culture and purpose, neatly unfold in the story, becoming evident scenes like a frustrating and cynically funny exchange about the political value of teaching Iraqis baseball.

Historically, the list of veteran-written classic war literature (in the US) has been a roster of male names, but that is set to change with the make-up of the military and as policies about women’s roles on frontlines hurry to catch up with reality. While Fire and Forget and O-Dark-Thirty remain dominated by the names of male authors, the presence of women in these collections is a new, and enriching component of 21st century war literature.

It isn’t new for women to write about war and do it well, but Iraq and Afghanistan mark a new opportunity. Women who experienced war as soldiers and Marines in ways long seen as inherently and exclusively masculine, are now part of this new literary talent pool. This gives the stories (and the poetry, novels and memoirs) being produced as a result of these wars a new edge over an old theme. A traditionalist’s sense of combat as a young man’s game is hardly upended, but a contemporary representation of war necessarily requires women in Kevlar to appear on the page, too.

“I can’t help but think women soldiers would be afforded the respect they deserve if their experiences were reflected in literature, film and art, if people could see their struggles, their resilience, their grief represented,” argued author Cara Hoffman in a New York Times op-ed piece this spring. Hoffman makes some good points, both about the experiences of female veterans and about the importance of cultural retellings of war experience. However, she misses out on a chance to represent women like Mariette Kalinowski and others who are writing, right now. These women aren’t actually absent, though they may be present enough to be obviously under-represented.

Part of the caution here is judging this literary scene too soon out of the gate. The process of troop drawdown is beginning this year in Afghanistan and the US pulled out of Iraq in 2011. As returning veterans settle into life beyond combat, they are winding up in university creative writing classes, entering and graduating from MFA programs, and experimenting, on their own or as part of structured workshops, with the use of prose and literature as an outlet for their experience and memory. In short, when it comes to veteran war fiction from Iraq and Afghanistan — we’ve only just begun.

“War endures,” wrote Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian. “As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.” War endures particularly in the repetitions of myth and image that occur when wars are adapted for the page. They can be mythologizing and glorifying, or they can be cynical and critical, but the stories repeat and become classics.

War stories written by veterans have become an elemental part of contemporary fiction: from Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and Robert Olen Butler’s Good Scent from a Strange MountainOther veteran authors include Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut. These are novels and short stories read in high schools across the country and held up in university literature classes as examples to the next crop of would-be writers.

Work by veteran authors like Mariette Kalinowski, Phil Klay, Jacob Siegel, and others continue play to war literature’s most timeless qualities, revisiting familiar imagery. Soldiers and Marines far from home, embattled by enemies, superiors and the natural elements. These newer works also invite a redefinition of war — one that extends beyond combat. War, in stories like Klay’s “After Action Report” and Siegel’s “Smile, There Are IEDs Everywhere,” from Fire and Forget, occurs as deeply in the fearful boredom between firefights and in the disorientation of homecoming, the aftermath that goes on forever. “After Action Report” deals with the immediate implications of a firefight in which one Marine gets the unit’s first kill but passes the credit off to the narrator, unable to deal with the circumstances. “Smile, There Are IEDs Everywhere,” settles inside the head of a man reuniting with two Army buddies, trying to voice his latent anger and inability to communicate his experiences to the people he loves

Some of the stories take combat’s aftermath and in-between times and mixes them on the page with more conventional battle and bullets scenes of warfare, or take homecoming and blend it with flashbacks to war. Timothy Puetz’s “Unexploded Ordnance,” moves in and out rapidly between a veteran having a conversation in the civilian world and his memories of his tour, the phrases and scraps of dialogue merging into one another. In “Train,” published in Fire and Forget, Mariette Kalinowski’s veteran narrator spends her time riding the 7 train to Queens and back to settle herself, constantly returning, moment by moment to the death of her friend Kavanagh — her days in New York City overlaid by her memory of her time in Iraq. “Each step should take her one step into the future, one step away from Iraq, but really took her directly into the past,” writes Kalinowski. War is as much the moments of introspection as it is the moments of machine gun fire, as much a matter of memories that haunt as it is an enemy taking aim or a man at a checkpoint with an explosive vest. This is what is meant by endless war, forever war.

This work often speaks in a new and jarring language — distant and dissonant. The tone is cynical, (purposefully) disoriented and disorienting and the narrative, as Kalinowski notes — writes time as circular, flattened, blended sometimes beyond recognition. The other language is that mixture of slang, jargon and acronyms, a combination of obtuse and esoteric institutional code and crude, vernacular shorthand developed by soldiers and Marines. References to FOBs (Forward Operating Bases), CASEVACs (emergency patient evacuation) and E4s (the military’s fourth enlistment grade) are peppered with fucks, hoo-ahs and grim humor. This is an element of war writing commented on by Paul Fussell in his important book The Great War and Modern Memory. “…the unremitting profanity and obscenity were managed so as to achieve literary effects,” Fussell wrote of the everyday language among the troops in World War I, from their imaginative place names (Idiot Crossroads, Dead Dog Farm or Hellfire Corner) to their use of “fuckin’” as a “movable ‘internal’ modifier.” The very language of combat itself, before it ever reaches the published page, is literary in itself.

Klay is especially adept at inhabiting the roughcut, young voice of a Marine in a foreign country — often grammatically questionable, politically incorrect, yet knowledgeable and detailed when it comes the mechanics and machinations of warfare. One of his stories, “OIF,” employs this mix of military code and Marine slang to the extreme, making it a story that needs translation even for civilians reasonably familiar with military terminology. “OIF,” the abbreviation for Operation Iraqi Freedom (the Iraq war from the 2003 invasion until August 2010) uses an acronym every chance it gets, from GWOT (Global War on Terror) to HMMWV (Humvee) and SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device). Even some of the characters become acronyms: PFC (Private First Class) and J-15 (a nickname). The slang/jargon mix serves many purposes — creating staccato prose, dizzying and confusing the reader, sapping a sense of regular, workaday human emotion from the environment — it also reminds a civilian audience: this much you do not, cannot know.

For the past decade, we have sent men and women to become tank gunners and linguists and snipers and welcomed them back as veterans and survivors and bodies in caskets. Because of that, we need to spend those ugly, choked up moments on the subway reading Sgt. Price’s homecoming story. We need to open up the pages of Fire and Forget to help us understand the gritty, inescapable ways in which the wars with which we baptized the new millennium live on in the veterans who fought them and now walk among us.

Zackary Dryer’s “Marigolds and Lilies,” posted to the online section of O-Dark-Thirty, the literary publication of the Veterans Writing Project, deals with one of the most extreme consqeuences of combat and return. “Marigolds and Lilies” [spoiler alert] begins as a rough-cut phone conversation between a soldier and his friend Ryan, who is regaling him with the colorful narration of how he stole a Purple Heart (his own rightfully due medal has been held up in Army bureaucracy) from “some assclown” down at the VFW. Ryan’s tone has a buoyancy crafted through drunken crudeness. The story abruptly shifts to the next time the narrator encounters this stolen medal, as he gathers up his friend’s personal belongings. The specific ending to the story is unspoken, but doesn’t need elaboration. It’s a twist: one paragraph Ryan is referencing Top Gun and deriding the young jerk from whom he palmed the Purple Heart, and in the next he’s gone. Except if this were a true twist ending, it would be a genuine surprise rather than one we should have seen coming but were distracted from. Instead, Ryan and his persistent headaches and his drunken jocularity undergirded by angry cynicism is another an all-too expected casualty of homecoming.

Following the April shooting this year at Fort Hood, when Ivan Lopez killed 3 and wounded 16 before taking his own life, media reports seemed full of a particular rhetoric of fear about returning veterans. Despite the fact that Lopez only served a four month tour in Iraq in 2011, in which he reportedly saw no direct combat, the links were drawn early to the idea of combat stress as a cause of his psychological ailments and his fatal outburst of violence. Articles simplified war experience and post-traumatic stress among veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in order to make points about the dangerous net national effects of combat trauma. This is a function of poor reporting, defaulting to an easy narrative of fear, but it is also a result of the meaninglessness that combat trauma has for a great deal of the civilian population. The experiences of troops and veterans in deployment and in homecoming remain surreal and distant, but stories like the ones described here make them real and unavoidable. One of the great possible cures for a world in which the civil-military gap serves to enforce stigma and misunderstanding of veterans’ combat stress and mental well-being is a growing body of literary work dedicated to putting such experience into lyrically vulgar prose.


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Header Image: Fahama, Iraq. December 2009. (1st Lt. Joshua Risher/ US Army Flickr page)