WHEN HOMER SAT DOWN at his desk nearly three millennia ago, stylus at the ready and ouzo close at hand, at what I like to think was a cliff-top perch high above the Aegean, he probably didn’t suspect that he was about to saddle all would-be war novelists with an inferiority complex for ages to come.
I suspect he wasn’t all that different from his modern-day Brooklyn brethren: sensitive and self-conscious; a touch full of himself; probably not getting laid enough; equipped with little more than a talent for words and a yearning to tell a great yarn that would, if he were lucky, find its way to readers and stir a soul or two along the way. All he needed was a subject, something appropriately weighty, something he could really sink his teeth into. He was tired of his friends’ tales, with all their navel-gazing and ennui, never seeming able to look beyond the Athenian dating scene or their parents’ deaths from plague. Then he remembered all the stories he had heard from his elders about the great city of Troy and its war with Athens. He remembered how he had hung on every word as they told of heroes and villains, fathers and sons, battles and blood, women and love. Now that was the stuff of great literature.
So was born The Iliad, and war novelists have been fighting an uphill battle ever since. But the war novel is not a monolithic thing, confined merely to soldiers and battle and combat. Rather, it is blessed with a chameleon-like ability to take in all characters, arcs, themes, and perspectives. From The Red Badge of Courage to The Charterhouse of Parma, from War and Peace to Life and Fate, from The Radetzky March to All Quiet on the Western Front, from The Naked and the Dead to The Things They Carried, tens of thousands of novelists have built their narratives on the bedrock of war, even if the story rarely found its way onto the battlefield.
Within the broader category of “war novel,” though, lies a subgenre for which The Iliad was the progenitor: the soldier’s novel. While war’s essential elements have stayed the same, the mode by which war is fought has undergone multiple revolutions in the millennia that have followed, and the soldier’s role in war has changed with them. Novelists and poets have tracked these revolutions, from the individual combat of Homer’s day, to the regimented slaughters of Tolstoy’s, to the industrialized horrors of Grossman’s. The soldier has remained the central character throughout, but with each technological revolution the novelist’s task, on a purely narrative level, has become considerably more difficult.
During ancient and medieval times, warfare was portrayed as an inherently individualistic affair — two swordsmen facing off, like Hector and Achilles, whose duel, far more than the massed armies', would determine the outcome of the war. As such, individual qualities — guile and skill, honor and virtue, vanity and fate — are often where the focus lies, the thematic musculature the wordsmith sought to fill out. Even though the common soldier, like today’s, merely fought to survive rather than for honor or glory, the common soldier was not the storyteller’s focus. As war became more mechanized and regimented, and fought on a far larger scale, incorporating new technological implements of death — rifles and cannons, planes and armor, drones and improvised explosive devices — the agency of the individual soldier, however lofty in rank, has diminished.
In the face of dehumanized war, the novelist looking to write through a soldier’s eyes was most often compelled to choose one of two modes (and sometimes a combination of both): the abattoir of horrors, or the bureaucratic farce. The soldier was merely a cog in a titanic machine, buffeted, bent, and broken by forces beyond his control. Bäumer in All Quiet on the Western Front. Švejk in The Good Soldier Švejk. Yossarian in Catch-22. In either case, the soldier is victim, his role insignificant, his agency curtailed, though he is still subjected to and scarred by all the evils that war entails.
Soldiers’ novels became, by necessity, antiwar novels. Any novelist caught glorifying the true horror of war risked public and critical condemnation. The moral imperative to portray war as evil and soldiers as both complicit and victimized became the paramount concern. Soldiers in most war novels over the last half-century are thus rarely heroic — they are instead antiheroes or passive, sensitive fellows far more apt to observe than to act. The passive hero, while more true to the experience of modern war, is inherently less dramatic. The effect has been a strange one: for 50 years, the best soldier novels have been less about the soldiers themselves than about the society for which they fight.
With the curtain closing on over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the past year has seen a torrent of new novels told through soldiers’ eyes, and they have in many ways mirrored the progression of the wars themselves — initially marvel, frequently muddle, occasionally mire; a volatile slurry of anger, reverie, humor, misbegotten assumption, politics, and ambition that, when mixed right, yields real fire on the page, but just as frequently fails to ignite. More than anything, they demonstrate just how difficult it is to write a soldier’s novel in an age when war zones teem with IEDs and insurgents, where danger is both ever-present and invisible; an age when wars of questionable provenance are waged by an all-volunteer army; an age when the people doing the fighting are cut off, sometimes irreparably, from the society they are fighting to protect.
Ben Fountain kicked things off with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk in the spring of 2012, and it’s a firecracker. The novel tells the story of the soldiers of Bravo Company, recently returned from Iraq in 2004 for a “victory tour” after a bloody battle of theirs was caught on tape by Fox News and broadcast around the world. Taking place over the course of a single day, the platoon is privy to the full measure of George W. Bush’s America as they wait to be honored on the field during halftime at the Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys game.
Fountain is a latecomer to the fiction game, having published his first story collection, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, seven years ago in his late 40s. When I first picked up his debut novel last spring I was more than a little skeptical. Brief Encounters, while accomplished, didn’t particularly stand out, at least to me, from the sheep-white herd of accomplished story collections published every year, and first novels published in one’s 50s don’t normally presage great things. Add to that the fact that Fountain, a man who had never served in the military, chose to write from the point of view of an army soldier, and there may as well have been a WARNING label on the cover: Foolishly Ambitious Old Man at Work.
Boy did I get that one wrong. Within pages I was riding the wave of Fountain’s heady mix of language and tone, careening along with Billy Lynn and his platoon mates as they pull into Texas Stadium in a Hummer limousine, a hotshot movie producer juicing the already testosterone-amped soldiers with promises of a rich payday for their stories and a Hilary Swank-as-Billy film. We follow Bravo as they meet the players in the locker room, oil tycoons in the luxury box, and all manner of hangers-on looking to bathe for a few moments in the carefully choreographed, vulgar, orgiastic glow of patriotism of which Bravo is the star-spangled center.
I have no clue if Fountain followed around a platoon of soldiers in his native Texas for months on end or merely had some veterans proofread his drafts, but he, better than the other four novels reviewed here — including two written by vets — captures the ribald and combative camaraderie of a group of soldiers. This is primarily a function of tone, that most elusive of qualities, that Fountain expertly tunes from scene to scene like a DJ with an innate feel for the audience’s vibe. Neither does it hurt that Fountain is funny. This is not a satire, despite its marketing hype, and it never has the comic propulsiveness of a Catch-22, or even a Fobbit, but the novel is all the better for it: the jokes, like precision munitions, land just where and when they’re supposed to.
Billy Lynn is not without flaws. Fountain, for all his linguistic rigor, still has a greenhorn’s tendency to get carried away, as in this description of Texas Stadium’s roof — “a homely quilting of mismatched tiles […] a slumpiness, a middle-aged sag to the thing that suggests soft paunches and mushy prostates, gravity-slugged masses of beached whaleness” — which is about three analogies and four adjectives too many (though it’s hard not to love “whaleness”). Such sentences are not infrequent. And Billy Lynn, due to his passive nature, is not a very strong presence on the page. In the end, the reason why the novel succeeds is not that it reveals dark or surprising truths about the Iraq War, or the soldiers who fought it; it succeeds because its withering, panoramic depiction of the nation that voluntarily chose to wage war in Iraq is so damn spot on in its crassness, piety, hubris, and insanity.
Close on Fountain’s heels arrived two lesser novels, both written by Iraq War veterans, which hew neatly to the bifurcated nature of today’s soldier’s novel. David Abrams’s Fobbit is, put simply, an attempt to write the Iraq War’s version of Catch-22. Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding Jr., the hero of Fobbit, is Abrams’s latter-day Yossarian and a “fobbit,” the pejorative term for all the marshmallow-soft desk jockeys who fight the war via monitor and mouse without ever having to leave the (relatively) safe confines of the forward operating base (FOB). His rifle collecting dust, Gooding spends his days as a public affairs officer spinning the blood and guts of war into press releases, stories, and sound bites that fit neatly into the coalition’s narrative of “victory” and “progress,” where news can be “sad” or “tragic” but never “bad.” As told through the alternating perspectives of Gooding and an assortment of quirky, cowardly, vainglorious, and hilarious soldiers and officers, Fobbit casts its ironic eye on the bureaucratic and tactical absurdities of modern insurgent warfare. From the posturing, bloated Lieutenant Colonel Harkleroad, to the cringingly incompetent Captain Shrinkle, Abrams's characters float through the war on a tide of patriotism, careerism, disappointment, and donuts (at least for the fobbits).
Taking place primarily in the walled-off, air-conditioned, internetted, catered reality of FOB Triumph, Fobbit is funny but not as funny, or as bitingly bitter, as it should be. As Catch-22 showed better than any war novel ever written, modern war is best grilled over irony’s hot coals and basted with acidic wit. Unfortunately, Abrams’s humor too often has all the subtlety of a Big Mac. He’s an old-school carpet bomber, not a new-school precision-striker, and this more-is-better philosophy has the unfortunate effect of undercutting many of his best jokes.
While his prose is readable, it’s nothing much to write home about, and the plot is a thin one. But for all its shortcomings — and they are legion — the novel seems to have tracked down that elusive battlefield elf otherwise known as truth — no small feat in a satiric war novel. While Abrams has nowhere near the tonal acuity of Fountain, I found myself nodding far more than I expected at Fobbit’s near-pitch-perfect depictions of this less publicized, but no less important, slice of the war. (Abrams, a former public affairs officer like Sergeant Gooding, has gone on the record saying he inserted edited chunks of his own wartime diary directly into Fobbit.) Like a utility player on a baseball team, Abrams may not wow with any particular skill, but his all-around competency ensures he’ll always have a place on the bench.
The second novel, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, is a modern-day incarnation of war “as it really is,” elevated to a lyrical plane that evokes more the poetry of Wilfred Owen than the realism of James Jones. Powers tells the straightforward story of Private John Bartle’s war experience in Iraq, his comrades-in-arms, and his struggles returning home, but in decidedly un-straightforward language and style.
In contrast to Abrams’s utility man, Powers is a slugging phenom just called up from Triple-A: huge talent, two-thirds of it still raw. When it comes to the recent crop of Iraq/Afghanistan War novelists, only Fountain can match Powers’s flair for language, with a slight edge to Powers based on age alone. But while Powers may be more apt to send one into the literary bleachers, his tendency to swing for the fences guarantees a bushel of strikeouts. There’s no doubt he can craft sentences whose rhapsodic beauty or emotional insight shiver the spine; yet when it comes to the basic novelistic techniques of momentum, character, scene, and plot, his efforts can be clumsy and occasionally clichéd.
The central plot, if it can be called one, focuses on Bartle’s promise to a platoon mate’s mother to bring her son home alive, and the narrative is told piecemeal, with sections set in Iraq, Germany, and stateside. Firefights are fought. A cathedral is visited. Soldiers banter. Snowy woods are traipsed through. These sections are often evocative, and occasionally even gorgeous, but Bartle rarely seems to be doing anything in them. Instead he is an exemplar of passivity, observing everything, sketching his surroundings like the poet Powers is — he has an MFA in poetry from the University of Texas.
Most frustrating, though, is Powers’s inability to match character and voice. While Bartle is an everyman soldier in nearly all regards, Powers invests him with a narrative voice too often gilded into grotesquerie — an ersatz amalgam of Keatsian reverie, Hemingwayesque brevity, and Rilkean profundity that, despite its genuine brilliance at times, attracts attention to itself like a streaker at a ballgame. There are only so many “assignations of significance” a man can take.
Powers is at his most effective, by far, when he ditches the fancy prose and grandiose ontological pronouncements and strips his sentences down to their essentials. When he chooses to write a straightforward scene, his language, with its combination of poetic specificity and rhythmic precision, is like a gasp of fresh air after a long stretch swimming underwater. Alas, I was holding my breath far more than I would have preferred. The Yellow Birds has moments of truly aching beauty and deep emotional resonance — the final page is a showstopper — but those few jewels come at the expense of a mountain of tailings.
When Powers learns to rein himself in, servicing the novel’s practicalities rather than the poet’s paragons, watch out: his work will likely be something to behold. But for now, I’d take the utility man over the phenom. Abrams can’t match Powers’s verbal dexterity, his emotional acuity, or his metaphorical precision, but when it comes to what matters most, Abrams wins hands down: Fobbit is simply more fun. I laughed. I cared about the characters. I was engrossed by many of the setpieces. That it also more accurately reflects the character of the war is immaterial (though it certainly does); it succeeds, however modestly, as a novel.
While Abrams and Powers focused their attentions primarily on the Iraq theater, this summer has brought a pair of female novelists each offering their own earnest take on the soldier’s novel, but training their gaze instead on the soldier’s stateside family: Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days and Roxana Robinson’s Sparta.
Carpenter’s debut novel follows the story of Sara and her son Jason, a Navy SEAL. Set in the days following the bin Laden raid in May 2011 (a fact that inexplicably is neither mentioned nor plays any role), Jason has gone missing on a night raid somewhere along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. As Sara awaits word of her son, Carpenter flashes back to tell the story of Sara’s relationship with Jason’s father, a brilliant, charismatic, much older CIA operative who flits in and out of Sara’s life, and to Jason’s time at the Naval Academy and his SEAL training. Slowly these three storylines converge toward a poignant denouement. Carpenter’s spare lyricism perfectly fits Sara’s almost claustrophobic devotion to her son, and her descriptions of life in the rarefied air of DC’s top policy circles, with all its arrogance and self-assurance, are perhaps the best I’ve ever come across. The Sara-Jason relationship — the novel’s heart — is beautifully articulated throughout, yielding by the end an emotional resonance that only the most gifted writers are capable of achieving.
Sparta, like Eleven Days, revolves around a single soldier, Conrad Farrell, and his family. We meet him flying back home from Iraq in 2006, a Marine Corps infantry officer about to separate from the military following four years of service and two combat tours that have dealt him a bad case of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Like Philip Caputo’s Indian Country, Sparta is less concerned with war than with the aftereffects of war on both the soldiers returning home and their families. Conrad is hardly your average infantry grunt: he graduated from Williams with a classics degree, and his law professor father and therapist mother, both liberal, are the kind of people that almost never see their sons and daughters wear the uniform these days. As Conrad tries to find his way in the civilian world, his PTSD spirals out of control, affecting all those around him.
Unlike the other authors in this review, Robinson is already an accomplished writer of novels, stories, and nonfiction. She lets her characters bear the weight of her story, eschewing showy prose or other stylistic adornments. Conrad’s relationship with his younger brother and sister is convincing to the core, and the family dynamics rarely feel anything other than organic. Conrad’s sense of dislocation following his exit from the military — his uncertainty about what to do next, his feelings of having fallen behind his peers — is so uncannily spot-on I thought Robinson had somehow implanted a recording device in my brain during my own separation. Despite having next to no plot, I consistently found myself enraptured.
Where both novels trip up, and sometimes founder, are in their military portions. Like Fountain, neither author has served in the military, and Robinson has admitted to knowing next to nothing about the armed forces before she embarked on her novel. This lack of familiarity proves to be a boon in that neither is chained to their own war experience in telling their tales, as is the obvious case many times with both Powers and Abrams. But it is also a hindrance, since both authors try to prove their military bona fides by dumping huge chunks of research (and accompanying acronyms) directly into the text, often to little appreciable result, and both still get many details of military life, both big and small, wrong.
First the small details. With such a tiny percentage and narrow subset of the population serving in the military these days, both authors could be forgiven for occasional stumbles when trying to penetrate what is without a doubt an insular world. Carpenter has Jason, shortly before his graduation at the Naval Academy, contemplating going to grad school or getting a job on the Hill in DC, as if he had a choice on whether to enter the Navy or not. (He doesn’t.) And Robinson has Conrad living a far more hermetic life than any officer I’ve ever known: during his four years in the Marine Corps he never owned a car, read any books, or even visited New York City despite his parents living in a nearby suburb — none of which rang true. The vast majority of general readers won’t notice these things, and most are quite minor, but after a while they add up, distorting an otherwise accurate picture of military life.
Bigger problems arise, though, in the form of the soldiers themselves. In Eleven Days Jason comes across as more myth than man, not only because Carpenter has a fondness for classical allusions, but also because Jason can seemingly do no wrong. Putting aside the fact that at 27 he still calls his mother “Mommy,” Jason seems torn straight out of a recruiting poster: handsome, noble, brilliant and well-read, sensitive, humble to a fault, and a true leader of men to boot. In Carpenter’s telling, you can count the number of mistakes he has made in his entire life on one hand. SEALs like to refer to themselves as “quiet professionals,” and Jason is the epitome of this trope.
But as any Army Ranger will tell you, these “quiet professionals” sure have a pretty large media profile for an organization that ostensibly likes to keep to the shadows. This reverence toward the SEALs, as if they were a secret, exclusive club Carpenter has been granted access to, permeates the Jason sections to a degree that they read more like hagiography than real life, and more than once I wished Carpenter had laid off a little on the SEAL Kool-Aid. I almost threw the book against the wall when a Navy chief — a Navy chief! There is a reason the idiom “curse like a sailor” exists! — tells Jason to knock off the profanity. The novel would have benefitted from a lot more profanity, and color, on Jason’s, and the SEALs’, part.
Sparta’s difficulties are of a different order. Conrad, as a person, is chillingly real and familiar. While the Marine Corps still anchors his sense of self, he otherwise finds himself adrift, the chasm that separates his wartime experience from the civilian world into which he is trying to reintegrate seemingly unbridgeable. He tries reconnecting with a former girlfriend and sets his sights on graduate school, but everything is undermined by his PTSD, including, unfortunately, the novel.
Trying to accurately depict a condition whose symptoms are so variegated and yet vague is a tall hurdle for even the most gifted novelist, and Caputo had trouble with the same task in Indian Country. Robinson does her best, with gripping descriptions of symptoms — reaction to noises and crowds, difficulties sleeping, inability to concentrate — but her attempt at rooting this in Conrad’s wartime trauma never quite convinces, and his trajectory (essentially the plot) often seems so predetermined that he comes across as almost devoid of agency.
The passivity with which everyone treats Conrad’s condition is incredible. His mother — a therapist! — never takes any action to get him help despite his obvious deterioration, and this passivity is mirrored in all those surrounding Conrad, including the VA health system, which comes off so badly as to almost inspire disbelief. Robinson portrays the VA as so hopelessly ineffectual and downright incompetent that Conrad can’t get any treatment for his PTSD for nearly half a year, and is even blithely dismissive when he says he’s suicidal. (I know enough about the VA to know that such criminal indifference is possible — and horror stories are out there — but I couldn’t help but feel Robinson was more interested in making a political point here than staying true to her story.)
Robinson has drawn heavily from Jennifer Senior’s New York magazine feature on medicated veterans and PTSD, and it feels at times that the author, in conjuring Conrad’s PTSD, was making sure to check all the boxes on a rubric of symptoms. Conrad’s PTSD, unlike everything else about him, feels authorially imposed — not that Conrad couldn’t or shouldn’t have PTSD, but that the disease comes across as much a thematic vehicle for the author’s agenda — that war is evil and irreparably scars all the men who fight it — as it is a real condition. By novel’s end, Conrad comes to be the ultimate passive hero, helpless in the face of war and the disease it begets.
Reading this latest crop of accomplished soldier’s novels, I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe modern war and its aftermath, as told through a soldier’s eyes, simply isn’t the stuff of great novels anymore. After all, the best novel of the bunch, Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, isn’t so much about war as it is about the home front, and as good as it is, the superlative “great,” in the canonical sense, is unwarranted: I’m quite sure it will never attain the stature or literary durability of A Farewell to Arms or Catch-22 or The Things They Carried.
So why hasn’t the classic novel of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan appeared? It’s been over a decade, after all, since the US military was plunged into a state of permanent war. Perhaps we just need to give it more time? Perhaps my expectations are simply set too high? Or maybe, most simply, the recent wars just don’t lend themselves to great literature?
Contrary to the view of clashing great powers, the dominant form of warfare in the 20th and 21st centuries has been insurgency and civil war, and Western powers have not been shy about getting involved. From the Boer Wars to the Philippine Insurrection to the Malayan Emergency to the French wars in Algeria and Vietnam to the Russian wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya to the current conflicts: all were decade-long conflicts that saw the participation of millions, yet none have resulted in an enduring soldier’s novel. Even the American experience in Vietnam has yielded only a handful of soldier’s novels that are still read today, and that was a far more disruptive cultural experience (for Americans) than our contemporary conflicts, or any of the other insurgencies listed.
Insurgencies, as fought by those putting down the uprising, are a slow, bloody slog. The meat grinder of conventional warfare is replaced by a diffuse and hidden enemy. For the soldier fighting an insurgency, life is reactionary in nature: one is always waiting to be attacked — with IEDs, mortars, rockets, ambushes — by a force which fights on its own timetable, its own terrain, its own choosing. This instills in those fighting the insurgency a deep frustration, as one has no choice but to remain in a constant state of anticipatory readiness. A soldier’s day-to-day life is filled with activity — patrol, watch, meetings, construction, weapons maintenance — and still one waits.
In warfare of this nature, the soldier is passive to a startling degree, and even the war effort itself is built on passively securing the population rather than actively defeating the enemy. Molding passivity into great literature is never easy, as the current harvest of soldier’s novels attests, and the novelist who sets him or herself to the task is forced to climb a very steep mountain indeed. Can a truly classic novel arise under such conditions? I’d like to say yes, but I have my doubts. Great soldier’s novels are devilishly difficult to write, and the nature of modern war makes the road that much harder. And while greatness may elude, the current crop is damn good consolation, and will jump-start what I suspect are a number of notable literary careers.
In the end though, I hope I’m proven wrong. I know for a fact that several extremely talented writers are currently working on their own soldier’s novels, novels that will soon see the light of day. Like the insurgent, they find themselves disadvantaged at every turn, but here’s hoping their zeal and determination can carry them through.
Michael Lokesson has written for The New York Times, National Geographic, Time, The Daily Beast, Salon, and many others. A former Navy officer, he currently lives in Los Angeles. He is at work on a (non-war) novel.
 For whatever reason this hasn’t carried over to soldier memoirs, where a certain bravado toward death and danger remains far less controversial — see Carnivore, American Sniper, or No Easy Day.