OCTOBER 2, 2014
COLIN HALLORAN DESCRIBES HIMSELF as the only published veteran-poet of the Afghan War. I tried to prove him wrong and couldn’t.
In 2006, while a grenadier in the 1/102 Infantry Regiment, Halloran deployed to Uruzgan, Afghanistan, a province stuck between Kabul and Kandahar in the bloody mushy middle of the country. His platoon was quickly reassigned to 7th Special Forces Group; before suffering a knee injury that required a medevac home, Halloran served a tour he describes as “40 guys in the desert, then less on an outpost in the mountains.”
Halloran’s poetry collection Shortly Thereafter, his story of that time, is part personal narrative and part focused observance. “The beauty of Afghanistan is a harsh extreme beauty,” he told me. “The landscape made me feel small, and for me that begets self-reflection and contemplation.” Halloran’s book cover features a classic plastic green toy soldier sitting in the position of Rodin’s The Thinker.
Today, Halloran is a tall ironically tweed-coated instructor at Fairfield University, a youthful mop of blown back hair and chunky glasses and only a bit of a limp that gives away his former life. Lacking a contemporary, his outpost in the mountains has gotten lonelier. Several times in our interview he assured me that he has tried hard to find another Afghan War poet with a published collection, but has failed. How can it be just him?
The Echenberg War Poetry Collection — a private library of 6,000 volumes and as definitive a repository as one will find on the subject — lists only three collections related to Afghanistan: one self-published work only peripherally linked, Songs of Love and War by anonymous Afghan women, and Halloran’s.
In comparison, the Iraq War has produced an abundance of poets. Brian Turner and Kevin Powers are the two most well known names, but also consider Gerardo Mena and Jason Poudrier, or one of the many anthologies devoted to Iraq veterans. The Echenberg library contains 105 volumes of Iraq War poetry in total, from peace activists, soldiers’ wives, Brits, local Iraqis, and veterans.
The state of Afghanistan fiction war writing by veterans is nearly the same. The New Yorker published “Kattekoppen,” a debut story by United States Navy special warfare veteran Will Mackin, in 2013, but it is one of the very few in any literary outlet. The sole anthology of veteran authors that was published widely, Fire and Forget, features nine stories by Iraq veterans, only two from Afghanistan, and three from veterans of both wars.
In contrast, the Iraq War has produced an embarrassment of fiction riches: The Yellow Birds, Fobbit, Redeployment, plus Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives, published just last month (not to mention all the work from non-veterans, from Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk to Helen Benedict’s Sand Queen). And, not to jinx any of my fellow veteran writers, I know of at least four other Iraq War novels in the pipeline, including War of the Encyclopaedists, due out next May.
If World War II is the Good War, Korea the Forgotten War, Vietnam the Bad War, and Iraq the New Bad War, then Afghanistan, it would seem, is the Lonely War. Or maybe the Ignored War. It is, at least, the Undescribed War.
In an essay in the April 7, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, George Packer offered a theory for the state of literature from our current wars, and introduced his concentration on Iraq fiction and poetry with this partial apology:
So far, almost all the new war literature comes from Iraq, perhaps because there weren’t many troops in Afghanistan until 2009, and the minimum lag time between deployment and publication seems to be around five years.
There are two main components to his explanation, and both can be debunked fairly quickly.
The first portion is based on numbers, troops and years required to write. Packer is right that there were lower troop levels in Afghanistan during the start of the war, but between 2002 and 2008, plenty still served. One way to measure the total force deployed is to use the statistic “soldier-years,” a term roughly equivalent to man-days or man-hours in economics. In the first seven years of the Afghan war, American forces spent approximately 130,000 soldier-years in country. But early in the conflict, before units were stretched thin after multiple rotations in Iraq, many troops did not spend an entire year in country; the Navy and Air Force, some Marine Corps specialties, plus special forces of all types, kept most deployments to three-eight months at that time. Thus, one can conclude that far more than 130,000 veterans actually served in those years, a large enough pool to produce at least a few writers.
By now, the numbers are even closer. The nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) reports that there are a total of 2.5 million veterans of both wars. Iraq produced one and a half million, Afghanistan one million. More troops served at one time in Iraq, but the war there only lasted eight years. The war in Afghanistan is at 13 years and counting.
No matter when the veterans served, however, the five-year window is arbitrary at best. Brian Turner’s acclaimed poetry collection, Here, Bullet, was published in 2005, barely two years after his service in Iraq. Matt Gallagher’s memoir Kaboom took two years, Nathaniel Fick’s the same, Colby Buzzell’s only one. Phil Klay’s Redeployment was published in 2014, five years after he left Iraq, but the title story appeared in Granta in 2011. Some soldiers write during a formative experience, some write after, some write quickly, some write slowly — just like other authors.
The second part of Packer’s theory is implied, that there exists almost no writing by Afghan veterans. And while he is right that there is precious little fiction and poetry, certainly compared to Iraq, if one considers memoir part of literature (as Packer himself does later in his piece), then one finds an avalanche of books instead of an empty shelf. The Iraq War nonfiction bin is an eclectic mix: journalist reportage, insider wonk examinations of policy failings, a few sniper memoirs. The Afghanistan war bookcase, in comparison, is dominated by exultant war stories written by veterans; memoirs of operators and pilots and rangers and platoon leaders. There are so many United States Navy SEALs memoirs of Afghanistan, they are almost a best selling genre unto itself. And the authors didn’t wait to tell their story. The first memoir of the post-9/11 age, Andrew Exum’s This Man’s Army, was published in 2004. Books that covered newsworthy events, such as Marcus Luttrell’s Lone Survivor, naturally came quickly, but so did memoirs of obscure battles by unknown special operations teams.
Afghanistan veterans are writing and publishing, they just aren’t publishing fiction. Why not?
To answer this question, I interviewed academics and writing workshop instructors, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, and authors of Afghanistan-related works of all types. I talked with civilian authors Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya and Aaron Gwyn, the only two writers from major publishing houses to set their novels in modern war-torn Afghanistan at all (so far). Finally, I spoke to Elliot Ackerman and John Renehan, two veterans with forthcoming novels set in Afghanistan, novels that are so dissimilar from Iraq fiction writing thus far that their exceptionalism preserves the distinction.
All agreed on this: there is something different about Afghanistan, and it has affected our nascent literature on the war. Consider three factors: the United States’ relationship with the conflict, the type of soldier who served each theater, and the topography — cultural, historic, geographic — of Afghanistan itself.
When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, the United States government, the media, and publishers collectively forgot about Afghanistan — and the first post-9/11 war faded from public consciousness. “Afghanistan never captured the public interest like Iraq,” Halloran says. “It’s been that way the whole time.”
That sentiment is both pervasive and counterintuitive. The United States was attacked, suffered thousands of casualties; how could we ignore Afghanistan as soon as Tora Bora was wrapped up in December 2001?
In an age of the short attention span, the ease of immediate victory was a factor. So too the looming Iraq war, certainly, but the apparent righteousness of the initial mission may have played a part as well. Afghanistan quickly got, well, boring.
Brandon Willitts is the co-founder and executive director of Words After War, a New York City-based literary nonprofit that organizes writing workshops and book events in the interest of shrinking the civilian–military divide. (Full disclosure: I have helped run two Words After War writing workshops.) Willitts is also a United States Navy veteran who signed up right after 9/11, part of a wave of volunteers. He wanted to go to Afghanistan and not Iraq and he got his wish, but when he looks on the writing of these wars, it is clear to him that the fiction so far doesn’t describe his experience.
“In these Iraq War novels I sense this frustration and anger constantly underneath,” he told me. “I don’t feel that. The things that made Afghanistan tough, I can understand. I can walk through it. There is no mystery to figure out. For all the nuance of war, the motive in Afghanistan was simple.”
The United States was divided over the invasion of Iraq, and this tension both excited the muse and steered the media coverage. “A protest culture tends to lend itself to the arts,” Halloran notes, and writers and publishers followed the new war.
“A lot of this is related to the variances of the publishing industry,” says Lieutenant Colonel Peter Molin, an English professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, who follows contemporary war fiction on his definitive blog Time Now. “Iraq loomed larger in the public landscape for many years, and I loved 2012 for the number of amazing novels that came out, but maybe that was a publishing phenomenon as much as it was a flourishing of writerly talent?”
Kevin Maurer, co-author of the massive best seller No Easy Day about the Navy SEALs raid that killed Osama bin Laden, agrees. “Iraq dominated coverage, from 2003 until the end, and Afghanistan was a dark spot. No one cared.” His first book about the Korean War, published in 2010, didn’t sell well, and it was only after the Iraq War ended that he broke through with four co-written nonfiction books on Afghanistan, No Easy Day being only the most famous. Maurer keenly watches the market when planning a new project and notes publishers’ bias. Did veterans pitch Afghanistan war novels in 2005–2008, and agents and publishers said, “No one wants to read this”?
“I would not be shocked by that at all,” Maurer says.
Elliot Ackerman is a decorated veteran of Fallujah, Iraq, and former United States Marine Corps officer, special operator, and covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) advisor in Afghanistan. His forthcoming unconventional novel Green on Blue will finally break the qalat mud ceiling when it is published next February, but because of his varied background, he can see both sides.
“I do think the Iraq War lends itself to a more recognizable rendering of war,” he says,
one more akin to the elegiac or ironic writing that characterized the Vietnam War’s literature, as well as that of the First World War. I think Afghanistan is a bit different. Although the purpose of the war has drifted these many, many years, it began in response to an attack on US soil. The conflict in Afghanistan is primed to produce some really poignant and interesting literature, stuff that will have its own sound, I think.
There is an assumption here that is worth pondering, one similarly implied in Packer’s aside in The New Yorker: that given enough time and troop strength, a canon of fiction will inevitably follow; a matter of when, not if.
I would counter with the Korean War as a cautionary tale. Can you name a definitive novel of Korea written by a veteran of that war? Can you name the definitive novel at all? The closest contenders are perhaps James Salter’s The Hunters, about his experience as an F-86 fighter pilot, or MASH (by veteran surgeon Richard Hornberger and sportswriter W. C. Heinz), the inspiration of the television show. Neither are themselves cultural icons, however, nor do they encapsulate the ground combat of the war.
The Korea example shows that when a war is forgotten, its literature may share the same fate, or never be produced at all. Over 5.7 million veterans served in Korea. There are still 2.5 million alive, about the same number as living Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans. How many novels from that group sit unwanted?
Afghanistan was always a Task Force war. It began with CIA officers and special forces soldiers on horseback, “Just a couple guys dressed up like Afghans giving the middle finger to the camera,” according to Maurer. Eventually larger units arrived, but still Rangers and paratroopers and the air assets to support them. That culture survived as the war grew: every aspect of the mission was executed by a Task Force with a name like Odin and Paladin or, for the more secret elite units, a numerical designation alone. Regional commands were given greater autonomy, special forces teams blanketed the country and had freedom to operate, and small outposts were left to survive on their own.
Contrast this experience with Iraq, a centrally controlled war where every armor division and artillery regiment took a turn; in military-speak, Big Army was in charge. “Iraq was televised,” Maurer says. “It was a big invasion, it was a lot of guys, and it was a combined arms wet dream. They got a chance to use all the stuff.” The long occupation of Iraq then required many average soldiers, many cogs of the war machine, to patrol streets, sweep highways, and simply be in the neighborhoods, on the forward operating bases (FOBs), in country. To use a term from military doctrine, Iraq became a war of mass.
“I think special operations is the overarching narrative of the Afghan War,” says Maurer,
and those guys love their jobs. To get to that level, it isn’t a part-time job, it is your life, it’s how you define yourself. So it makes sense they want to do memoirs to recount their stories. I don’t see a lot of those guys sitting quietly at the firebase with an existential crisis, some sort of deep journaling. Meanwhile, you go to any platoon in the major conventional units, and you have a cross section of the country.
“Who’s even drawn to write novels?” Molin asks me, not entirely rhetorically. Not only did the average soldier in Iraq and Afghanistan have vastly different experiences, they had different backgrounds, skill sets, and relationship with their chosen occupation. “If you think of a young guy in an unconventional unit, a SEAL team or special forces, out at a fire base, they have a vote,” says Maurer. “Even the newest guy on the team, they are going to look at him for his specialty, they will ask his input on certain parts of a mission. An 18-year-old assistant machine gunner in the infantry, you’re not being asked to do anything other than pick up your machine gun and walk.”
Brandon Willitts was an enlisted intelligence analyst, and during his tour in Afghanistan he reviewed full-motion video off P-3 Orions for door kickers in the 5th Special Forces Group. “These guys are such high achievers, Olympic athletes who have been trained to kill,” he says. “They’ve spent a decade doing night raids. And now you want them to sit in a chair and write a novel? You might as well ask why more NFL players aren’t writing novels.”
Perhaps agents and publishers, sensing the mood of the country, ignored a crop of Afghanistan war novels written by veterans. Or perhaps they were never written in the first place, and veterans only wrote memoirs instead. “Memoirs capture a certain moment,” Maurer says, noting how well the experience of special forces soldiers aligns with the form. “The ones I’ve worked on, it’s a battle, it’s an operation, it’s finite, there is a beginning and end. A lot of the guys I work with come to me with the story, but either they don’t have the skills yet to write it, or they want me to help them get the story out.”
One has to be careful to paint with too broad a brush. Halloran is the case in point, a poet assigned to special forces. “There is always going to be that kind of person in every unit,” he says, reminding me that Brian Turner already had his Master of Fine Arts when he deployed to Iraq as an infantry sergeant; his squad mates called him The Professor. “My gunner was an artist,” Halloran says. “We had another guy we called Doctor Death, but he had The New York Times Book Review mailed to him each week.”
When I pressed Maurer on the issue, he relented, but only briefly. “The introspective guy is out there, but does he go straight to a novel? It exists, but …”
This special operations memoir trend generally holds true among writers in the wide veteran community as well. “The lieutenant memoir is a genre unto itself, and a lot of them come out of Afghanistan,” says Molin, noting books by Sean Parnell, Benjamin Tupper, Craig Mullaney, and Adrian Bonenberger.
The memoir seems linked to the junior officer experience. It’s practically a Bildungsroman. The narrative arc is always the same, right? I’ve signed up for this, but what have I signed up for? Will I measure up? How hard do I have to be in battle? How do I live with myself after my soldiers have been killed? I’m the hero in my own story, and ultimately it’s a story of me successfully being a leader of soldiers and tough enough.
In contrast, many Iraq memoirs, such as Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust or Jess Goodell’s Shade it Black, are reflective, and the war’s aftermath features at least as prominently as the actions of the protagonist in the conflict itself. “In Iraq, there were these questions to deal with, and officers who enlisted got out and wrote novels and introspective nonfiction,” says Willitts. “I feel like the officers of Afghanistan, like Andrew Exum or Parnell, just got out and wrote memoirs and became consultants.”
The aforementioned Bonenberger is one who bucks that specific trend, but he is the first to identify himself as an outlier. A graduate of Yale University, protestor of the Iraq War, and United States Army Ranger, Bonenberger’s memoir Afghan Post is the story of his two tours in Afghanistan, commanding units of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and 10th Mountain Division. It is a contemplative version of Molin’s formula, but he agrees with Willitts’s overall analysis. “Iraq veterans, they’re always trying to fix something, they become writers or politicians or go into a think tank. Afghanistan veterans, other than me, tend go into business and get on with their lives.”
What impulse, then, is missing, that would cause a veteran to write fiction, as opposed to memoir? “Deep brooding dissatisfaction,” Molin said, “more indicative of Iraq than Afghanistan. People have got to believe in what a novel can do, that more official forms of speech can’t.”
In addition to teaching literature at West Point, Molin is an infantry officer who served as an advisor to the Afghan National Army in 2008 and 2009. And while he says that at times the Afghan War can feel endless,
the lived experience of average soldiers there is invigorating. They can come home feeling good about themselves. There were some horrible things that happened on my deployment, and yet my sense of satisfaction, maybe regrettably so, is actually pretty safe and solid.
The war itself in Afghanistan lacks the standard fiction catalyst that has propelled such writing since Vietnam, namely, in Molin’s words, “that little seed of despair and futility” that informs our understanding of Iraq.
“Iraq was such a disaster,” Molin continued, saying many veterans seem to come back with a “plague on both your houses” mentality.
The whole enterprise was overlaid with defeat and futility and amazement on the part of its participants, that they were involved in such a messed up endeavor. It was such a botched operation from the top down. People generally don’t feel good about their service in Iraq, and the writerly types and artistically minded types are left to question: what is my culpability, how has this affected me, I’ve been witness to all this and I’ve been subjected to all this, and it’s troublesome.
The conflict in Afghanistan has produced plenty of potential observers with the time to write, and they have chosen to pen largely positive accounts of their exploits, rather than the negative story arc American readers have come to expect from American veterans. Molin believes that the Afghanistan War would make a good novel if “properly observed.” What should these veterans be observing then, instead?
“The physical geography is so much more striking in Afghanistan,” says Molin, “the mountains and desert, and not the flat desert of Iraq. You are living at 8,000 feet for a year, you’re humping up and down the mountains, you really come alive. That should be something people want to write about.”
Charles Mann begins 1491, his formative book on the Americas before Columbus, with the story of an anthropologist named Allan Holmberg. As a doctoral student, Holmberg visited the native Sirionó people of eastern Bolivia in the early 1940s and published an analysis of their tribe and customs. He believed them to be completely backward and impoverished, and he was right, though he was wrong about the cause. Holmberg reported that the Sirionó were, in Mann’s words, “unchanged holdovers” from another age, when in reality smallpox and influenza had swept through their villages in the 1920s and destroyed much of their population and culture. Holmberg fell into the trap of the “pristine myth,” according to Mann, who explains by way of analogy “it was as if he had come across refugees from a Nazi concentration camp, and concluded that they belonged to a culture that had always been barefoot and starving.”
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, soldiers and politicians at all levels experienced a related Holmberg problem. They saw an impoverished exhausted people reduced to tribal medievalism and drew broad conclusions about the land and the culture. In the best of times, “the Afghans have barely moved past pastoralism,” Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, author of The Watch, told me, “and after a decade of the Soviets and a decade of the mujahideen wars and Taliban, you don’t even have the orchards anymore that would support that.”
Roy-Bhattacharya is a native of India who now writes in English in the United States, and he did significant research when writing The Watch, interviewing and befriending lieutenants and captains from the United States Army and Marine Corps who had served in Afghanistan. “These young officers, they are smart, they read books before they deploy, but as soon as you hit the ground and look around you realize everything you have read is outdated.”
Today you can google “Kabul vintage photographs” and find 1960s-era black-and-white glossies of women in skirts attending university and working in banks. Today you can read A Fort of Nine Towers by Qais Akbar Omar and learn in terrifying personal detail how that cosmopolitan Kabul, and the rest of Afghanistan, was systematically decimated. But back then, in 2001, there was far less information available online, and few books outside of Ahmed Rashid’s Taliban.
Unprepared Americans saw a tabula rasa in this blighted landscape, a grand vista of deserts and rivers and mountains that stretched to the Himalaya, and made a variation of the Holmberg mistake. They didn’t see a civilization they recognized or had even read about, and when “you don’t have a cultural sense of where you are, you apply your own,” Roy-Bhattacharya told me.
What two themes did Americans use? The myths of the Greeks and the American West.
Afghanistan begs for the Greek treatment. Every young officer and student of military history knows that Alexander the Great finally met his match there in the mountains. And soldiers with a decade of experience working with the Gulf Arabs widely and immediately noted the red beards of many local Afghans, a trait usually misattributed to intermarriage with ancient Greek soldiers.
But which came first, the war in Afghanistan or the American soldier’s obsession with Greek myths, especially Sparta? If the land itself was accommodating, it was also true that the American military had all things Spartan on its mind. Steven Pressfield’s 1998 historical novel Gates of Fire, about the stand at Thermopylae, is one of the most widely read books in the United States military, on reading lists at all levels, including those of the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the individual service academies. The popular General James Mattis — no American general has been as beloved by his troops since Patton — is known for his direct talk, knife-hand gestures, and, not least, quoting Greek poetry. The United States Air Force named its brand-new troop-carrying cargo plane the C-27 Spartan. The 10th Mountain Division chose similarly when it established a new 3rd Brigade (a major development that doesn’t happen every day) in 2004. The motto of Task Force Spartan when it deployed to Afghanistan in 2011? “With your shield or on it,” of course.
The image of the unappreciated warrior-class, defending civilization but apart from it, resonated among soldiers who felt a growing divide between themselves and average American civilians. That pop culture has simultaneously rediscovered the Spartans as well only magnifies and reinforces the influence of this perceived ideal. The comic book 300, the 2006 film version, the sequels and spoofs, made Spartans a meme. “Some commanders got so into it, units were even trying to do the 300 workout. Plus, the helmet with cheek shields looks great on a first sergeant–T-shirt,” Bonenberger quipped. Even in the literature, Andrew Exum and Nathaniel Fick (a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan) were both classics majors at their respective Ivy League schools, as is the protagonist in Roxana Robinson’s postwar homecoming novel, titled (you can’t make this up) Sparta.
Roy-Bhattacharya knew he was actively working against this influence in The Watch, and so he too created a character who was also a United States soldier and classics major, based on Fick. “But Americans get the history wrong,” he told me.
They misread Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam as a how-to manual on how to build a Greek warrior culture. They think The Iliad is a triumphant war story instead of a tragedy, and then they conflate it with the movie 300. They concentrate on Sparta at Thermopylae, which was chapter two in a 10-chapter book. But by the end of the Peloponnesian Wars, the Spartans have sided with the Persians. Whose side are we on here?
In the end, though, even Roy-Bhattacharya himself found Afghanistan too tempting as a Greek stage, and so to refute these misunderstandings he co-opted a Greek story of his own. The Watch is a retelling of Antigone, a young Afghan woman requesting the body of her slain brother from an American base. “I told a Greek story, but it is a tragedy, and from the Afghan perspective,” he said. Using another icon sympathetic to Americans, he introduces Antigone first as the underdog, and among the soldiers there are no Spartans to be found, at least explicitly.
Still, Afghanistan tugs at another American myth even more forcefully. Roy-Bhattacharya and I ended our conversation this way. “Having said all that,” he concluded, “I can’t tell you the number of vets who told me that the book that best describes Afghanistan is Blood Meridian.”
Aaron Gwyn, the author of Wynne’s War, the second novel of Afghanistan, has likely read his share of Cormac McCarthy.
“I always wanted to write a Western,” he said, “but I wanted to write a contemporary Western, and I didn’t know how that could happen. I always imagined it would have to be Mexico or South America. Then I read Doug Stanton’s book [Horse Soldiers] and I thought, ‘It’s on.’”
The more veterans Gwyn spoke to, the more convinced he became that Afghanistan was the right setting. “Guys say this again and again and again, it looks like a Western, especially eastern Afghanistan, it looks like Monument Valley. And I’m just thinking, wow, these guys are doing this hardcore shit in this place that looks like a John Ford film.”
While the Spartan myth permeated the military culturally, the Western more closely described the actual war they were fighting day-to-day. “It’s what soldiers want to believe they are, consummate survivalists, individuals out on a remote outpost, a clear enemy, but some Indians are friends, sidekicks,” Bonenberger told me.
Kevin Maurer covered both wars, and always found
Afghanistan far more riveting than Iraq because it’s a whole different world. Baghdad is a Middle Eastern city, but it is a modern city. In Afghanistan that barely exists. I’ve always been able to turn my brain into Afghanistan mode and out, while Iraq blurs.
The influence of the terrain, especially its beauty, is clear: while a few descriptions of colorful Iraqi skies creep into the literature, it was mostly an ugly urban war fought along the New York State Thruway, rest stop to rest stop. “Afghanistan always had that Vietnam vibe to it,” Maurer said, “because you can go get lost in Afghanistan, you can be on some hill on some outpost. In Iraq you were never that far out.”
Observant readers will notice that Vietnam has now been invoked for the third time by the interviewees for this essay. The past not yet past, Vietnam continues to hang, and Iraq and Afghanistan share the legacy, split the DNA in half. Iraq gets the Bad War genes, Afghanistan the otherworldly landscape that swallows you whole. Vietnam was known as Indian Country as well, proving that long desert vistas are not absolutely essential to a sense of frontier. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, Joker and the platoon play to the camera for “Vietnam: The Movie,” as a documentary filmmaker pans by during the shelling of Huế. The Marines whoop it up, cast John Wayne, Ann-Margret, horses, rocks, rabid buffalos, and even General Custer, but they are missing one role. “Who’ll be the Indians? Hey, we’ll let the gooks play the Indians!”
Gwyn is a native Oklahoman, and tapping into this old American tradition in writing Wynne’s War came naturally. “Oklahoma is not the West,” he told me.
It’s not the South, it’s not the Southwest, it’s not the Midwest, it’s its own thing, and what it really is is Indian Territory, the place all the Native Americans are pushed after the White Man has gobbled up everything else. And it retains this identity of being No Place. Being itself and also being No Place. So I wanted to write about Afghanistan as though it were Oklahoma, and Oklahoma as though it were Afghanistan.
What gave him this license to declare Afghanistan as No Place? “Americans have always wanted a frontier to test themselves against. It’s that Frederick Jackson Turner idea, right?” Brandon Willitts told me, referencing the late 19th century thesis that American democracy and culture were fundamentally shaped by the gradual taming of the West. In his workshops, Willitts said that he cannot immediately tell who is a veteran of Iraq or Afghanistan based purely on their writing, but he does notice obvious differences in tone when they describe the setting of their stories. Even in his own service in Afghanistan, Willitts said,
We called it Indian Country. The fact that Bowe Bergdahl just walked off the FOB, that always made sense to me. Afghanistan looks like the American desert southwest. It’s beautiful. It looks like you can just walk home. Bergdahl went off to be a mountain man.
In Wynne’s War, the mountain man cowboys are special forces soldiers on horseback in rugged eastern Afghanistan; while the book considers questions of loyalty and human nature, it doesn’t examine the morality of the Afghanistan War itself, as one would expect from the Iraq War fiction published thus far. “I don’t have a political axe to grind,” Gwyn said.
I’m just interested in these guys as Americans and cowboys. I don’t have an opinion on what we should or should not have done in the war. For me, it’s a setting for this tale, and the tale is bound up in the history and culture of the place, but also in the history and culture of America.
And then, without prompting, he closed the loop.
Cowboys and Indians are our Achilles and Odysseus and Agamemnon. Cowboys are the closest thing we have to an American myth, and I think that mythology informs the way men act and react and go off and fight.
Two novels set in Afghanistan and written by American veterans are due out next spring. How do they fit into this pattern?
Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue, to be published in February, is a radical departure from veteran writing thus far. While Iraqis and Afghans have gradually been given a greater voice in such work, Ackerman goes all in: our first person narrator is Aziz, a poor lowly soldier in a local militia.
“I’ve never thought of Green on Blue as a war novel, at least not in the traditional sense,” Ackerman says, and he’s right. It is more a triumph of radical empathy, to create such a strong authentic character and keep his voice true to the end. “The book is about family, friendship, betrayal, the choices we make when all that is right seems an impossibility,” Ackerman told me. “These themes play out in war, but transcend it.”
Informed by his widely varying experiences, Ackerman turns the expected post-Vietnam war story on its head. “One advantage of having done multiple deployments is that you’re able to view the wars from different vantage points,” he said.
I served in Iraq. I served all over Afghanistan. I fought as a conventional grunt, a special operator, and later a paramilitary officer, working alongside members of every service branch. Getting around humbled me. I understand how many perspectives there are on the war, all equally well informed and often radically different. Each should be respected and valued. Each is unique. I might not feel the same if I’d done one tour. I might be more of an asshole about the ‘truth’ of my experience.
Molin says that Iraq veterans are “driven to writing novels to make sense of it. Maybe that hasn’t yet happened in Afghanistan.” Ackerman is clearly trying to make sense of the state of modern Afghanistan, but rather than consider the United States’ place in it, he concentrates on the cycle of violence among the Afghans themselves, the men with whom he served.
“It’s a story of imagination,” Ackerman said,
but one inspired by the men I’d come to know as an advisor to Afghan soldiers. I’d returned from my wars, but my war buddies were not a bunch of guys I could keep up with on Facebook, call long distance, or get beers with at the local VFW. We’d fought together, bled together, mourned friends together. And yet trapped as they were in Afghanistan’s elliptical conflict, I knew I’d never see them again. To reckon with that loss, I wrote Green on Blue to illumine their world in a last act of friendship.
Similar in scope to The Yellow Birds, Ackerman keeps his view small, painting the whole Afghan experience in miniature: one militia, one Taliban unit, one town to fight over, one woman, one chieftain betrayed, one shocking act of violence at the end. Similarly, only one American appears in the novel, a special forces soldier named Mr. Jack. He serves as the advisor to Aziz’s unit, and, to continue a trend, names the two squads the Tomahawks and Comanches, marking the doors of their pickup trucks with red war paint stripes. “He had great affection for the American West,” Aziz tells us in the book.
He thought we Afghans did not understand what it meant to be named after the Indians of his country, but we understood. To us, it seemed a small, but misguided sort of insult. For our tribes had never been conquered.
Ackerman says that while the American West wasn’t “front and center” in his mind while writing, “the American counterinsurgency campaign was, and so by default, the Indian Wars became a layer in understanding how Americans behave in these types of wars. The common thread between Vietnam, Afghanistan, or Iraq to the Indian Wars is counterinsurgency.”
While Green on Blue is informed by this history, it is no slave to it. Ackerman accomplishes a rare feat, crafting a novel that manages to be both fresh and true.
John Renehan’s The Valley, to be published in March, is no conventional war story either, though for very different reasons. Both books focus on human nature and psychology, but if Green on Blue is an interior meditation, The Valley is an acid-rock infused thriller, a police procedural camouflaged in a mind job. That our unreliable narrator is a United States Army lieutenant is both central to the tone of the book and secondary to the tightly woven mystery that forms the core of the story.
Renehan was a United States Army artillery officer in Ramadi at the height of the surge in Iraq. He told me that he didn’t deliberately set out to write about a certain place, choosing one theater over another. The plot came first, he said, and it “drove” the setting. “It just arose naturally from the kind of story I was looking to tell. The physical setting was just ideal for a war story that deals so much with kept secrets and the limits of our knowledge.”
When Renehan was embedded with local Iraqis, he said he was “confronted daily with how much we didn’t know about the men we were training and advising.” He noted this as fundamental to the experience of conducting counterinsurgency, that he felt as a foreigner that there was much you “will never know and never understand about the people with whom and among whom you’re fighting, no matter what individual personal connections you may make.” While this perspective is in direct contrast to Ackerman, Renehan is far from alone here. Disconnect from “the other” is well established in war literature; Green on Blue is the remarkable outlier.
At the start of The Valley, Lieutenant Black is a rear echelon fobbit pushing paperwork, making friends with local Afghans at the base coffee shop, and staring at the towering Hindu Kush mountain range in the distance as if they were the mountains of Mordor. Black will quickly be sent into those mountains, to the furthest frontier possible, the last outpost in the last valley, to conduct an investigation into the activities of a platoon that was, until then, left to fend for itself.
Renehan is quick to note that he has never set foot on Afghanistan, so he did much of the same research as Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya or Aaron Gwyn. He said his reading led him to anthropologist Richard Strand, travel writer Eric Newby, Restrepo, Jake Tapper’s The Outpost, and Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. And while he says his book shouldn’t be viewed as a fictional retelling of any of those stories, they clearly provided key details. “I picked that province off a topographic map of Afghanistan, because it was mountainous and situated up against the border with Pakistan and was right for my fictional valley, and it was only afterwards that I discovered what a unique place it is and its rich place in the Western imagination,” he says.
The landscape acts as an omnipresent consciousness, an apparition always in the corner of Black’s eye, and Renehan attaches to it layers of reverence and dread and unknowable quasi-mysticism; the valley is capable of anything. This infection spreads slowly for the reader, and Renehan says his writing process followed a similar path. “I more or less thought I was setting out to write a mystery story that happened to be set in a war. But as I started writing it I realized it was growing into something different in my mind, and it changed on paper too.” A detective story becomes a heroin- and concussion-fueled dreamscape that crosses genres. “Going After Cacciato gave me comfort in writing the parts of The Valley that become almost surreal,” Renehan said. “It reassured me that this sort of thing is okay, because it’s a war novel, right?”
Is it a war novel? Perhaps, but I would submit that The Valley is not really about the Afghanistan War, no more than the television show NCIS is about being in the United States Navy, or (with all due deference to Francis Ford Coppola) Apocalypse Now is really about the Vietnam War. In that film, as in The Valley, the main character is the land itself; so central to the work’s overall effect that something fundamental would be lost if the same story were set anywhere else.
Four novels total: a Greek tragedy by a South Asian, a Western by an Oklahoman, a mystery by a veteran of the other war, a literary outreach by an embedded advisor. Not a single The Things They Carried to be found, no recognizable war story as 50 years of American writing has conditioned us to expect. Afghanistan is Vietnam, true, but so far only as frontier, a grand stage upon which to test our limits of endurance and human understanding.
Iraq was quickly identified as a familiar quagmire, and predictable inward soul-searching followed. Afghanistan, both ancient and fresh, instead challenges us for a new treatment. Is Renehan right? Are some places and people simply unknowable? Are Afghanistan’s landscapes and culture so impervious to investigation that a Greek or American Western filter is required to make sense of them? Or could Ackerman’s achievement be the start of a trend?
In whatever direction the literature of Afghanistan turns, it has shaken off the expected standard conventions of modern war writing and is now free to forge a new path. How American.