Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction

By Ryan BubaloDecember 25, 2013

Danger Close: The Iraq War in American Fiction

The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
Fire and Forget by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher
Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter
Fobbit by David Abrams
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

SOLDIER TALES produce their own tropes and metaphors, the unique hells of each war. World War I led us into the trenches. World War II carried us along for D-Day and dogfights. Vietnam was choppers, paddy field recons, and the smell of napalm in the morning. And now, while most of the country tries to forget the Iraq War ever happened, American Iraq fiction slams the doors on its underprotected Humvees and compels readers to take a perilous ride.

Fiction is, of course, serving rearguard here; the last decade has seen Iraq War films, poetry collections, documentaries, and non-fiction books too numerous to list, but part of what’s appealing about examining American Iraq War fiction now is that there isn’t that much yet. A common perspective unites this early wave of American Iraq War storytellers. “The war tried to kill us in the spring,” Kevin Powers writes in the elegant, elegiac opening of The Yellow Birds. Powers’ “us” could just as well include Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn, David Abrams’ Gooding and Shrinkle, Lea Carpenter’s SEAL operators, and most of the protagonists in Fire and Forget, a collection of “short stories from the long war.” That “us” is the wife of Siobhan Fallon’s Meg in You Know When the Men Are Gone and the son of Lea Carpenter’s Sara. Because the texts that comprise the current corps of American fictions about Iraq are not just war stories, they are soldier tales.

David Simon’s Generation Kill and other early American works explored the halcyon invasion days of the war when the enemy and objectives were clear: topple Saddam, free Iraq. American fiction, though, focuses primarily on the occupation, and for American soldiers in occupied Iraq, there was driving and there were IEDs. In Fobbit, Abrams’ satire of the war, the protagonist, a base-bound Public Affairs Officer, cannot handle the volume of incoming IED reports. When the novel’s perspective switches to a soldier on patrol, Abrams writes:
Lumley could hear — even above the roar of the Humvee engine — the tsiptsip … tsip of Shrinkle’s nervous breathing. Every pile of roadside trash, every broken chunk of concrete, every dead dog they passed, Shrinkle would flinch from the potential IED and emit a loudTSIP before settling back.

Jacob Siegel’s short story, “Smile, There Are IEDs Everywhere,” from Fire and Forget, offers the best insight into the terrors of the IED. A group of soldiers reunite in New York City after the war and insight into the terrors of the IED. A group of soldiers reunite in New York City after the war and reminisce about the road:
For us, there had been no fields of battle to frame the enemy. There was no chance to throw yourself against another man and fight for life. Our shocks of battle came on the road, brief, dark, and anonymous. We were always on the road and it could always explode. There was no enemy: we had only each other to hate.

Across these works Humvee patrols are the most frequently recurring scenes from the war. But transit and movement are more than a repeated image to illustrate the experience of soldiering in Iraq; they are the metaphor many of these texts use to synthesize that experience. The protagonist of Mariette Kalinowski’s “The Train,” an Iraq vet struggling to reintegrate at home, endlessly rides the New York subways. After a trip to the mall conjures memories of Fallujah, the wife of the narrator of Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” refuses to let him drive because, “I would have gone a hundred miles per hour.” When a reporter, ridiculous in his khaki vest and aviators, presses the soldiers of Powers’ The Yellow Birds to reveal “the essence” of the war, most politely decline, but a doomed private on his first Iraq tour finally answers:
It’s like a car accident. You know? That instant between knowing that it’s gonna happen and actually slamming into the other car. Feels pretty helpless actually, like you’ve been riding along same as always, then it’s there staring you in the face and you don’t have the power to do shit about it. And know it. Death, or whatever, it’s either coming or it’s not. It’s kind of like that … like that split second in the car wreck, except for here it can last for goddamn days.

What that private doesn’t know, and what these works explore, is that the helplessness will last much longer than days. In that way, these fictions offer the best insight yet into the human cost of the US mission creep in Iraq. Because it isn’t just that these stories so prominently feature the bracing tension of Humvee missions, it is that they do so while simultaneously excluding defining moments of glory or valor. Even the two novels that turn on crucial missions, so tempting with their promise of clarity, tease our desire for easy understanding. The final operation in Carpenter’s Eleven Days is like the hunt for Bin Laden, but it isn’t that hunt and there is no concluding press conference to declare a mastermind scattered to sea, only an “inconceivable” sense of pride and loss. For their bravery at the fictional battle of al-Ansakar Canal, Fountain’s Billy Lynn and his Bravo mates are rewarded with the death of their beloved Sergeant and the sadistic, farcical “Victory Tour” that will ultimately deliver them right back where they started — “Bound for the war. Good-bye, good-bye, good night, I love you all.” In these works, to be or to have been a soldier in Iraq is to have lived a million times over the awful moment just before the accident — in a car going nowhere at all. As Private Bartle, the young narrator of The Yellow Birds puts it:
I thought of my grandfather’s war. How they had destinations and purpose. How the next day we’d march out under a sun hanging low over the plains in the east. We’d go back into a city that had fought this battle yearly; a slow, bloody parade in fall to mark the change of season. We’d drive them out. We always had. We’d kill them. They’d shoot us and blow off our limbs and run into the hills and wadis, back into the alleys and dusty villages. Then they’d come back, and we’d start over by waving to them as they leaned against lampposts and unfurled green awnings while drinking tea in front of their shops. While we patrolled the streets, we’d throw candy to their children with whom we’d fight in the fall a few more years from now.

Perhaps the only thing the soldiers of these novels and stories understand less than the US mission in Iraq is Iraqis themselves. The Iraqis in these texts are “chewing the microphones and spittle misting the camera lens” on Al-Jazeera or stammering “in the tempo of an Arab’s broken English.” When they appear (and that is not often) Iraqis are translators, terrorists, or religious metonyms — those Sunni, that Shia. In one particularly cringe-worthy moment from Fobbit, Sergeant Lumley, the most admirable soldier in the novel, looks at a group of Iraqis near the scene of a car accident and thinks, “Now, ants to sugar, Local Nationals were gathering at this accident site, dark blobs bobbing their heads in the shadows.” Lumley’s assessment is rooted in honest concern for his men, but it is difficult to read his dehumanization of Iraqis and not see it in the larger context of the United States’ failed occupation.

That said, it would be unfair to criticize the authors for the caricatured Iraqis in these works. These are first person and close third person soldier tales. There is ugly truth here and it cuts deeper than the use of Haji as a catch-all for Iraqi men — terrorists and civilians alike. That US soldiers turned this Arabic appellation of respect into the Iraq War’s “Charlie” is emblematic of a larger problem illuminated in these fictions: in the heads and hearts that occupied our boots-on-the-ground, the US never made the transition from invading army to an occupying, stabilizing force.

Part of this is a linguistic problem. In late 2008, as the US was drawing down troop levels in Baghdad and Anbar after “The Surge,” I moved to northern Iraq to teach English at a Western-style university. The university was in the secure Kurdish region, but many of my students were Baghdadis who had only recently emigrated north. I had watched Petraeus’ defense of the Surge in his Congressional testimony in April and was eager to hear firsthand news from my Iraqi students. But when I asked my 18 and 19-year-old students about the war, they told a lot of past tense stories about “Shock and Awe” and the toppling of Saddam’s regime. Finally, a student sensed my bewilderment. “When you ask about the war, we think you’re talking about 2003,” she explained. “The war is over. Now it’s al-wadh’.” The situation.

That is a failure of leadership. American soldiers had won the War in Iraq, but what they were not winning, and could not win, was “the situation.” Thus, it’s no coincidence that the most consistently savage critique in these fictions is that of American leadership. It’s not always the same critique, but no matter the text, the higher the rank — civilian or military — the less likely readers are to find a sympathetic portrait. The major accompanying Billy Lynn and company on their “Victory Tour” is aloof and possibly deaf. The lieutenants and colonels inThe Yellow Birds are indecisive lip biters and media darlings. Sergeant Sterling, a central figure to the novel, oscillates between battle-hardened and psychopathic. The primary conceit of Fobbit is the incompetence and cowardice of those calling the shots in Iraq, and the satire often leaps into anger and sarcasm:
Crack open their chests and in the space where their hearts should be beating with a warrior’s courage and selfless regard, you’d find a pale, gooey center. They cowered like rabbits in their cubicles, busied themselves with PowerPoint briefings to avoid the hazards of Baghdad’s bombs, and steadfastly clung white-knuckled to their desks at Forward Operating Base Triumph.

And yet for all the mission creep, all the misconceptions of Iraqis, all the anger toward leadership, the implicit menace in so many of these texts actually seems to be us patriots back home. Hajjis may have tried to blow the soldiers to hell and incompetent commanders hastened that ride, but yellow ribbon wearing supporters on the homefront are the ones who sent these soldiers to war in the first place. Perhaps that’s why a majority of American Iraq War fiction to date is actually set in the United States. Half of The Yellow Birds. More than half of Eleven Days. Significant majorities of the stories in both Fire and Forget and You Know When the Men Are Gone. All of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. In fact, David Abrams’ Fobbit is the only American Iraq War fiction set wholly in Iraq.

These stories are filled with ruined marriages and drunken benders and PTSD-inducing trips to the mall. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, an estimated 22 veterans per daycommitted suicide in 2012, and these stories, with their blunt depictions of homefront traumas, seem determined to remind us of that number. Taken as a whole, they are a damning body of evidence, heartbreaking not only for their portraits of the burden of war, but for their understanding of just how few were asked to bear it. As the narrator of Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” remarks, summing up his fated trip to the mall: "We took my combat pay and did a lot of shopping. Which is how America fights back against the terrorists."

Although these books are set during and after the Iraq war, what lingers in the background—just as Iraq now lingers in the background of any debate on foreign policy — is that period from September 11, 2001 to May 1, 2003. From 9/11 to Mission Accomplished. These fictions condemn a war fought and sold under false pretenses. We believed we could fight our wars with good intentions and credit cards and bumper stickers instead of open debate and shared national sacrifice. These fictions are testaments to the depths of our delusions from that select few we sent out to do the actual dirty work of fighting in the long shadows of 9/11.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the best of these works, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, is less about the trauma of fighting in Iraq or the difficulty of returning home than it is about the cultural moment that got us into the Iraq War in the first place. The novel is set entirely in the United States — at that most American of traditions, Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys football — and the protagonist, Billy, is an innocent, lovable kid who having fought bravely in Iraq already spends the novel questioning what it will mean to return and do so again. Billy and his squad are featured in the game’s halftime show, and afterwards on his way out of the stadium he’s stopped, for the thousandth time that day, by a group of fans wanting his autograph:
So grateful, they say. So proud. Awesome. Amazing. This only takes a couple of moments, but while he’s scribbling his name it dawns on Billy that these smiling, clueless citizens are the ones who came correct. For the past two weeks he’s been feeling so superior and smart because of all the things he knows from the war, but forget it, they are the ones in charge, these saps, these innocents, their homeland dream is the dominant force. His reality is their reality’s bitch; what they don’t know is more powerful than all the things he knows, and yet he’s lived what he’s lived and knows what he knows, which means what, something terrible and possibly fatal, he suspects. To learn what you have to learn at the war, to do what you have to do, does this make you the enemy of all that sent you to the war?

To declare a winner with anything Iraq-related feels antithetical to the whole genre, but for anyone who wants to know what the war truly was for the American men and women who fought it, these stories should be compulsory reading. When Paul Wolfowitz is admitting U.S. errors in Iraq, history has spoken: we, Iraqis and Americans, all lost. To date, no American Iraq War fiction challenges that basic idea. In fact, the most striking similarity of these fictions is their overarching orientation toward the war. These are writers of different backgrounds and abilities, writing different types of war tales that independently confirm our national sense of the Iraq War as a great folly

Where these writers and their fictions differ from us, though, is in their refusal, or in many cases their inability, to look away. Through their persistent gaze we see the contours and depths of the Unites States’ recklessness in Iraq. And if our homeland dream is the driving force in America, then the authors of this first wave of American Iraq War fiction are imploring us to open our eyes wider, to be more aware of the dangers lining the shoulder — not the next time down the road, but right now.


[1] This essay will examine David Abrams’ Fobbit, Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, and a collection, Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War containing short stories from American war veterans.yel

LARB Contributor

Ryan Bubalo lived in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, from 2008-2010. He taught English and helped design the Academic Preparation Program at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani. He also coached the university's first women's basketball team, which was featured in the award-winning documentary Salaam Dunk. He currently lives in Seattle and is finishing his own Iraq war novel entitled Time of Our Choosing.


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