The Never-Ending Book of War
By Adin DobkinApril 29, 2017
THE NECESSITY OF A LONG MEMORY runs throughout our conception of war. Just consider the phrase “never forget.”
Past September 11 and tangled rebar bird nests against clean city lines, past wreaths of concertina wire in Nazi concentration camps, to Laurence Banyon’s “For the Fallen” in memory of the British Tommies who perished in the first clashes of the Great War, one walks past long trench-filled lines, an unthinking haze that drowned aristocrat and commoner alike, and beyond random, impersonal death by artillery fire that gave us the bracing elegies of Wilfred Owen, the biting invective of Siegfried Sassoon, and the quiet lingering ripples of conflict found within the characters of Ernest Hemingway.
World War II maintained the characteristics of the Great War, but reduced its political narrative to one of clear-cut good versus evil. From it sprang Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Heller’s Catch-22, and Grass’s The Tin Drum, among others. Later, a complex political atmosphere at home combined with an eclectic yet shrewd enemy tempered the works of those like Tim O’Brien and Karl Marlantes into sardonic and, at times, deeply resentful creations. Allow yourself to be drawn back far enough by the phrase and before you realize it, “lest we forget” drops you off at Moses and the Book of Deuteronomy.
Alongside the end of each war came a new opportunity to never forget. But to what degree do we do anything with these memories besides allowing them to exist simply for their own sake? I recently posed this question to Roy Scranton, a veteran of the Iraq War and the author of War Porn. He chuckled, appending a corollary to the age-old quotation: “War is God’s way of teaching geography.” Added Scranton: “But he has yet to find a way to teach Americans history.”
Scranton and his peers occupy the twisting strands of literature and war that we can trace as far back as we’ve bothered to record history. In fact, if we go back far enough, any distinction between the disciplines nearly ceases to exist. All it takes is one look at the still ongoing debate over whether Thucydides’s central text, History of the Peloponnesian War, is more a work of literature or scientific history, though few would argue over its central place in our understanding of the conflict. Since then, historiography has become a more scientific enterprise, but the connection between memory, history, and literature still retains those fundamental ties forged between the mother Mnemosyne, Titaness of Memory, and her daughters, the nine Muses of art, literature, and science. However, the question stands: as the world and warfare grow more complex and strange, are those who seek inspiration from these figures outgunned by those who corrupt their tools?
This is not to say that the present form of warfare has not been vividly reflected in the works sprouting out of it. Consider, for instance, those of Elliot Ackerman. Out of his peers, perhaps no one has more richly presented our counterparties in the global War on Terror, both the ostensibly good and bad. The former Marine infantry and special operations officer’s two novels, Green on Blue and Dark at the Crossing, unwind through the eyes of Aziz, an Afghan boy facing manifold strains for his loyalty, and Haris Abadi, an Iraqi American and veteran of the Iraq War who travels back to the Middle East in order to take part in the “good war” of the Syrian Revolution while it descends into something darker.
Though Ackerman characteristically dismissed the notion his works were war novels with a wave of his hand (a quality that he and Erich Maria Remarque, author of All Quiet on the Western Front, share), he granted they sought to show the complicated and mercurial nature of the modern-day Middle East — an environment he experienced firsthand while serving in uniform and later as an Istanbul-based journalist. Even more consequentially, the works rip apart the sense that an individual on the opposite end of the modern-day battlefield can be considered “the other.” Simple, alloyed concepts of agency and devotion in conflict crafted by political leaders are pried apart with examinations of more fundamental human struggles.
Others like Matt Gallagher have described the psychological tax on US soldiers when fighting an enemy intimately familiar with the terrain whose only measure of success is surviving another day. Gallagher’s novel, Youngblood, follows Lieutenant Jack Porter as he navigates the maze of allegiances found in Ashuriyah, Iraq, while searching for the truth about his unit’s existing relationship with the local population. Porter’s trial expresses the inherent difficulty of separating insurgent from civilian, the imperfect cultural literacy of most soldiers, and the near-alchemical properties of combining these factors into successful tactics and strategies during wartime.
In modern wars, the battle has been defined not by the enemy but by the tool. If the artillery and gas warfare of World War I was “the butchery of the unknown by the unseen,” as described by Times war correspondent Colonel Charles Repington, then the masterminds of the improvised explosive device warfare of Iraq and Afghanistan approach the opposite end of this continuum. They are the eyeglasses of T. J. Eckleburg in Baghdad and Helmand.
Brian Castner was one such airman frequently taking part in this battle against an inanimate foe. The Long Walk, Castner’s memoir, details his time as an explosive ordinance disposal officer — the man in charge of the teams popularized in the film The Hurt Locker.
It’s not difficult to pick out a scene — or in the case of Castner, an entire work — centered on improvised explosive devices. A sense of gnawing tension pervades each individual’s perspective. This emotional resonance is described by Phil Klay in the eponymous short story from his collection, Redeployment:
Most everybody else stays orange […] you don’t see or hear like you used to. Your brain chemistry changes. You take in every piece of the environment, everything. I could spot a dime in the street twenty yards away. I had antennae out that stretched down the block […] you take in too much information to store so you just forget, free up brain space to take in everything about the next moment that might keep you alive. And then you forget that moment, too, and focus on the next. And the next. And the next. For seven months.
Of course, seven months didn’t mark the end of the war in Iraq. Nor did it mark the end of the war in Afghanistan. The still-trickling headlines could tell us that. The arcs of these wars are the composites of hundreds of thousands of service members who continue to take part in them. “Even if the war keeps going, mine ended a decade ago,” Castner told me from an airport terminal before flying back home from a reading of The Road Ahead: Stories of the Forever War, a short story collection he edited alongside Adrian Bonenberger.
Gallagher put it even more plainly: “I just know we were winning when I left.”
Though tongue-in-cheek, the heart of these comments reflect a modern form of warfare unparalleled in its scale and abstractness to even service members themselves. “The war was so different from year to year, city to city, country to country. You see one tiny sliver of it and you can barely have any effect over that one tiny part you see,” Castner volunteered. The military has even attempted responding to this, developing programs like the Army’s Human Terrain System, which sought to bring disciplines like anthropology, political science, and sociology into the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan.
For the overwhelming majority of Americans who never put on a uniform nor spent time in these war zones, this complexity is an insurmountable intellectual cliff. Authors like Siobhan Fallon have probed some of these issues through the eyes of military spouses in her novels You Know When the Men Are Gone and The Confusion of Languages, but even these are from an informationally privileged position in the Forever War.
In novels that do not explicitly discuss the divide between civilian and service member, there is the ever-present sense that if nothing else, well-written works will at least grant the reader some small nugget of empathy: a tiny widget of understanding tightening the divide between reader and writer, soldier and civilian. Read enough, and perhaps the cliff will become just a bit easier to look over.
But is there a limit to literature’s empathy-transmitting ability? Undoubtedly war has never been more strange to so many, but it has also never been more pervasive even for those who don’t step foot into uniform. Conflicts around the globe occupy daily news slots and an entire generation of American children have quite literally never known a time of absolute peace. Despite this fact, institutional memory seems to have failed us more rapidly and completely than ever before. What was once just “us versus them” rhetoric in the post-9/11 days has turned into “us versus them … but also their families, and with the ability to use whatever means necessary up to and including carpet bombing or interrogation techniques worse than waterboarding.”
Part of this divergence is due to the fact that in addition to a complex form of war, those who seek to convey the full fidelity of what’s occurring in Iraq and Afghanistan through writing must also confront those who stand to gain from simplifying that complexity through a subversion of language.
Take, for instance, the case of Eric Fair. “Enhanced interrogation is torture. I’ve long since moved past that,” Fair told me from his home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he grew up the son of two teachers. His path from the crumbling steel plants of his hometown to the publication of his memoir, Consequence, could hardly be called planned. After all, it wasn’t by design that he joined the military. It wasn’t by design that heart complications later forced him into a desk job while serving in the police force. And it wasn’t by design that these two experiences gave him the skills necessary for a temporary posting once he arrived at Camp Victory in Iraq. All the same, Fair joined a convoy to a base 20 miles west of Baghdad and completed the job he was paid to do.
The acts Fair committed while serving as an interrogator at Abu Ghraib fall short of the most dire depictions of torture in our minds, even those that occupy the more freshly created liminal space of “enhanced interrogation.” However, rather than letting ourselves write off Fair’s distinction as oversensitivity, we should instead allow it to stand in even more stark contrast against the development and gradual retrenchment of certain political leaders on such issues.
Our president’s response of “it seems so foolish and naïve” when describing a ban on waterboarding should stand particularly tall here, as well as comments relating to the treatment of terrorists’ families and the giving of illegal military orders.
It may seem crass reducing Fair’s comment to a discussion of what qualifies as enhanced interrogation versus torture. After all, these are acts both despicable and counterproductive to intelligence gathering. Which word we use to describe them hardly seems as worthy of discussion. However, as it comes to political discourse within our borders, many have viewed these battles as fundamental in how power is wielded.
George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” lists the qualities found in writing — including tired metaphors, overcomplicated verbs, and pretentious dictions — that serve as both causes and effects of social decadence. The central aim of these linguistic tormentors, Orwell says, is to, “name things without calling up mental pictures of them.” He goes on to say:
Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements.
Two decades after “Politics and the English Language,” Thomas Merton took a more inclusive approach to Orwell’s argument, though the story goes he didn’t read the latter’s essay until completing his own. In “War and the Crisis of Language,” the conflict was the ongoing war in Vietnam. The DC halls of power were the hubs of slyly shifted language. Unlike Orwell, the Trappist monk does not delineate between language at the hands of politicians and at the hands of writers. Central to Merton’s text is the idea that all language “as esoteric, as self-enclosed, as tautologous as the advertisement” gives way to an unacceptable lack of discourse. This “language which cannot be checked by or against any recognizable reality is the ultimate mark of power,” Dr. Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury, said in his 2015 Orwell Lecture.
Five decades later, Merton’s words still ring true. It might be in this moment that the eminently reasonable man rises from his seat and says, “Well look, it appears as though we’ve been through all this before — perhaps never even left — it seems hardly worthy of any additional words on the matter.” And it’s true that things are rarely quite as bad or as good as those on the outer extremes would have you believe. Until, of course, they are.
Instead of sly obfuscation in order to justify self-serving aims, those currently in power are more akin to juggernauts of phonetic malaise, who would also much prefer to have you refer to them as “anti-politically correct truth-tellers,” thank you very much. Instead of language helping drive through a conflict-centric agenda, we’re now openly discussing whether language — oftentimes in rough, 140-character snippets — will be a source of real-world conflict itself.
Which makes the writer’s task of “laboriously [reshaping] an accurate and honest language that will permit communication,” as Merton claims in an essay on Camus, all the more critical and, at first glance, all the more Sisyphean. A complex war and an unparalleled, lumbering enemy of language does make for a difficult battle.
“I’m deeply pessimistic about literature’s ability to effect change,” Roy Scranton said point-blank when I asked him about its role in the present day. He thought the mere fact that the wars were still ongoing made a full reckoning impossible. Instead, in the absence of complete information, voters had expressed a desire to “refight the Iraq War, but win this time” — a sentiment embodied in Donald Trump.
If Scranton’s claim that understanding can only come after the end of hostilities is true, then it is difficult to imagine this single battle over language, or perhaps entire war, is anything but a losing one. Rather than coming to terms with the moral complexities of the Bush administration’s enhanced interrogation program or the targeted killings performed under the Obama administration, we as a country have reacted to them in electing the Trump administration. However, based on foreign policy headlines that continue flowing on a near daily basis (today’s reads “US Marines Said to Land Behind Islamic State Lines in Syria”), that might prove to be a fatal mistake. After all, even if we end the Forever War no worse for wear, arguably an impossible task, we will have found ourselves in a rhetorical place lower than where we began in the days following September 11.
“In some ways, I thought this story would become part of history and might be read by students — people who could look at what we’ve done,” Fair said when I asked him to reflect on whether there was a sense of obligation that came with publishing his memoir. “Instead, we’re right back where we started and, in fact, might be headed somewhere far worse.”
Fair’s response is not an untread one. Following the end of World War I, some placed their flags on the idea that unlike a winding, but ultimately unidirectional path toward progress, civilizations might instead more closely resemble a “bubble [that] will burst like the rest.” For anyone who experienced the artillery barrages and chlorine gas of the Western Front, the only surprise is that philosophers didn’t consider the war an end to civilization itself.
The gross human cost as well as newly industrialized form of war in the early 1900s is in many ways the opposite of our amorphous and protracted, but relatively precise, modern form. For better or worse, this has meant that modern wars have proven to have less of societal shocks than the Great War — not that the masses of cable news talking heads discussing the “existential threat” of terrorist foes would like you to know that. In short, we’ve weathered worse as it comes to physical enemies on the battlefield while still managing to survive.
Nonetheless, it’s still worth examining the downfall that post–World War I historians like Arnold Toynbee and Flinders Petrie imagined. Unlike Oswald Spengler in his Decline of the West, which claimed that the rise and fall of civilizations was some preordained path — not unlike a single human life — Toynbee’s A Study of History posited that milestones in civilizations’ histories were the result of how citizens responded to challenges. If the creative minority that was relied upon for solutions begins failing to respond, they lose the allegiance of the majority and the civilization itself gradually slips into decline.
But the creative spirit is hard to extinguish. Today’s soldier-authors are making a continued call for the importance of their work, existential enemy be damned. They’ve continued exploring ways in which to tell new stories surrounding these wars — a necessity if one is to come up with original material a decade and a half into a conflict.
“Writers have stopped looking backward and started looking forward … we know about the stuff going on right now in excruciating detail … but what does it all mean? What are the consequences of it?” Bonenberger said, speculating about what the future might hold for his peers who are turning to genres like surrealism and science fiction. “The comedy of manners is out; it’s now about the apocalypse.”
LARB Staff Recommendations
A retired Army colonel and West Point scholar says we put ourselves at risk by calling our enemies “savages.”
On the competing impulses on Ang Lee's most recent film, and what it fails to adapt from Ben Fountain's novel.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!