JANUARY 25, 2015
EVERY TRUE WAR STORY is a story of trauma and recovery. A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.
After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like.
The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.
So goes the myth of the trauma hero.
This myth informs our politics, shapes our news reports, and underwrites our history. It dominates critical and scholarly interpretation of war literature, war movies, and the visual culture of war. It shapes how we understand Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, and World War II, and it affects whom we vote for. Like all myths, this story frames and filters our perceptions of reality through a set of recognizable and comforting conventions. It works to convince us that war is a special kind of experience that offers a special kind of truth, a truth that gives those who have been there a special kind of authority.
The trauma hero myth also serves a scapegoat function, discharging national bloodguilt by substituting the victim of trauma, the soldier, for the victim of violence, the enemy. Take Clint Eastwood’s recent adaptation of Chris Kyle’s memoir, American Sniper. The story, as everyone knows, is of the life and death of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who as a shooter in Iraq racked up more confirmed kills than any other sniper in American military history. Kyle served four tours in Iraq as a trigger-puller, then retired and began to work with disabled and traumatized veterans. One day one of these veterans shot him.
The opening scene sets the moral stakes: Our hero, played all lockjaw, thousand-yard stare, and darting eyes by Bradley Cooper, must decide whether or not to shoot an Iraqi child whose mother gave him a grenade to throw at an American convoy. Never mind the tired Vietnam-era trope of the bomb-wielding child, a fiction that Eastwood grafted onto Kyle’s less sensational autobiographical account of shooting a woman. What’s important here is that we’re being shown what extremes of psychological torment our hero must endure — and this is only the beginning. Such suffering is the upshot of the whole narrative, which is an account of Kyle’s increasing combat stress and the toll that takes on his family, layered over with a simplistic dueling snipers plot, both of which culminate in a climactic rooftop battle scene.
In this scene, Kyle draws on his years of training and warrior wisdom to make an “impossible” shot, killing the sniper “Mustafa.” As a gibbering horde of Iraqi insurgents descends upon our American heroes, Kyle calls his wife by satellite phone and tells her he’s ready to come home. A dust storm envelops the battle and the Americans fight their way out, barely escaping, in a visually striking chaos that serves as a symbolic baptism: Kyle is sucked into the whirlwind and only barely makes it out, leaving his weapon and his lucky Bible behind him. He has been reborn.
The last scenes of the film intimate Kyle’s recuperation. Cooper loses his thousand-yard stare and lets his jaw relax, revealing a man who has learned how to turn the lessons of war into the lessons of peace. Instead of helping endangered soldiers by killing Iraqis, he has learned to help wounded soldiers by talking with them and mentoring them in shooting-range therapy. The final scene, before the documentary footage of Kyle’s flag-bedecked funeral, is of Kyle as father and husband, warm, joking, engaged with his wife and children.
American Sniper focuses in tight on one man’s story of trauma, leaving out the complex questions of why Kyle was in Iraq being traumatized in the first place. The Iraqis in the film are villains, caricatures, and targets, and the only real opinion on them the film offers is Kyle’s. The Iraqis are all “savages” who threaten American lives and need to be killed. There’s some truth in this representation, insofar as this is how a lot of American soldiers thought. Yet the film obviates the questions of why any American soldiers were in Iraq, why they stayed there for eight years, why they had to kill thousands upon thousands of Iraqi civilians, and how we are to understand the long and ongoing bloodbath once called the “war on terror.” It does that precisely by turning a killer into a victim, a war hero into a trauma hero.
The myth of the trauma hero, like all great myths, has a history. It goes back to the birth of Romanticism in the 18th century, and is first seen taking shape in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. The myth achieved its mature form in 20th-century war literature, and is often now read as the very definition of war literature itself, even though as the 20th century has worn on, the myth has become increasingly conventional and increasingly self-referential. Tracking this myth through the poetry of Wilfred Owen, the prose of Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, and Kevin Powers’s Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds can help us see how the myth works, how it has been used by writers eager to capitalize on the moral authority it offers, and how it has turned from being a frame for understanding reality into a mirroring surface that reflects back only our own expectations.
In June 1917, while recuperating from shellshock at Craiglockhart War Hospital, British Lieutenant Wilfred Owen wrote the first draft of a bitter poem describing the death of a fellow soldier in a gas attack. This draft was dedicated “To Jessie Pope,” a widely published female civilian poet known for her patriotic poems. Owen’s dedication, later amended “To a certain poetess,” was as facetious as the poem’s now-famous ending is ironic: the vividly depicted horror of a comrade’s choking death was intended to chasten pro-war civilians like Pope and repudiate the “old Lie” that “dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.”
Owen begins his poem in the perspective of marching soldiers, identifying a speaking “we” that shifts between subjective sensation and close description of physical suffering: “Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, / Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge […]” Vivid images strike a scene as if out of Bosch, and details such as the caliber of the artillery rounds help establish the narrator’s authority. The men come under gas attack, and we, with our narrator, helplessly watch one die choking, drowning in air. We see through the narrator’s eyes, through the “misty” lenses of his gas mask. This shift via perceptual detail into the narrator’s subjectivity is pushed further in the next stanza’s free-standing couplet, where the death recurs as a traumatic repetition within the narrator’s dreams: “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, / He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.”
In the final stanza, the narrator turns from his dream to the reader’s, indicting the one who doesn’t know the experience of war: “If in some smothering dreams you too could pace / Behind the wagon that we flung him in […]” The details press on, one after the other, but now instead of describing the scene itself, or even its memory, Owen describes the dream that you, the reader, would be tortured by — if you’d seen what he’d seen and felt what he felt. If you could see, the narrator tells Jessie Pope, if you knew what it was really like, then you wouldn’t write poems supporting the war.
The Latin tag ending the poem, from Horace’s Carmina III.2, translates roughly as “It is dear and honorable to die for one’s nation.” This tag stands for what Owen is aiming to attack, to dispel, to silence: the “old Lie” taught in English schoolbooks and put forth by civilian poets. I know the truth, Owen claims, not because I read about it in Horace, but because I’ve seen it, heard it, and felt it. Owen means to malign war, but according to his logic, it is his very experience of war that gives him privileged access to moral truth beyond anything civilians like Jessie Pope can ever hope to achieve. Owen asserts that war’s truth is the truth of the soldier’s experience, which puts the issue of war beyond debate.
The Israeli military historian Yuval Harari has argued that the practice of hallowing the experience of war as trauma grows out of a larger historical shift from recording external deeds as evidence of valor to recording internal experiences as evidence of developing sensibility. Revolutions in military technology and organization in the early 17th century created the conditions for detaching personal glory from military experience. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the growth of sensationalism, the cult of sensibility, and Romanticism combined with increasing literacy and a more professionalized and middle-class officer corps to make “war-as-revelation” the predominant frame for interpreting the individual experience of war in the West. Once a field of accomplishment, war became a kind of sentimental education.
In the US, this interpretive frame has led to contradictory attitudes about war. On the one hand, Americans denounce war as something uncivilized and exceptional, something only other countries do, something America only does under duress. On the other hand, Americans indulge in what historian David Bell has described as “an unabated fascination with war, considering it a test of their society’s worth. They treat members of the armed forces with respect verging on reverence and take for granted that no one who has not been in combat can ever really understand ‘what it is like’ or how it changes a person.”
Most Americans seem to believe that war can only be known through direct, physical, sensory experience on the battlefield, such as the moment of vision Owen describes in “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Ernest Hemingway, who in contrast to Owen’s long front-line service lasted only a few weeks as a noncombatant before being wounded and returning to the US, stands in American letters as the high priest of combat gnosticism. In Hemingway’s work, the emphasis on physicality, embodiment, and materiality we see in Owen’s representations of the soldier’s truth opens into a metaphysical bias against representation itself. In Hemingway’s novel of World War I, A Farewell to Arms, Lieutenant Frederic Henry delivers a famous denunciation of martial ideals and abstract language, founded in the moral authority of his earlier wounding, that makes this point explicit.
During a conversation between Lieutenant Henry and an Italian ambulance driver named Gino, in an area of the front that had recently been taken back, Gino comments that the summer fighting “cannot have been done in vain.” Lieutenant Henry silently disdains not just Gino’s patriotism, but the very words he uses:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
For Hemingway’s Lieutenant Henry, the soldier’s truth becomes a formal truth: it determines not only who can speak, but what words can be spoken. Gino, after all, has seen as much or more war than Lieutenant Henry has. The difference between them is in their sensibility. For Hemingway, Gino is a crude nationalist who thinks and speaks in clichés, while Lieutenant Henry is a refined and sensitive soul who knows the true words for war. Those words must be concrete, sensory, metonymic: place names, regimental numbers, and dates must stand in for the battles that were fought there. Any recognition of social value, any judgment of character or worth, Hemingway finds repugnant. War and combat can only be properly addressed by invoking the temporal and geographic markers by which those who were present will remember them.
Upping the literary stakes, Tim O’Brien’s influential collection of linked stories The Things They Carried pushes beyond Hemingway’s repudiation of idealism and abstraction to a repudiation of civic discourse and truth as such. Where Hemingway still allows invocation to retain the dignity of battlefield presence, O’Brien refuses any connection at all between social norms and combat. Where Hemingway insists on the concrete, O’Brien avows the obscene. “A true war story,” he writes in The Things They Carried, “is never moral.”
It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.
The Things They Carried is presented as a series of reminiscences, partly fictionalized, ambiguously true, from O’Brien’s time as an infantryman in Vietnam. In “How to Tell a True War Story,” much as in Owen’s poem, O’Brien offers the voyeuristic drama of watching a fellow soldier die as evidence against “a very old and terrible lie.” On patrol in the jungle, two infantrymen, Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon, are playing catch with a smoke grenade, when Lemon steps on a booby trap and gets blown up. Like Owen, O’Brien revisits the moment of death again and again. Where Owen’s choking soldier comes back first as a dream, then as the reader’s dream, O’Brien’s exploding Curt Lemon comes back and back and back in a fictional model of traumatic repetition.
What O’Brien ultimately works toward, in this story and throughout The Things They Carried, is the assertion of an encounter with truth that transcends communicability — not only for his characters, but for the writer. The knowledge Tim O’Brien claims to have experienced in Vietnam can’t be understood or even discussed, but only felt.
For the common soldier, at least, war has the feel — the spiritual texture — of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck you in. You can’t tell where you are, or why you’re there, and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity. In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.
For O’Brien, a true war story is about the failure of language to communicate experience altogether, which is an assertion that the soldier’s truth is a mystic truth. Illumination here takes the form of negative theology, apophatically denying that the experience of war can be described, thereby denying both the truth of prior descriptions and the possibility that the experience can ever be communicated at all.
Confronting O’Brien’s total negation of language, Kevin Powers’s 2012 Iraq war novel The Yellow Birds flips the script by representing war trauma as the font of poetic transcendence: instead of negating language, the experience of war inspires it. Through flashbacks, The Yellow Birds tells of Privates John Bartle and Daniel Murphy, a wartime George and Lennie who deploy to Iraq under the tyrannical rule of one Sergeant Sterling. While downrange, Murphy loses his mind and goes AWOL; Bartle and Sterling eventually find his mutilated corpse. In the novel’s present, Bartle has returned to the US, struggles with PTSD, and is wrongly imprisoned by the military’s Criminal Investigation Division for his alleged involvement in an atrocity committed by Sergeant Sterling, who has in the meantime committed suicide. What redeems Bartle in the end is the novel itself, his story, his voice: the novel dramatizes the transformation of Bartle’s trauma into Powers’s poetry.
Powers’s literary ambitions are signaled in the novel’s first lines, a lyrical meditation on war that builds metaphor upon metaphor into a surreal montage of sensation beyond meaning, and extends from its tortuously elaborate sentences through its melodramatic plot to its hyper-conscious symbolism of hyacinths. Private Bartle’s narration is a perpetual cry of pain, a constant ache of swollen language that breaks into traumatic revelation when he commits violence:
I moved to the edge of the bridge and began firing at anything moving. I saw one man fall in a heap near the bank of the river among the bulrushes and green fields on its edges. In that moment, I disowned the waters of my youth. My memories of them became a useless luxury, their names as foreign as any that could be found in Nineveh: the Tigris or the Chesapeake, the James or the Shatt al Arab farther to the south, all belonged to someone else, and perhaps had never really been my own. I was an intruder, at best a visitor, and would be even in my home, in my misremembered history, until the glow of phosphorescence in the Chesapeake I had longed to swim inside again someday became a taunt against my insignificance, a cruel trick of light that had always made me think of stars. No more. I gave up longing, because I was sure that anything seen at such a scale would reveal the universe as cast aside and drowned, and if I ever floated there again, out where the level of the water reached my neck, and my feet lost contact with its muddy bottom, I might realize that to understand the world, one’s place in it, is to be always at the risk of drowning.
Noctiluca, I thought, Ceratium, as the tracers began to show themselves in the sifted twilight […]
Powers ascends from description to meditation, from simple declarations to disordered hyperbaton, from the concrete names of rivers now turned foreign to the abstract stymying of pluperfect desires (“until the glow of phosphorescence in the Chesapeake I had longed to swim inside again someday became a taunt against my insignificance”), and finally to esoteric Latin terms deployed in a telling inversion of Owen’s rhetorical move ending “Dulce et Decorum Est.” Where Owen marshals sense data to controvert the authority of Latinate literariness, Powers takes flight from materiality into literature. Where Owen inscribes a vision, Powers poetizes: “Noctiluca, I thought, Ceratium […]”
For Powers, the conventional tropes of war lit are not a means of conveying truth, but the truth of war itself. The transformation of experience into literature is here characterized as a dissociation from one’s own embodied memory (“I disowned the water of my youth”), a process of evacuation in which concrete facts, Hemingway’s “names of rivers,” become not only interchangeable but also alienated, pure signs operating in a closed economy of literary signification in which Powers (or Bartle) is an interloper (they “all belonged to someone else, and perhaps had never really been my own”) — an economy we might read as the system of MFA programs and New York publishing circles that shaped The Yellow Birds and its reception. Powers’s climactic turn from experience to literature rather than the other way around suggests that the conventions of traumatic revelation have become purely formal expectations of an audience more interested in war as myth than in war as reality, or even as literature.
In one of the most substantial recent articles on contemporary war lit, George Packer in The New Yorker reads the genre as a set of variations on the trauma hero myth, focusing on the Owen-Hemingway-O’Brien lineage while ignoring works that don’t fit that frame, such as John Dos Passos’s epic U.S.A. trilogy, James Jones’s masterful combat novel The Thin Red Line, John Horne Burns’s acidic portrait of American-occupied Naples, The Gallery, or Stephen Wright’s surreal, elusive novel about media and surveillance in Vietnam, Meditations in Green. Shoehorning more recent war lit from Iraq and Afghanistan into his narrow rubric, Packer extends his interpretation from the literature of those wars to the wars themselves, writing: “The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan fully meet [Paul] Fussell’s description of the ironic: they were worse than expected. Both began with hubris and false victories, turned into prolonged stalemates, and finally deserved the bitter name of defeat.” This is, we should note, a partial view. Packer was one of the liberal hawks calling for an American invasion of Iraq in 2002 and 2003, against the advice of State Department officials, Middle East experts, UN weapons inspector Hans Blix, and the US Army Chief of Staff. Only after spending time on the ground in Baghdad, “seeing what it was really like” and realizing that wars are messy, bloody, dumb, and wasteful, did Packer recant his earlier jingoism.
In light of his own experience, as understood through the lens of Fussell’s canonical reading of World War I poetry in The Great War and Modern Memory, Packer sees the novels, poems, and stories coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan as bearing the truth of a traumatic and disillusioning revelation. He reads Kevin Powers’s rather banal poetry as “meditative and convalescent,” evincing “the poet’s mind reopening after a great shock,” and finds “one of the best distillations of combat” he’d ever read in a dull comparison The Yellow Birds makes between combat and a car accident. Packer interprets Benjamin Busch’s lyrical memoir Dust to Dust as the formal embodiment of PTSD, writing, “Fragments are perhaps the most honest literary form available to writers who fought so recently.” It’s difficult to know what it would mean for a literary form to be “honest,” unless you are predisposed to understand experience as having a certain shape. Brian Turner, the pre-eminent American poet of the Iraq War, fits rather more easily into Packer’s trauma hero reading, since Turner’s poetry is already deeply Romantic in sensibility. For Turner, poetry itself is already experience-as-revelation; the fact that he is a war poet is practically accidental, except insofar as we seem to expect our war poets to write precisely that kind of poem. Packer ends his essay by considering Phil Klay’s award-winning short story collection Redeployment, lauding the book as a paragon not of literary sophistication and suspended judgment, which it is, but of “rigorous honesty” and, of course, irony. Klay’s virtues are, for Packer, the essential virtues of war literature: not art, but experience. This itself is ironic, considering Klay spent his war behind a desk as a Public Affairs Officer — what the military calls a publicist.
By focusing strictly on writers who happen to be veterans, Packer misses not only some of the most interesting novels published so far about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, The Watch, by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, and They Dragged Them Through the Streets, by Hilary Plum, but also essential work in translation by Iraqi writers, such as Sinan Antoon’s elegiac novel The Corpse Washer and Hassan Blasim’s devastating, surreal short stories in The Corpse Exhibition. What’s more, Packer ignores veteran writers who don’t fit the conventions of the trauma hero myth. A stirring diversity of short stories, novels, poems, essays, and memoirs by a growing community of writers are effaced and reduced to a handful of works that conform to expected conventions.
Where Packer missteps most precipitously, however, is where he considers war literature in its historical and political contexts.
Journalists and historians have to distort war. In order to find the plot — causation, sequence, meaning — they make war more intelligible than it really is. In the literature by veterans, there are virtually no politics or polemics, in stark contrast to the tendentious way in which most Americans, especially those farthest removed from the fighting, discussed Iraq. This new writing takes the war, though not its terrible cost, as a given.
This isn’t just wrong, it’s dangerous. It presumes that journalists and historians adhere to conventions of understanding (“causation, sequence, meaning”) whereas novelists and poets do not, which not only offers a patently nonsensical way of approaching literature but also makes extravagant demands upon it: how could a writer possibly communicate any experience without making it “more intelligible than it really is”? Making experience intelligible is just what language does. Further, Packer makes the specious assumption that ignoring the causes, background, and motivating forces for a war represents an absence of politics, rather than seeing it for what it is, which is a kind of politics — namely, a politics of forgetting that actively elides the question of what US soldiers were fighting for and the bigger problem of who they were killing, in favor of the more narrow and manageable question of “what it was like.”
Packer’s tendentious argument highlights the most troubling consequence of our faith in the revelatory truth of combat experience and our sanctification of the trauma hero: that by focusing so insistently on the psychological trauma American soldiers have had to endure, we allow ourselves to forget the death and destruction those very soldiers are responsible for. Consider the title story of Phil Klay’s Redeployment. Klay’s collection opens with a US marine reflecting on his experience in Iraq as he returns home, declaring: “We shot dogs.” This short, powerful sentence, while factually true, offers readers a comforting moral lie. “We shot dogs” is as accurate as “We built schools” or “We brought democracy,” and works much the way we seem to want our war literature to function: by foregrounding a peripheral detail, it obscures much more significant big-picture realities. By focusing on how “We shot dogs,” Klay allows American readers to ignore the unpleasant fact that we shot people.
The story “Redeployment” tells is of a traumatized marine veteran, Sgt. Price, who returns home from Iraq to his wife, Cheryl, and his dog, Vicar. Vicar, he finds, is terminally ill. As Sgt. Price adjusts to peacetime life and processes his experience of the war, he is troubled by Vicar’s worsening condition, and eventually decides to take the dog out to the river and shoot him.
Klay’s Old Yeller narrative of masculine hardening is layered over with a deliberate conflation between Iraqis and dogs. It is telling that Sgt. Price’s dog is named “Vicar.” A vicar is a representative or substitute, as the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, and in “Redeployment,” the tumorous Vicar is a substitute for the narrator’s trauma and guilt. Yet Vicar also stands in as a substitute for the thousands of Iraqis killed during the American occupation. The comparison is made explicit at the story’s end, as Sgt. Price is preparing to shoot his dog, when he remembers his marines killing an insurgent in Fallujah. The insurgent had been found in a cesspool, “hiding beneath the liquid and only coming up for air. […] like a fish rising up to grab a fly.” The insurgent has no face, no name, no body: he is no more than a mouth breaking the surface of a fetid pool.
The sad fact Klay plays on is that most American readers will care more about a dead dog than they will about a dead Iraqi, and in this way “Redeployment” opens up an emotional conduit for those readers to feel the pang of grief that can come with killing, but without having to connect that feeling to the political reality of the war in Iraq. Whereas an Iraqi victim would have to be reckoned with as a fellow human being, with all the complexity that entails, a dog can simply be pitied and his killer simply empathized with. This moral simplification comes at a cost.
Klay, embodying the moral authority of a veteran, assures American readers that a dead Iraqi needn’t trouble them any more than a dead dog would. And since most of us already feel that way, his story provides a much-desired release, freeing us from the worry that we ought to feel guilty about the havoc the American military unleashed and the blood American soldiers and marines spilled. Sgt. Price is our trauma hero — he pays the “price” for our bloodguilt. Rather than forcing us to face our collective complicity in a brutal war of aggression that has left thousands upon thousands dead, Klay asks us to feel bad for how much psychological pain one sensitive marine has suffered doing what had to be done.
Read in the context of Klay’s other stories in Redeployment, or with the other stories it was published alongside in the collection I co-edited with Matt Gallagher, Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War, Klay’s trauma hero narrative can be read productively and provocatively as one perspective among many. Yet when the trauma hero myth is taken as representing the ultimate truth of more than a decade of global aggression, as with American Sniper, we allow the psychological suffering endured by those we sent to kill for us displace and erase the innocents killed in our name. As in Klay’s story, the real victims of American political violence disappear under a load of shit.
The Yellow Birds, “Redeployment,” and American Sniper may portray a loss of innocence that makes the dirty war in Iraq palatable as an individual tragedy, but they only do so by obscuring the connection between American audiences and the millions of Iraqi lives destroyed or shattered since 2003. Focusing on the suffering of Private Bartle, Sergeant Price, or Chief Petty Officer Kyle allows us to forget the suffering of the very people whose land was occupied in our name. There are almost no Iraqis in The Yellow Birds or Redeployment at all, and where they do appear, they are caricatures. If the point of literature is to help us “recognize [our] own suffering in the stories of others,” as George Packer sententiously asserts, rather than soothing our troubled consciences with precisely the stories we want to hear, then novels such as The Yellow Birds and stories such as “Redeployment” are gross moral and literary failures. But the failure does not belong to the writers. It belongs to all the readers and citizens who expect veterans to play out for them the ritual fort-da of trauma and recovery, and to carry for them the collective guilt of war.
Such an expectation is the privilege of those who can afford to have others do their killing for them. Off-loading the problem of war onto the figure of the traumatized veteran, however, has long-term costs we have yet to reckon. The imperative to see war clearly is persistent, and as urgent today as ever, as US military forces return to Iraq and a new kettle of hawks cry for war in Ukraine and Syria. Understanding the problem of American political violence demands recognizing soldiers as agents of national power, and understanding what kind of work the trauma hero is doing when he comes bearing witness in his bloody fatigues.