The Uncomfortable Whiteness of Contemporary War Literature

When, in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s, book critic Sam Sacks critiqued the state of contemporary war fiction in a review called “First Person Shooters,” the subtitle made his position clear: “What’s missing in contemporary war fiction.” Pay attention to that last bit. Sacks wasn’t asking a question, he was writing a prescription: Escape the “cul-de-sac of personal experience” or risk “settling into the patterns of complacency that smoothed the path to the Terror Wars in the first place.”  However, if he had punctuated with a question mark, the answer would have been less hyperbolic, and a bit obvious: diversity. This problem is not fresh to contemporary war literature. In the Spring 1997 issue of African American Review, Jeff Loeb cited alarming statistics from Sandra Wittman’s 1989 bibliography Writing About Vietnam: African-Americans accounted for just six of nearly 600 novels, four poetry collections, and four of almost 400 memoirs written about the Vietnam War. To sum up, African-Americans wrote roughly one percent of Vietnam’s literary record.  By contrast, African-Americans made up 12.6 percent of the American force in Vietnam between 1965 and 1969[1]. Not much has changed since Wittman and Loeb first sounded the alarms. LaSalle University’s collection of Vietnam War multimedia—LaSalle and Texas Tech possess the most comprehensive collections I’m aware of—lists 8,053 entries, but categorizes only six under the subject matter search “African American Veteran Biography.” Just two are memoirs you can hold in your hands. Multimedia and Loeb’s essay comprise the rest of the entries. I used to think that the reason I could only point out one Vietnam book by a African-American vet—the poetry collection Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa—was due to my ignorance of what I imagined to be a wealth of African-American-produced war literature. The truth has proven far more uncomfortable. In his critique, Sam Sacks can be forgiven for another thinly-veiled jab at MFA-produced writing and its effect on the literature of The Forever War, versus focusing on its lack of diversity. He’s a critic after all, forever tilting at the windmill of The Secret Sauce. Hell, I laud him for paying attention in the first place. Forever War literature rarely appears in widely circulated book reviews. [2] Nonetheless, the subject of identity is important ground to tread in any consideration of contemporary war literature; especially now, as identity-related brushfires have sprung up across the country. A little research reveals that the genre came of age against a backdrop of identity-related controversy. Twelve years after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, Toni Morrison’s Beloved was up against Philip Roth and some guy named Larry for the 1987 National Book Award. When Paco’s Story, Larry Heinemann's Vietnam War novel, was announced, the literati were flabbergasted. Michiko Kakutani began her column the next day with the breathless “What happened?” and 48 authors signed a letter in The New York Times Book Review that alleged something short of racism on the part of the National Book Award judges for passing Morrison over in favor of the white Larry Heinemann.[3] While its rare successes have been far less contentious, contemporary war literature since Vietnam hasn’t changed too much: mostly white and male. Under the categorization “Books: History: Military: Afghan War: Memoir,” Amazon spit a list of 177 back at me, a number which decreased by a handful after I ruled out the puzzling inclusions of The Letters of Virginia Woolf and a book by the 19th-century Frenchman Stendhal. So far as I could tell, there were 10 authors of color.[4] Peruse the virtual stacks for a book about The Forever War, and the odds are solid that what ends up in your checkout cart will have been written by a white guy or gal. Expanding an identity-based evaluation of contemporary war literature to gender provides some cause for optimism. But for every Rule Number Two, Heidi Squier Kraft’s Iraq memoir, there are a dozen memoirs, novels, and collections by male veterans. It’s a trend that extends to even the essays and reviews that consider war literature. In consult with Rutgers University Professor of English and retired Army Lt. Col. Peter Molin, I assembled a list of 17. It isn’t all-inclusive, but women have written only a fraction of them, and fewer of those women were veterans. If there is an empirical evaluation of readily available contemporary war writing, critical or creative, it’s hard to argue that it is not largely written by men. In my experience, you have to go looking for work by women veterans, and all indications point to literary writers who are taking their time to perfect their craft through shorter work. An essay by Katherine Schifani, an Air Force veteran of Iraq, won literary journal The Iowa Review’s 2014 Jeff Sharlet Prize, and Marine Corps veteran Teresa Fazio’s short story “Float” won Consequence Magazine’s 2016 Fiction Prize. I know of at least five women veterans who are at work on their service-related memoirs, and most are around a decade removed from their time in the military. I look forward to the day I open their well-wrought books. The lack of women’s veteran narratives might have something to do with what’s considered a “traditional” war story: the old blood-and-guts combat book. And despite women having engaged in combat during The Forever War, combat job specialties—infantry and special operations, namely— remained closed to women until 2016. Earlier this year, Task & Purpose broke the news that a woman was due to report to the storied 75th Ranger Regiment as the first female special operator in the history of the U.S. Department of Defense. It’s simply a matter of time until women like her pen memoirs of their war experiences; until an armchair historian thrills to the tales of a female Navy SEAL a la Chris Kyle’s American Sniper. By contrast, plenty of Americans of color have served in combat specialties during The Forever War. So while the combat exclusion might explain the lack of women’s books, the reasoning falls short with regards to the lack of diverse narratives. As of 2015, the Department of Defense was 41 percent non-white. Expecting to see author demographics fall cleanly in line with such a statistic is a tad simple, but it’s fair to ask why so few veterans of color publish books. Drew Pham, a Vietnamese American Army officer and Afghanistan combat vet, believes it’s a matter of “privilege and access.” In an email exchange, he wrote, “the arts are a luxury. If you aren't raised with much exposure to that world, it seems like the distant domain of the social elite.” He noted that unlike many of his fellow officers, he “needed the Army to attend college.” In other words, if college is just something you do along your way to a commission in the service, then you might have come from a place that could afford to expose you to the arts. Conversely, if the only way you’re going to college is because you got a military scholarship, you come from a background of necessity. And while all writers, myself included, tend to think of our work as “necessary,”Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy is a pyramid for a reason. Pham, now clear of the military and an editor of the online journal The Wrath-Bearing Tree, went on to say that the remedy is representation: If marginal[ized] people don't see themselves represented, then the literary world seems inaccessible to them. For my part, seeing another Vietnamese-American writer like Viet Thanh Nguyen win the Pulitzer made me think that I could make a life out of writing fiction. The veteran writing community is small and tight-knit, and as a community we have to make a concerted effort to lift up marginalized voices rather than reproduce the biases—however unintentional—that dominate society. Mary Doyle, on the other hand, was told to “reflect the angst of being black” by her white MFA workshop cohorts, as she put it in a phone interview. “I couldn’t relate,” Doyle said, citing that trying to adopt the feedback gave her an inauthentic feeling. She ended up leaving her MFA program for financial reasons, but noted that her awareness of how she fit into white expectations of a black author began then. A black woman who enlisted in the Army Reserves in 1979, Doyle served 17 years in military public affairs before embarking on a 21-year-and-counting career as an Army civilian employee. During that time, she’s co-authored the memoirs of two black women veterans, and written a series of mystery novels featuring a black protagonist named Master Sgt. Lauren Harper. Doyle threw in the towel with mainstream publication after being pushed by agents and editors to better reflect “The Black Experience” in her writing, and now self-publishes. Doyle seemed as puzzled as I over the lack of diversity in contemporary war literature. However, she was also quick to point out that the current political moment is bound to generate words on the page in one way or another from people of color. I also think it will be the kind of thing publishers will find in their comfort zone...the racial divide, the conflict that comes from speaking out in the voice of the other. It's what they always want and what they expect. So hopefully, the lack of diversity we see in military writing will get an injection of new voices...now that racism, white supremacy and all the other topics that go along with that are so prevalent...again. This makes sense to me, a layman when it comes to the murky world of what books get published. But my gut warns me that even timely subject matter might not be enough. In 2015, Lee & Low, “the largest publisher of multicultural children’s books in the United States” according to their website, conducted a survey of the publishing industry based on data from eight review journals and 34 publishers. Including their own staff, Lee & Low sent out 13,237 surveys, and 3,415 returned complete. The data: 79 percent white, 88 percent straight, 92 percent non-disabled, 78 percent women. I’d like to have seen more data on the books published by some of the surveyed publishers just to get that last nail in the coffin, but selection bias seems firmly at play when it comes to race and books. And if it is, the odds will ever be against the veteran writer of color so long as the publishing industry continues to look like this. Until conditions change, we’ll have to widen our gaze and do a little digging.  Brian Castner, a veteran and author of two books of war nonfiction, noted that Ralph Ellison and Alex Haley both served in WWII, but neither wrote about their military experiences outright[5]. For a more contemporary example, he noted Wes Moore, a black Army veteran and author of the bestselling The Other Wes Moore, and I was surprised to learn that Pulitzer Prize-winner Gregory Pardlo was once a Marine Corps Reservist. None would argue any of these black writers should have written military-themed books. But it won’t stop me from wishing they had. A high school English teacher who can afford one Vietnam book on the syllabus will fall back on the familiar, not the obscure. It will be The Things They Carried, not Dien Cai Dau; A Rumor of War, and not the oral history of black Vietnam veterans, Bloods. What we read is what we buy; the bought books make the lists, and before long, the canon conceives itself. And until the canon becomes more inclusive, its narrative will remain singular and simplistic. Facing issues of class and race, it becomes clear that there are no bromides to remedy The Forever War’s literary lack of diversity. But one can hope that as Pham and Doyle indicated, increased consciousness in tandem with current events might spur a growing production of gender-, race-, and ethnically-diversified voices within the military writing community. One can hope that we might draw lessons from the Vietnam War’s legacy of near-erasure of non-white experiences; that the growth of veterans writing workshops and anthologies will represent to future generations a more complete picture of The Forever War. The grim reality is that The Forever War shows no indication of ending anytime soon, a fact that Sacks chooses rather niftily to ignore when concluding his thesis against a backdrop comprised of the literature of previous wars. The war my generation began has become the next generation’s to conclude. If there is a perverse truth to the current state of affairs in contemporary war literature, it is this: there appears to be plenty of time left on the clock for the canon to grow.   [1] According to the 2004 version of The Oxford Companion to Military History [2] I am aware of only two other well-heeled critical surveys: George Packer’s “Home Fires” in The New Yorker and Michiko Kakutani’s “Home Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill A Bookshelf.” Kakutani was one of the few book critics to regularly review contemporary war books. [3] Professor Joseph Darda’s essay in Contemporary Literature, “The Ethnicization of Veteran America: Larry Larry Heinemann, Toni Morrison, and Military Whiteness After Vietnam,” made me aware of the controversy. [4] The Amazon results included works by non-U.S. authors. [5] Ellison’s early drafts of The Invisible Man prominently figured the recovered journal of a dead Merchant Marine named Leroy.  Ellison, like Jack Kerouac, served in the Merchant Marine during World War Two. Image Credit: Army.mil.

In the Middle of the Forever War

The enemy knew he could not defeat us on our own terms. The conventional battlefield was ours, the sky as well. So they made us bleed one body at a time -- limb by limb -- through the use of handmade bombs. If there is one tribe of the military that knows this tactic best, it is the explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) technicians charged with combatting it. Brian Castner spent eight years leading EOD teams, including two tours in Iraq. The harrowing aftermath of that period of his life was well-told in his memoir The Long Walk; his latest work of nonfiction, All the Ways We Kill and Die, continues the memoir’s narrative while displaying Castner’s considerable talent for both in-depth reportage and more imaginative forms. Castner opens the book with a prologue that imagines the detonation of an IED in Afghanistan from the Taliban perspective -- a detonation, we learn a few pages later, that takes the life of his friend and EOD comrade Matt Schwartz. Castner, five years out of uniform and now a writer and freelance journalist, asks the question the book seeks to answer: “Who killed Matt Schwartz?” From there, the narrative loops in ever-widening arcs through a structure that roughly mirrors an EOD team’s post-blast actions. Collect the dead. Tend the wounded. Gather evidence. Hunt. Remember. If there is risk inherent to the structure of All the Ways We Kill and Die, it is that its polygamous marriage of imagination, memoir, and reportage runs the risk of throwing off a genre-monogamous reader. There’s as much for the armchair military history buff in Castner’s exploration of IED technology and tactics as there is for fans of literary nonfiction. The early chapters are fairly traditional narratives, Castner retracing the impacts of personal losses ranging from his dead friend to maimed comrades. But by Part III of the book, Castner must link disparate narratives from both Iraq and Afghanistan while keeping an eye on how he imagines a kind of IED archetype, this “Engineer” he suspects took Matt Schwartz’s life. The surreal rhythms of a drone pilot, a firefight documented through passages of military Internet relay chat -- these are the disorienting signs of a disappearing center, as Part IV reveals how we hunt and kill. The book is not a cut-and-dried war story; its conclusion is appropriately ambiguous considering the open-ended nature of the wars my generation has fought. Novels and memoirs by service members that address their time in Afghanistan or Iraq have not benefitted from the sense of closure granted veteran writers of World War Two, or even Vietnam. Where writers like Joseph Heller (Catch-22), Eugene Sledge (With the Old Breed), Tim O’Brien (Going After Cacciato) and Phil Caputo (A Rumour of War) could look back at the U.S.S. Missouri and the Fall of Saigon with respective clarity; novelists Matt Gallagher (Iraq, Youngblood) and Elliot Ackerman (Afghanistan, Green on Blue) need only peruse the Internet for unnecessary reminders that both wars drag on today. Memoirists have fared similarly. Both Brian Turner’s My Life as a Foreign Country and even Castner’s The Long Walk could only conclude by narrowing the lens to a hyper-personal focus. A former soldier lies in bed. A former EOD officer performs therapeutic yoga. There is no definitive ending when the events that shaped your story are still unfolding. “Long and Messy and Gray” is the book’s narrative climax, and details the lifeline of an EOD troop turned lethal contractor whose name Castner redacts to “M_____.” Highly fragmented, but crafted so as not to bewilder, its nearest cousin is that brilliant piece of Vietnam writing, “Illumination Rounds” from Michael Herr’s Dispatches. And it is the perfect final lift to a bracing narrative. George Packer noted in his New Yorker essay “Home Fires” that “fragments are perhaps the most honest literary form available to writers who fought so recently.” I contest the efficacy of a word like “honest” in this context; had Packer applied the word “effective,” the statement would prove more meaningful. “Long and Messy and Gray” might watershed the most effective personal war narrative structure I’ve encountered; the denouement that comes in Part V is necessary, but it’s this chapter that is most compelling. All investigations, war-related or not, begin with a simple question and best of intent. But as Serial showed us last year, building a complete picture is about sorting through the puzzle pieces and assembling the mosaic as the meaning of each fragment appears. If, like M____, one returns to war dozens of times, the narrative must necessarily shatter each time. Within this frame, Castner shares the same creative space as Serial's producer, Sarah Koenig. Certain pieces belong together, neatly assembled for the reader to observe. Other pieces, however, belong in a pile, appearing as they are overturned. There’s an art to this type of transient work, a sense of structural mastery just beyond the page that is all the more inspiring when you consider that both Castner and Koenig began with just one question: “Who?” The best writers fully admit that the best stories reveal themselves along the way. The best stories, as it turns out, might end up answering a different question altogether. “Who killed Matt Schwartz” is the least of the questions answered within the pages of All the Ways We Kill and Die. Castner captures the complex push and pull; the cost and reward; and a fully formed image of what it’s been like to be both in the middle, and on the periphery, of The Forever War. Despite this wide lens, however, Castner’s real task is to tell an intensely personal story. In the closing chapter, we find him walking the forest with his children, pointing out roots, ruts, and creeping vines that threaten their peaceful stroll. I imagine him pausing, pushing a knee into the rich brown earth and pointing ahead once more: danger there.