Hell Doesn’t Discriminate: On ‘Spoils’ by Brian Van Reet

Everyone knows war is hell, but those in war have their own versions of hell to tell. Spoils, the debut novel from Brian Van Reet, weaves together three narratives of three combatants in the Iraq War to show with profound depth and power just how complicated hell can be. Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t really address many of the controversies leading up to the war, such as the Bush administration’s false claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction or the false claim/implication that Hussein was allied with Al Qaeda and thus somehow involved in the 9/11 plot. In fact, Van Reet doesn’t much acknowledge at all that the war was essentially a unilateral invasion of a sovereign nation based on false pretenses. But still, his purpose is to craft a narrative of the war on the ground as it happened, to capture its vicissitudes and the moral crises they beget. And that he does remarkably well. Cassandra Wigheard, a 19 year-old American gunner, is a strong-minded and strong-willed soldier with an acute sense of purpose complicated by the cruel ambiguity of the war. Like her mythological Trojan namesake, she is a prophet of calamity. Her narrative—the only one in the third person—emits a palpable heat that at times is almost unbearable in its rapid, deliberative intensity, as if it were a rendered frenetically under the unremitting glare (and clarity) of the Iraqi sun. It succeeds in connecting the unsentimental reality of grinding warfare with the tragic hubris of military aggression, whether the theatre of war be Troy or Baghdad. The wariness and infirmity Cassandra sees pervading the local population is a surreal realm of suffering and deprivation, and it’s not clear to her how or if the war effort will ultimately turn these long-suffering people’s lives around. You get the sense she has deep-seated doubts, but she’s also there, there’s no way out, and there’s a war on. She’s duty-bound, whether she believes in the mission or not. The insurgent Abu Al-Hool is a sharp contrast to Cassandra. His narrative is a morose, reflective account of the mind of a committed jihadist whose ideas have changed as he’s aged. Whereas Cassandra’s deliberation is razor-sharp and urgent, Al-Hool is melancholy and conflicted. He’s a veteran of the wars against the Russians in Afghanistan and Chechnya, but now he sees jihadism as having been perverted by unscrupulous, murderous actors. “The war on the ground is secondary to the greater jihad: the more difficult, inner struggle,” he reflects. Al-Hool is the soul of what has in effect become a soulless movement. He thinks the atrocities of 9/11 were a terrible mistake and that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are corrupted and misguided. Of all things, however, what truly haunts Al-Hool is the loss of his son, Hassan, to the war in Chechnya. Al-Hool’s narrative wearily reveals the prevailing nihilism of jihadist movements like ISIS and Al Qaeda, but it also dwells on something more familiar to all of us: the tension between loyalty to a cause and loyalty to family. Al-Hool left his own privileged life and family in Egypt to join the fight in Afghanistan, and his son did the same in Chechnya. The difference was that his son died and he didn’t, which forces him to come to terms with the reality of violent struggle itself, and whether it’s worth it at all. The third narrative is that of Sleed, a young U.S. service member lacking the compelling interest to the reader of Cassandra and Al-Hool. He experiences the killing of civilians, the ruin of Saddam Hussein’s palace grounds and their reclamation as the Green Zone, and, finally, the 2004 battles in Fallujah, some of the most fiercely contested of the entire war. At times Sleed’s narrative can feel tacked on, superfluous even, but it serves a significant purpose in the scheme of the novel. Through him, readers get the unvarnished perspective of a soldier with seemingly no preconceptions, strong values, or clear objectives. He’s just there, in essence, so his experience distills with clarity the fraught nature of the conflict, its moral dubiousness. It’s as if Sleed is just reporting about the war, but what he reports is as harrowing as it is hollowing. Yet the moment his narrative ends, you easily forget him. Cassandra’s narrative, on the other hand, reasserts itself powerfully throughout the novel, but war isn’t her only focus. She presents an unsparing view of the epidemic of sexual violence and harassment in the U.S. military. Before the war, she’s stationed in Kuwait, where she endures myriad misogynistic and homophobic slurs: “Goddamn men,” she thinks. As time goes on, her despair in the face of toxic masculinity deepens and she wishes she’d been “born a part of their little club. Not a wish to change gender, exactly, but that she’d been given an easier birthright to power.” Her anger peaks after the rape and beating of Sgt. Williams, a former bunkmate of hers. The perpetrator is never apprehended. When Cassandra hears some of male service members whispering about Williams, “the cruel innocence in how they talk about it” reminds her of the way “children sometimes torture each other.” She estimates it takes 48 hours for “untended men to descend to the level of beasts.” A Defense Department report from 2015 estimated 20,300 service members were victims of sexual assault in 2014 alone. The report also found 22 percent of active-duty women and seven percent of active-duty men reported being the victims of at least some form of sexual harassment. Rape and sexual violence are used all over the world by military aggressors against their enemies, and that of course is vile. Yet, casualties of war are rarely considered as victims of sexual violence perpetrated by their fellow soldiers. Van Reet exposes this damningly well through Cassandra’s unflinching account this heinous state of affairs. And sexual predators in the U.S. military are not the only examples of abject vileness in the novel. The morally bankrupt and ruthless Dr. Walid—nominal leader of the insurgent faction seeking conflict with the Americans—imperils everyone involved with him through his toxic ideology. Cassandra—for the better part of the novel a prisoner of Walid’s—awaits her fate. Al-Hool, disillusioned with Dr. Walid, betrays the latter’s location to American authorities and a battle between the insurgents and the Americans ensues. Separately, Al-Hool tries to reclaim a sense of purpose by entering the field of battle for the final time, without Walid and his minions—this time in Fallujah. “I’ve lived past my time,” he says, “and put this off much too long—long enough to know the hardest fight is the fight against your own anger. Compared with that, this will be easy. This I’ll do without anger. I’ll do it with something like longing in my heart.” But Cassandra comes to see the predicament of war in less certain terms than Al-Hool does. The dichotomy of soldier and enemy has long since collapsed by novel’s end. Unlike many ideologues with the comfort of a civilian life in government, those tasked with carrying out war may not end up seeing its reality in ideological terms. Cassandra shows repeatedly throughout the novel she’s a survivor, that she has guts. But let’s not get carried away. Ernest Hemingway once dismissed the notion of having “guts” in a letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris in 1926 when he wrote “guts never made any money for anybody except violin string manufacturers.” And surely Cassandra doesn’t think in terms of money, and she never loses her courageous resolve. But by the end of the novel, the only thought to “guts” she pays, maybe wisely, is how to not have them spilled in battle. War often becomes about survival; the rest is noise and silence. Cassandra knows how constricting, cruel, and empty the theatre of war can be. She knows war is hell, and that hell doesn’t discriminate.

Why We Read and Why We Write

Samuel Johnson said the greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write. But reading, unlike writing, is a pursuit decidedly devoid of glory. Ideally, it cultivates the quiet virtues of patience, attention, and self-denial. Yet, in the broader scheme of literary life, the pressure to write, to produce, to broadcast a voice and, with it, a reputation, always beckons. Regrettably, readers are often subject to the scorn of some writers, with the latter sometimes treating the former as mere consumers, incapable or unwilling to produce “work.” Sheila Liming, in her recent essay “In Praise of Not Not Reading,” recounts a male colleague pursuing an MFA in fiction tell her he literally didn’t believe in reading. “I’m a writer, I make things,” he said, “whereas you’re a reader, you consume things.” Liming’s colleague is acting out what she describes as “producerist” ideology. And this pathology is not at all just confined to academia. In much of American political and educational discourse, what is not “useful” to data-driven objectives is considered an essentially idle concern. But the preoccupation of a writer with “work” at the expense of reading is a strange and unfortunate posture for a writer to adopt, given that writers stereotypically are not known for their practical sense or their forfeiture of the virtues of inquiry. But what the aforementioned writer’s attitude really shows is a contempt for education, for cultivation, for the strenuous labor necessary for true inquiry. Liming aptly observes “the work of reading generally goes unrewarded: tenure committees don’t care about it; grants are not won by it; and riches do not wait in store for the patient and dedicated reader.” But she also asserts all above factors to even more clearly demonstrate the virtue of reading itself. “Reading,” she goes on to say, “is a form of production that resists monetization and the logic of structural incentives. It produces things like experience, knowledge, discomfort and communion.” Reading then is a moral and subversive act in its own right. It’s a disengagement from the commercial and competitive in pursuit of heightened moral sense coupled with aesthetic and intellectual engagement. Reading doesn’t produce “work” itself as “producerist" ideology would have it, but rather it cultivates the intangibles that go into that work. What we gain by reading is what we often strive for in life when we’re actually thinking about what we want. But what if reading is morally inferior to writing? What if readers just want to have virtue and fun at the same time and won’t admit it? Lately I’ve I felt the need to challenge my regular reading zeal, so I started by rereading what I thought would be a fitting antidote: George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write.” It’d been a long time since I’d read it, so I came to it without preconceptions. I was looking for a direct challenge, a tap on the shoulder and a wag of the finger, to remind me that “producerist” or not, writing is a direct contribution to culture in a way reading might not be. What I found was something more complicated. Orwell demystifies writing in an admirably unsentimental way, a way in which the reader can’t help but pay mind to an informed, candid speaker. As I read his essay, I realized that writing and reading weren’t absolutely contrary after all. Most importantly, I realized each undertaking required a capacity for solitude and a willingness to face likely irresolvable questions. But that’s not all. Ego plays a role too—although in this regard, it predominates in writing. “From the very start my literary ambitions were mixed up with the feeling of being isolated and undervalued,” Orwell reflects. “I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.” So yeah, the will to write is complicated. Writerly egotism, or the desire “to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood,” is not a new concept. It’s about staking one’s claim to status in a world where that claim is tenuous at best. It’s about the writing life being the life of the outsider with the goods on the insiders. It’s obvious that sheer egoism should not be a principal motivation for a reader. No reader should read Fyodor Dostoevsky, Simone Weil, or Samuel Beckett because people will be impressed. Maybe some start out with such motivations. We’ve all known a few who harbor this obscure form of egotism, but it quickly corrects itself when one is faced with the considerable moral, aesthetic, and intellectual complexity with which reading seriously forces one to contend while no one is looking on approvingly. Readers’ testimonial of their own virtue for reading is not only at loggerheads with reading as a moral act, but it won’t impress many either, except for those who already know better about the moral seriousness of reading. But readers should show some sympathy to this failing in writers, because without having a message with which to penetrate the world, writers are condemned to desolation rather than dignified solitude. By the time he reached his teens, Orwell had fallen under the spell of the aesthetic power of words themselves; something, of course, every reader should want too. He describes it simply as “perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement.” For readers, the consideration of style is obviously of great import as well. Engaging seriously with the style of another’s work is a moral act, consisting of honest and robust engagement with the writer’s aesthetic. If done with abiding care, there’s nothing left to do but recast your preconceptions. To engage with the style of another deepens your sense of others’ sense of themselves beyond mere aesthetic contrivance; through their work you assimilate their ideas and expressions in the pursuit of a greater moral way of being in the world. Art is not didactic but cooperative. But we’ve reached an impasse. Orwell writes of the strong political motivations of writers, too, and, given the moral obligations of the reader, there’s a clear divergence of purpose. The writer’s purpose is to persuade, maybe even coerce. For all of the great effort and fortitude writing entails, it would seem absurd to undertake such an enterprise with no designs on actually changing anyone’s mind, as if writing were some protracted venting session or daydream. Writers must follow their imperatives, but readers have imperatives too, namely the tending of their evolving moral purpose (but also, readers want to have fun, to pass the time!) To read with moral purpose is contrary to partisan advocacy. It is to perpetually undermine the stability of perspective, to proliferate biases only to destabilize other biases. Reading should undermine the ideology of the writer by integrating it into a more personally comprehensive tapestry of ideas and expressions. Ideology, though inevitable in the crafting of policy and the maintenance of political alliances, is ultimately an intellectual vice if its rigidity hampers a reader’s moral inquiry. Reading then is an antidote to rigid ideology, a bulwark against the imposition of ego on the collective. It is writers who are instrumental in the formulation and advancement of values, but it is readers who bear within themselves the weight of the evolving structure of values. Orwell asserts great writing is motivated by ego, aesthetics, or politics, yes, but a writer will produce “nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s personality. Good prose is like a window pane.” So writing, he says in the end, demands self-denial, humility, in the same way reading does. And where does this self-denial get you, whether as a writer or a reader? Out of the cacophonous, morally corrosive bubble isolating those with a “producerist" fixation on “work.” As we lose moral sense to venal preoccupation, we have nothing left to cling to but the trappings of ego amidst the shifting sands of social or institutional status. But we want to be in control of ourselves, we want to chart our own moral destiny, but we face a paradox: we must deny ourselves to gain control of ourselves. To read, we must mute our desires to refine our moral sense. A writer’s direct influence ends with the reader’s integration of it. From there, it’s up to the reader to carry it forth into the world from which the writer often feels so isolated. Too often we consider reading a solely intellectual or imaginative act, but that is a failure of imagination. The reader is the guardian of the writer’s intellectual and aesthetic daring, but that guardianship requires courage and fortitude, since it’s in the pursuit of evolving moral purpose. A reader can only look back and, by doing so, shape what’s to come. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Rising Waters: On Omar El Akkad’s ‘American War’

American War, the debut novel from Omar El Akkad, presents a highly plausible dystopia in the not so distant American future. The Second American Civil War erupts over a dispute about the nation’s energy future, with the North embracing green technology and renewables and the South clinging steadfastly to fossil fuels. El Akkad deftly places climate change as a primary force of national disintegration; the geography of this future post-coastal America has been permanently altered by climate change and geographic sectarianism, leaving the battle for American identity to be fought between the Midwest and the South. The new Northern (Blue) capital is Columbus, Ohio, and the capital of the Free Southern (Red) State is Atlanta. The landscape is dramatically different, but the tenor of the politics in the novel is eerily familiar. The newly dominant Bouazizi Empire of Middle Eastern and North African states united from the “Fifth Spring” Arab democratic revolutions is now seeking to manipulate a civil war in the once “soaring, roaring, and oblivious” America. Here, El Akkad not so subtly suggests the corruptibility of democratic states to imperial pursuits. He creates the theatre of conflict in which the novel’s protagonist stakes her claim. Sarat Chestnut is a fascinating study of the border between justice and ruthlessness. Sarat grows up in a small river town in Louisiana just outside the Free Southern State until her father is killed in a “homicide bombing.” Early on, she doesn’t display inclinations that portend political consciousness, but, instead, an inwardness leading her to a crucial choice: resistance as an existential imperative or capitulation to the meaninglessness of war, death, and the transience of life. Sarat spends her early childhood examining her surroundings, once pressing “her finger to the needles of a yucca plant,” and finding them “brown and rigid, immune to sun and storm.” It seems to her that nature is the constant, and it is meaningless. Consequently, she views sexuality as an ulterior concern, noticing the “dramatic concern for things that seemed inane and devoid of adventure: the color and style of skirts, the arrival of facial hair, the mysterious topology of flesh.” It’s an unusually extreme kind of seriousness for a kid her age; then again, this is an unusually extreme historical moment in which she finds herself. When her mother, Martina, moves the family to a refugee camp, the stage is set for Sarat’s radicalization. At the ominously named Camp Patience, Sarat and her family subsist, waiting for the inevitable Northern incursion where they will be slaughtered. There, she is radicalized by a savvy ideologue named Albert Gaines. He hones her igneous intensity into a fixed bayonet of insurgent rage. Here, her naiveté is on full display. Betraying her provincial roots, she’s just not suspicious enough of the overly smooth Gaines. And the clues are not few. At one point even, Gaines, wearing an unwrinkled suit, jumps the shark by offering her caviar. Still, it is clear she is more taken by the persona of Gaines than by his ideas, which are little more than a melange of nativist and anti-imperialist tropes. She sees in him a cultured man, a man in the fray and above it, and it would be hard for any sensitive young person not to find that alluring. But the real radicalizing moment for Sarat is when Northern Blues storm Camp Patience and murder scores of helpless refugees. El Akkad is excellent here in judiciously refraining from making clear whether it is Gaines’s ideology or the wanton carnage that radicalizes Sarat. When the Northern militias storm Camp Patience, she fights for her life, even relentlessly stabbing a foe until she can’t slash him anymore. Is this the inspiration Gaines imparted to her, or her desire to wreak vengeance on the marauding hordes from the North? After she draws her first blood, she cuts herself as a form of anesthetic as “the heat of life left the man, but she did not feel it.” She achieves the paradox of the revolutionary, of the insurgent, which is ruthlessness in the service of justice. One weakness of the novel is the lack of development of Sarat's close childhood friend, Marcus Exum, who departs early for the safety of the North, where he eventually becomes a Union Blue officer. Later on, the two are reunited and Sarat feels genuine warmth toward him, even though he has chosen a life antithetical to everything she stands for. Nowhere does she show this same level of mercy or understanding for anyone else, and thus it falls flat. We all know the mere fact of being friends with someone in childhood is no guarantee of sentimental feeling later, especially in the context of the novel here, where Sarat’s entire identity if predicated on a fiercely sectarian orientation to the world. And that fierce devotion to radical insurgency should be her most noble trait, but, as the novel progresses, it proves to be the most damning. After she’s given up and betrayed by Gaines to the Northern forces, she is tortured in the “Non-Compliance Area” of the dubiously named prison, “Sugarloaf,” clearly a futuristic version of Guantanamo Bay. She is waterboarded and confesses to all crimes she’s charged with: “complicity in all manner of insurrectionist violence, things she’d never heard of before.” El Akkad here deploys a subtle critique of torture as not only immoral, but ineffective, as captives will say literally anything to make the pain stop -- a direct critique of the Bush administration’s embrace of torture and Donald Trump’s lurid flirtation with it. Roughly the final quarter the novel is narrated by Sarat’s nephew, Benjamin Chestnut. It’s the end of the war, and Benjamin is the voice of a postwar generation sorting through its cultural inheritance. He’s intrigued and ultimately disillusioned by his famous, war-grizzled aunt, living again with her brother (his father), Simon, and his wife, Karina, on the family property in Lincolnton, Ga., not far from Atlanta. Over time, he gets to know her. He feels affection for her, but, frustratingly, he never can get to the core of who she is. She remains inscrutable to him. Ultimately, in adulthood, Benjamin concludes that Sarat’s will to fight was an act of mourning, a profound unhappiness born of helplessness and protracted, pointless struggle. He recalls one day from his childhood when he and Sarat went swimming in the river near their home. As they get out to dry themselves, he marvels at her body, that intricately austere record of the ravages of war, with its “strange rivulets of scarred skin that lined her upper arms and shoulders, dead-looking and paler than the rest of her.” When she was waterboarded, the sense of drowning overwhelmed her, and she couldn’t resist anymore. No one could. Drowning is universal. There are limits to resistance, even if there are no limits to one’s capacity to resist. Whether it be the metaphorical drowning of American cultural disintegration or the rising seas of a warming, carbon-clogged planet, Sarat’s lust for vengeance is a fight against rising waters sure to submerge us all.