“An Army Newspaper” is a story by the Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim, published in the collection The Corpse Exhibition. The narrator details his time editing the cultural section of a military newspaper, presenting his readers with stories and poems celebrating the glories of war and the bravery of the nation’s soldiers. (The war in question is presumably the Iran-Iraq war that went on for almost the entire length of the 1980s, crippling Iraqi society, though the narrator neglects to give any specifics as to the nature of the conflict.) The content of the narrator’s newspaper section is rather lacking in literary quality, as it is written by soldiers who want only to valorize their nation and its leaders rather than speak truthfully about their own experiences. But the editor manages to make his section readable by adding his own rhetorical flourishes to the soldiers’ drab, dutiful prose. His superiors praise his work, stoking his dream of becoming Minister of Culture.
One day, a packet arrives on his desk. It contains five stories, all by the same author, written in school notebooks. Unlike the usual fare that comes his way, these stories are astonishing. “The stories were written in a surprisingly elevated style,” he says. “In fact, I swear that the world’s finest novels, before these stories that I read, were mere drivel, vacuous stories eclipsed by the grandeur of what this soldier had written.” The editor looks into this soldier’s background and finds he was recently killed shortly after sending in the stories. He takes advantage of this unique opportunity, publishing the soldier’s work under his own name. The editor is soon the toast of the literary world, attending conferences and giving interviews. The stories, however, keep coming.
Day after day, packets land on the editor’s desk, all of them containing more of the soldier’s brilliant work in the same school notebooks. Did he survive? The editor digs up the soldier’s grave and finds that he is quite dead, a single bullet wound, the handiwork of a sniper, in the center of his forehead. Just to be safe, the editor burns the body. But the stories don’t cease. Dozens of packets containing hundreds of brilliant new stories arrive daily. The editor burns these as well, purchasing an incinerator for this express purpose, but still they pile up, leaving him with only one option.
I found this story to be, as they say, relatable. I’ve been following the growing body of literature on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for a few years now, and it certainly feels as if there are endless manuscripts landing on my desk every day, demanding my attention, driving me to consider unorthodox methods of disposal. They’re not all deathless works of brilliance, for sure, but they are, more often than not, urgent and impassioned, writers trying to come to grips with their experiences of war, whether they’re veterans offering firsthand accounts or civilians making meaning from what they’ve seen and read. The lapses into sentimentality and cliché seem the result of haste more than dishonesty.
Roy Scranton is also familiar with the conventions of recent war literature, and from both directions. After serving in Iraq in the mid-aughts, he wrote essays and journalism about the war, and also worked with fellow veteran-writer Matt Gallagher to edit Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. He was also working on a novel, starting it when he was still enlisted and spending the next ten years shaping the story. The result is War Porn, and it reads like a summary of this particular subgenre, underlining its shortcomings while pointing at new strategies.
War Porn follows three different stories: a barbecue in Utah on Columbus Day, 2004; a young soldier serving in Iraq during the first year of the war; and an Iraqi math professor in early 2003, just before the invasion. The three timelines are arranged in an A-B-C-B-A pattern, not unlike the “nesting dolls” structure of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. At the literal and figurative center is the math professor’s story, but I’ll get to that later. The novel opens, like so many books about the war, at home. It is quite possible that the literature of this war has focused on the homefront to a greater degree than any other conflict in U.S. history. Think of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, still one of the best novels on the subject. The entire story unfolds over a single day, as a company of soldiers is flown back home after winning a significant battle to be lauded as heroes during the halftime show of a football game. The war itself appears only in Billy’s memory, strobe-lit flashes of heat and smoke. Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You, Lea Carpenter’s Eleven Days, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta — these and others give just as much attention, if not more, to the conflicts that unfolded at home as those abroad. This is the result, I think, of having a volunteer military, one whose members move within their own world, rarely coming into contact with the wider public. The actual wars U.S. soldiers fight can feel so distant that civilian writers may be hesitant to depict warfare, opting instead to stick to more familiar territory and examine the struggles of veterans readjusting to stateside life. Indeed, the dominant trope is a vet stricken with PTSD, his journey to become whole once again.
Scranton is having none of this. The veteran in the homefront section of War Porn is a psychopathic rapist, his taste for violence stoked in an Abu Ghraib-like compound where he served as a prison guard, photographing the cruelties he inflicted and storing them on a thumb drive. There is no redemption, no absolution of guilt. It’s here that the novel’s title takes on a double meaning. “War porn” usually refers to such images of violence, but there is also the emotional pornography of stories of returning soldiers learning to forgive themselves, assuaging the guilt felt by good-hearted readers, flattering them for their performative compassion.
The thread about the war itself is just as terse, though much funnier. A young soldier named Wilson, rifle in hand and Noam Chomsky volume in his pack, stumbles through the initial stages of the war, witnessing the invasion harden into the occupation as democracy fails to spontaneously arise from the sands of the desert. He sees little and understands less, trying only to survive. His comrades are little more than nicknames spouting acronyms and profanities. The local factions vying for power are indistinguishable to him, their lives and values alien.
Ignorant American man-children wreaking havoc both at home and abroad: is this all War Porn is? Not at all, thankfully. Nestled in the book’s center is a kind of novella about an Iraqi professor named Qasim. He’s a genuine character, torn between professional and personal responsibility. His thread is by far the most humane part of the book, and this seems by design. After dismantling those homefront and combat tropes, Scranton maps out this new path into the subject, following Qasim into entire territories of the conflict that, thus far, have largely gone unexplored in American fictional representations.
It’s a different kind of Iraq War novel, for sure, but it’s not just that. It’s an expression of Scranton’s philosophy about telling new, different stories as a means of survival. Last year, Scranton published Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, a short book about climate change. After spending a couple chapters amassing more than enough evidence to persuade the reader that our civilization is royally, unavoidably fucked, Scranton wonders what we can do next. He’s not thinking about electric cars, however. His concerns are existential. Namely, when climate change is on the verge of upending life as we know it, what stories do we tell to prepare ourselves?
Scranton returns to civilization’s early days, finding in ancient stories like the Epic of Gilgamesh guidance for coming to terms with decline and death, equipping oneself with wisdom and dignity. Answers to coping with this systemic problem lay, in all of places, in the humanities, that living document of what our species has thought and felt.
War Porn offers a similar suggestion when it comes to the United States’s seemingly perpetual involvement in the conflicts of the Middle East. Our own soldiers and bombs will do little besides incite rival powers to offer up their own unorthodox weaponry. Studying their history, reading their stories, could uncover new strategies, new approaches we’ve resigned to thinking of as intractable.
In the century that followed the birth of the Roman Empire under Augustus, the Imperial Roman Army transformed itself into the world’s first standing army, and with it the finest professional fighting force the world had yet known. For the soldiers that stood guard on the Empire’s frontiers life wasn’t easy. Terms of service were twenty-five years. Soldiers were forbidden from marrying. Postings were remote. But the training, experience, and unit cohesion of professionalized legions ensured Rome would have no peer on the battlefield.
A Roman army that during the previous five hundred years had relied on citizen levies in times of crisis to bolster the ranks became a culture unto itself, the institution and its soldiers ever more distant from citizens at the empire’s core. Forced to fend off barbarian tribes on the periphery and push into new territory, the army found that most of the soldiers willing to endure the long terms of service and harsh conditions were rural peasants from the frontiers themselves. An army whose Italian soldiers numbered over ninety percent during Augustus’s time barely counted ten percent among their cohort a hundred years later.
Upon finishing their terms of service, the vast majority of soldiers found themselves unable to shed their outsider status. Most soldiers were forced to settle on or near the same frontiers they guarded, the land grants given upon their discharge far from Rome. Equipped with citizenship and having been exposed to Roman values, these veterans were often used as colonizers. Many times their sons would find their way into the ranks. With the exception of the aristocratic officers heading the legions, relatively few soldiers would ever visit the Italian lands from which policy, money, and culture emanated.
Two millennia on, the Roman Imperial Army has found its reflection in the United States’ armed forces. Over a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan has forged a professional fighting force whose excellence is unparalleled in world history. We can whisk brigades around the world in a matter of hours, supply whole armies with the creature comforts of home, and snuff out terrorists at the push of a button. But the cost of this excellence, in the form of the burdens placed on the soldiers both at war and upon their return, is compounding with each passing year.
The last ten years has not lacked for reporting and commentary on the burdens shouldered by “the other one percent” – members of the armed services and veterans – or the resultant civilian-military gap. Even casual observers of our nation’s foreign wars have likely read a piece or two in the popular press. Time devoted their cover to it a little over a year ago. Yet the journalism and opinioneering is often conducted piecemeal and on the periphery, focusing on things like repeat deployments, civilian oversight, wounded veterans, civil-military relations, and veteran suicide and unemployment. Statistics are cited. Senior officials quoted. Individuals are profiled. 60 Minutes tells the story of Clay Hunt’s suicide. Esquire finds it outrageous that the Navy SEAL who killed Bin Laden can’t find a job. Veterans are valorized and irreproachable, but at the same time held at arms length.
Conspicuously absent, though, is the very thing that is needed most: a broader debate over whether the moral cost of having a professional army continuously at war is acceptable. On this count the military, government, and society itself have answered unequivocally in the affirmative. There is no serious talk of returning to the draft. The urban and best educated among us are not choosing to join up in greater numbers (in fact, the opposite is true). War has become, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, “something for other people to do.” Society has made its choice. But only now are the consequences of that choice coming home to roost.
A new collection of short fiction, Fire and Forget, edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton and written by veterans (and one Army wife), stands as the best fictional account of the wars of the last decade and the contemporary military experience, and as such, is utterly damning of the devil’s bargain the nation and its military have entered into. Unlike any other book yet published, fiction or non-fiction, Fire and Forget captures the grim moral price of having a select few fight years overseas, only to return to a society that is unable to relate to their experience or sacrifice. (Full disclosure: I know some of the vets in this collection; the community of veteran writers is exceedingly small.)
Fire and Forget is not a collection of war stories in the classic sense; here combat plays only a tertiary role, if any at all, and only six of the fifteen stories even take place in Iraq or Afghanistan. The biting and brutal focus is instead more often on the soldiers’ return home, sometimes scarred, both physically and emotionally, but always changed. In Brian Van Reet’s “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek,” two maimed soldiers share a day of flyfishing as part of a program for wounded soldiers, only for one to accost a pair of teenage girls with the shocking cost of war. Colby Buzzell’s “Play the Game” has a veteran take a job as a streetside sign-holder in Los Angeles as he lives a “temporary,” novocained existence. And in Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips For a Smooth Transition” an army wife confronts the awkwardness of rekindling a marriage put on hold during her husband’s deployment.
On a purely aesthetic level, one is reminded in many of the stories that we are dealing with emerging writers, ones whose control of their craft is sometimes uneven. Ill-placed metaphors, clunky exposition, pacing issues, and dream sequences all rear their head. And stylistically these are a uniform bunch, with only a few slipping outside the bounds of a stripped-down realism. Yet these flaws seldom detract from what counts: the myriad truths each of these stories contain, all of which feel fresh, raw, and vital. It is a rare thing for a book to live up to its blurb, but E.L. Doctorow got it right when he called this a “necessary” collection. Much of the credit lies with the editors, whose curation, in terms of content and tone, is impeccable.
Two stories in particular stand out. Ted Janis’s “Raid” is like a panther – lean, dark, and stealthy in its import. Method matches up perfectly with material in its story of a Special Forces soldier conducting one in a seemingly endless chain of Afghanistan night raids. Phil Klay’s “Redeployment” is the masterpiece of the collection. It grabs you by the lapels with its opening line – “We shot dogs” – and by the end you’re thoroughly shaken. Klay’s tale of a soldier’s tumor-ridden dog and his Marine battalion’s return home from Iraq contains more in its thirteen pages about contemporary war and its effects on the people who fight it than anything I’ve read.
One comes away from the collection struck by the weariness and cynicism and alienation that suffuses these pages. There is nothing overtly political about any of the stories, but as a body they make a political statement: war, when waged, must be a cost borne by the nation as a whole. America has over the last decade outsourced war to its military. At a recent forum, former Afghanistan commander General Stanley McCrystal suggested reinstituting the draft because “right now, there’s a sense that if you want to go to war, you just send the military. They’re not us.” Fire and Forget reminds “us” who “they” are.
There is no easy answer to the central dilemma here. A professional army is without question more efficient and effective at maintaining security, protecting American interests, and fighting the country’s wars than an army raised for exigent circumstances. Yet during war, especially prolonged war, only through the draft does the populace as a whole have skin in the game.
Alas, this is a debate that won’t be had. The war in Iraq is over. The war in Afghanistan is winding down. In two years time the army will take leave of the frontiers and return to its garrisons. Left in its wake will be a generation of veterans bearing the scars of war who will stand apart from the peers, theirs an experience limited to a self-selecting few. Like the Roman soldiers before them, many joined for a job, others out of patriotism, but all to serve their country.
Jill Lepore, writing in the New Yorker a few months ago, pressed home the fact that the United States was founded on opposition to a standing army. A citizen army, the reasoning went, composed from the whole swath of society and raised only in times of duress would be less likely to be wielded as a tyrannical instrument, both at home and abroad, since the whole society would bear the cost of its wielding. But conscript armies, while potent for fighting large-scale wars, are less efficacious when policing the world.
As Augustus comprehended in the aftermath of the Roman Civil Wars, the geopolitical reality required new methods if he was to be successful. For two centuries his professional legions stood guard on the hinterlands, fighting wars both just and unjust, protecting a citizenry that knew little of their sacrifice. The United States crossed the Rubicon in 1973 when it converted the military to a professional force; but only now, in the aftermath of exhausting war, has the moral price of that decision become evident. We have created a caste of warriors – one but apart, taxed but unbroken – to insulate us from the storms of the world. Such are the costs of Empire.