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What I Read When I Read About War

March 25, 2013

FireForgetI read a lot of books about war even though the universe in which war resides is not a place in which I feel entirely comfortable. I am at once repelled and attracted to the realities of the battlefield. The attraction usually wins out for a number of reasons: Although there is an ugliness and brutality to war, there is also a unique form of beauty and lyricism to be found. You can see it in the soldier’s struggle to be brave, in his sacrifice, and even in his cowardice. But I read war books, more importantly, because the war should not be about some distant place over there; because on some level I understand that war is a necessary tool to keep evil at bay; and, finally, I read them because as David Abrams, author of Fobbit, said the other night at Powell’s, “We are all complicit.”

For, it is not “their” war; It is “our” war. Whether we agree with the premise of war or not is not the point. A soldier is someone’s brother, sister, wife, husband, and neighbor. We must step inside their shoes to try to understand exactly what they’re going through to stop the disconnect most of us have with our wars. For that, we need to be informed. To be informed is to begin to understand.

In the past, I’ve been drawn to non-fiction first-person accounts such as A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo written in 1977. A couple of others written much later that pack a wallop are Black Virgin Mountain by Larry Heinemann and, most recently, What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes. All three of these books give gripping but gruesome accounts of the atrocity of war and the mess it leaves in its wake.

Recently, I’ve started reading fiction about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers is dream-like and lyrical. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain is amazing, and Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men are Gone is short storytelling at its best. For biting war satire, there’s nothing better than Abrams’ Fobbit.

Fire and Forget PanelThe book Abrams was at Powell’s to read from is Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. Joining him were fellow contributors Gavin Ford Kovite and Roy Scranton. It’s a powerful collection of stories by fifteen writers who are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Fallon, a military spouse, is included even though she isn’t technically a veteran, although on some level I would consider the wives of soldiers to be veterans. Fire and Forget is co-edited by Scranton and Matt Gallagher. National Book Award winner Colum McCann wrote the Foreword.

The stories are not journalistic accounts of the day-to-day machinations of war. They’re gripping fictional glimpses into the moments that make up an ordinary day of a soldier deployed or one who is grappling with a return home. Many are filled with testosterone-driven bravado regarding the unspeakable emotional and physical scars inflicted on soldiers and their families. The stories convey the truth of war in a way that only fiction can.

David Abrams

David Abrams

Abrams’ story Roll Call shows the impersonal way the military mourns dead soldiers. At one point a memorial is set up for Carter. There were a pair of boots, but not Carter’s.

“…his had cooked to a char in the Bradley. These were a fresh pair someone had procured from Supply. In front of the boots was a picture–a portrait someone had printed out on a computer and taped to the back of an MRE box. The face, at least, was Carter’s.”

Redeployment by Phil Klay is a heartbreaking story that was one of my favorites. Its powerful first line is, “We shot dogs.”

Gavin Ford Kovite

Gavin Ford Kovite

Kovite’s When Engaging Targets, Remember is an adrenaline-filled, nightmarish, adventure-style story of a man who wields a machine gun on a convoy mission. This story is outstanding for its unrelenting pace and crisp clean prose.

Fallon’s Tips for a Smooth Transition lays out the psychological battlefield of a returning veteran and his wife who struggles with her efforts to understand the man she married, but barely knows.

After their readings, Abrams, Scranton, and Kovite answered a question from the audience about their decision to write fiction instead of non-fiction. Scranton said,

Roy Scranton

Roy Scranton

“Fiction creates a space. It’s not just me telling you a story. It’s not just, I’m the writer, you’re the reader. There’s the writer, there’s the reader, there’s the narrator. There’s characters. There’s a way that truth is immediately multiple. There’s a way that fiction is inherently involved in dialogue. It creates a safe space for people to imagine their way in to situations or to journeys or moments that they would not be able to understand otherwise.”

Not surprisingly there were veterans in the audience who spoke movingly of their own journeys since leaving the military, and others, overcome with emotion, who spoke up about the morality of war.

Support our veterans, read one of the books mentioned above!

Da Capo Press, 2013

Read my reviews of Fobbit and You Know When the Men are Gone.

  1. War and Combat are often used as synonyms, two words meaning the same thing. They do not.
    “Killing people, often after face to face contact, and breaking things is a relatively quick way to define War, at least my War.
    That definition is partially accurate, but omits the sense of a single purpose in life, perhaps for the first time; the resolute bravery which must be renewed and tested on a daily basis; the absolute and unfailing concern for others; the deep affection for the members of your unit engaged in the same time of madness: kill or be killed, each day and every day, and the sense of teamwork which permits no failures or breakdowns..
    Then there is the incredible burden of making decisions for others which may cost them their lives. The absolute finality of a poor decision, or even a good decision that turned lethal, is a burden that never fades, not in a decade, or even in half a century. It lives on in dreams and haunting memories. What if is a question that is locked in the brain and in the heart for always, and which cannot be answered. “Killing people and breaking things… and remembering a time that is without end. That is my definition of war, the war of combat.

  2. Brilliantly expressed, Jim.

  3. JAL permalink

    Diane, you said in your post that one of the reasons you read war books is “because on some level I understand that war is a necessary tool to keep evil at bay; ” I think that that statement could generate much discussion. I wonder first how you define evil. I wonder if you feel there have been unnecessary wars. I wonder a lot of things from that statement, it is indeed an interesting post. I do feel that many people in our country especially refrain from facing the ugly facts about war. Take our current wars, how many people even think about them, how much news is even given about them. As we think back on the two world wars that were fought and the Korean War and the Vietnam War, there was daily news about many details, with a multitude of war correspondents reporting. But we all learned from Vietnam that in more recent times, people when exposed to the horrors of war can actually cause them to come to an end. At least our country’s involvement in them. Open any internet USA newspaper site today, and you are unlikely to find much mentioned about Afghanistan. We might hear more about what is going on in Syria. What kind of accounts are given on cable news? Al Jeezera might cover more of those wars than any USA cable network. European news might cover more. That too is a whole interesting discussion, our seemingly avoidance of the reality of war. What does this say about us? About us as humans, about us as a nation. I would like to share more about this post. But I will end my comment for now!

  4. Thank you for such a thoughtful post. It makes me think that I am doing my job if I can generate dialogue about such an important subject.

    Regarding evil…I mean the kind of evil that results from misunderstanding, miscommunication, and misinformation. I always think that if we could just understand, communicate, and keep informed, we can solve any problem. But then I am an idealist, a dreamer, an optimist.

    I have protested wars. I think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were and are a huge waste, but I can remember all too well those who have lost their lives at the hand of dictators and tyrants. For that reason, we need our soldiers.

  5. My response this morning is that when one of my brothers, a brilliant student of history and instrumental music in university but also in ROTC, returned from Viet Nam, he was not the same brother. I had been active in SDS…He remained in the Army until his late forties. Recently he told me he is going through photographs of his time there, possibly to publish. As a professional photographer (and also musician) now, I expect he will cull pictures of great impact. He slowly became more like my brother, undeniably altered but more fully himself, more profoundly humane and present. War is such a powerful beast…

    • permalink

      Diane, I am making a judgment— knowing I have NO statistical information on which to base the judgment– that most people who have served in the military and been involved in the “killing people and breaking things” part of the war, are never quite the quite the same people they were before those experiences. Add to that, the people about whom I am writing occasionally– some frequently– have dreadful dreams and melancholy, tortured memories of their years spent living the life of “kill or be killed.” Your father was one of the people to whom I refer based on what you have shared with me about him in our many discussions over the years. My name be included on the list. I do hope that our recent exchange of e mails will, in some way, help you rethink/reconsider your memories of your Father– specifically who he was, and was not–what he did or did not do, as your father. That effort, while it may change nothing in your heart and mind, will be a conscious tribute to your Father and your way of gaining some understanding of one of dark memories in your life– and perhaps a little peace of mind and heart. Thanks for sending me the additional Review. Warm Regards, Jim

  6. JAL permalink

    I guess the way I see war is that it is a business, a very big business. Usually generated by people with power, and who will profit from it in some way, or enable those they are connected with to profit. Usually the way people/groups profit is more territory, power, resources, such as in our current age, oil, water, etc. The business of defense contracts right now in our nation is a case in point. Furthermore, often media outlets and I am not just talking about today’s media, promote the war effort. Think today of ABC being owned by General Electric which is involved in many defense contracts. What is sad to me is that it is most often the lower classes in a society that are the backbone of warfare itself. They are the ones who pay the high price of war. Who are in my opinion boondoggled into signing up, or motivated by necessity because of poverty and opportunity. From time immemorial. I imagine these same people being given opportunities that involve positive endeavors, jobs that might improve infrastructure for example.

    A book that you might want to add to your list is “The Psychology of War” by Lawrence LeShan, a former military psychologist. This is not a long book, but it is quite revealing to read how for example, patriotism has been used successfully for centuries to get people to support wars, which usually solve very little and only result in more vengeance and yes, more war. Above all, make sure to dehumanize the “enemy”. Paint that as evil, as Satan.

    In my mind, war can be avoided if people worked harder at diplomacy, at peace keeping, at the very hard work of getting people from opposite view points to come together, for sure a difficult task. It seems much easier to live by the sword. Imagine if we spent as much time and money on learning peace keeping and diplomacy strategies as we did on warfare.

    It is sad that people in power cannot even work peacefully and humanely on issues unrelated to war Look at our country now, all the divisiveness which permeates every issue. This divisiveness is carried out with a purpose. Distract people, get them angry and riled up, come up with talking points that are often untrue, continue to denigrate the other point of view, denigrate those who see an issue differently, don’t try to come together, and the result? Continued divisiveness and no solutions. But something is to be gained. Power. Greed. Money.

    There are many books that have been written about the Psychology of War, LeShan’s is just one. Another book that is most interesting was written by Chalmers Johnson, “The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic.” I wish some of the books about the Psychology of War were required reading in high school and college. We would live in a different world.

  7. John McNeese permalink


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