What I Read When I Read About War
I 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.
The 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.
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.”
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,
“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