Bobby Henline, Iraq veteran and sole survivor of an IED blast in 2007: recent novels have dealt with the painful return home from war ©PETER VAN AGTMAEL/MAGNUM PHOTOS
In the decade since the invasion of Iraq, the most widely read and highly regarded books on the war have been written by journalists. George Packer, Thomas E Ricks, Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Dexter Filkins, and David Finkel have all contributed to the first draft of history with superb accounts of everything from the failures of US war planning, to the daily lives of the combat soldiers, to the suffering of a country devastated by an almost psychotic violence.
It is only in the last few years that American fiction writers have begun trying to make their own sense of the damage done. In his haunting first novel, The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers moved back and forth between the friendship of two soldiers in Iraq, and the surviving man’s retreat into solitude upon his return. And in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain offered a furious take on the disconnect between patriotism, as embodied by the jingoism of professional American football, and the experience of a 19-year-old grunt thrust into the military’s propaganda machine.
Both novels were nominated for a National Book Award, and in their very different ways, served as reminders of why, in the long run, it is often fiction that shapes our culture’s memory and understanding of war. When it comes to making sense of the senseless, facts take us only so far; at some point, the symbolic mind must come into play.
This spring sees the publication of two new works of fiction about Iraq and the journey home from it: Phil Klay’s story collection, Redeployment, and Willy Vlautin’s novel, The Free. Klay, a former US Marine Captain, was deployed in Iraq during “the surge,” the period of intense fighting in 2007 following the arrival of 30,000 additional US troops. Klay’s stories take the point of view of men serving in a variety of roles: military police, mortuary affairs, a State Department reconstruction project and so on. The opening story is about a Marine combat veteran returning from “a no-shit war zone,” to his apprehensive girlfriend and ailing dog, and follows him through the thrill, heavy drinking, and numbness of his first few days home. This is the redeployment of the title, the assignment…