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 back to the duties of everyday life. Like a number of the early stories in the book, “Redeployment” is written in a terse, tough-guy voice, a mix of Elmore Leonard and the frat-house, a kind of ready-made diction for expressing the shorn affect of violent, unself-knowing men. The minimalism of the language is meant to imply their minimally explored interior lives. Happily, though, as the book goes on, and the various narrators’ predicaments become more nuanced, the prose follows suit. We sense the author arriving at his real theme, which is the nature of war stories themselves: how they are told, by whom, and to what effect. And on this subject, Klay is strikingly good.
Take, for instance, his story “Psychological Operations.” After his discharge, a veteran of a Psych Ops unit, a Coptic Christian, attends a fancy private university. There, he tries to seduce one of the few other people of colour on campus, an African-American woman who has recently converted to Islam. He convinces her to come to his apartment and hear about his experiences in Iraq, relying on the uneasy mix of her disapproval and fascination. He recounts to her how effective he was at inventing the misogynist insults his unit broadcast over loudspeakers at insurgents holed up in mosques, goading them into starting firefights. And then he describes listening to them dying in the ensuing carnage.
In the end, the woman neither forgives nor condemns him for his actions or his recounting of them. She simply leaves him alone with the violence still coursing through him. The reader is placed in the same position as the young woman he is trying to seduce. We want to know what war is actually like, but we are repelled by what we hear. We are disgusted by a taunt like “when his daughters bent down to pray, we’d put our shoes on their heads and rape them in the ass,” while at the same time we know the wretchedness of this war is not this man’s fault. And so like the young woman, not knowing what else to do, we simply walk away.
In the story “Unless It’s a Sucking Chest Wound,” the narrator is a Marine veteran, but one whose assignment kept him away from the front line. Now he’s in law school, trying to decide what to do with his life. But more compelling to him than any of his options is the memory of a man in his unit who died saving other Marines. Here again, stories of combat, of violence and unbearable emotional intensity, have the power to mesmerise. They carry a kind of absolute meaning, missing in the triviality of modern professional life. Yet the lives of those who tell these stories are often in ruins. Like all the characters in Redeployment who listen to war stories told by others, we want to touch that heightened state without bearing its aftermath. Klay’s achievement is to implicate his reader in the desire for war, while reminding us how readily we disown and forget it. Journalism could describe this dynamic. But only fiction can do the unsettling work of enacting it.
Iraq haunts Willy Vlautin’s The Free in a very different manner. It starts with a veteran of the war—Leroy Kervin, a National Guardsman with a severe brain injury from an improvised explosive device—as he wakes in “a second-rate group home for disabled men” somewhere in Washington state. For the first time in months, Leroy has sufficient mental clarity to understand his predicament. His immediate response is to get out of bed and attempt to kill himself, lest the clarity never return and he remain trapped in purgatory. His attempt fails, and his purgatory only deepens.
But from this gruesome opening, the book turns its eye away from the war itself to the women and men caring for Leroy. We follow Freddie McCall, the night watchman who discovers the young man after his suicide attempt, as he works day and night, trying to earn enough to pay off the medical bills incurred by a daughter’s illness. And we meet Pauline, the nurse at the hospital where Leroy will remain for the rest of the book, as she befriends a wayward, drug-addicted girl and tries to give her the kind of maternal care she herself never received.
When he’s not writing novels, Vlautin is the frontman of an alt-country band called Richmond Fontaine, and one can easily imagine Pauline and Freddie’s plights being sung over late night
radio. Pauline is a hardworking single woman who takes care of her alcoholic, mentally ill dad. Freddie is a kind man who just wants his kids back from his exwife even if it means losing his house. They are decent people scraping by in a working class that was in decline even before the recent recession, and has been on its knees since.
Like Klay, Vlautin’s prose is influenced by what’s often called the “kitchen sink realism” of his fellow northwesterner, Raymond Carver. A typical paragraph reads: “Pauline came from the hospital cafeteria. She was trying to hold a cup of coffee and eat a piece of chocolate cake and walk at the same time. She came to the stairwell entrance, put the plate of the cake on top of the cup of coffee, opened the door, disappeared into the stairwell, and walked up the six floors.” A leads to B leads to C, all of it remarkable only for how unremarkable it is. Again, like Klay, the plainness of the prose is used to telegraph the plainness of the circumstances and even the people. While the stylisation gets in the way at the outset, drawing attention to itself, it ends up having cumulative power. Vlautin manages to be deeply unironic in his treatment of these people’s lives without being maudlin.
The unexpected variation here is that while those around him plod through difficult, ordinary lives, Leroy himself is carried off in his semi-comatose state into a parallel world of dystopic fantasy (he’s a sci-fi fan and this is where his mind wanders). “The Free” of the title refers to a group of rightwing vigilantes in a near future, roaming a landscape reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, hunting Leroy and his real-world girlfriend, Jeanette, whom the vigilantes see as unpatriotic, leftist layabouts “who are ruining the country.”
It’s a hard balance to strike and Vlautin doesn’t always pull it off. Events in the parallel universe veer into didacticism, and rather than complimenting his realist portrait of where America has come to in the wake of war and recession, it threatens to simplify it. Yet his vision is a quietly compelling one. By the end, the book has achieved a kind of bleak grace, and with it something rare in fiction: an unsentimental realisation of goodness.
The only journalist mentioned above to have written a second volume on the same conflict is David Finkel. In 2009, he published The Good Soldiers, winner of a Pulitzer Prize, about the men of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion fighting during the surge. He has now followed up with Thank You For Your Service, an account of the challenges facing the men of the same battalion as they come home. What he finds in a military town in Kansas is a human landscape much like the one we see in Vlautin’s novel.
In the most wrenching sequence, Adam Schumann, the man Finkel follows most closely, begins arguing with his wife over whether he should enter a mental health rehabilitation programme. She agrees it might work. “But it would mean seven weeks of no work and no pay. That’s two missed house payments. Car payments, too. Electricity. Gas. Phone. Groceries. She reminds him that they have no savings. She imagines the graduation speech: ‘Congratulations for conquering PTSD. And now you’re fucked.’” A little later Schumann is in the basement of his house with a shotgun pointed at his chin, while his wife pleads with him not to pull the trigger. He is eventually distracted by the crying of his son, and relinquishes the weapon.
Needless to say, Finkel did not witness this scene himself. He pieced it together from subject interviews, emails, and texts, many of which are integrated directly into the book. Using dialogue, implied internal monologue, and a host of other literary devices, Finkel has done much to make his account read like a novel. Ever since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, a certain strand of journalism has been working toward this same, apparent ideal: to offer up a newspaper story with the scope and intimacy of fiction.
Isn’t this the best of both worlds? The strict accuracy of reported events with the emotional force of literature? Finkel is seriously good at what he does. Thank You For Your Service is the best book on its subject to date and should be required reading for any American who professes to “support the troops.” And yet for all its authority and literary polish, the very ethics of journalism require it to remain tethered to the written and spoken record. It is a vital book to understanding the wreckage of the war for those who fought it and those who are trying to care for them. But the nature of trauma is that it can’t be integrated by the rational mind. It exceeds the bounds of fact. To make sense of the violence we have sanctioned and the ways it is now filtering back into our own society requires the work of the imagination.
The Free by Willy Vlautin (Faber, £12.99)
Redeployment by Phil Klay (Canongate, £16.99)
Thank You For Your Service by David Finkel (Scribe, £18.99)