Story Time

Matt Gallagher poses an interesting question and offers good answers in this month’s Atlantic:  Why have there been so few—none, really—novels written about our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially by vets who might be literarily inclined?

I agree with his comments and offer a few more of my own:

First, there are still security concerns.  Lord knows enough information about tactics and operations has been disseminated in the press, in memoirs, on blogs, and in venues such as WikiLeaks.  But novels demand huge quantities of realistic detail to establish scenes, drive plots, and render authority.  Any author with first-hand experience of combat operations or FOB life might hesitate to fill pages with information that could place friendly lives in jeopardy.  

The fact that the vets who might conceivably write such a novel are, or were, volunteers is also important.  To write, say, a dark comedy in the vein of Catch-22 about a war one more-or-less agreed to fight would be, in my mind, morally problematic.  To write earnestly about one’s participation in a valiant endeavor to bring progressive regimes to Iraq and Afghanistan would be, well, premature, even naive. 

Finally, we deploy, serve, and fight as part of tightly-knit units who value trust and loyalty above all else.  Novels are about emotions.  Big ones—hurt, loss, and disappointment, for starters.  An author’s fellow soldiers would necessarily serve as models for a novel’s characters, wouldn’t they?  To recast so soon–even in fictional terms—the turmoil and anguish of brothers and sisters in arms strikes me as potentially churlish and exploitive. 

Still, I believe our novelists will eventually have their say—indeed, the final say.  The best ones just see and explain things better than anyone and everyone else.  The objections I raise above will be be bowled over by authors with understanding, vision, courage, and passion.  Till then, though, readers will languish, out of sorts, not even knowing what we are missing, as we wait for the stories that crystallize the most important ideas and emotions bubbling up from a decade of war. 

I don’t know about all vets, but I suspect plenty would especially welcome a few strong, sharp stories to help define and communicate their experiences.   As I’ve moved about the East Coast this spring, I’ve frequently met or observed discharged Army or Marine infantrymen– real downrange, outside-the-wire kind of guys.  Guys who have seen plenty.  They’re really not so hard to pick out. 

If the stereotypical Vietnam vet was identifiable by his ball cap and fatigue jacket festooned with buttons and unit insignias, Iraq and Afghanistan veterans also have a recognizable look.  Baggy shorts, casual footwear.  T-shirts.  Much like everyone else.  But then….  Stocky—the days of the lean mean military running machine are over, supplanted by the requirement to endure dozens of pounds of body armor-induced agony.  So, thickly bunched shoulder, back, thigh, and calf muscles that belie hundreds of hours “armored up” or pumping iron.  Tattoos snaking up and down the appendages.  Cropped hair, and usually a goatee or some other hirsute facial adornment.  Sunglasses. Earrings, bracelets, necklaces, piercings.   Maybe something else, something in the eyes or the body language or the demeanor.

Who are these men?  What do they want?  Are they representative? 

Cool guys, maybe even tough guys, but not really.  They’re still young, still youthful, though different.  Not scary, they do strike me as if they were growing increasingly wary and apprehensive.  Maybe they talk a little too much or a little too little, or seem to know a little bit more or a little bit less than other people.  Not rebelling against the world, but not exactly integrated either.  Never centers of attention, but not easily ignored.  Mostly just a presence—but one  demanding or desiring some measure of acknowledgement.

On the New Jersey Turnpike, my wife driving, we came upon a sedan adorned with Ranger tab and Combat Infantryman Badge decals—proud emblems of hardcore soldiering.  But also, sadder to see—handicap plates.  As we passed I made eye contact with the driver, who was no more than ten feet away though separated by glass, metal, and speed.  He seemed OK, in fact he looked like a good guy. Calm, driving a sensible car with a pretty wife beside him.  It might have been she who was handicapped—who knows?  I raised my fingers to the bill of my cap, and he returned a slight nod.

The link to Matt Gallagher’s article:  http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/06/wheres-the-great-novel-about-the-war-on-terror/240233/

A link to the Iraq and Afghanistan Vets of America website:  http://iava.org/

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