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The Detached Literature of Remote Wars

In the literature of our post-9/11 wars, the circuit between the home and the field of battle has been severed. Because of that fracture, our stories have struggled to convey the novelty of contemporary combat with the depth and significance that literature demands. Most often, recent war fiction ends up collapsing into exhausted and facile sentimentality, or confining itself to very limited psychological renderings foregrounded by tepid and predictable political sympathies. Yet the problem with today’s war literature goes as deep as the nature of warfare itself. Now, war writing does not allow itself to be shaped by the novelty of contemporary combat. Fundamentally severed from war’s source and direction, recent American war literature has, so far, failed to achieve cultural significance.

The power of literature is dependent upon the formation of a robust circuit between the ecstatic and the quotidian. Literary texts mediate between extraordinary moments of quasi-spiritual illumination and the ordinary experiences of daily life. As Simone Weil puts it in “The Iliad; or, The Poem of Force” (1939), most of life “takes place far from hot baths.” Events that dramatically shape both our individual and collective destinies occur largely outside of the safety of hearth and home. Most of the oldest subjects of literature—war, erotic love, adventure—distinguish themselves by this distance from home. They reveal periods of heightened intensity that maintain an antagonistic relationship with Weil’s “hot baths” of home by defining themselves against the tranquility of daily life. It is in this respect that contemporary war fiction has fallen severely short, for the connection of war to daily life has weakened just as its distance has made its essence more difficult to grasp. The result is a literature that prevents us from perceiving the scope of war as it is now waged, as well as from placing it within a context which communicates its full significance.

War and Fiction in the Recent Past

World War I was a literary war. Paul Fussell writes in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) that it was perhaps the most literary ever. Some soldiers were “not merely literate but vigorously literate”; the British national canon, to take one example, was readily available in cheap paperback, plunging the Victorian spirit deep into the muck of the trenches. Not only did well-known schoolboy phrases such as Horace’s “Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” become infused with dark, even despairing irony, but the language of simple and straightforward testimonial experience was obliterated by the war’s unprecedented dehumanization. Fussell sees something confusing in the way human language bucked under the war’s ontological weight, but in truth, technology and strategy demanded an accounting that conventional literature could not provide. The valorous poems of Kipling withered under miles of barbed wire and mud tunnels full of rats and decay. The rhetoric of individual courage seemed inadequate to the task of describing a war in which both courage and the individual mattered so very little. A new literature had to be constructed out of the shattered remains of antebellum language.

David Jones’s In Parenthesis (1937) is likely the most successful example of that reconstruction. Jones’s preoccupation, Fussell explains, was “re-attaching traditional meanings to the unprecedented actualities of the war.” Jones used the permeability of text to make our deepest human concerns literary once more. In Parenthesis re-mythologizes the front lines. Creating a sort of palimpsest, it suffuses the experience of men in the trenches with the language and stories of the past. The coarse language of the soldiers and the tactile horrors of war are overlaid with themes from Arthurian legend, Welsh folklore, Catholic liturgy, and T. S. Eliot’s early symbolism. As a text, In Parenthesis leaves itself open to ambiguity of both meaning and form. We see the past and present measured against each other, achieving a strange equilibrium. The form is ambiguous in that it vacillates between novel and poem. Sometimes it is both at once:

Fog refracted, losing articulation in the cloying damp, the word of command unmade in its passage, mischiefed of the opaque air, mutated, bereaved of content, become an incoherent uttering, a curious bent cry out of the smarting drift, lost altogether—yet making rise again the grey bundles where they lie.

Jones reinvests the unbearable present with meaning while simultaneously conjuring our oldest myths and stories into a renewed relevance.

For all of the terrible novelty of the First World War, however, it was fought primarily among male soldiers, static in place and time. But the Second World War, truly global and ending in atomic devastation, was the embodiment of contemporary life comprehensively unhinged. “If the Great War reversed the nineteenth century sense of human progress,” literature scholar Tom Burns claims, “it is a tragic irony that the Second World War reaffirmed the scientific progress of the twentieth.” The symbolic images of the First World War were trenches and barbed wire. The symbolic images of the Second World War, as Eric Hobsbawm put it, were “the concentration camp and the mushroom cloud.” If the civilians back on the home front during the First World War were made to suffer a certain amount of material and emotional deprivation as nearly an entire generation of young men were wiped out on a static front, the Second World War saw the dispersal of violence into cities and civilian populations. Nothing and no one was safe. The looming threats of firebombing, rocket attacks, or invasion of civilian population centers—bracketed by prewar political turbulence and postwar nuclear threat—contributed to a pervasive sense of paranoia. Technology and bureaucracy had entangled themselves and passed across some event horizon beyond which, it seemed, individual humans were no longer in control.

Norman Mailer and James Jones also wrote beautiful, psychologically rich, and politically astute renderings of people at war. The dark humor of bureaucratic sprawl and the bitter irony of feeling dislodged from time and place were expertly rendered by Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut. But the writer who was most sensitive to the full scope of the horror, whose language and form was most thoroughly permeated by both the decay of isotopes and the paranoid sense of concealed sources of power, was Thomas Pynchon.

Famously sprawling and complex, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) is set in the closing phase of the Second World War and focuses on the launching of German V-1 and V-2 rockets and a mysterious device called Schwarzgerät. There are well over four hundred characters in the novel, and the plot simultaneously inhabits not just individual perspectives but genres of writing, tone, time, dreams, and perhaps even dimensions. Most importantly, Pynchon weaves allegory, fiction, and historical fact together so that the text radiates a confusing and chaotic field of ontological uncertainty. The text itself is possessed by what Pynchon perceives as the spirit of the Second World War and its harrowing nuclear/cybernetic aftermath—one following the other like a shadow seared into concrete after a nuclear blast. The text doesn’t simply express ideas and feelings, but is an artifact of the twentieth century’s strange logic—centerless, diffused, and grimacing through horror.

Gravity’s Rainbow coheres to the shape of, and is commensurate in scope with, its subject. Pynchon doesn’t simply use the novelty of the Second World War—the deterministic impact of math and formal logic on “rational” strategy, the dissolving borders of political and social identity, the dramatic nuclear finale—as an elaborate stage for showcasing sentimental nineteenth-century literary depictions of the individual emotional experience. The V-2 rocket, descending in a screaming parabola and reversing nature by traveling faster than sound, is itself representative of the inhuman power of the war. The fact that our technologies have outstripped a human scale is the real story of the war. And so Pynchon’s novel is instead a compendium of contingency that spills over the boundaries of rationality. Paranoia abounds. The parabolic arc of the rocket becomes a potential symbol of sexuality. A man might be ineffably linked with a rocket during his youth. Sexual conquests might predict the pattern of V-2 attacks on London. The dead return and dreams become contagious. Certainty erodes and the question of who might be in charge of it all becomes something like a bad joke. The text actually learns from the historical context out of which it arises. More than simply a depiction, Gravity’s Rainbow is an artifact of the war.

The Novelty of Contemporary War

A jump cut from the Second World War and Cold War to our post-9/11 world, skipping over the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam entirely, might give the illusion of a complete rupture with the past. But even if America’s way of waging contemporary war is unprecedented, that does not mean there is not a philosophical and technological lineage from which it developed. In some ways, our current wars abroad are a streamlined reshuffling of the same elements that Pynchon and Jones wrote about. Each requires massive amounts of organizational and logistical planning, with technological solutions taking precedence over individual and martial virtues. Pynchon’s obsession with diffused responsibility and occluded sources of power is still relevant. But what most clearly distinguishes our current wars from those waged in the twentieth century is a much greater emphasis on automation, on the physical and temporal dispersion of combat, and on the detachment of American citizens from the experience of war’s costs.

Consider automation and its link to dispersion. The concept of the unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, isn’t a new one. The idea of automation itself exists in folklore—the Jewish legend of the Golem is an example, however mystical its sources and implications—and of course projectiles have been in use since the earliest days of warfare. But what makes modern drones unique, what differentiates them from cruise missiles, is that they can be inhabited by the mind of a human operator, so that a kind of metempsychosis occurs. The body of the operator is kept safely out of harm’s way while he hunts and kills the enemy. This is, of course, entirely the point of drones—to put the burden of dying entirely on your enemy. Contemporary warfare differs from the mass industrialization of the First World War, and the technologically aided total war of the Second, by focusing on human-machine hybrids, electronic data gathering, and constant surveillance. The focus is on technology which doesn’t merely destroy the enemy, but serves in large part to define the enemy.

The proliferation of drone warfare has had a few major ramifications, not least of which is that it has produced an odd restabilization effect of “safe” and “unsafe” zones, a dichotomy which seemed obliterated during the Cold War by the looming threat of nuclear holocaust. In order for drones to be used effectively, there has to be a safe area where the drone operators are and a hot zone where their targets are. This uneven distribution of risk has another effect: it more closely resembles hunting than combat. Grégoire Chamayou writes in Drone Theory: “Contrary to Carl von Clausewitz’s classical definition, the fundamental structure of this type of warfare is no longer that of a duel, of two fighters facing each other. The paradigm is quite different: a hunter advancing on a prey that flees or hides from him. The rules of the game are not the same.” With so little risk, what do traditional martial values such as honor and courage mean to the protagonist? The target is considered differently as well. No longer a link in an enemy chain of command, he’s instead seen as a node conjured out of data correlations. An enemy, or High Value Target, is created based upon analysis of data collected from observation and signal interception. In this high-tech hunt, the epistemic and political question becomes who creates the algorithm that determines the prey. The enemy changes based on shifting methods of pattern analysis.

Warfare of this sort requires the maintenance of an elaborate and permanent infrastructure. The journalist Nick Turse writes that a growing series of “lily-pad bases” for drone launches dot the planet: “Run by the military, the Central Intelligence Agency, and their proxies, these bases—some little more than desolate airstrips, others sophisticated command and control centers filled with computer screens and high-tech electronic equipment—are the backbone of a new American robotic way of war. They are also the latest development in a long-evolving saga of American power projection abroad; in this case, remote-controlled strikes anywhere on the planet with a minimal foreign ‘footprint’ and little accountability.” It’s difficult to say how many of these bases there actually are, since their existence is cloaked in secrecy. Turse puts the estimate at over a hundred as of 2012, to say nothing of the unclassified bases and military infrastructure on record that already exists across the globe.

Proliferation of the military across physical space is echoed by its temporal sprawl. We tend to think of war and peacetime as distinct: not just a physical distance but a temporal one stretches between the hot bath and the dusty battlefield. Law, culture, and government function one way during peacetime and another during wartime. But this distinction has been compromised by an amorphous, perpetual violence which allows us to neglect the formal responsibilities of wartime without having achieved actual peace. Our current war in Afghanistan, for example, is the longest running in American history. The legal justification for continued military action in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa rests shakily upon an old authorization of military force that refers simply to battling al-Qaeda. The result is a strange and contradictory sense among civilians that war is perpetual while simultaneously there is no war being waged.

“As a wartime without boundaries,” writes Mary Dudziak, “the war on terror broke the problem of war’s temporality into the open, revealing anxiety over the impact of perpetual war on American democracy itself. Americans disagreed deeply about this war, but coalesced around the idea that the times were not normal times. As war goes on, Americans have lapsed into a new kind of peacetime. It is not a time without war, but instead a time in which war does not bother everyday Americans.”

And so even though war is now omnipresent, Americans are withdrawn from it as never before. For one, fewer Americans are actually fighting. Fifteen percent of Americans fought in the Second World War, while only about 1 percent fight in our current wars. A 2015 Harvard poll showed that 60 percent of millennials support military action against the Islamic State, but only 15 percent are willing to join the military themselves. Those numbers reveal the depth of detachment experienced by a generation of Americans who have spent the majority of their lives intentionally shielded from the effects of violence conducted in their name. The burden of dispensing that violence, and in some cases of putting life and limb at risk, has fallen disproportionately on a tiny minority of Americans. Pynchon’s lunatic systems of violence, decentered fields of power that seem to exist outside of human accountability, have been isolated from the everyday experience of Americans. As war has become all-pervasive, it has also become a niche experience detached from mainstream American consciousness.

Contemporary War and Fiction

After nearly two decades of a globalized, amorphous war, something resembling a new canon of war literature has emerged. Much of it has been celebrated by critics and rewarded with institutional praise. In one way, the plaudits are deserved. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, a National Book Award finalist, is composed with a delicate and sophisticated touch. The prose mesmerizes as it moves:

The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns. We moved over them and through the tall grass on faith, kneading paths into the windswept growth like pioneers. While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. When we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.

There is a lyric strength to the novel which is grounded in a mimetic understanding of how beauty and terror commune to deepen human experience. The plot itself, meanwhile, tells the story of two privates and their complex loyalty to each other. The novel is a testament to humanist values and traditions. But this great strength is also fundamentally a weakness. By forcing the novel to take the limited, albeit recognizable, shape of individual human experience, The Yellow Birds makes the same mistake as most of the fiction in our new canon of war novels: it ignores the full and terrible grandeur of the war as an independent event. The books making up our current war literature are touching and humane, but their scope, inventiveness, and imagination are not commensurate with the subject matter. Set beside works from the past that have succeeded in this regard (In Parenthesis and Gravity’s Rainbow foremost among them), our current war fiction feels too small, trivial.

Successful fiction submits itself to the full influence of the dominant social and spiritual energies and takes on their form in miniature. Forcing the text to conform to overly familiar patterns of thought might make the war superficially accessible to a general readership, but it portends a betrayal of literature’s deepest purpose. Literature becomes fictionalized journalism. “Short commanders are the most difficult,” explains the character Aziz in Elliot Ackerman’s novel Green on Blue (2015). “They carry disappointment too openly. If they turn their disappointment on themselves they become timid. If they turn it on others they become tyrants. Issaq was a tyrant.” Aziz is an Afghan boy who joins an American-funded militia, the Special Lashkar, in order to secure a hospital stay for his wounded brother. The novel, superficially influenced by Conrad and Malraux, explores the knotty moral demands that Afghans are forced to navigate. The language is grittier than in The Yellow Birds, but is not necessarily less mannered. There is a precious resignation to the narration, a sentimental world-weariness that challenges the reader’s assumptions less than it confirms conventional American center-left wisdom about what motivates individuals to commit acts of violence. To propose that Afghani-on-Coalition attacks occur simply because of the desperation of a confused individual forces the well-worn cliché of attacker as victim onto the novel. The story is melancholy but feels misleading in its psychological framing. Profound diversity exists in the world, and Afghanis are not simply Canadians wearing costumes and waiting for enough financial stability to trade in their ancient honor for strip malls. A more challenging work would have explored that gulf of difference rather than limiting the work to such a familiar perspective. The vigorous psychological engagement of Green on Blue is, counterintuitively, a kind of concealment. We might come away knowing more facts about Afghanistan, but we are also lulled into a false sense of understanding the war itself. The book is anti-revelatory. It makes the strange seem familiar. This is achieved in large part by the conversational tone of the novel, a first-person narrator who seems to be directly addressing the reader.

Youngblood, by Matt Gallagher, also uses intimacy with the narrator to emphasize the familiar over the alien:

Another “Clear-Hold-Build” speech was coming. I’d memorized it long ago: Clear an area of insurgents. Hold that area to keep it clear, so that bad guys can’t move back in. Build up the area with civil affairs projects and money and shit. So while the Big Man went on about battles I’d never heard of and soldiers I don’t know, I stared at a speck of dirt on his pink, bald head and thought about how unfair it was that Will, of all people, was free and blithe while I was stuck in this hellhole.

Gallagher’s easy, conversational prose disarms readers and pulls them into the story. There is a significant amount of military marginalia decorating the plot, the flotsam of the day-to-day life of a deployed soldier. The colloquial tone of Youngblood is simultaneously instructive to an audience presumed to be unfamiliar with military life and conducive to building a sense of intimacy with the protagonist, Jack Porter. The novel is a Bildungsroman in which Porter becomes obsessed with the story of a romance between a missing soldier and an Iraqi woman while also struggling to lead an infantry platoon during the waning days of America’s official occupation. It’s a beautiful story, rich with emotion, but its consciousness of the war is ultimately confined to the single human narrator. It is not nearly bold or complex enough to do justice to the war. Its language doesn’t shake us from complacency, but defangs the terrible sublime.

Phil Klay’s Redeployment is not a novel but a collection of short stories which won the National Book Award. Among the canon of recent American war fiction, Redeployment distinguishes itself as the most expertly executed. One story in particular, “OIF,” stands out as a creative attempt to use predominantly military acronyms in order to tell a story: “Instead I will remember that our HMMWV had 5 PX. That the SITREP was 2 KIA, 3 WIA. That KIA means they gave everything. That WIA means I didn’t.” The jargon suggests that the language used by service members in the war is almost a foreign one, which itself raises the question of whether or not the war can be understood at all outside of English/Arabic/military jargon. But the story doesn’t explore those implications, and instead ends on a sentimental, even precious note. The rest of the stories in the collection, as skillfully rendered as they are, suffer from the same sentimentality. The war becomes simply a heartrending experience and literature a stenographic mode of sentimental confession. The titular story of Klay’s collection uses the killing of dogs as a symbol for our conflicted attitudes towards violence. It begins with Operation Scooby Doo, an informal effort to kill stray dogs in Iraq after Marines find one lapping up human blood. Later, Sgt. Price, the protagonist, redeploys home. When his dog Vicar needs to be put down, he decides that he is obligated to do the job himself. The story is touching and has a deep emotional resonance, but ultimately confuses the sentimental experiences of a single individual with an expression of the nature of the war itself. In the rush to emotionally connect with an audience which has, most likely, not experienced the war firsthand, Klay limits himself to the kinds of daily dramas that his intended readership will understand. The scope and significance of the war has taken a back seat to emotional clarity and sincerity of sentiment.

Why We Have Failed

All the most lauded recent war fiction fundamentally ignores the idiosyncratic significance of our globalized “forever wars.” In lieu of texts which cohere in form and substance to the particulars of contemporary combat—metempsychotic automation, dispersal through both time and space, and disconnect from the citizenry in whose names war is waged—our current canon of war literature metes out well-worn sentimentality incommensurate with the wars’ profoundly alien power. Instead of texts which open themselves to the energy and logic of our wars, we are instead left with banal, sentimental mannerism. Only superficially different from one another, these novels limit their scope to the emotional lives of individuals. The occasional political themes and cultural digressions mostly serve these psychological portraits disallowed an autonomous life of their own. The novels written about our current wars adhere to the psychological realism of the war literature of earlier centuries. Unsuited for our current wars, they also pale in comparison with their distant precursors.

It could be that literary fiction is no longer a cultural priority, or that the relevance of the publishing world is itself greatly diminished. Perhaps an MFA-centric over-professionalization of literature has muzzled its radical potential and variety. The best war fiction could be hidden in a corner of the internet, a new and alternative canon waiting to be curated. But it seems that the most obvious rationale for the failures of our war fiction stems from our collective apathy about conceptualizing the war itself. The public has lost the desire to come to terms with the novelty and significance of our wars. This, of course, is a function of contemporary war. It has been made distant and elusive, being completely severed from the everyday experiences of most Americans. They are not asked to participate, their approval is not necessary, and no burden is required to be borne by them. All they know are the hot baths of home.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain (2016) deals explicitly with this bifurcation of cultural experience in a clever way, by presenting combat soldiers who are paraded before an oblivious public as part of a gauche Super Bowl halftime show. But in only focusing on this single aspect of the war, it continuously runs its head against the wall without quite breaking through. The novel recognizes the problem of disconnect, but is unable to transcend it. The novel that might perhaps be the most ambitious and successful take on the war is Harry Parker’s Anatomy of a Soldier (2016). Embracing an object-oriented ontology, Parker’s novel tells the story of a British soldier losing his legs in an IED blast (as Parker himself did) from the perspective of semi-conscious objects associated with the events leading up to the blast. And while it stops just short of cutting into the heart of contemporary combat (the story ultimately hinges upon the individual emotional experience of a single soldier), it does suggest a path forward that American authors would do well to take note of.

In accusing contemporary American war fiction of missing the mark, the most compelling arguments necessarily push against the constrictions of realism as a literary method. Realism is unable to express both the factual nuance and metaphysical significance of full-spectrum dominance in war. It collapses into a weepy sentimentality which is only valuable in that a large public is used to it and so is ready to receive more of it. Contemporary combat requires more ambition, imagination, and risk-taking—more of the combat soldier—in order to be conveyed properly in a national literature.

When W. B. Yeats was compiling the Oxford Book of Modern Verse in 1936, he omitted the famous poems of Wilfred Owen. By way of justification, he cited Matthew Arnold’s 1853 preface to Poems:

I have distaste for certain poems written during the great war…. The writers of these poems were invariably officers of exceptional courage and capacity . . . their letters are vivid and humorous, they were not without joy—for all skill is joyful—but felt bound, in the words of the best known, to plead the suffering of their men. In poems that had for a time considerable fame, written in the first person, they made that suffering their own. I have rejected these poems for the same reason that made Arnold withdraw his Empedocles on Etna from circulation: passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.

What Yeats meant, I think, is that passive suffering expressed in the mind and body of individual people is not alone enough to give either theme or form to a literature meant to equal the war in force and complexity. For that to happen, for the literature of war to make itself essential, it must necessarily complicate straightforward narratives. It must take on the obscurity, distance, and automation of the war itself. By taking a cue from the formal experimentation of both modernists and postmodernists, perhaps these texts should present themselves as actual artifacts from the war: government forms, dictation from a meeting, the electronic effluvia of the global supply chain which makes the war possible. Instead of taking place inside the mind of a recognizable human individual, why not write from the perspective of a nascent AI struggling to achieve consciousness? Or two characters, American and Iraqi civilians, interacting through dreams? Anything to liberate the narrative from the single mind of a single character whose inner life is perfectly resonant with an old New Yorker sitting in a therapist’s waiting room.

In the rush to bridge the disconnect between civilian and martial realities, much contemporary war fiction panders to the crowd. In choosing emotional familiarity over artistic ambition, the authors have forced their fiction to take on inadequate forms. The essential scope and alien power of the war gets lost in the exchange. But in order to convey the essential, war literature must be brash enough take on new forms. Otherwise, even if it becomes more popular, it will remain irrelevant.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume I, Number 3 (Fall 2017): 184–96.

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