There is no such thing as "the veteran experience," particularly in a war on terror waged across multiple countries for more than 10 years. The experience of a Marine deployed to invade Iraq in 2003 is different from that of an Army chaplain in the Green Zone nine years later is different from that of a contractor digging wells in Afghanistan, at any time. There is no single answer to the question "What was it like?"
But this is the first question that arises in almost any attempt to understand war. Some veterans, certainly, are trying to answer it. A wave of new fiction written by veterans who have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is beginning to offer novel and necessary perspectives on the long war.
Among the first to crest were "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers, "Fobbit" by David Abrams, and "You Know When the Men Are Gone" by military spouse Siobhan Fallon, who offers a powerful reminder of the war's home front. Earlier this year Phil Klay, a former Marine who served in Iraq, published "Redeployment" (Penguin Press, $26.95), a book of stories that ranges from raw to bleak to raunchy to philosophical, sometimes all in the space of just a few paragraphs.
These are the new voices from the long war, and they are the harbingers of a necessary reckoning.
In the final story of Klay's stunning debut collection, a crew of soldiers has just fired a "crew-served weapon," which takes nine men to operate, at an enemy target 10 kilometers away. "Sanchez takes out a notebook and starts doing the math, scratching out the numbers in his mechanically precise handwriting. 'Divide it by nine Marines on the gun and you, personally, you've killed zero point seven something people today." But who, they wonder, is responsible for these deaths? The guy who pulled the trigger? The guy who loaded the gun? "Why not the factory workers who made the ammo.… The taxpayers who paid for it?"
The conversation devolves into an exercise in absurdity. "I still don't feel like I killed anybody, Sergeant," says one soldier.
Most Americans would probably say the same. For over a decade, we have been waging a war fought by a slim minority in the name of the vast majority. About 2.5 million Americans have been deployed overseas since 2001 (nearly half of them more than once) and while this number is staggering, it represents less than 1% of the U.S. population. And more than any other war in American history, the long war has been engineered to let the majority of Americans carry on as if we were not at war at all. There has been no draft, no higher taxes, and, for a long time, there were not even any images of flag-draped caskets. As a result, we are now facing perhaps the greatest military-civilian divide in American history.
The new literature of the long war consists of voices calling across that divide, and the truths this fiction tries to tell are complex, morally ambiguous and often contradictory. One invaluable collection of veterans' voices is last year's "Fire and Forget: Short Stories From the Long War," edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher. Scranton is a former U.S. Army artilleryman and Iraq veteran who has written for publications such as the New York Times, and Gallagher is a former U.S. Army captain and Iraq veteran who wrote the war memoir "Kaboom."
The collection they co-edited is proving something of a launching pad for veteran writers, with Klay's title story in "Redeployment" first appearing here. Another "Fire and Forget" alum, Gavin Ford Kovite, is co-writing a novel, "War of the Encyclopaedists," with longtime friend Christopher Robinson. Scheduled to hit bookstores in 2015, it features voices on both sides of the military-civilian divide.
Thus far, new veteran voices in fiction have skewed male and white. Books of note by female veterans have been mostly nonfiction ("Shade it Black" by Jess Goodell springs to mind), but more fiction is undoubtedly forthcoming from writers like Mariette Kalinowski, a former Marine sergeant who served two tours in Iraq and whose dizzying, dream-like "The Train" appears in "Fire and Forget." This story features an elliptical negotiation of time — from pre-deployment to post-deployment to a suicide bomb attack that has left the narrator reeling.
Most of the new fiction by veterans is rooted in realist traditions — think Tim O'Brien's classic "The Things They Carried" — but writing about war often means putting the unspeakable into words, which can put pressure on traditional narrative forms. Céline's WWI novel "Journey to the End of the Night" is punctuated by ellipses, and in Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," time just won't go straight. As Scranton says of his fellow veteran writers in the introduction to "Fire and Forget," "We each knew the problem we altogether struggled with, which was how to say something true about an experience unreal, to a people fed and wadded about with lies."
For many of today's veteran writers, telling these stories is like trying to explain a dream to someone who does not believe you have been asleep. The fiction from the long war has not yet gotten as weird as it's going to get.
If one listens to some of the voices coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, however, you begin to hear the harmonies of this harrowing weirdness. Hassan Blasim's new story collection "The Corpse Exhibition" (Penguin, $15 paper), translated by Jonathan Wright, offers a vision of war in Iraq no less true for its surreal sensibility.
In the title story, a new recruit to an unnamed organization is lectured at length about the art of publicly displaying the bodies of murdered "clients" for utmost aesthetic effect. (Blasim's agonized wrestling with the act of writing about human suffering should be required reading for anyone putting pen to paper in the wake of this war.) "The Corpse Exhibition" masterfully demonstrates that gritty realism is not the only response to war's unreal reality, and war is just as real for those who don't sign up to fight.
The new assortment of veterans' voices invites readers to see the long war at close range. As the narrator of Klay's final story says, "…there's no indication here of what happened, though I know ten kliks south of us is a cratered area riddled with shrapnel and ruined buildings, burned-out vehicles and twisted corpses. The bodies. Seargent Deetz had seen them on his first deployment, during the initial invasion. None of the rest of us have."
This "us" does not have to stretch far to implicate us all. These books are powerful reminders that we all have a responsibility to look at what has happened "over there," not only to better understand the war but also to ease the burden of responsibility — to shift some of the weight from veterans' shoulders onto our own, where it belongs.