What happened to all the war vet novelists? They’ve moved on, and so have we

Man with wavy salt-and-pepper hair in blue shirt and denim jacket, seated in front of a brick wall.
Kevin Powers returns to the war zone — sort of — in his new novel, “A Line in the Sand.”
(Buffalo Sojka Studios)


A Line in the Sand

By Kevin Powers
Little, Brown: 368 pages, $29

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Let’s set the wayback machine to 2012 or so. The United States had been mired in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for a decade, long enough for writers — including veterans — to begin processing them into fiction. Readers were clamoring for literary works that deployed irony, lapidary prose and an artful yet steely-eyed glimpse into the conflict.

Or, at least, publishers assumed they were. And so the books arrived, pretty good ones, by Ben Fountain, Benjamin Percy, Elliot Ackerman, Lea Carpenter, Phil Klay and others. Among the best of them was “The Yellow Birds,” a potent tale of two soldiers and the long shadow of PTSD by Kevin Powers, an Iraq war vet. It was a National Book Award finalist and made lots of best-of-the-year lists.

Powers and those other writers have all continued working. But a decade on, they’re less engaged with matters of war in general. Nor are they much concerned with irony, lapidary prose, etc. Percy writes techno thrillers and werewolf tales. Ackerman juggles literary fiction with speculative detours and military page-turners like “2034,” which imagines a future conflict with China.


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Powers’ follow-up was a historical novel about the Civil War, “A Shout in the Ruins,” but the Iraq war is again central in his new novel, “A Line in the Sand.” This one, however, is a straight-up thriller, with all the pleasures and disappointments that come with a story that’s expertly told but a tick familiar.

At the book’s center is Arman, an Iraqi man who served as a U.S. military interpreter in Mosul. He earned asylum status after his wife and child were killed during a botched raid by a private military company, Decision Tree, which is under congressional scrutiny for a lucrative contract renewal. (The story takes place in 2010.) Arman recorded the calamity, which is why he’s being targeted by off-the-books Decision Tree mercenaries in his new home in Norfolk, Va. In short order, he’s enveloped in a plot involving Norfolk police, a reporter investigating the contractor and a handful of company goons.

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Pretty much everybody adheres to stereotypes. Homicide detectives are repositories of gallows humor. (“Why don’t we ever get to deal with gruntled employees, is what I want to know.”) Sally, the reporter, is the sister of an Iraqi soldier killed in action; a drinking problem and scars on her wrists serve as evidence of her trauma. The Norfolk officers, Catherine and Lamar, are noble go-to-ground types — in contrast to the mercenaries ruled by greed. Arman, the victim of the sad mix of American-made violence and greed, mainly expresses fear and bemusement, depending on how much peril he’s in at the moment. Asked whether he’s friendly toward Americans, he intones, “My people have no friends but the mountains.”

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It’s hard to begrudge Powers’ strategy. There are all sorts of ways to spotlight the moral corruption at the heart of the military-industrial complex; why not choose the one that has a better shot at the bestseller lists? But Powers’ book is at its strongest and fiercest when it’s also at its most subversive, when it doesn’t just criticize the ethos of money and power but also explores its trickle-down consequences.

The novel’s best-drawn character is a bit player: a teenage prostitute with a drug habit, hired for the night by one of the goons. She’s “a doe frozen in a winter field, the whole world a wolf” — that is, a symbol of the innocent victim of a rapacious society. It’s the sliver of a sense of justice she possesses — absent in the healthier, wealthier characters — that saves the day.

'A Line in the Sand,' by Kevin Powers
(Little, Brown)

Powers wants to stress the point that we’ve been observing these wars the wrong way, maybe even in our fiction about it. The core conflict isn’t nation versus nation or nation versus insurgency, but wealth against anything that stands in the way of it.

“The borders that matter now aren’t between countries,” one character says. “They’re between tax brackets. Global citizens. Ultra-high-net-worth individuals. Someone’s from Iraq. You’re from Virginia. So what? Theater. The real countrymen are the guys with fifty million, a hundred million in assets.” Powers is so insistent on this point that he effectively repeats it verbatim later. And a goon reiterates the idea more bluntly: “This is America, big guy. Everybody needs more money.”

The challenge for the author is to write a pulse-pounding thriller without sorrowing over this injustice too much. Without spoiling the story, he deploys what you might call the Rambo option, where the Good Guys lament America’s loss of face so intensely (“Do we get to win this time?”) that extracurricular justice is the sole option and chief pleasure. The lead cop’s full name is Catherine Wheel, a medieval torture device, and she has instant recall of a Latin motto: “Let the good of the people be the highest law.”

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It makes for a thrilling climax, which is, of course, what thrillers are supposed to deliver. But it also delivers a sense that amid the literary battles of the last decade, the war novel lost. For all its accolades, “The Yellow Birds” and its compatriots aren’t much discussed now. (Much the same is true for the book’s 2018 film adaptation, which all but vanished on arrival despite a cast that includes Jennifer Aniston and Toni Collette.)

Instead, the ground has been ceded to autofiction, sweeping postcolonial epics and more intimate tales of family- and identity-related trauma. Two long wars, clumsily entered into and clumsily exited, won’t capture the hearts and minds of readers the way they did in 2012. Credit Powers for trying to remind readers of the consequences of war. But it would probably require another one to truly return our attention to it.

Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”