War is something nearly all people want to avoid. Yet war’s extremes of experience make literature about war so compelling, commanding and fascinating.
What readers find if they pursue this rich genre is the surprising variety. As one recent undergraduate syllabus put it, the adjectives associated with war literature are varied: “the epic, heroic, realistic, naturalistic, dramatic, satirical, absurd, and poetic or lyric.” Put another way, there are as many different types of war literature as there are experiences about war.
This is becoming clear in the literature of the post-9/11 wars, which have already produced some fine and varied works from a number of perspectives. Phil Klay’s Redeployment, a memorable collection of short stories, has been among the most acclaimed. It has garnered Klay—a Dartmouth graduate and former U.S. Marine who served in Iraq—the National Book Award and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list.
Redeployment also continues the well-worn tradition of examining war’s absurdities and ironies—a tradition that took off during World War I, and has continued with writers as diverse as Jaroslav Hasek, Joseph Heller and Tim O’Brien. Klay’s depiction of what happens to bodies in Iraq’s unforgiving climate—“(l)eave a body in the sun, the outer layer of skin detaches from the lower, and you feel it slide around in your hands”—evokes the same kind of artful and ironic description of horror that undergirded the work of the memoirists and poets who fought in the trenches of World War I.
Also sharp here are the bureaucratic depictions, something Heller parodied so well in Catch 22. Klay continues this tradition memorably in his depiction of a Foreign Service officer whose humanitarian assignment is to teach a group of Iraqi children the fine points of American baseball. Part of the officer’s unenviable task is, naturally, to record his “success” by taking photographs for the home office. Anyone who has had a similar assignment to depict “good news” of the humanitarian sort will recognize the absurdity: the kid at bat “swung as though he were using the bat to beat someone to death, lifting it overhead and bringing it brutally down.”
What one remembers about Klay’s work, though, is the poignant description of the strange dislocations soldiers face in returning to a country that pays lip service, but little else, to their service and sacrifice. At their best, these stories merit comparisons to the work of Ernest Hemingway, who explored similar themes. In Redeployment’s title story, an Iraq war veteran whose experiences in war included shooting dogs that feasted on human flesh finds himself back in suburbia pondering an unexpected and unwelcome decision about a house pet.
A veteran enrolled at a prestigious law school finds himself playing the role of “the Marine” among fellow students he neither likes nor respects: “Some of them, highly educated kids at a top five law school, didn’t even know what the Marines Corps did. (‘It’s like a stronger Army, right?’)” And the soldier who pulled mortuary duty finds himself playing a similar role when he recounts his gruesome experiences to those he meets. “There are two ways to tell the story,” he says. “Funny or sad. Guys like it funny, with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad, with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze upon the horrors of war they can’t quite see.”
If Klay’s work represents the latest version of the absurd and satirical (though with realism aplenty), Elliot Ackerman’s Green on Blue might be an example of realistic, naturalist and dramatic. But there is a key distinction. Ackerman, who served tours of duty in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has chosen not to chronicle war through American eyes but rather through a first-person narrative of a young Afghan named Aziz who finds himself suddenly thrown into war. The result is an uncommonly fine novel, one Americans need to read—and heed. (The title refers to the military term for Afghan violence against American forces.)
The decision to tell a story through an Afghan lens is, of course, potentially problematic. In his New York Times review of the novel, Tom Bissell rightly focused on those likely to criticize an American author—and a former soldier, at that—for committing “an act of cultural appropriation.”
Bissell said these critics are guilty of embracing “the revenge of the intellect upon the imagination—the perfect lens for someone who knows everything about art except what it’s for.” Yet, as Bissell rightly points out, nearly “every artist interested in what’s beyond our ‘tiny skull-sized kingdoms’ (to use David Foster Wallace’s phrase) is guilty of appropriation. Would that it happened more often; if Ackerman’s novel is any indication, there would be fewer wars if it did.”
To that, I say “bravo” to appropriation. But let’s view it even more broadly. Not to take away anything from Phil Klay’s accomplishment in depicting the American experience in a far-away war, but Americans would be greatly served if we had greater access to more fiction, memoirs and poetry from those who have experienced the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan from “the other side.”
One book that is worthy of such attention is Hassan Blasim’s The Corpse Exhibition and Other Stories of Iraq, a collection of short stories and vignettes that, luckily, has been translated from Arabic into English. Blasim’s vision is unremittingly dark and pessimistic. His narratives are crafted by an Iraqi writer and war refugee who has obviously read his Kafka and Borges. Blasim now lives in Finland.
Blasim’s is an important voice that reveals to Western readers how war can cripple and crush an entire society not only physically but spiritually: “The wars and the violence were like a photocopier churning out copies, and we all wore the same face, a face shaped by pain and torment. We fought for every morsel we ate, weighed down by the sadness and the fears generated by the unknown and the known,” laments the narrator of one story.
Still, Blasim’s work is something of an anomaly. Given the realities of the publishing world in the United States, we are not likely to get more works like these in great numbers, which is why Ackerman’s novel is so welcome.
Green on Blue strongly suggests that, in many ways, the war in Afghanistan is not and never was an American war. In a telling example, the sole American in Green on Blue is a shadowy figure named Mr. Jack, whom Aziz judges harshly from the beginning: “He had a great affection for the American West,” Aziz says of Mr. Jack. “He thought we Afghans did not understand what it meant to be named after the Indians of his country, but we understood. To us, it seemed a small but misguided sort of insult. For our tribes had never been conquered.”
A brutally salient point. Afghanistan has entangled Americans, surely. But the war there has never been fully defined by Americans. The U.S. entry in Afghanistan in late 2001 came as unresolved conflicts between different factions—and not just the Taliban and its opponents—still plagued and troubled Afghanistan. The result? In the 14 years since, faction has played off faction, clan has played off clan. In Vietnam, the United States recognized an enemy. In Afghanistan, all is murky. U.S.-backed warlords and tribal leaders have masterfully played the United States for their own purposes.
Aziz’s troubled experience mirrors this murkiness. As a way to support a brother crippled in a terrorist bombing, Aziz is drafted into a U.S.-funded militia. The young man is trapped by circumstances. Aziz’s own allegiances and loyalties begin to shift—out of loyalty to his brother, mainly, but also by a growing and chilling realization that there are those in the world who profit from war, permanent war. “War only ends for those who allow others to fight for them, but there is always fighting,” Aziz’s commander reminds his charge.
Aziz himself comes to recognize that “this war’s true nature [was] that it had no sides. Each was the same as another.” In contrast, a veteran of the mujahid battle against the Soviet Union recalls he and others were fighting for better times for all. “Now the cause is war for advantage, war for profit, not a future.” The book’s shattering climax confirms this sad truism.
Green on Blue has a few imperfections. Sometimes the narrative becomes too clotted and thick, and a romantic sub-plot sometimes distracts. Still, it is a beautifully and sensitively written book—a courageous, empathetic and much-needed piece of work for a public that has not often enough appreciated the human toll exacted in these confounding recent wars.