Days of Uncertainty: Fiction from the G.W.O.T.

It was a confusing decade.  U.S. forces swept across the Iraqi desert in perfect formation, then found themselves saddled by the prosecution of a war whose rationale was as garbled as a really bad game of Telephone; young Americans operated military hardware demanding pinpoint precision, then got lost in civilian life; a president made a speech on TV about freedoms and sacrifice and “history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies,” then enterprises inside our borders went belly up, lie after lie bubbling to the surface.  A particularly notorious offender was Texas-based; its CEO a major contributor to the president’s domestic agenda; the toxic accounts where they buried their debt named after Star Wars characters.  Online, anyone can view footage of the former president delivering his September 2001 address to the joint session of Congress.  His voice tightens when he delivers the line: “The course of this conflict is not known… and yet its outcome is certain.” That old Harrison-Ford-is-pissed-off register, silver screen braggadocio.

Even the terrorists derived their nightmare hunger for spectacle from American fiction.  Their leaders and suicides employ a kind of DIY reality TV aesthetic to seduce those who would also give their lives to the terrorist cause.  Al-Qaeda exists not despite technology but because of it. It may be difficult to awaken George Orwell so that he can tell viewing audiences at home that in no way did he intend the novel 1984 as a blueprint, the model for a country, or world, where our relationships to the screens we watch, screens that can watch us back, are a prime signal of our psychological and emotional well-being.

In the recent anthology of fiction, Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (edited by Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton), Roman Skaskiw’s short story, “Television,” stands out among a varied set.  Skaskiw renders what may or may not be an average sequence of days for an army platoon in Iraq as a Lieutenant Sugar is tasked with sorting out the aftermath of an Iraqi child’s shooting following the detonation of an IED on an army convoy.  The blast “demolished a windshield and rang eardrums, but there was no follow-up ambush, there were no secondary IEDs, and it was just a single blast between trucks—not a daisy chain of detonations.  No one was hurt, just a local kid they shot.” The sharp final clause, “just a local kid they shot” captures the general sentiment within this clutch of US troops, whose lives are guided by orders first, and looking after each other second.  Yet, as do the masters of subtle fiction—Chekov, Babel, Didion—Skaskiw freights the clause in such a way that his story lives in contradiction to it: medics break from watching a DVD to treat the wounded boy, only to return to the movie as a group and find “it wasn’t there the same way it had been.”; a colonel debriefs the sergeant who pulled the trigger by emphasizing he is not at fault while still encouraging him “to think about what he could have done differently, if anything at all, that would have resulted in getting these guys, or in not hurting the kid, unless of course the kid set off the IED.”; the next morning Lieutenant Sugar awakens “with morning too close to ignore.”

Fiction, like life, is all in the tension, and “Television” evokes it expertly, the kind that may be totally commonplace or of deep consequence, depending.  In the same way, the experiences of a soldier’s daily rounds are a lived mixed message, tedium counterpoised by fear, and desire to channel the fear, of sudden and transfiguring harm.

Other stories in the anthology move outward from the same thematic axis, their protagonists teetering between the role of victim and perpetrator.  Siobhan Fallon’s “Tips for a Smooth Transition” frames the events of a husband’s return home with his wife’s reading of a pamphlet on the symptoms of PTSD.  “Play the Game” by Colby Buzzell follows a returnee to the outskirts of Los Angeles whose sly humor masks strange perceptions surrounding his missing car; the instinct to stereotype others, key to survival when much of overseas combat lies in identifying a disguised enemy, alienates him, a guy who is himself conscious of being conflated with stereotypes in the eyes of well-meaning or outright patronizing civilians.  In “New Me,” Andrew Slater depicts a severely wounded vet’s efforts at resuming his life, with days as an uncomfortable Tractor Supply Specialist, evenings near a patient and supportive fiancé, and nights of disturbing images.

Phil Klay’s deftly told “Redeployment” tracks a sergeant’s inability to adjust to home-life as he faces putting down his old dog.  The narrative, a tightly woven fabric of memories and reencounters with the ordinary, culminates like The Castle in the Forest, Norman Mailer’s rip-roaringly obscene final novel: “You can get through anything,” Klay’s sergeant reports, “one step at a time.” What distinguishes this man from what he sees as the civilian population’s naïveté is the memory of what it’s like “the first time you’re in a firefight, or the first time an IED goes off that you missed, and you realize that everybody’s life, everybody’s life, depends on you not fucking up.  And you depend on them.”

Gavin Ford Kovite’s near-perfect “When Engaging Targets, Remember” presents a combat-fated convoy as absurdist Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.  Brian Van Reet and anthology editor Matt Gallagher both give punk-spirited revamps of 20th century masterpieces, Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River” and Salinger’s “A Perfect Day For Banana-Fish.” Brian Turner uses smooth turns of phrase to describe the mystical experience of a sandstorm, and Mariette Kalinowski earnestly conveys the agony of remembering the close-at-hand death of a friend.  Fobbit author David Abrams gives a succinct, unsentimental account of a soldier’s memorial service on base.  Gallagher’s co-editor Roy Scranton ends the anthology with dialogue-anchored “Red Steel India,” featuring soldiers on guard duty, their manner somewhere between Abu Ghraib and Beckett (Abu Ghraib is actually the one military misadventure Beckett could have foretold): “We’re mission essential.  We’re the tip of the goddamn spear,” says the one who can’t shut-up.

In War, his book to accompany documentary Restrepo, Sebastian Junger writes that the military is where those who volunteer feel “not most alive… but the most utilized.  The most necessary.  The most clear and certain and purposeful.  If young men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to war again, but they can’t.” If there is a center to American identity, military life and the aim to which the military is put must be near that center.

A transcendent sense of national purpose may or may not have any place in the American present: the great public works projects of yesterday are a dim memory, the insistence on budget cuts, lapel-pins, and scandal-mongering ever-present.  About the only thing both parties can agree on is our support for the troops.  Ratings—approval and Nielsen—hang in the balance.

In the past few years anthology editor Matt Gallagher has published essays questioning where the great narratives of the G.W.O.T. are to be found and, more recently, on his personal experience of the civilian-military divide as a resident of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  Since the first piece ran in 2011, a wave of ambitious G.W.O.T. fiction and nonfiction has hit the shelves.  The New Yorker recently featured Will Mackin’s finely tempered short story, “Kattekoppen.” New in the past two years are Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch, and Benjamin Busch’s Dust to Dust.

The soldier lives what, for the civilian population, remains a fictive existence, something experienced vicariously, through filters, flashing screens, the words of Marlow brought back from foreign lands.  Even as the world grows smaller and borders increasingly permeable, even as the enlistee can see on a computer screen or phone the faces of emoting loved ones at home, the divide between here and there is as complete and final as ever.  The challenge for the returnee is putting in words those experiences, that existence, whose hold on their emotions was nearly absolute.  Every one of the voices in Fire and Forget rises to the challenge, and, as each gains in force and measure, the fog of war may clear.

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