A Review of Matthew Eck’s The Farther Shore
“The war is now a story. How will it get told?” – William T. Vollmann
Humanitarianism morphed into nation-building and then things really fell apart. U.S. forces in Somalia were pursuing a warlord named Mohammed Farah Aidid when a seventeen-hour battle erupted in Mogadishu on October 3, 1993. Hundreds of Somalis and eighteen U.S. soldiers died.
Those sympathetic to Aidid dragged mangled American corpses through the streets. President Clinton ditched the mission and Aidid died three years later, gunned down either by rival factions or the CIA.
Like Korea, Somalia has nearly faded from the American consciousness. But for those who fought its battles, like Matthew Eck, the mental lacerations of combat haven’t dissipated from memory much at all. In his debut, The Farther Shore, the thirty four-year-old Eck—who served in Somalia—constructs a spare, riveting, quietly objective tour de force. Though one might ask of war (as with love), “What’s there new to say?” Eck’s story replies: Everything, always. In Eck’s novel there’s no convoluted drama, no wild emotion. All that gets drained away, leaving the hardened narrative of a soldier struggling to survive a mission gone bad. Eck drops us into that action, injects us with detail, then leaves us shaking in our chairs, needle wounds still raw. It’s thrilling. It’s appalling. It’s a drug called war.
“Major war novels are not difficult to write,” wrote Norman Mailer, “it is just difficult to find writers of sizable talent who come close to war.” Eck seemed on the path to battle from birth (born at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, he went straight from high school to the army). Still, war’s left him deeply jaded, a conceit he implants in his main character, Joshua Stantz, from the outset. Bombs start falling in the second sentence as Stantz’s company calls in targets, softening the city for invasion. Looking into the night, Stantz thinks: “All of those people, desperate and terrified, dreaming in the darkness, made me feel small.” A moment later his commander, Lieutenant Santiago, instructs him to “stop thinking so much.” Soon though it’s not just Stantz who’s feeling squeezed by fear and doubt. His partner Cooper whispers, “It’s Sunday and I’m still afraid.”
Stantz tries to reassure Cooper, agreeing when Cooper half-wonders, half-asserts that “not too many people die on Sunday, isn’t that right?” This is story-telling that leads us by the collar to the nitty-gritty ground floor, to the individual agonies of soldiering, which is where war literature must go if it’s to have integrity. “Just remember,” a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel told reporter Chris Hedges during the first Gulf War, “none of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap the politicians feed the public. They are fighting for each other, just for each other.”
The book explodes like an IED twenty pages later. It’s morning, still dark, all’s gone well with the soldiers’ objectives so far: they’ve rattled off a slew of targets from their post in an abandoned building, they’re waiting out the bombing, and they’re planning to head to a junked arena nearby for pick-up. Just before they scram, Stantz hears whispering. The six soldiers’ snap alert. Shapes emerge from the murk and then there’s gunfire: “Zeller lit into the darkness, his weapon rattling to life. My ears filled with a tremendous ringing.” The troops approach their victims: two boys, blood spreading in pools beneath them, one dead and the other dying. It’s a jolting scene and, in the age of “collateral damage,” a strikingly modern one.
Hell unfolds methodically. Word of the killings spreads rapidly throughout the city—a city bristling with well-armed, vengeful clans. By the time Stantz and his buddies reach their stadium rendezvous, the enemy is after them. Two U.S. choppers arrive and the arena’s shadows begin spewing machine-gun fire and rockets. Two GIs jump safely aboard the first helicopter but the second takes damage and flees. On the ground, one of the four remaining—Cooper—gets shot, crumples, bleeds everywhere. Carrying him, his three companions bolt, dodging bullets all the way.
The four escape to a dingy hotel room. There’s shit smeared on the wall and a child hiding in the closet. “Her shirt,” writes Eck, “barely covered her belly, and she was wearing nothing more than a dirty pair of underwear with a piece of rope tied at the waist to hold them up.” She climbs all over Stantz and smells “like piss and onions.” There are more youngsters to be shooed away—not just in the room, “laughing and pointing,” but throughout the novel. The innocent, depraved, strangely cheery but wasted-looking kids pop up scene after scene. Towards the story’s end, long after Cooper’s corpse has been abandoned, long after Stantz, Santiago, and Zeller have escaped the city to wander the coast hoping for rescue (it’s that wandering that comprises the remainder of the novel), Stantz encounters another girl, following playfully. He tries to lose her, “but each time I turned around, she was trailing along behind me still smiling.” She thinks it’s a game and Stantz’s exhausted. He duct tapes her ankles together and sprints away. Glancing back, “the look on her face as she tried to hop after me was painful.”
Stantz also dwells on the two kids his company shot. “I wondered if the parents of the dead children could possibly forgive us. But I knew better. If you killed children, I thought, the world stirred in the end, and somewhere someone would be expecting justice.” His tortured replaying of the incident is reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s recollection of a Vietnamese boy he may or may not have killed, recalled in The Things They Carried. At the same time, the enemy in Somalia has “twelve-year-olds doing the fighting for them.” Eck plunges into the turmoil of the soldier’s mind, capturing the tragic pageant of modern warfare, where a child can be either predator or prey.
Towards the end of the book, Stantz, now on his own, finds himself picked up by a U.S. reconnaissance squad. Someone spots a tarantula and kicks it into the circle. Each guy dishes a knife at it. Everyone misses until someone pegs it with a stick, popping it into the air, then a soldier named Clip “stabbed his bayonet through the tarantula’s fat body. Its legs churned, but the blade was stuck firmly in the ground.” Clip pulls up the blade, spider dangling messily, and flicks a lighter, roasting it. The scene calls to mind the moment in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida where Hector, surrounded by Achilles’ soldiers, begs for mercy, asking Achilles not to strike since he, Hector, faces such a disadvantage. But Achilles has no honor. He and his troops assault Hector gleefully:
Achilles: Look, Hector, how the sun begins to set, how ugly night comes breathing at his heels; even with the vail and dark’ning of the sun, to close the day up. Hector’s life is done.
Hector: I am unarm’d, forgo this vantage.
Achilles: Strike, fellows, strike, this is the man I seek. So, Ilion, fall thou next! Come, Troy, sink down! Here lies thy heart, thy sinews, and thy bone. On Myrmidons, and cry you all amain, “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain!”
After the tarantula’s been torched, the G.I. in charge decides enough’s enough. “Stop fucking around,” he says, and the fun’s over.
Though it’s different in other ways (voice, scope), the psychological disorientation embedded within the laconic wartime humor of Kurt Vonnegut shares ground with Eck’s pointed tones. Eck’s book is never really laugh-out-loud funny, but it’s spare and biting with a Vonnegut-like power for cutting to the quick. “Weary asked Billy what he thought the worst form of execution was,” Vonnegut writes in Slaughter-house Five. “Billy had no opinion. The correct answer turned out to be this: ‘You stake a guy out on an anthill in the desert—see? He’s facing upward, and you put honey all over his balls and pecker, and you cut off his eyelids so he has to stare at the sun till he dies.’ So it goes.”
With a similarly unflinching line, Eck lays down the scene just after aerial bombardment’s separated Stantz from Santiago and Zeller. “Several men ran at me, wanting the 9mm. I shot the first one that reached for it. He was a little old man. The others stopped…I asked, gesturing, if they’d seen my friends. They looked at each other, confused. ‘The other two,’ I screamed. A man directly across the ditch from me smiled strangely.”
Eck’s prose has bewildering, sudden beauty. It’s fitting. Form meets subject matter: the stripped down sentences, the sturdiness of every phrase, the Beckett-style vaguenesses—like how few proper names (cities, bodies of water, leaders) are divulged—all contribute to a climate of discombobulation, of “collective insanity,” to use Hedges’ words. Stantz admits “the world was quickly slipping away from us.” Hedges couches this as the terrifying, unexpected loss of control as well as the loss of a soldier’s innocent illusions: “Here was war, real war, sensory war…disconcerting, frightening, and disorganized. There was nothing gallant or heroic, nothing redeeming. It controlled me. I would never control it.”
“What goes on in the mind of a soldier in combat?” asks psychologist and former U.S. Army Ranger David Grossman in On Killing. “What are the emotional reactions and underlying processes that cause the vast majority of those who survive sustained combat to ultimately slip into insanity?” For Eck’s characters, it’s the erosion of resolve, of moral certitude, of anything stable to hold onto. War infests their lives, infecting every decision. “It’s ruin and the rhythm of ruin…you just can’t escape it in a place like this,” writes Eck. “We’re so far gone I can’t feel myself anymore.”
This is a far cry from the patriotic trumpets of politicians and rabid news commentators. The promise of heroism has evaporated. The contrast between that easy illusion and the gritty reality of combat becomes obvious to Eck’s characters: “‘I bet they’ll make a movie about us,’ Zeller said. His face was thin and pale by now, and his eyes were sunk deep in their sockets, surrounded by dark shadows…I wondered what I looked like. Maybe like a hero.” The three imagine appearing on the Charlie Rose show. But that notion only highlights the desolation of their current situation, the extent of their helplessness.
Fear is familiar as our own bodies, ancient as ruins. But the confusion-laced atmosphere imposed on modern soldiers is a newer pressure. “Even the years-long sieges of previous centuries provided ample respites from combat,” writes Grossman, “largely due to limitations of artillery and tactics. The actual times of personal risk were seldom more than a few hours in duration.” Not so anymore. Our technologies and capacities for warmaking have outstripped our psychological facilities to endure. That’s why Anthony Swofford, in his Gulf War novel Jarhead, terms military service and its drain on his soul “the Suck.” It’s no surprise, as Stantz is preparing to ship out, that he’s scrutinized by psychologists and chaplains. They want to know if he’ll go crazy back in the States. He just wants to go home. “Do you think this is something that will stay with you?” asks a chaplain. “I…knew I had to answer, or they’d send me to someplace awful. ‘No,’ I said. ‘I’ll never remember it all.’”
Home for Stantz is Wichita, an assemblage of suburbs and buildings leftover from its cow town days. Saturday nights are empty affairs: the nightlife’s 250 miles northeast in Lawrence or Kansas City. There’s no place like home for Stantz (who, like any Kansan, knows every Dorothy joke), but as the existential chaos of war steadily destabilizes him, Stantz feels increasingly adrift, cut off from that Oz-like ideal. “We always love what is lost to us,” writes Eck. Stantz thinks often of his parents’ home in Wichita, their “back patio and red picnic table… passing storms, dark and radiant over the plains.” And Somalia’s rain—the three lost soldiers get caught in a monsoon—“still didn’t taste like the rain I remembered from home.”
As the book’s title suggests, Eck wants us to feel the chasms opening up between one person and another, between one place and another, between this life and whatever’s next. Chasms made deeper and more achingly obvious by war. We are stranded, Eck insists. The farther shore fades, eludes. As the helicopters abandon Stantz and his buddies in the book’s opening pages, he hears the fading thud of rotors. “They were leaving us,” he thinks, stunned. But Stantz is also haunted by those he’s let go: “My thoughts turned to times when I hadn’t done enough to save others as they went down into the swell and disappeared beneath the waves of this world. And there I was standing on the farther shore, hoping they would surface again.” The men conclude they’re lost even to themselves. “We’ll never get right with the world again,” says Santiago just before the book closes. Stantz’s isolation keeps coming at him, even after he’s rescued. “I love you, Mom,” he says on the phone. “I love you too,” she says. “Then there was a click, followed by the silence of thousands of miles.”
Why do intelligent young men and women like Stantz enlist their way into something that messes them up? Why be a grunt? Why fight? There are obvious, age-old answers: nationalism, pride, money—Stantz just wants to go to college, a rationale which his superiors find repulsively un-heroic, but one common in a military peopled by the poor. Eck points to something else, echoed by the title of Chris Hedges’ book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning. Stantz initially calls the mission “a burden we adored.” Then there’s the outright thrill of combat. After the company kills the two boys, and regrets it for a few minutes, they’re overcome by an outlandish and seemingly opposite emotion: excitement. “I felt renewed in the world, alive and well,” says Stantz, listening to bombs hammering Mogadishu. “The heat of my sickness was gone, replaced by a sensation of light and power. I leaned further forward, smiling.” This, Hedges would say, is “the seductiveness of violence, the fascination with the grotesque…the god-like empowerment over other human lives.”
Eck is too good a writer for polemics. He nuances everything, and thus builds the illusion of objectivity. War fiction that endures translates degeneration from abstraction into emotion, into sights, sounds, and symbols. We smell flesh, hear crying, see bodies before our inner eyes, and we encounter all this in a well-told story. This way, no matter what we think of war, we aren’t removed from it. A looser hand might permit the narrative to slide into grotesquerie, but in carefully hewn, restrained prose, Eck, like Hemingway or O’Brien, conjures up a world of alienated soldiers and innocents who collide and cling to one another. He leaves us confused and viscerally disgusted but, to our horror, with blood hot in our cheeks. We finish the book and return to the homeland of our individual lives, a final disorientation anticipated in Stantz’s ironically calm thoughts of his post-Somalia life. “I’d tell them I’d lived abroad, maybe in Prague,” he shrugs, imagining seeing old friends and meeting new ones. “I’d tell them the world was a beautiful place.”