The relationship at the center of the novel is a metaphor for the war at its margins: the confusion, the misread signals, the certainty about things that turn out to be entirely wrong, the projection of motivations onto the other—these things reflect much of our modern experience with war, where the casus belli and the true causes are not identical, where clandestine actors exert unreasonable influence (who did write that letter?) before disappearing from history. The damage, once done, is irreversible and devastating, often deadly, and comes to seem inevitable.
I set down The Last War feeling that we are all exiles—from our pasts, from our feelings, from our human race. We are exiled from friendship and love and success and meaning. We are exiled from living. I identified with Flash, but I also disliked her, in the way you both love and hate a former version of yourself. The novel captures the spiritual experience of the early years of George W. Bush and his war in Iraq, he emotional distance and misinformation of that time. In the final chapter, Flash springs to life when a bomb explodes, grabbing her camera and heading into the action, capturing death and horror and suffering through her lens. The scene has a terrifying sense of detachment—even when the police reproach her for taking photos of the blood and bodies and frightened children, she keeps snapping away. Her retelling keeps count coldly, like an inventory:
Two men suspended in time as they carry a third on a salvaged door.
A bloody hand.
An old woman, head covered in a flowered scarf, mouth open in a scream.
It may be essential to her art, to her job, to who she is in the world, but Flash is always on the other side of the lens, just as Menendez’s Cuban exiles were on the other side of the Florida Straits, just as Ovid was on the other side of the empire. Being an exile can take many forms—it is an experience unique to no person, nation, or era—but it does not end.