“It is the job of literature to confront the terrible truths of what war has done and continues to do to us,” novelist Colum McCann writes in the foreword for Matt Gallagher and Roy Scranton’s new collection of wartime short stories, Fire and Forget. “It is also the job of literature to make sense of whatever small beauty we can rescue from the maelstrom,” he continues. When the combat veteran tells stories based on their own experiences, McCann adds, the literature takes on a new dimension, becoming a “fervent, and occasionally anguished political act,” but an act that provides truths and interpretations that cannot be provided by non-fiction sources.
If McCann is correct about these special roles of literature, then the stories that follow his introduction do not disappoint. Fire and Forget combines the work of fifteen authors, some established contributors to the national wartime dialogue through their fiction and poetry alongside many new voices. The stories within the collection are as diverse as their authors, effectively addressing subjects from a perspective that has not been covered very well from various forms of American media over the last decade. They focus on the gritty sides of the wars that America has been shielded from, telling of its human impact, and challenging the narratives that are so often unquestioningly perpetuated and defended in newscasts, memoirs, and other media.
As individual stories, many presented in Fire and Forget are among the first to explore the variety of narrative opportunities that these wars offer. A group of soldiers reconnects in New York City after their war; a female soldier with survivor’s guilt rides a train to meet her mother; several soldiers gaggle together to deal with another memorial service the best that they can, relying on irony and sarcasm to make it through; a young soldier with traumatic brain injury attempts to reintegrate into his previous life. Collectively, they provide a snapshot of the moment following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a combined national exhale following ten difficult years.
Further supporting McCann’s assertions, the characters of these stories spend a considerable amount of time exploring the distance between the American culture and the military they served in during wartime. They are open about the lies that they tell their families back home because their loved ones cannot understand the depth of what they are experiencing; they squirm, finding themselves somewhere in between committed military volunteers and sheltered bystanders; and they try to figure out who they really are as individuals against all of those who have already decided their identities for them.
Although as a collection they offer no coherent narrative, they do combine to offer insights into what sorts of “anguished political acts” they were attempting in their writing, often through broad ironies. The first irony is seen as several of the characters in these stories discuss how difficult it is to talk about Iraq, suggesting that if such is true, then at least these authors can do so through fiction, as McCann suggests. Their discomfort, the differences that they represent as outsiders, and sometimes their simple inability to reintegrate is commonly shown through this distance, a fact that cannot help but comment upon the growing divide between the nation’s military and its civilian populace.
Second, nearly all of these authors write about their wars as events of the past, suggesting a subtle sense of irony on the part of editors who would name their collection Fire and Forget. These stories are not just written in past tense, but rather, often written from the perspective of the veteran, the one who has seen war and returned, not from the in-the-moment perspective of the combat soldier. This reflective style provides for a richer context for the stories, taking into account the wars as a part of the individual characters’ histories instead of merely defining them by their raw experiences as non-fiction and media accounts tend to do. Though there is no mention that any of this consistent approach was coordinated by the editors, it does suggest a political statement of its own: forgetting these wars for these authors would be impossible, even if they wanted to.
While some of the authors, like Colby Buzzell, David Abrams, Matt Gallagher, Siobhan Fallon, and Brian Turner, are well known contributors to the literature of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, others are less known but no less significant. This book provides real value in giving these lesser-known authors an opportunity to share and to write fiction about their wars, to tell those truths about the violence they experienced as well as the distance they feel upon their return. These authors, who experienced the war firsthand, do a magnificent job of accounting for their war years in ways that many who have not shared in their experiences may find difficult or alien, which, no doubt, is at least part of the point of the collection.
That point, and the authors chosen to make it, provides the essential credibility for this work, which is also its primary significance. The credibility does not just help this work in terms of its art, but also in terms of its political message. At least this early in the discussion, only these authors and others like them, could engage in challenging sacred American narratives of good verses evil as America fights its enemies abroad. Only they could challenge the image of the sterile warzone depicted by journalists to their partisans on any given night. The fact that they do so effectively gives hope that Fire and Forget will be merely the first of many to do so.