War Narratives #1: Truth and Fiction

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The notion that the truth about combat cannot be described in a book goes back to the American Civil War, at least. “The real war will never get in the books,” wrote Walt Whitman. “In the mushy influences of the current times, too,” he continued somewhat cryptically, “the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten.” Whether Whitman meant that the country was moving on, or that the truth would always be veiled by politics and memory, he believed the darkest tragedies of his war were lost—unexplainable to those who never served or saw it firsthand.

Paul Fussell appropriated Whitman’s quote for a chapter title in his book Wartime. In Wartime, Fussell argues that no book can truly capture the experiences of those who served in combat in World War II for those who didn’t—not journalism, not memoirs, and certainly not novels—because the experiential divide between civilians and soldiers is too great. He writes that soldiers knew their war was being “systematically sanitized” for the home front by a media that had been, at worst, co-opted to support the war effort, and at best was merely inclined to present the bright side. He chastises journalistsWartime like John Steinbeck and Ernie Pyle for ignoring the vicious realities of the war and giving “the audience at home the impression that there were no cowards in the service, no thieves and rapists and looters, no cruel or stupid commanders.”

For Fussell, the divide between experience and perception allowed the deployed soldier to take a “sardonic, contemptuous attitude” toward the American public—an attitude that set the tone for many of the great works of fiction that the war produced. Even so, Fussell insists that “the real war is unlikely to be found in novels” because novels “must exhibit, if not plot, at least pace, and their characters tend to assume the cliché forms demanded by Hollywood, even new Hollywood.” And “despite undoubted success as engaging narrative, few novels of the war have succeeded in making a motive, almost a character, of a predominant wartime emotion, boredom, or persuading readers that the horrors have not been melodramatized.”

While Whitman seemed to denounce nonfiction in particular, and Fussell was critical of both fiction and nonfiction, Tom Wolfe focused his remarks on the fiction Vietnam War. In his classic Harper’s essay, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Wolfe condemns the publishers of his day, depicting them as scanning the streets of the city through their office windows and waiting for “the young novelists who, surely, would bring them the big novels of the racial clashes, the hippie movement, the New Left, the Wall Street boom, the sexual revolution, the war in Vietnam.” Wolfe concludes that such writers simply “no longer existed,” that the fiction of the day lacked the realism necessary to tackle such stories.

By 2010, nearly a decade into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, countless nonfiction works had been written by soldiers, civilians, journalists, and others. Some people wondered when the fiction would begin to arrive. Writing for the Atlantic Monthly, Iraq War memoirist Matt Gallagher asked, “Where’s the Great Novel About the War on Terror?” Through his essay, which was one of the first to tackle the subject in such depth, Gallagher examined possible explanations, such as the need for time to process wartime experiences in fiction,Billy Lynns Long Halftime Walk the unprecedented civil-military divide (due in part to the all-volunteer force), and the lack of a market for novels from his war.

Geoff Dyer, in his 2010 essay “The Moral Art of War,” addresses some of the same subjects. Dyer argues that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the “defining stories of our time”; that they provide for some of the greatest writing of the day. But he expected those stories to be told through fiction. Only a small number of nonfiction authors were ably conveying the human stories of the wars, while the same human stories were not being seriously examined through fiction.

Since then, there has been a small explosion in literary fiction coming out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Authors—civilian and military alike—have made tremendous contributions to the discussion with works like David Abrams’s Fobbit, Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men are Gone, Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. In 2014, Phil Klay received the National Book Award for fiction for Redeployment. In fact, so much attention has been paid to these writers that some have suggested they have been given a literary free pass.

Maybe these critics of the fiction coming from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are correct, and these authors are benefitting from some sort of patronizing goodwill that is the result of national guilt for sending them to wars in the first place. But it is also possible that we have a desire for war stories told in new ways—that fiction from these wars tells truths that have been missing since the wars began.

America’s first truly postmodern wars began at a time when postmodern thought had worked its way into American life. While America’s technologically advanced military has struggled mightily against largely diffuse and disorganized foes using makeshift weaponry, American’s consumption of media has become extraordinarily personalized. Our wartime stories have been presented through media narratives that tend to conform to deeply fragmented social and political views.

RedeploymentThe “real war” that Whitman and Fussell and Wolfe described cannot be captured in global, objective terms. Rather, it happens through personal narratives that explore subjective truths. These truths are vividly on display in extraordinary works of fiction from the current generation of veteran writers. And they are coming from the diverse perspectives of civilian writers, too.

These new authors do an unprecedented job of challenging the existing narratives of war. Their fiction directly and aggressively militates against the sterile and sensational depictions of the wars that have been presented in nonfiction works. By not making any claims to universal truths, these authors are able to guffaw at the absurdity of military life, to object to the categorical heroism attributed to every soldier during wartime instead, and to examine the coarse lives led by veterans after combat.

Collectively, these works accomplish what Whitman, Fussell, Wolfe, and others said could not be done. And I will be exploring the new stories coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, individually and collectively, in this new Rumpus column, War Narratives.


Caleb S. Cage is a graduate of the United States Military Academy, West Point, and a veteran of the Iraq War. He is the co-author of the book, The Gods of Diyala: Transfer of Command in Iraq (Texas A&M, 2008), about his time as a platoon leader, and his essays and fiction have appeared in War, Literature, and the Arts, Red Rock Review, High Country News, Small Wars Journal, and various other publications and anthologies. More from this author →