War Narratives #4: Meet the Civilians
James Webb’s classic novel Fields of Fire opens with short vignettes of the lives of his characters as civilians—before Marine Corps boot camp, before they went off to war. This brief glimpse of their civilian lives, sometimes tragic and sometimes violent, helps their tromp through the jungles of Vietnam make sense in the chapters and pages that follow. Each character comes from a long line of fighters, some of them patriots and some of them mere survivors, and together they test those lineages while at war.
Jesse Goolsby turns this structure on its head in his Afghanistan-era novel, I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them. Instead of allowing his readers to discover his main characters—Dax, Wintric, and Torres—first as individual civilians, Goolsby introduces them together during wartime missions. Together they conduct medical missions and patrols, and together they man a checkpoint where they fire on and kill a young Afghan girl who approaches their checkpoint on a suicide mission. Only after revealing this collective trauma does Gooslby allow the reader to follow them as they go their own ways and endure unique challenges in their civilian lives.
Goolsby doesn’t just take his characters from wartime to the peacetime battlefield of post-traumatic stress disorder. He takes them all the way back to the 1990s, when his characters were in high school, before the wars, before they even met each other. This allows Goolsby to depict their worldviews, their broken trusts, and the (mostly limited) options they has before joining the military. These things, Goolsby seems to imply, defined these men, and these things, when filtered through the novel’s single traumatic event, determine how they manage to cope.
His characters’ relatively mundane civilian lives allow Goolsby to explore his real interest in I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them. He focuses on the simple idea that what is seen and what is known to be are not always aligned. Or, as one of his characters puts it, “you can’t trust your eyes.” This metaphor appears throughout the novel: it is a winter fire that does not produce any smoke; it is people who are searching for nothing; it is a nation that fights a war but is not engaged in it; it is an American small town that welcomes home heroes that it can never truly understand. The main characters are fine when they come home, but only on the outside.
Even when they are deployed together and relying on each other for survival, Dax, Wintric, and Torres are not quite the band of brothers that is so often portrayed in war stories. As they go their own ways, they experience traumas similar to those they put others through in Afghanistan, traumas that will haunt them, defeat them repeatedly, and even slowly maim and destroy them as they seek a peaceful return to civilian life. They are not just alone from each other (occasionally reconnecting for phone calls during long drives), but disconnected from important people in their lives: spouses, children, and childhood friends. By the end, their stories are so separate, so distinct, that the novel’s resolution tests the reader’s expectations for any sort of closure. When they no longer have each other to rely on, Dax, Wintric, and Torres turn to other dependencies—drugs, alcohol, vengeance—to deal with the things they saw, with what they did or failed to do. Each character achieves independence in his own way, but independence winds up looking a lot like loneliness, as the title suggests.
In exploring the distinctions between what is seen and what is known, Goolsby sets his book apart as something unique in Afghanistan and Iraq War fiction. Although it hits some of the same themes and settings as Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s novel The Watch, I’d Walk With My Friends if I Could Find Them is a better and a more interesting effort. It avoids satire like David Abrams’s excellent Fobbit almost altogether; it is more like the short fiction in Matt Gallagher’s Fire and Forget, in that it focuses on what comes after the war, but as a full-length novel it can explore this theme in greater depth. Goolsby digs into a central truth: no matter how much you disliked the war while you were there, you’ll never have anything like it again.
As others have pointed out, the central trauma of this novel is a bit of a cliché: scenes describing tense standoffs involving local national children being shot by American soldiers manning checkpoints are common in fiction from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and this work relies heavily on the same type of scene. The dialogue is edgy and choppy, at times universally so for each character in the book, which can be difficult to believe. And the foundation of the novel itself is a cliché: that these men, Dax, Wintric, and Torres, went to combat only to come home and fight for their lives in peacetime. Even so, I Would Walk With My Friends If I Could Find Them is compelling. It examines these wars and their aftermath in a way that few other novels have explored.