War Porn by Roy Scranton

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Roy Scranton’s Iraq War-themed novel War Porn is vile and reprehensible. It viciously insults veterans of every stripe and concludes with no character’s salvation, no hint of redemption.

The book is brilliant in its repellent execution. War Porn gives no comfort, and readers of Iraq and Afghanistan-related fiction deserve no easily digested narratives of tragic heroes. Scranton’s novel lashes readers with the degradation of our last 15 years.

To readers who expect a tidy war story, this book says: How dare you.

War Porn gives what the title promises—war porn, every clichéd anecdote from a thousand veterans’ breathless stories. Scranton (an Army veteran of the Iraq War, freelance journalist, and Notre Dame professor) telegraphs his intention with choppy, nonsensical chapter breaks—a look into the chaotic hivemind of this war. Only a few times do these breaks deliberately make sense as summaries of the war porn of conventional fiction:

This is the story of valor, duty and the cost of war. A young wacky… a wacky bunch of ragtag misfits trying to escape a Nazi prison… a wacky bunch of misfits running an Army hospital in Korea. A ragtag maverick valor war. This is the story of a young man’s war, the story of we happy few.

The book’s three narratives follow unpleasant characters who are unconnected at first. In the first narrative, a group of hippie-ish friends at a cookout meet a National Guardman just back from Iraq, brought to the gathering by his semi-girlfriend. It’s a conglomeration of war story chestnuts—the tattoos, the “were you in the shit” questions, the “close-cropped” hair and “Enemy Combatant” t-shirt. And of course, “I wonder if he has any pictures.”

The scene blows up into an attack on Aaron, the veteran. “Aren’t you ashamed?” he’s asked. Later he’s called a “Nazi asshole” and “fucking facist puke.” It’s every Red State war porn conspiracy of what the educated elite really thinks of soldiers. The 20-something characters are good targets for Scranton; he makes them look pathetic, especially in a country that loves to “support the troops even if I don’t support the war.”

I should go back, Matt thought. I should go back and tell Aaron he’s no longer welcome. I can tell everyone about the pictures. Tell him he has to leave. And if he hits me? Then I’ll hit him back. No I wouldn’t. I’d lie on the ground and they’d laugh… Maybe I should just go talk with her. Be reasonable. Just sit and talk… Explain. Decode. I know you’re upset. I know it’s my fault.

Matt’s girlfriend Delilah is attracted to the rough-and-ready Aaron, despite his latent anger. Each character’s biggest flaw is thinking they’re in control.

She nodded at this, nodding her head, brushing his arm with hers. At a certain point,          climbing down a pair of boulders, he offered his hand for assistance… they stood as if in          another world and looked in each other’s eyes… She felt a little dizzy… then, aloft, she    rose up and kissed him.

When the action shifts to Iraq, the perspective becomes that of Specialist Wilson, a junior troop often engaged in the wastes of time that make up so much of war. He trades harshly racist and misogynistic comments with his friends and apathetically listens to his incompetent commander make mistakes. He’s a mediocre soldier, no warrior, no scholar, despite the pretentious book of poetry he carries around. He’s a joke, a clown with a gun:

Too tired to care whether I’d fucked up or what, so what. Fuck shit fuck whatever… I      jerked awake, pulling my seven-hundred-pound head off the steering wheel. Captain     Yarrow lay slumped against his door, drooling on his armor. The convoy was gone.

Later, he listens to his battalion commander give a “motivational” pep talk:

We have trained months for this, and it is the epitome of our job as soldiers… I know your leaders and they are the best leaders in the Army, and I know your sergeants and they are the best sergeants in the Army. We will succeed and we will be victorious.

In other contexts, this speech would be a patriotic high point. In War Porn, with our 15 years of historical perspective, it is bitterly ironic. It’s an old man running his mouth, saying what he’s expected to say, to soldiers who expect him to say it.

Also in Iraq, Scranton introduces a blundering Iraqi academic trapped in Baghdad, making mistake after mistake as the war closes in around him. He’s not a good guy or a bad guy; he’s a stupid guy. The Iraqi’s pre-invasion hopes and dreams read like bitter ash:

The name Baghdad will sing on the tongues… the name Iraq will jingle like gold coins… and our literature! It’ll flourish like flowers after the rain. No longer will we have to mutter our lines into our hands… We’ll shout our poetry in the streets. I’ll finally finish my epic.

These are all delusions that the Iraqis probably held before the fall, just like the fraud of the colonel’s motivational speech.

War Porn is unforgiving at all turns, and when the plotlines finally intersect and the connections all established, readers are left only the fraud of their own emotions—we want things to work out, for at least somebody. They don’t.

***

In 2013, Scranton co-edited Fire and Forget, one of the first short story collections of fiction derived from the recent wars; his short book, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, is a manifesto on the subject of climate change—but more specifically, how the human race must come to grips with the existential threat of a changing world. With War Porn, Scranton seems to turn his back on the war-lit complex he helped create.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Scranton describes arguing with his friends and fellow authors and fellow Iraq War veterans Matt Gallagher and Phil Klay: “suddenly we’re shouting at each other, arguing over whether or not anything could be redeemed from the Iraq War … I’ve seen a lot of so-called ‘veteran writers’ closing ranks over the last two years… resisting any criticism of their dubious role as hallowed idols…. it’s a disturbing trend.”

Scranton also criticized current war literature in a separate Los Angeles Review of Books essay, where he wrote:

Novels such as The Yellow Birds (by National Book Award finalist Kevin Powers) and stories such as Redeployment (by National Book Award winner Phil Klay) are gross moral and literary failures. But the failure does not belong to the writers. It belongs to all the readers and citizens who expect veterans to play out for them the ritual of trauma and recovery, and to carry for them the collective guilt of war. Such an expectation is the privilege of those who can afford to have others do their killing for him them.

Roy Scranton

Roy Scranton

In War Porn, Scranton holds up his end. His civilian characters are those privileged people who stand for his readers. War Porn assaults those who want to read about the wars while cozily tucked into bed. In these pages, Scranton is both brutal and brutally consistent.

On War Porn’s cover, Scranton is something else. There’s a blurb from Ben Fountain, acclaimed author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Fountain writes War Porn is “as pure and true of its vision of the long war as anything I’ve read. War’s corruption soaks through every layer of life.”

That’s a true statement, and Scranton did well to receive accolades from an author of the satirically bitter Billy Lynn, whose harsh indictment of sunshine patriotism read so hysterically. The book has turned into a big-budget movie. While it’s unfair to judge based only a trailer, the satire of Fountain’s novel seems to have been leeched away, replaced with backslapping bonhomie, epic camera sweeps of heroic combat and brave young soldiers, and a sister carefully asking “what really happened over there?”

Hollywood doesn’t budget $50 million for 3D war movies full of silly satire. As Fountain said: “war’s corruption soaks through every layer.”

Phil Klay writes that the book is “intense and troubling. It’s what all truly excellent literature leaves you with. A sense of something shattering.” Also a true statement. Matt Gallagher calls it “harrowing” and “stark.” More names follow, each providing laudatory adjectives: “searingly honest,” “brutal,” “savage,” and of course the go-to of war porn compliments: “truth-telling.”

With publicity like this, War Porn is the type of book that will lead readers to say, with no irony: “I’m looking forward to this one!”

Anyone who still feels that way when they finish reading War Porn has missed the point. Or worse—they will view this book like the blurbs tell them too. As “art.”

***

Art is meant to be admired. It is judged as important. It hangs on a wall and invites comment. Scranton has accepted the compliments of his peers and their imprimatur validates War Porn as a subject of serious commentary.

The Red State crowd that loves “American Sniper” would lash out at this book, and well they should. War Porn is a despicable portrayal of the American soldier—Scranton should be ashamed of this betrayal of his comrades. Blue Staters should admire his courage at presenting the American soldier in all his unleashed, rancid glory—a far more accurate portrayal than any story of selfless heroism. It’s the most unsparing narrative yet presented of our modern wars.

War Porn is an implicit insult to those who would use a conventional narrative to tell a story about the debasing effects of war. But by aspiring to join the artistic ranks of those authors, and by accepting their accolades, War Porn reduces itself to simply another story among many. It should never have accepted any allies.

In the interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, Scranton said, “The thing is, we’re all forced to negotiate with the systems we find ourselves thrown into.”

Scranton wrote an uncompromising book with an American veteran as the worst villain of all – a necessary spit in the face of flag lapels and “support the troops.” Scranton didn’t negotiate then. The negotiations came later. Like he said in that L.A.R.B. interview: “War’s a hustle.” Its corruption soaks through everything.

Literary elites were happy to tell Scranton how his book belongs, how he did a good job. Scranton should have asked, “Why would I care what you think?”

War Porn is not a book to be complimented or endorsed. It is not enjoyment or clarity. It is a darkness.


Nathan S. Webster reported from Iraq several times as a freelance photojournalist, and his work was published in dozens of newspapers nationwide. He writes on a variety of topics. More from this author →