Reading 21st Century American War Stories: Heroes, Hell, and Back

Kara Krauze


This is Part 1 of a two-part series.


“What we didn’t know, even though all the old soldier stories say it clear as day: is that we would always be there, even long after we left.” - Matt Gallagher, Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War


The 21st century in America has been permeated by war, almost from the start; even while most of America’s citizens remain unaffected—directly anyway—by its vicissitudes.  We need a literature that can begin to convey the multiplicities of war: the adrenaline; the sweat and blood; the isolation; the brotherhood; the memories and questions; and the return home. We need a narrative for America’s 21st century wars, and yet no single narrative will suffice.


The literature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan is growing; polemics and essays increasingly augmented by memoir, stories, and novels. We will turn specifically to several here, focusing on Benjamin Busch’s memoir Dust to Dust, Kevin Powers’ novel The Yellow Birds, and the short story collection Fire and Forget, co-edited by Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher. 


Story, one of the richest and oldest traditions—conveying and sharing experience—transports an individual’s experience into a more compact vessel, delineating and shaping conflicting thoughts, feelings, and memories that clog the brain’s neurons and body’s senses. Stories illuminate, bringing specificity to the abstract—“war”— condensing and opening up the realities of recent conflicts for a larger audience, while deepening insight and community for those who served. These emerging stories are national imperatives: for successful reintegration of individual veterans; for veterans as a group; for veteran families; and for the rest of the population, with all of the complex relationships entailed by dissent, agreement, and the responsibilities of a nation towards its warriors.


The subject of war quickly evokes perceptions and misperceptions, bound by era, politics, economics, history, and ideology, ideas of right and wrong. At the same time, many feel the urge to retreat. War affects few directly, or such is our perception. Let’s spend a moment with this essay’s title—with its 21st century, the heroes, that hell and back—it's a mouthful. And right there, in the title, there’s an implicit search for redemption: in the arc of a story. It is hard not to look for the silver lining. Will we find it—in war, and the stories war compels? Do we need it?


Much as we might try to formulate one vet, the archetype, war resists this, whether we think of this as a post-modern perspective or just a more open viewfinder. World War I brought us our early vision of the broken soldier, men traumatized by the first glimpse of modern weaponry: the Lost Generation. After World War II, came the G.I. Generation, later upgraded to the “Greatest Generation;” stoic and moving on—to green lawns, picket fences, wives home once again with the booming kids.


Swiftly on the heels of World War II came Korea, later presented in the television show (and movie) M.A.S.H., which was inflected as much by the Vietnam era in which it was made, as the post-World War II, patriotic introversion of the Korean-war era. Think about the packaging of that era—post-Korea and early or pre-Vietnam—still going on right now: Mad Men and Don Draper, a veteran scarred, his identity remade and fractured, but moving on, replete with beautiful surfaces—physique, wife, job, car—the interior hiding, complexity and lies, masking a shattered self. A mask so effective that the interior damage hardly seems to matter on the outside; and yet Don Draper’s risky or soul-searching choices (affairs) and his buttoned-up early married life both evoke the damage.


But before the contemporary pretty packaging of earlier post-war life represented in Mad Men, complete with irony and fissures, came Vietnam. The word, in American lexicon, signifies an era, its upheaval and conflicts, the shattering of accepted values—honor and country—and the veterans who returned into this firestorm. Vietnam: for several generations of Americans, it has become more of an idea than a country. For many, its shadow is still here: the war that divided America, in stark contrast with earlier wars of the century, dissent overt and menacing: The Times They Are a-Changin’.


Onward— the 21st century: there is still something futuristic about the label, this era in which we live, still more to impact and mold. From early on, it has been infused with war.


The year the Second Iraq War started in 2003, out came Anthony Swofford’s memoir Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles, set during the first Gulf War. Canny timing, marking what can now be looked back on as the early stages of American 21st century war stories, though initiated by way of the late 20th. Jarhead began to reveal the next generation of American soldiers and veterans to a broader audience, almost before they had yet arrived.


I look at the sky, blue like no blue I’ve known before, and at the desert that will not stop. This is the pain of the landscape, worse than the heat, worse than the flies—there is no getting out of the land. No stopping. After only six weeks of deployment, the desert is in us, one particle at a time—our boots and belts and trousers and gas masks and weapons are covered and filled with sand.


Now, 10 years since publication, more than 20 years since that war, the landscape is growing more insistent.


Language, stories, and patterns in 21st century first-wave (American) war narratives begin to suggest maps for reading, and perhaps even for writing. Swofford’s Jarhead, and Vietnam era’s Tim O’Brien, via The Things They Carried, assist in illustrating the circumstances of war narratives, the limitations and the possibilities. (Many more, that don’t fit here, add to this discussion: think Isaac Babel, Joseph Heller, Wilfred Owen, Virginia Woolf, William Manchester, Anthony Loyd, Janine di Giovanni, and on.)


Tim O’Brien writes, in “How to Tell a True War Story”:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.


And in almost anything true, we can also find something false. O’Brien subverts and plays with notions of truth, and so must all writers, and readers. We ask questions, sometimes knowing there are too few answers, or too many.


As O’Brien’s fictional character (also Tim O’Brien) tells us later in the same story: “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” And then, “In other cases, you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.” And yet we try, we have to. Stories help us comprehend, vanquish, make order.


Benjamin Busch, veteran and actor, in his lyrical and introspective memoir, Dust to Dust, weaves together disparate experiences and stories—from childhood; from movie and television sets, where he has played the role of soldier; to Iraq where he has been one—all the while extracting meaning and searching for it. He carries the reader along in his particulars, from a boyhood spent with dirt and sticks and water to the adult he becomes, still attached and beholden to the elements: in similar ways, and in ways evolving and distinct. Busch’s evocative reincarnations of intent childhood days playing with toy soldiers, planes, and boats, daring bodies of water or building makeshift structures in the woods, remind of the adventure sought in not only imagination, but in activity and action: the heroes we make ourselves into, at first in play and later, in more fractured and increasingly less consistent ways, in adulthood.


In Jarhead, Swofford describes a game of football out in the desert, a staff sergeant’s misbegotten idea to “play football for the reporters, wearing full MOPP (Mission Oriented Protective Posture) gear and gas masks.” Ten-pound suits in 115 degree heat. The display escalates into a spiraling mouth-off, bravado and anger and agency—heroes of someone’s narrative, their own?


I stand back from a turn with Kuehn. I feel frightened and exhilarated by the scene. The exhilaration isn’t sexual, it’s communal—a pure surge of passion and violence and shared anger, a pure distillation of our confusion and hope and shared fear….



Swofford continues in a brilliant riff of expletive-filled flight, an all-empowering curse-off against the world, from the press-pool colonel, to President Bush and Dick Cheney and Saddam Hussein and “the sand and the loneliness and the boredom and the potentially unfaithful wives and girlfriends” and “the f**khead peaceniks back home, the skate punks and labor unionists and teachers” and “our confusion and fear and boredom” and “ourselves for signing the contract, for listening to the soothing lies of the recruiters”…and so much more. The passage speaks to the tension between power—wresting it, holding it—and powerlessness. Sometimes they coexist.


The desire for agency and for adventure: this is strong, deep within us all, just as with the need for story. And again the dust and sand infiltrate everything, all that you touch or see or do. With his customary poetry of the sentence, Busch, in Dust to Dust, writes at first about soil but soon about dust and sand and transition from mere tangible to something ineluctable, not to be escaped, whether in earth, war, or life’s lessons in mortality: “There is a vastness to the underground. …Beneath us, veins of water are moving in the deep punctured by wells and the failures of dirt to know its place.”


“I have always been a digger,” Busch affirms. Not 20 pages later, Busch is again a soldier, experiences woven through, rather than presented with straight chronology. “It was April 2003 and we were in the desert waiting to invade Iraq.” And, “I thought, as I sat on an abandoned sandbag bunker in the berm, that it was all for nothing, this life. All of this dust hurrying to be earth again.”….“I was listening to dust. We were waiting to invade a land composed of it.”


Colum McCann, in his foreword to the recently released anthology Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War reminds us, lest we forget, “These are wars that America is so determined not to see that we banned images of soldiers’ coffins from our nightly broadcasts….” If we need heroes, all of us, in some form, then we need also to forget—to forget what soldiers must do and what they witness, and to forget where we have sent them.


Jacob Siegel, author of “Smile, There are IEDs Everywhere,” the short story opening the collection Fire and Forget, writes in that story, “I didn’t have any real plans or ambitions for when we got back. I only had fantasies of other lives, like the fevered dreams of a sick man growing bolder and more intense the closer he gets to death.” And is death near? The question that haunts and lurks during deployment mutates. What about the return home? If you can’t go back (home); or what if you are back there (inhabiting the war) still?



When Private Bartle, the central character in Kevin Powers’ debut novel The Yellow Birds, arrives back in the States, met by his mother, she says, “Oh, John, you’re home.” Bartle’s voice intones to the reader, “I did not believe her.”


But, let’s be clear, not everyone is like Bartle. Busch weaves his war experience into a before, a during (including time back in the States between deployments), and an after. Even more firmly landing on a positive experience of return, post-war, is blogger, writer, National Guard enlistee, former marine, and police officer, Chris Hernandez, who wote in the Austin-American Statesman this past March:

The public is constantly reminded of how much we veterans are suffering for our service. I’m here to remind the public of a counterpoint. We benefited from our service, and not just financially. We learned important lessons about the country, the world, our fellow soldiers, and most importantly, ourselves.


The media speaks more openly now than even a few years ago of some of the nameable fissures and ailments of return, more invisible than missing limbs, physical wounds. We have to be able to talk about these realities, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), suicide, traumatic brain injury (TBI), depression, while remembering that’s not the whole story. Military suicides rose in 2012; and the total for the year was higher than combat deaths. In percentage terms, military suicides are lower than the overall population; but military suicides trend younger: more life ahead, more life destroyed.


David S. Cloud reports in the April 14, 2013, Los Angeles Times on an intensive intervention program being used at Fort Bliss in Texas: "’If you get a soldier to treatment, the chances are he'll live,’ said Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard, a West Point graduate who commands Ft. Bliss and once served as President Clinton's military aide. 'We're really emphasizing getting help.'  We continue to need improved programs, funding, and awareness about mental health issues, trauma, and TBI. While we also need to be mindful of defining individual vets by trauma they may or may not have experienced.


Same wars, but the meanings shift, according to whose perspective we inhabit. Some of the experiences repeat, the sand, the dust, perhaps a misleading recruiter; and yet, the characters and voices—the realities—they change. Do we each look for the story that makes sense; do we look for our story, whether veteran or civilian? The one—like a wife or husband—that appears to complete the picture. The figurative children—more than one—that we understand came from our blood, sweat and cells, our experience. Something that makes sense, until it doesn’t. And yet it might still be ours—our war, our country, our triumph or mistake. The thing—memory, event, person—that makes us think or makes us want to forget, or both.


In reading Kevin Powers’ enchanting novel The Yellow Birds—one might ask, is it problematic to write an enchanting book about war? Through the lens of the narrator, Private Bartle, and his friend and fellow soldier Murph, we go to Iraq—specific in some of its details of place (“lounging in the dust beneath a large shade tree on base”) and yet generic enough that it has been argued by veteran writers such as Chris Hernandez, author of the novel Proof of Our Resolve, this could be any war. Powers’ novel contains moments of tension and insight that speak to war from an internal place, the language more poetic and melancholy than adrenaline-infused, even in battle:


I hated the way I loved [Sergeant Sterling] when I inched up out of the terror and returned fire, seeing him shooting too, smiling the whole time, screaming, the whole rage and hate of these few acres, alive and spreading, in and through him.


Could be a father’s or uncle’s war—could be Vietnam—could be the war people want to read, something made bigger, less grounded in one immediate moment, than the intensity of battle if dramatized in any kind of real time. This is philosophical; and it is digestible. And then we wonder: is this a flaw; or is it the point?


Who is the veteran-writer—who is Powers—writing for? For himself: to unpack the crushed events of experience, memory, an unreal reality. For other veterans: needing to see their own experience rendered. For those who did not go to war, but must, either as an act of empathy or for necessary cohesion of a nation—as readers and thinkers and members of a complicated humanity—must make the attempt to understand. For some ever-morphing combination of the three….


Author Bio:
Kara Krauze is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


For Highbrow Magazine


Photos: New America Media; Dept. of the Air Force (Creative Commons)


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