Reading 21st Century War Stories (Part II)

Kara Krauze

This is the second part of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

In The Yellow Birds, a priest, during a stop-off in Germany en route back to the States, speaks to Private Bartle of “an old saying,” warning him, “You are only as sick as your secrets.” Bartle hesitates, seems to think about speaking, but soon he has returned to the prison of his mind and his self-described mistakes. He considers the possibilities of the church and its rituals. “I could have wrung it out, hoping I might find an essential thing that would give meaning to this place or that time. I did not. Certainty had surrendered all its territory in my mind.”


The Yellow Birds is not messy, not in its construction or prose. But the chaos of war remains, along with the sometimes chaotic roles of memory and forgetting and the narrative fractures inherent to war. They are orchestrated—in theme, structure, and character—with the writer playing God. Upon leaving the priest, Bartle thinks, “My separation was complete,” and the separation from the church and from the Germans whom he is among en route home, has expanded into a separation from humanity. A separation made more forceful through his imminent departure from the army—leaving what he knows and returning to a place and a self (himself, post-war) that have become alien. This same departure from the familiar, and from Iraq where he had a job to do (whether that job was fighting or waiting to fight), intensifies memories of events he is growing more physically distant from, while mentally and emotionally drawing closer in.


I felt an obligation to remember [Murph] correctly, because all remembrances are assignations of significance, and no one else would ever know what happened to him, perhaps not even me. …When I try to get it right, I can’t. When I try to put it out of my mind, it only comes faster and with more force. No peace.



Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, seasoned writers and editors, in their engaging new book Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction, write: “One can also use memoir to get closer to the past. …If you succeed [in storytelling], you replace the fragments of memory with something that has its own shape and meaning, a separate thing that has value in itself.” Some of this transit, from fragment to shape and meaning, occurs through the narrator in Powers’ novel; and we, the reader, inhabit or observe.


In Dust to Dust, Busch’s memoir, we are participants in the process of moving closer to—of moving through—the past. In order to look back; but just as essentially, in order to look forward. The memoir—many a valuable memoir (take Peter Handke’s elegiac, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams)—occurs in the territory of introspection as much as story. And one might argue that the memoir form can be a realm of retrieving emotion. The subject moves from a fissured place of numbness, doing battle with complex experience (hurt; violence; ambiguity). In Busch’s case, the journey is toward greater understanding (pieces assembled to make a new whole), and, at least temporally, a more even peace.


This journey is, of course, not just for the writer instigating it; in deft hands one person’s necessary journey becomes the path others needed. The interplay of war and the subsequent deaths of Busch’s parents are unlinked yet deeply related events. They both force questions of mortality and grief closer to the forefront of consciousness. And they both take him back to origins of identity and consciousness: childhood. For Busch, and for the narrative and its readers.


Kidder and Todd also point out that for O’ Brien, his fictional representations of Vietnam grew richer than his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, published prior to the stories of The Things They Carried. “[O]nly by heightening reality could O’Brien communicate the true dimensions of his own emotions.”

Matt Gallagher, at a recent event for the collection of Iraq and Afghanistan (fictional) stories Fire and Forget, which he co-edited with Roy Scranton, expressed how it is easier to explore in fiction, rather than memoir or essays, how “we’re all shades of gray.” Gallagher published his memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War, soon after his return, portions of it written as a blog while overseas.  (Veteran Colby Buzzell, included in the collection Fire and Forget and on the event panel, also wrote a blog during deployment, which evolved into his first book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq, followed by an American travelogue, Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey.) Gallagher, currently an MFA candidate at Columbia, is now working on a novel, perhaps on a path similar to O’Brien’s.


Similarly, Powers, in The Yellow Birds, has chosen fictional representation of real experience in order to allow him to make an experience of war more real, in order to deepen its truths. Through a fictional reality, a constructed story with constructed characters, Powers shapes his version of a war story. Bartle vacillates between hero and anti-hero, with the intimation that flaws are human and that solitude is a condition or effect of war.


The narrative moves back and forth in time, for most of the novel passing between a concise period in Iraq, September and October 2004, and the end of Bartle’s deployment—the after during which the reader is led to understand that something distressing has occurred, involving the younger friend, Murph, and his death. We read, in part, to figure out how much Bartle is implicated or to blame. Sergeant Sterling, an iconic character, steely, complex, and just a little reductive, serves as decoy; but we are not sure whether there is a point at which too much of the war will push the Sergeant over the edge and whether he will act unconscionably. Even before this tension fully takes hold, we are told, “I hated him. I hated the way he excelled in death and brutality and domination. But more than that, I hated the way he was necessary…how I felt like a coward until he screamed into my ear, ‘Shoot these hajji f**ks!’”


Bartle sees the Sergeant as experienced, evidenced in small ways throughout: dabs of Tabasco in his eyes to stay awake; a pat down of the men, almost tender in its thoroughness, after taping down anything on them that could jangle or make noise as they hike toward battle. And then we learn, with Bartle, that Sergeant Sterling is only 24, to Bartle’s 21. Sterling’s thoroughness holds the desire to keep the men alive; the scene conveys his need for control, where so much remains, nonetheless, uncertain. Even Bartle’s feelings are uncertain, towards himself and towards Sterling and Murph, only 18, whom Bartle foolishly promised to protect in the briefest of meetings with Murph’s mother, playing a role in Bartle’s nebulous and weighty guilt.


I realized as I stood there in the church, that there was a sharp distinction between what was remembered, what was told, and what was true. And I didn’t think I’d ever figure out which was which.


Powers’ prose is intoxicating, creating a mental state—an interiority—that feels at times like a prison, before the appearance of any actual equivalent. This is accomplished with great skill, distinct from Busch’s skillful memoir, which does, however, create a parallel sense of solitude: a place of reflection and synthesis. With Powers, the reader joins a frame of mind, including entrapment, innocence, fear, and rebellion. Bartle does not want to feel obligated. At the same time, he is resigned, and on a quest for something akin to sense. Narrator and reader need some kernel of understanding extracted from memory -- though memory is disjointed and attached to an almost unbearable helplessness.


The question recurs: to what extent are we helpless? Deaths are cruel and random, unpreventable by magical wishes or talismans. Or do we have agency? If so, how do we use it? Bartle attempts to wrest agency, with mixed results.


The skill of the writing that enables a reader to slip into Bartle’s mind risks pushing away readers with distinctly different experiences and reactions. The fine line between realistic details and the rendering of a story that might carry a summation of truth, but blur some specifics, serves as a reminder that one person’s iconic war novel is another person’s falsehood: truth is relative; it is experience-bound. And one Iraq novel, even a powerfully realized and beautifully written one, is not enough. We need room for varied voices; and voice and experience are inextricably linked.


The writer Sebastian Junger embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan, writing in his resulting book, War, “I think I finally understand the idea of brotherhood and how—without that—almost nothing else is possible.” This is part of the tension of war. It is a deeply communal activity (we see this even in Swofford’s desert football game), involving a kind of mutual reliance seldom demanded in civilian life; and it is deeply solitary, even while surrounded by others. This solitude—aloneness—risks intensifying upon return: coming back home, when you can’t really go back to what was before. Whether or not home has changed, the soldier has. (Much could be said, too, about military families—home often has changed, absence grown customary. Siobhan Fallon, a military spouse, explores these themes, and more, in her story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone.)


But what becomes of that “brotherhood” of war back home? A new kind of effort is required if community is to be maintained or built anew.



Tim O’Brien (narrator-character-author) tells us, still slippery and contradictory: “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.” Matt Gallagher says something similar in his Iraq war memoir: “We would always be there, even long after we left.” Powers’ novel thematically echoes this, though tries to slip away in the end. This could be construed as a result of necessary synthesis, or, perhaps as rushed simplification. The need for redemption risks trumping thornier portrayals of memory’s zigs-and-zags.


These stories and accounts emerging from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are as much about home, as war, about return and the tension between what is possible and what is not. The lessons of Vietnam can assist in this.


Mariette Kalinowski, a contributor to Fire and Forget, appeared at the literary venue and gastro-pub Half King, co-owned by Sebastian Junger, this past March with other contributors, Jacob Siegel, Phil Klay, and Matt Gallagher. Kalinowski remarked on the subject of reintegrating after deployment, and fissures between war and home: “I feel like there’s not a language or vocabulary that exists that can easily convey these things.” Writing is about “trying to find vocabulary, trying to find language that conveys” war experience, and the disjointed experience of return.


And yet through this need for a new vocabulary, to contrast with pre-war life, she creates the necessary language and narrative in stories like “The Train.” This is the project each of these writers, and more, are engaged in. It’s almost a cliché at this point, an unfortunate one, this idea of the unspeakable. But what we can take from the paralysis established by the unspeakable—is that it, too, requires a language, a narrative that can render its secrets: horrors, fears, shame, confusion. Or else we find ourselves in the territory of the haunting secret the priest in The Yellow Birds made reference to. This is not a religious or spiritual matter, but one of survival.


In the March 15, 2013, New York Times article, “The Family Stories that Bind Us,” Bruce Feiler, author of the recent book The Secrets of Happy Families, reviews research clarifying how knowledge of a family’s past, stories passed on, including good times and bad, helped the family endure as a unit and the individuals better weather difficult experiences. This use of a unifying narrative has even begun to be employed in the military, Feiler tells us. The message, from science, from psychology, from observation and literature: All of us, those back from war and those who remained outside—have need for narrative, the goal and the attempt, as well as the result: to speak.


Sometimes our stories will end on that happy moment, a hero back from hell, even if reductive or just a moment in time; and sometimes the return will involve a different kind of hell, a reckoning with memory and the past, a reckoning with the schism between a then and a now. This cohesion and possibility for healing—and sometimes art—happens in the telling of the tales, the shaping of experience, character, setting, wherever the story may take us on that narrative arc. If we need redemption, it need not only come from a happy ending with straightforward message. Satisfaction, endurance, comprehension, even if incomplete, emanate from fusion; in this way all of us, including veterans and non-, begin to traverse that fissure.


As writer Phil Klay put it to the attentive audience at the Half King on Manhattan’s West Side, “People want to tell their stories, they want to be understood.” Some combination of skepticism and empathy, a departure from the limits of each of our first-person-constrained realities, moves us forward: individually, collectively.


Retired Army Lt. Col. Ron Capps, founder of D.C.-based Veterans Writing Project and the new literary journal 0-Dark-Thirty, spoke on NPR’s All Things Considered last November of his own writing, and how it initially arose from “looking for a way to get better control of the memories from five wars.” In addition to the literary intentions and possibilities in veteran stories, the skill and artistry and the satisfaction derived from adept honing of character and story, Capps speaks of wanting “to help bridge the divide between the less than 1 percent of Americans who are taking part in these wars and the 99 percent who are not.”


At a panel in New York City on March 4th, discussing Fire and Forget, Roy Scranton, co-editor and contributor, explained, “You move back and forth between” these two worlds “and you have to put that puzzle together somehow.” One of the questions, as a writer, and as the person experiencing an inversion of what’s normal, Scranton poses: “How do you make the war seem normal, and this reality seem strange?” (Scranton addresses this from a political standpoint in a 2011 New York Times “Home Fires” piece, “The Only America They’ve Ever Known.”)


While the population of veterans, relative to the rest of the population, remains small, the issue of reintegration is one we all face. Whether or not we consider the decisions of war to have been shared, or justly made, the outcomes belong to all of us. We are still learning this lesson from Vietnam. A reminder exists in ongoing silences, broached or preserved, between fathers of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and their children; a subject that writer Tom Bissell took up with skill and grace—and a sense of urgency—in his 2007 book, The Father of All Things, recounting a return trip to Vietnam that father and son made together. Anthony Swofford confronts and struggles with similar silences with his father, who served in Vietnam, in Hotels, Hospitals, and Jails, a follow up to Jarhead. Wounds and festering secrets yet remained, passed generation to generation, cohesive narrative unfulfilled.


Literature helps us share experience, myth, and story, sometimes querying belief (secular as much as religious): a shared endeavor. A haunting solitude lingers in Powers’ and Busch’s narratives; but books like these, and like Fire and Forget and the other memoirs, stories, and novels emerging, begin to build bridges, among veterans and between veterans and civilians.


“Reading is actually a collaborative act,” Roy Scranton said with conviction in discussing the remarkable compendium of veteran voices in Fire and Forget. “The reading and the writing come together to make something that doesn’t exist with either one of them individually.”


Welcome to our shared narrative.


“It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story.”

“You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.”- Tim O’Brien


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

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