War Stories

Jan Mieszkowski

Today anyone with a computer or smart phone can access videos of armed conflicts from around the world. Battles that would once have been shared days, years, or even generations after the fact, via newsreels, books, or folksongs, are now available for immediate consumption anywhere, anytime.

But is anyone watching? Recent wars have proven to be anything but a goldmine for television and film producers, who lament viewers’ limited appetite for stories that lack a speedy resolution. While the fusion of the military and entertainment industries ensures that war’s Nielsen ratings are as closely scrutinized as its body counts, the numbers are far from robust. Integrated into the 24-hour news cycle, reports on the troops have become just another item sandwiched between accounts of natural disasters and celebrity escapades. The battlefield images that do make it into the public eye prompt distraction and ennui as much as they traumatize or inspire compassion, outrage, or patriotic fervor.

War is an inherently disappointing show. We approach it with great expectations, prepared to see history unfold before our eyes, but in short order we turn our attention elsewhere. This failure to fascinate the contemporary viewer points to a contradiction inherent in the modern conception of military spectacle. For the past two centuries, Western audiences have been in the thrall of a Napoleonic notion of the battlefield as a theatrical performance, a dazzling clash of armies expected to respect, like a classical drama, the unity of time and place. As the greatest horror show on earth, these mass cultural events are supposed to produce clear winners and losers, placing the forces of history and politics on display.

Even at its inception two centuries ago, this vision of a revelatory battlefield spectacle proved to be a fantasy. The theater of war became a powerful idea at the very moment when battles were becoming too large, too complex, and too smoke-filled to be comprehensible to onlookers or even to the soldiers who fought them. Civilians followed Austerlitz or Waterloo from afar, via newspaper reports and propaganda bulletins, and military power came to depend on a government’s ability to cater to remote spectators in print. A general’s triumph often took the form of a creative story about what had happened when armies met.

US Army Spc. Justin Towe on a mission in Iraq. Photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway

For the audience in the nascent age of mass media, “watching” war involved fantasizing about battlefield scenes rather than witnessing them firsthand. As the idea of what war should be like became increasingly difficult to reconcile with its empirical manifestations, the ideal war spectator came to be seen as someone with an active imagination rather than superior eyesight, e.g., a Victor Hugo, Stendhal, or Leo Tolstoy, tucked safely away in his study, hundreds of miles from the front.

This tension between our belief in the transformative nature of warfare and the virtual quality of battlefield spectacle has proven intractable, organizing the twentieth century’s experience of two world wars and continuing to shape our sense of the military realm to this day. Greater public access to photos and videos of combat has if anything increased rather than diminished the gap between our convictions about what war has to be like and our reception of its individual incarnations. No matter how directly we monitor it, the battlefield remains hard to pin down.

What does this mean for the contemporary author who takes war as his or her subject? The term “war novel” is likely to invoke the lengthy descriptions of bloody battlefields made famous by nineteenth-century works such as War and Peace or Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. Even in those books, however, accounts of combat are part of a larger dynamic in which the depiction of strife in the civilian realm is of equal importance. Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel, an autobiographical account of life in the trenches, is no more emblematic of the European experience of the First World War than Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which deals more indirectly but no less consequentially with the events of 1914–1918. The same point could be made about a host of American novels about the Second World War and Vietnam in which there is frequently little effort to detail the visceral horrors of warfare.

 



Two years after the conclusion of US combat operations in Iraq, three provocative works have appeared that test what a war narrative can or should be: David Abrams’s Fobbit, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds. Distinct in style, tone, and ambition, these novels are nonetheless informed by a common set of questions about the militarization of social experience: Is there a clear divide between the battlefield and the home front? Are soldiers’ conceptions of what war is and what it does to those who wage it different from those of noncombatants? What place can book-length fiction have in an age in which it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between waging war and orchestrating its coverage on the Internet?

Although both Abrams and Powers served in Iraq, the novels they have written exhibit a healthy skepticism about the authority of lived experience. In recent years, soldiers returning from tours of duty in the Middle East have complained that their time in the field was “unrealistic” because what they saw there failed to correspond to the images of war in the Hollywood films or video games of their youth. The very notion of a personal engagement with the exigencies of the battlefield has been co-opted as the military-entertainment complex now helpfully informs us exactly what war is supposed to look and sound like. A contemporary war novel must therefore develop strategies for unsettling this hegemonic conception of the realities of combat.

One conventional way of reflecting on what it means to have been “under fire” is to consider a soldier’s return home and his or her attempts at reintegration into civilian life. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk takes the stress and humor of such a homecoming as its organizing schema. William Lynn is a nineteen-year-old Texan whose unit participated in a firefight in Iraq that was caught on film by a Fox News team. The three minute and forty-three second video record of their triumph, with Billy in the starring role, has gone viral. Now famous as “Bravo Squad,” he and his surviving comrades enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame in the form of a two-week reprieve from combat during which they are paraded around the country like a circus act, a whirlwind tour through a series of swing states that concludes with an appearance on stage with Destiny’s Child during the halftime show of the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game, broadcast live on national television. Unaccustomed to being the center of attention, Billy manages to adopt the right style for the part, the “tense, stoic vein of male Americanism defined by multiple generations of movie and TV actors, which conveniently furnishes him a way of being without having to think about it too much. You say a few words, you smile occasionally. You let your eyes seem a little tired.”

The story is informed at every step by the parallels it draws between the artfully staged violence of professional warfare and professional sports.

Fountain’s novel follows Billy through the trials and tribulations of this long Thursday in Texas Stadium, at times cutting back to scenes from the previous two weeks as well as his tour in Iraq. Graphically illustrating the contradictions of Bush-era patriotism, the story is informed at every step by the parallels it draws between the artfully staged violence of professional warfare and professional sports. Ceremony and expense notwithstanding, the football game turns out to be a disappointment, just like the campaign in Iraq. The home team flounders, and the fans, growing bored in the cold, look to the members of Bravo Squad for diversion. As Billy explains, he and his comrades are supposed to be “the war made flesh, an actual point of contact after all the months and years of reading about the war, watching the war on TV, hearing the war flogged and flacked on talk radio.”

The soldiers find their role as object of mass spectatorial interest so unsettling that they’re not sure if they’re more afraid of going back to Iraq or getting on stage before tens of thousands of live audience members, not to mention the millions of turkey-sated viewers watching at home. At the same time, these living embodiments of the War on Terror prove to be capable observers in their own right. Under their discerning gaze, the stadium becomes an anthropological museum of mainstream American culture, and Billy understands everyone he encounters as an emblem of class, gender, or ethnicity.

Billy also questions whether he enjoys a privileged vantage point from which to judge the people whose hands he shakes and the seemingly endless supply of patriotic clichés in which they bathe him. As he sees it, these civilians’ fantasies about freedom fighting are the dominant paradigm of reality and as such may be more consequential than the “truths” about war that he has learned during his time under fire. Billy’s sense of his own standing as an expert on war is further undermined by his admission that when he watches the now famous video of himself and his unit in action, it seems distinctly different from his memories of battle, as if to his eyes the very evidence of his own heroism were counterfeit.

The novel couples its wealth of witty cultural sketches with a sensitive portrayal of Billy, poignantly detailing his grief over a lost comrade and his difficulties coping with his family members’ fears that he will be killed. Still, this is no bildungsroman. Billy’s developmental arc is periodically interrupted as the story sets its protagonist adrift in a larger field of forces that are at once entertaining and sobering. Bombarded by onlookers’ jingoistic expressions of support for his service, a businessman’s explanations of big finance, or the Star Spangled Banner being belted out over the public address system, Billy enters a dreamlike state whose blurriness infuses the prose itself. Fragments of sentences appear scattered on the page like a concrete poem or a graphic plot of Internet search terms, as if the jargon of authenticity in which Billy and others move—a mixture of patriotism, personal loyalties, and an allegiance to consumer capitalism—is incapable of maintaining even a semblance of stability.

The potential discrepancy between what war is supposed to look like, what it appears to look like, and what it can be made to look like unsettles the very notion of an “authentic” battlefield document.

One of the novel’s subplots centers on the question of whether the members of Bravo Squad will succeed in securing a lucrative film deal. No studio will commit before a major star is signed, but no major star will sign without a studio deal in place. For his part, Billy questions the need for a movie at all, since he and his brothers have already been immortalized on YouTube, although he acknowledges that the video looks “too hyped up and cinematic,” so real that it seems fake, whereas something with better production values—“character development, artful lighting”—might look fake enough to seem real.

Here again, the potential discrepancy between what war is supposed to look like, what it appears to look like, and what it can be made to look like unsettles the very notion of an “authentic” battlefield document. This tension is legible in the novel’s copyright page, which makes an emphatic—if tongue-in-cheek—declaration: “This book is a work of pure fiction.” By not seeming fake enough, the novel runs the risk of appearing to be a work of “fake” fiction, a nonfictional fiction. An insufficient respect for the autonomy of its own representations would reveal the book to have a flawed understanding of the treacherous interplay of semblance and reality at the heart of the contemporary war machine.

 


 

Ultimately, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk succeeds by unsettling our belief that we would know a real war novel if we saw it. Abrams’s Fobbit also explores our contemporary uncertainties about war and its simulacra through a satirical lens. “Fobbit” is the nickname for the army employees who staff the Forward Operating Base, not “real” soldiers, but the administrative and logistical support staff—paper pushers, who, it turns out, spend much of their time cleaning up the public relations messes created by men and women in the field. Focusing on the American army in Baghdad, the novel pairs comic anecdotes with ironic strokes of fate to illustrate the harsh realities, and banalities, of the troops’ daily existence. The battlefield that emerges is an essentially bureaucratic space in which managing information is as or more important than shooting at the enemy, although nobody is precisely sure how to do either.

The military office workers spend relatively little time worrying about their interactions with the insurgents and much more time worrying about their relationship with the press, with whom they share a number of similarities (even as a few key differences remain). When CNN gets hold of a video of a US soldier bouncing up after being struck by sniper fire and giving chase to his assailants, steps are quickly taken to fashion the young man into a media darling, and the reader is offered a list of interviewing tips for military personnel facing the press, notable as much for its practicality as its sarcasm: “Do sit up straight in the chair”; “Avoid acronyms and military jargon”; “Do smile”; and of course, “Don’t ever forget: we are WINNING the Global War on Terrorism.” In another scene, the misery of a group edit of a press release is presented with the mounting tension of a combat sequence. Nearly finished with their laboriously crafted two-paragraph document, the Fobbits learn that they will have to start all over because they’ve been scooped by CNN, whose reporters were actually out in the field where the incident took place.

Abrams’s novel is most severely tested when it tries to move beyond its satire of military stage management and made-for-TV heroism to dwell on a particular tragedy.

As consistently zany as Fobbit’s escapades are, they are only loosely coordinated with one another and fail to build to any significant conclusion. At some points, the satire does invite reflection on the human costs of war. For example, we learn that embedded reporters want to be in units that are suffering high casualties in order to give them a better chance of being on the scene when the two thousandth American death occurs. This anxious atmosphere of managed artifice is heightened by accounts of soldiers in the field who, confronted with imminent crises, go to great lengths to micromanage the unfolding drama for TV viewers at home so that their own role as liberators will appear as convincing as possible. Fobbit thus succeeds in leaving readers with a suspicion that their discomfort with the military-entertainment complex belies a more fundamental sense of reassurance that comes from the impression that someone or something really is in charge of all this violence.

Fobbit is most severely tested when it tries to move beyond its satire of military stage management and made-for-TV heroism to dwell on a particular tragedy. When a crowd of pilgrims at a mosque panics at a false report of a suicide bomber, there is a deadly stampede: “the legs and arms and necks of young children [are] snapped like thin, dry twigs”; and women fall into the Tigris, “their long abayas dragging them under with the sound of smacking lips. The current sucked and licked up the young children falling like little drops of flesh from the bridge overhead.” This spate of overblown imagery seems parodic, but whose prose is being mocked? Are these hackneyed metaphors and similes the rhetorical unconscious of Fobbit office-speak? Is this sudden indulgence in figuration an indication that the novel, having descended into a comic-book realm, is unable to reassert its seriousness? Or is the point that clichés can convey tragedies in ways that casualty totals alone can never impart? In the aftermath of the disaster, fierce debates break out about exactly how many people died, but “no matter what anyone said, it was plain to see there were lots and lots of dead.” No matter what anyone says, Fobbit has lots and lots of jokes, but when one of its stunned protagonists concludes his ghastly day by returning to his room and putting on It’s a Wonderful Life, the book’s own supply of levity seems to have been temporarily exhausted.

 


 

Powers’s The Yellow Birds is a very different study of contemporary American military culture. Told in the first person, the novel relates the tale of a young private, John Bartle, who makes the classic mistake of promising the mother of a comrade that he will keep her son safe. That Bartle will fail to protect Private Murphy (“Murph”) is a foregone conclusion, and the ensuing narrative jumps back and forth in time as we inexorably approach the scene in which Murph’s grisly fate is revealed. Anything but funny, The Yellow Birds is a complex study of an individual psyche ridden by the guilt, fear, and apathy of post-traumatic stress.

Powers’s prose style threatens to steal the show, as if the actual events, even the plight of its narrator, were of secondary importance.

Perhaps most distinctive, however, is the way in which The Yellow Birds’ prose style threatens to steal the show, as if the actual events, even the plight of its narrator, were of secondary importance. From the opening lines, we find ourselves in an allegorical world in which every detail potentially has a hidden meaning: “The war tried to kill us in the spring. As grass greened the plains of Nineveh and the weather warmed, we patrolled the low-slung hills beyond the cities and towns.” The Hemingwayesque simplicity of the syntax contrasts with the complexity of the imagery. Neither a supernatural entity nor an amalgamation of human forces, the personified war resists delimitation because for Bartle war is both a force with inexorable consequences and the perversion of any model of cause and effect.

While Bartle allows that one can envision sequences of causes and effects in war as chains of falling dominoes, he stresses that one has to think of the dominoes as falling backward against the cause that “pushes” them. In such passages, Bartle is preoccupied with the figural potential of his descriptions as much as with the mournful facts he relates. When he says that “the dust covered everything in Al Tafar, so that even the blooming hyacinth flowers became a kind of rumor,” he seems to be offering a metaphor for the way in which his own war story obscures events in the very process of murmuring about them.

As Bartle and his sergeant move through this fallen world in their hunt for the lost Murph, the central features of the landscape—a tower, a river, a local man turned impromptu guide—create the impression of a mythical environment, almost like a fantasy role-playing game. As in a Cormac McCarthy novel, everything Bartle encounters may be an evil omen at one moment, an ally the next. Simply moving across the terrain becomes a figure of violence in its own right.

Still, the omnipresent desolation never becomes a coherent site of recollection; the ruins do not facilitate memory. Bartle describes his reflections on the loss of Murph as a “misguided archeology,” for “the closer I got to reconstructing him in my mind, the more the picture I was trying to re-create receded.” The Yellow Birds asks us to envision a gaze that examines the devastated landscape without trying to put it back together, because to do so would be to lose it once again. This suggestion that, in a war story, reassembling the parts is tantamount to forgetting about them is troubling given that the scenes in this novel are presented in a non-linear fashion, as if the reader were condemned to reconstruct the plot in his or her own “misguided archeology.”

With the advent of the total war of the Napoleonic era, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe opined that war stories were at risk of becoming obsolete, for if everyone was now part of the battle, there was no one left to hear about their suffering. Today, the difficulties in finding an attentive audience are different. If the modern news cycle and social media platforms offer new ways of engaging with the harsh realities of the battlefield, they also threaten to confirm the ephemerality of what takes place there.

The idea that warfare threatens the very viability of narration as a means of understanding mass killing is nothing new. The virtue of these novels is that they confront the virtual dynamics of the twenty-first-century military-entertainment complex by reflecting on the cultural and political logics that have organized war spectatorship for the past two centuries. These three authors engage with the contemporary scene because they refuse to assume that we truly understand what it means to treat war as a mass spectacle or to be an audience member of a conflict whose “total” character permits no demarcation between the home front and the battlefield.