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Whitney Terrell, The Good Lieutenant; Brian Van Reet, Spoils; Elliot Ackerman, Dark at the Crossing – TLS


“We don’t think Iraq books are going to sell,” Whitney Terrell’s editor told him when he first submitted The Good Lieutenant. Because he had spent years as an embedded reporter in Iraq, and believed he had something to say, Terrell treated this as a dismissal of his novel, rather than of its subject. Concerned that his tale of a soldier ruined by war was banal, he decided to run the narrative back to front, rewinding his protagonist from innocence lost, through killing, kidnap, lying, training, enlisting, all the way home to an American “philosophy” of goodness and innocence, to a belief that the rules of the family and the rules of the military were one and the same: “You don’t fucking run out on people…You don’t lie – or at least not to the people who are supposed to be on your side.”

The reverse narrative, as a technique of recuperation, has been deployed in war novels before, of course: Martin Amis used it to undo the murders of Nazis doctors in Time’s Arrow (1991), writing under the influence of Kurt Vonnegut who, in Slaughterhouse Five (1969), sucked bombs back into American planes to stop them from being dropped on Dresden. Chroniclers of twenty-first century wars face the same problem that Vonnegut dramatized so intelligently and with such imaginative courage: how to create an anti-war novel while exploiting war’s language, technology and murderous intent for the sake of a gripping or poetic narrative. They also face new difficulties. The so-called “global war on terror”, drifting from Afghanistan to Iraq and Syria, has gone on for so long it seems intractable and fathomless; the phrase “fog of war”, adapted from von Clausewitz, is often used to explain our intellectual resignation. At the same time, with combat live-streamed on the internet, and news bulletins on the injured or dead, on patches of ground gained or lost, on cities under siege or weapons deployed (most recently, “the mother of all bombs” dropped on Afghanistan), war is endlessly repeated and over-familiar. Under these circumstances, as Terrell’s editor warned, finding a readership for a war novel can prove difficult.

The books on this subject that have proved popular, selling in their millions in America, are those that publishers call ‘kill memoirs’ – tales of exploits in battle in the ‘authentic’ voice of an army veteran. The most notorious of these is probably Carnivore, co-authored by Sergeant Dillard Johnson, whose claim of a KIA (killed in action) rate of 2,764 dead Iraqis, trumpeted by his publisher, has been disputed. Despite their popularity, many soldiers, and war reporters such as Terrell, have instead chosen to write fictions that bear witness to the experience of war while complicating the one-sided bravado of the kill-and-tell accounts. These novels and stories have appeared in two waves: what distinguishes the latest batch from earlier works such as Kevin Powers, The Yellow Birds (2012), or Phil Klay’s powerful story collection, Redeployment (2014), is the desire to broaden the picture. So Terrell’s The Good Lieutenant and Brian Van Reet’s Spoils, both published this year, give the lead role to female soldiers. Similarly, they make serious efforts to incorporate the voice of the “enemy” – a late recognition of John Berger’s decree that “never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one”. In Spoils, side by side with the story of an American soldier, there is that of a jihadi who fought in Afghanistan and Chechnya before ending up in Iraq; in The Good Lieutenant, a deaf Sunni man and his Shia friend play pivotal roles. Roy Scranton devoted a part of his excoriating novel, War Porn (2016) to the life of an Iraqi mathematician caught up in the war; while Elliot Ackerman goes further still, making the ambiguous figure of an Iraqi interpreter into the central character of Dark at the Crossing (2017). His novel concentrates not on the action of war, but on the refugees and the NGO workers who gather at its edges – in a Turkish park full of rough-sleeping doctors and architects; on a roadside near the Syrian border where abandoned kids sell lighters, mints, their own bodies, anything to put food in their bellies or catch a ride out of limbo.

Whitney Terrell

The Good Lieutenant takes place in 2006. Its central figure is Emma Fowler, a working class midwesterner, suffering from guilt over a brother she was forced to mother from a young age, and has now left behind. Recruited into the army, she begins an affair with a fellow sergeant, a middle class man called Pulowski, who is fond of advising her how to assert authority over a platoon of men who – because of her homilies about looking out for one another – have taken to calling her “Family Values”. It’s an unlikely nickname but it sets up the tension Terrell wants to explore between the military’s rules, hierarchies, technological and linguistic abstractions, and its codes of honour and fraternity, which Fowler clings to and tries to inculcate in her men.

In contrast to the quagmire that Fowler inhabits – judging what amounts to “illegal crap… pulled” by other officers, finding the line between self-preserving and trigger-happy soldiers, negotiating the gender and class wars that carry on inside the military one – Terrell writes well about the simple pleasures of sex. These scenes are a reminder of the playfulness and vulnerability of the body, of all that the violence of war can eradicate in one explosive moment. Which brings us to the inevitable ending where The Good Lieutenant begins, with a reconnaissance mission gone awry after a soldier’s kidnap, with Fowler holding Pulowski’s bleeding body in her arms, and with “Family Values” now a justification for the laying waste of anyone outside the Family. By The Good Lieutenant’s last act, having got to know something of their story, we feel for the Iraqis – one is “innocent”, a fan of American films and its images of freedom, the other in cahoots with the enemy. For all this, it’s hard not to feel that their their torture and killing is made instrumental to the real tragedy of the book: the corruption of Emma Fowler.

As in Terrell’s novel, Van Reet disrupts the chronology of his story. Spoils opens in 2003, with a mortar attack on American troops at a roundabout in Iraq, before ranging back over two years leading up to the event, and then progressing to the eight weeks in which their fate is determined. Like Emma Fowler, Specialist Cassandra Wigheard (another young, white, working class midwestener) joins an army that is full of “mixed messages”: soldiers are indoctrinated about their mission as great liberators while training to ironic ditties about slaughter: “Shot ninety-eight till my barrel turned blue. Then pulled out my knife and democratized the other two.” After her truck is hit, Wigheard is kidnapped with two male soldiers by a group of mujahideen, who hide their prisoners in a disused factory. Among the captors is Abu Al-Hool, an Egpytian growing weary of war and wrestling with his faith; Dr Walid, one of the new Islamist ideologues, encouraging the filming of prisoners’ executions; and a young Yemeni recruit who the older men compete over, each trying to pull him over to their way of thinking.

Brian Van Reet

Imprisoned in a lightless cell, Wigheard emerges as the toughest of kidnapped soldiers, tapping on the wall to check on her comrades, building a relationship with the young Yemeni guard, and surviving even when she is cast out into an animal pen because of her periods. But as Van Reet makes clear her resilience is in large part just a product of youth: the adult fear of death makes taking the risks necessary to win a ground war “too unlikely a feat for anyone but a megalomaniac, a closeted suicide or a teenager.” Finally there is Sergeant Sleed, who provides one of the novel’s most arresting scenes when he and a renegade group break into one of Saddam’s golden palaces in search of trophies. But as in The Good Lieutenant, the spoils of war refer to more than bounty: like Emma Fowler, Wigheard suffers a cruel fate, but this time, the pity of her lost youth is joined with that of someone from the other side – the young Yemeni, who dies with his hand in hers.

Like many earlier Iraq novels, The Good Lieutenant and Spoils focus on contemplative soldiers who believe in the ultimate rightness of their mission, while being aware of the lies and rottenness of war – often showing them in opposition to more jingoistic and gung-ho figures. But whatever their political or intellectual stripe, all the soldiers in these stories ironize their situation (when Pulowski and Fowler are photographed outside the army HQ, he jokes: “Say WMD!”), and this irony is quietist, reinforcing their lack of agency and making them more dependent on the military machine. Terrell’s and Van Reet’s attempts to enlarge the story are significant, but as Scranton has argued of the preponderance of novels about the post 9/11 wars, they still fail to address the broader question of responsibility. This leaves the reader’s sympathy with soldiers on the ground who remain victims of a situation where “everything is going to shit too fast to believe”, the deaths they perpetrate, exonerated or subsumed by the ethical dilemmas which they face. In the summer of 2016, exasperated by this state of affairs, Scranton took to Twitter: “You know what would be awesome? More veterans whining about how nobody understands the moral complexity of being an imperial stormtrooper.”

Elliott Ackerman, however, has evaded this trap. As an ex-soldier who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, and more recently as a war correspondent in Syria, perhaps his more varied experience has afforded him a broader perspective. If he does not directly address the Scranton question of who is ultimately responsible, he does expand the focus to think about the war’s effects beyond the site of battle. Death at the Crossing tells the story of Haris Abadi, an Iraqi made guilty by his time as a translator for the American army, who has moved to Michigan before returning to the Middle East with the idea of fighting for the Free Syrian Army. He lands up in Turkey, and makes a failed attempt to cross the border, but is ripped off by a Daesh operative. Without money or wherewithal Haris hangs around the border – one of the ephemeral spaces that war creates, filled with plastic tarpaulins, sagging tents, impromptu cafes, shipping containers, satellite dishes, and scrawny kids who fight to stay alive by ganging together, adults who give up and lay down by the wayside.

Elliot Ackerman

Picked up by Amir, a former Syrian revolutionary now conducting research into the border kids for an NGO, Haris is taken to Antep where Amir has an apartment. Since the euphoria of revolution turned into the despair of war, Amir has struggled with his beliefs. Worse than this, he is plagued by guilt because a group of fighters he allowed into the basement of his daughter’s nursery, accidentally blew up the building, resulting, in all probability, in her death. Despite this, Amir’s beautiful, wife, Daphne, made crazy by her loss, and not knowing for certain what happened, is determined to return to Syria to search for her. These three displaced adults inhabit a circle of sexual attraction, but even this life-force is not strong enough to break down their individual isolation and doubt. Rather than irony, the tone here is one of futility, a sense that no one in the vicinity of war can escape its deathly pull. When Harris and Daphne finally cross back into Syria, paying a Daesh member to take them, they are now so morally compromised that they pick up one of the young border boys, Jamil, who wants to become a fighter, simply because he can navigate the way. Arriving at Daesh’s headquarters inside Syria, they find a wall covered with pictures of martyrs. But Haris notes that martyrdom is not about sacrifice, as Americans think: “The literal meaning was ‘he who bears witness’… Haris considered Amir, Daphne and even Jamil. Watching them, he no longer felt like a voyeur in their war – he was their witness.” It is unclear how Haris can be their witness, except at a metatextual level where the statement can be read as a declaration of the novel’s extension of interest and sympathy.

Perhaps Scranton’s complaint against soldiers who focus on their own involvement in these wars, failing to envisage a larger context, should more properly be levelled against non-combatant writers. As if to reassure us about the dearth of American fiction that engages the bigger picture, many critics have cited the argument that the ‘best’ war novels are only produced long after the event. But there have already been a welter of post 9/11 novels from the big beasts of American literature (including works by DeLillo, Franzen, MacInerney, Messud, Pynchon, Safron Foer and Updike). These, however, have all concentrated on the effects on what American politicians like to call “the homeland”; none have addressed the havoc wreaked on other countries. This, perhaps, is a sign of the parochialism of the American imagination, its failure to consider the wider world, or at least to imagine the consequence of its actions for the “other side”.

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