RICHARD DERUS (ExpendableMudge) shares novels about the modern war experience, the literature of the age, the books that make your eyes pop open and your heart break as it stops.
The U.S. is fighting wars all over the place in 2016, all undeclared. Iraq? 600 more troops to free Mosul. Wasn’t that mission accomplished back in 2003? Syria? What the hell happened to Aleppo if it’s not a war zone? Afghanistan? This is what the war looks like now, in the SIXTEENTH year of U.S. troop involvement in the death of a nation-state that was never much more than a fantasy. It completely baffles me that the U.S. presidential candidates weren’t heavily taxed with questions about how and when they propose to end these nightmares. Maiming American men and women for no damned good reason — For every Alex Minsky, there are a thousand suicided returnees, a thousand untreated PTSD time-bombs, two thousand moms and dads with children they can’t reach, help, care for . — has got to stop for, if not moral, then simple practical reasons. Where is the money for this simmering health crisis’ bandages coming from? Your pocket. My god, people, the national debt isn’t there to pay for Social Security; it’s there to pay the trillions that these insane adventures are costing us.
What is the point of reciting facts, after all, when that’s got no emotional muscle behind it? If you’re somehow unaware of the personal cost of war — and I really don’t know how anyone could possibly be that in this information age — I have some ideas for your self-education. As always with me, that means reading books. These aren’t books that will make you feel like you’re being told to eat your spinach. These are the literature of the age, the books that make your eyes pop open and your heart break as it stops.
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, is probably going to be Iraq’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Tom Wolfe’s blurb says. The publisher’s flap copy has horrors like “destined to be a classic” and on and on. I distrust hype. But when I read this beautiful and angry book, I found myself agreeing with these assessments of the work. Private John Bartle is a bright kid without a goal in the world except surviving the experience he’s about to have when he finds himself lumbered with the care and protection of fellow private Daniel Murphy. The problem is he doesn’t like Pvt. Murphy, and has legitimate fears that Murphy’s somewhat limited intellect will present major problems in the keeping-him-alive assignment that he never wanted or volunteered for.
It’s a beautifully written book:
I looked out the window and saw the street and railroad tracks, the woods beyond. Beyond the woods, the country of which they were a part. And so on, until it all dissolved into the larger thing: my mother’s house becoming every other house as I once had seen it, sitting atop the southern end of a broad river valley, close enough to the mountains that every few years a scared black bear would wander down into the remaining forest, and close enough to the ocean that those early English settlers took it as the farthest point they’d go upstream, the geology of the place preventing them from having any choice other than the one wherein they said, “We are lost; therefore we will call this home.” And close enough that as a child I had been teased by older kids who said if I only tried hard enough I would smell salt water, and I, believing, stood among the light poles and the gulls in the parking lots of A&Ps and cried when I knew that it was true despite the fact that they had meant to lie, as children sometimes do.
Powers has the writing chops, as you see; his storytelling is first-rate, as well, but as always with first novels, there are things that need either emphasis or excision. None of them makes a bit of difference in this light:
When we neared the orchard a flock of birds lit from its outer rows. They hadn’t been there long. The branches shook with their absent weight and the birds circled above in the ruddy mackerel sky, where they made an artless semaphore. I was afraid, I smelled copper and cheap wine. The sun was up, but a half-moon hung low on the opposite horizon, cutting through the morning sky like a figure from a child’s pull-tab book.
We were lined along the ditch up to our ankles in a soupy muck. It all seemed in that moment to be the conclusion of a poorly designed experiment in inevitability. Everything was in its proper place, waiting for a pause in time, for the source of all momentum to be stilled, so that what remained would be nothing more than detritus to be tallied up. The world was paper-thin as far as I could tell. And the world was the orchard, and the orchard was what came next. But none of that was true. I was only afraid of dying.
It’s to your taste or it isn’t, but quality writing it certainly is. The fact that Powers makes art of his pain is laudable. But his life’s course is not representative of what the agonies of war do to young men. His depiction of a more typical young man’s breakdown in response to the pressure he lived under tells a painful and instructive story.
Rain, by Barney Campbell is the kind of first novel that makes you understand how extremely urgent it is for the traumatized to express their trauma in any way, shape, form, or fashion. My Goodreads friend, Charlie, wrote this review of Rain. It was all I needed to hear to convince me to read the book, and I’m so glad I did.
I’m not in the least in agreement with the “War on Terror”’s stated objectives, since as far as I can see the purpose of terrorism is to shout loud enough for the world to hear you, and ain’t no bomb big enough for that. I don’t “support our troops” blindly; I know that they’re volunteers and could choose other paths. Realistically, however, I know there’s not a good path for lots of young men who aren’t interested in a career in some tech backwater. The Armed Forces are disproportionately made up of recruits from the poorest states in the U.S. and are likely seeking a decent career for themselves. They’re sent to places they’re not welcome (to put it mildly) and are given a thankless task. I’m a human being first and a political agent second. These are not people who need to be held accountable for some bloody politician’s job going south and war resulting from it.
Tom Chamberlain, Barney Collins’ main character, is better educated than the average recruit. He’s graduated from Cambridge and the British Army’s officer training school at Sandringham. He’s always revered his soldier father, killed in the Troubles, and wants to make a difference in the world. His posting to Afghanistan, which was a graveyard for British soldiers a century ago (Does no one ever learn from history?), puts him in charge of the iconic motley crew of opposites who come to be a real unit. Collins does a fine job of evoking Tom’s internal life by using his letters to and from home to give us views of how a soldier has to change his communicative style and subject for his audiences. Letters to Constance, Tom’s long-single mother, aren’t as detailed as the ones he writes to friends; his letters to Cassie, the love he left behind, aren’t always that well judged in their content.
The emotional core of the book is the experience of war’s carnage and the toll it takes on these young men. Charlie convinced me to read this when he said, “… it was pretty spot on, couldn’t believe how exact at times,” in the context of having done two tours of duty there. That’s simply amazing to me. Not only did he experience this, he did it twice, and can still make sense! But get right down to it, whatever we thought we were accomplishing by invading the place has been accomplished. Though as far as I can see, all that’s happened is the Taliban has more recruits and will eventually regain control of the place.
Fobbit, by David Abrams, probably best suits my idea of a war book: one that takes the glamour of the effort and spit-roasts it over the fires of satirical prose. The trouble comes when the author burns all the bodies in pursuit of a hot enough fire to make the fatty truths of human incompetence spit and sizzle. It starts to have (on me, at least) an opposite effect. I start cringing not only at the intended target, but for them.
Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, Jr., is the titular Fobbit. His appalling job is to make pretty the ugliness of a war he doesn’t come close enough to to understand. He’s a reader, a writer, and no kind of warrior, and he’ll be the first to say so. He isn’t able to choose what he writes about all day, but he’s free to vent after hours into his personal diary that he keeps on a secret data stick. He sees clearly, and spares no one.
The characters he doesn’t spare are indeed idiots, with Harkleroad the simpering milquetoast the one who revolts me the most. Shrinkle, the menace to all around him, whose every command instinct is the diametric opposite of correct, is impossible to like and less possible to imagine being an actual Army officer. His genuine stupidity is an eternal fact of human life; but the fact is that he costs men their lives. Men like Vic Duret, the only real-life soldier in this portrait of the Army as a bureaucracy without a clue as to its real mission in the place it’s busy destroying. Duret can’t shake his 9/11 demons, can’t stop lusting after his stateside wife, can’t believe there are people with authority greater than his that have not one single clue about its appropriate use. At the end of the day, though, the relentlessness of the stupidity wears on me the way it must wear on the soldiers. It takes the humor out of the laughs. It ends up feeling hollow, exactly the way its characters feel.
Green on Blue, by Elliot Ackerman, brings some welcome … relief isn’t the word … respite from the focus of war novels on soldiers. Here we have a story that tells of a child’s coming of age in war-torn Afghanistan. Ali and Aziz are brothers living in one of Afghanistan’s medieval-level rural areas. They aren’t rich, their village isn’t interesting or important, but they’re happy and loved and fed. Then one fine day the area’s horrible, senseless wars come to town, and hey, presto! Childhood’s over, here’s your orphaned refugee status free of charge, and good luck out there.
In the course of things, the brothers’ lives change again when Ali, the elder, is badly maimed in a bomb attack on a marketplace. Aziz, not old enough to assume responsibility for his own life, let alone his brother’s, is forced into a position where working with American invaders is his best option. His brother needs care that can’t be bought any other way. Aziz has his native town’s sense of the world: he fights for his personal honor, and to avenge his brother’s maiming. People he trusts are his enemies, but they share a mutual enemy. That makes his cooperation with them okay. Until, as is inevitable, it snaps back into his face. He falls in love with a girl, has a revenge killer set on his own trail, and has a competing set of honor-driven priorities handed to him. Well before his reasonable time, Aziz is required to grow up and see clearly that the world isn’t ever fair, reasonable, or even particularly interested in you.
In choosing to write of war from the viewpoint of an Afghan child soldier, Ackerman clearly marks off his humanitarian territory: War isn’t human-friendly, and needs to be stopped in the face of the profiteers on all sides urging its endless continuation.
A Hard and Heavy Thing, by Matthew J. Hefti, takes disastrous, agonizing guilt and spins silver threads from it. Levi, a recipient of the Silver Star for his actions above and beyond the call of duty in saving his best friend Nick from the aftermath of his own bad choice that led Nick, as well as the rest of their team, into disaster. Nick is badly maimed, Levi reasonably unscathed physically but in a shambles morally and psychically.
I expected to be happy, but let me tell you something. Anticipating happiness and being happy are two entirely different things. I told myself that all I wanted to do was go to the mall. I wanted to look at the pretty girls, ogle the Victoria’s Secret billboards, and hit on girls at the Sam Goody record store. I wanted to sit in the food court and gorge on junk food. I wanted to go to Bath and Body Works, stand in the middle of the store, and breathe. I wanted to stand there with my eyes closed and just smell, man. I wanted to lose myself in the total capitalism and consumerism of it all, the pure greediness, the pure indulgence, the pure American-ness of it all. I never made it that far. I didn’t even make it out of the airport in Baltimore with all its Cinnabons, Starbucks, Brooks Brothers, and Brookstones before realizing that after where we’d been, after what we’d seen, home would never be home again.
That’s the hollow core which we’re sending young, dumb, full-of-cum boys to “defend”? Why defend it? And at such ruinous cost … what a waste. Levi and Nick weren’t going anywhere in particular before serving in Iraq. Their close bond with each other is the mainspring of the story, as it led them, post-9/11, to volunteer for military service together. They served together. They loved, and still love, the same girl and later the same woman, in body but certainly not in spirit. Eris isn’t a simple character. Her name is indicative of her effect on the men, and I think on the world. Each man sees a different order of being when looking at her, and each is correct. This is the awful, heart-rending truth of human life. Loving someone for her own unique self doesn’t usually encompass her entire self. Eris’ selves are appealing to each man in wildly different ways.
But Levi isn’t holding up well post-war. He’s bursting with stored pain; he’s imploding from the weight of his guilt; he’s really never had a chance to grow up and thus has warped instead of grown around his horrors.
We carry the world. They did. All those young men did. They carried the world, and it was heavy, and they didn’t know what to do with it. Was this the rest? Was this the war? Things had already spun out of control and they weren’t always as black and white or as right or wrong as Nick liked to think.
This is a very well-made book. It’s a story that’s eternal: Young men and war, young people in love, the angst of life without purpose giving way to the agony of adulthood’s many cross purposes. The author, an explosive ordnance disposal tech in Iraq, writes of what he knew and saw. He spikes the gun of thinly veiled autobiography by writing himself into the story for a moment. He’s made his own peace with his pain. He’s allowed Levi, the suicidal misery-guts, the same redemption. It’s a hard-fought struggle, and a hard-won victory. Very much a worthy read and a distinct pleasure to read.
RICHARD DERUS (a.k.a. ExpendableMudge on Twitter) is a biblioholic, a tsundoku carrier, and a passionate reader. From underneath his tottering towers of unread tomes, he blogs obsessively about his darlings at Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud, where many otherwise unknown books are praised, panned, or poked fun at; The Oak Wheel, where he blogs enthusiastically about short story collections; The Small Press Book Review; Shelf Inflicted, where he was a founding blogger; and wherever else he can find editors who need content, as long as it’s about books.
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