Home » Books in General » The Citizen-Veteran Gap and Modes of Storytelling

The Citizen-Veteran Gap and Modes of Storytelling

31 October 2016

From Literary Hub:

Every war has its own poetics and mythos, and Iraq is no different. The near-nine-year conflict, which you’d be forgiven for forgetting did in fact end, at least in the sense of US troops withdrawing from the country in 2011, continues to generate a steady profusion of literature, both fiction and non. Its meaning and implications remain live, hence the extraordinary interest in the Chilcot report in July and the occasional centrality of Iraq to this year’s presidential election. Artistic responses to the war have typically followed the pattern set by the literature of Korea and Vietnam, aiming at the incoherence, the madness, the hostility of the combat conditions. Few works in any genre have come as close to offering a perspective on Iraq that is as broad, as tragic, as funny, or as piercing as that of Phil Klay in his 2014 National Book Award winner, Redeployment.

Klay became a Marine in 2005, when, he writes, “It wasn’t just the wisdom of the invasion that was in doubt, but also the competence of the policymakers.” Despite not insignificant ambivalence, feelings of civic and national duty took over, he swore his oath, and he shipped out to Iraq’s Anbar Province as a public affairs officer in 2007.

. . . .

What he experienced there became the raw material for Redeployment, supplemented by careful and extensive research and interviews with other veterans. The result is 12 stories that, in their different and precisely calibrated perspectives, give the reader a multi-layered, undogmatic, panoramic view of the war.

. . . .

CA: Each story in Redeployment is told in the first person. Narrators include a chaplain, an artilleryman, a foreign service officer, and an officer in “mortuary affairs.” Some of them don’t experience violence or action directly, some do. I wonder if this is this a recognition of the limits of your own experience, and thus perhaps a measure of respect for that which might not be comprehensible second hand?

PK: It’s more that I wanted to be able to approach the subject from many different angles, not just the one most people think of when they think of war: an infantryman with a rifle killing the enemy. What does one make of one’s moral responsibility for killing when you’re part of a crew-fired-weapon whose rounds strike miles away, when you’re not even sure if you have killed people or how many? What about when you’re a chaplain trying to influence policy, or a psychological operations soldier trying to help shape the battlefield?

CA: Many of the stories prominently feature a kind of slippage between civilian and Marine life. One character, looking through the scopes of his rifle, remembers hunting with his father. It’s a technique that Clint Eastwood also used in the editing of American Sniper, to considerable effect. What impact on combat and civilian life do these moments of interpenetration of experience have?

PK: I think the thing most people are used to is the idea that war experience can make civilian life hard, or that life back home can be alienating, living in an individualistic consumer society after living in the intensely communal environment of a wartime military. And that is all true. That said, I also think that the disconnect can, over time, be revealing and can be the starting place for serious reflection and personal growth. The philosopher and World War II veteran J. Glenn Gray wrote that the sense of moral complicity in horror common to many veterans can teach us, “as few things else are able to, how utterly a man can be alienated from the very sources of his being. But the recognition may point the way to a reunion and a reconciliation with the varied forms of the created. [ . . . ] Atonement will become for him not an act of faith or a deed, but a life, a life devoted to strengthening the bonds between men and between man and nature.”

. . . .

CA: Do you think it’s possible for war—and particularly the war in Iraq—to be written successfully into art by people who weren’t there?

PK: Yes. Homer—pretty obviously not a veteran of the Trojan War. Crane—not a veteran of the Civil War. Ben Fountain and Lea Carpenter and Atticus Lish and Roxana Robinson and Whitney Terrell aren’t veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan and yet have written wonderfully about it. The whole idea of fiction as an art form rests on the idea that it’s possible to richly imagine other people’s experiences. If I didn’t believe non-veterans could write about Iraq, which would mean believing non-veterans can’t imagine their way into the military experience, then what would be the purpose of writing my own book? Besides, I didn’t do any of the jobs I write about.

Link to the rest at Literary Hub

Books in General

3 Comments to “The Citizen-Veteran Gap and Modes of Storytelling”

  1. I did a review of the book when it came out (here: http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/redeployment). I’m a veteran from Desert Storm, which was why I was asked to do the review. It was hard for me to get through the book. I probably wouldn’t have touched it if I hadn’t agreed to do the review. As it was, I read the first page, nearly said I couldn’t do it, then jumped into the middle of the book, where it was less dark. I’d come out of Desert Storm with a dark part that kept creeping into my writing and this book highlighted that it was a place I could not let my writing stay in.

  2. Very relevant post, thanks!

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.