Endings are times of reckoning. Now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are winding down, it seems an appropriate moment to consider their costs. What have these wars done to the countries they were supposed to liberate? What have they revealed about the United States—both the leaders who so cavalierly led the country into long-term, unwinnable engagements and the civilians who sat so meekly by while all of this was happening? Finally, what damage have these wars caused to the bodies and minds of our soldiers?
These questions—questions not just about our country’s policies but about our country’s soul—are taken up in a series of recently published books. Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan (Knopf, $27.95, 384 pp.) is a detailed and sobering work. An associate editor at the Washington Post, Chandrasekaran is best known for his 2006 book Imperial Life in the Emerald City, where he exposed the almost surreal incompetence of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Iraq. If Imperial Life in the Emerald City often read like farce—look at how obtuse Americans can be!—then Little America reads like tragedy. The fact that we can see the catastrophe coming from a mile away doesn’t make it any less devastating.
Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama had to decide what to do about the increasingly unstable situation in Afghanistan. Civilians like Vice President Joe Biden favored a more restrained approach; military leaders like General Stanley McChrystal preferred an expansive counterinsurgency plan modeled on the Iraq surge of 2007. As is his wont, President Obama chose the middle course: Biden suggested 20,000 more troops, McChrystal asked for 40,000, and Obama decided on 30,000. The plan failed. The country isn’t much more secure than it was in 2009, and more lives, Afghan and American, have been lost. As Chandrasekaran writes, “Obama should have gone long, not big”—that is, should have kept fewer forces in place for a longer time.
One is tempted to say that this book shows just how little the United States has learned from Iraq. That’s not quite true. We have learned some things, but we’ve learned them too well. We learned that surges can work, so now we believe that surges always work; we didn’t want to be seen as occupiers, so we started standing down before Afghan forces were ready to take our place. The title of Little America’s final chapter tells us how things stand in Afghanistan: “What We Have Is Folly.”
Little America displays the virtues of the best nonfiction. But what of the virtues of fiction? Until recently, American novelists have avoided our current military conflicts; they were happy to take on September 11, but less willing to take on Iraq or Afghanistan. With the recent publication of Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Ecco, $14.99, 320 pp.) and Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, however, this is no longer the case. Fountain and Powers, both first-time novelists, swing big, attempting to represent how war is felt, fought, and imagined in the United States.
In Billy Lynn, Fountain employs a strategy used in modernist classics like Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses, focusing on a single day and location but allowing the play of consciousness to introduce much larger concerns. Fountain sets his novel on the most American of events on the most American of holidays: a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving Day. Billy Lynn and the other members of the Bravo Squad have recently returned from Iraq as heroes. The soldiers’ firefight at Al-Ansakar Canal was televised live on Fox News, and the higher-ups, in an attempt to increase support for the war, have decided to send the group on a whirlwind tour of the country. They’ve been wined and dined, cheered and interviewed, and now that their sales pitch is done, these “soft, sated, bleary, under-rested, and overproduced” soldiers are about to be shipped back to Iraq. Before that, though, they’ll experience once again the strangeness of American celebrity: they are to be honored during an extravagant halftime show at Cowboy Stadium, complete with fireworks, lots of choreographed dancing, and a performance by Destiny’s Child.
Billy Lynn depicts the merciless logic of wartime experience. Being engaged in combat isn’t ennobling, Fountain writes, but simply a “sort of road rage feeling”; being a soldier is less about courage than it is about avoiding “all the small, petty, stupid, basically foreordained fuckups” to which military life is heir.
But the most memorable passages are those in which Fountain uses war and how it is talked about at home to reflect on American culture more broadly. In a late-capitalist, media-saturated world, Fountain suggests, Americans feel an existential void, a void they try to fill with military action in which most don’t take part and with vague platitudes about sacrifice that most don’t really understand. War becomes not a cause for self-reflection but a cause for self-congratulation: “Here at home everyone is so sure about the war. They talk in certainties, imperatives, absolutes.” American citizens are “bold and proud and certain in the way of clever children blessed with too much self-esteem.”
Billy Lynn contains several rants worthy of Philip Roth: screeds against the financialization of our economy (“a shadowy, myth-based parallel world, a transparent overlay of Matrix-style numbers through which flesh-and-blood humans move like fish through kelp”); against American excess (“Where else but America could football flourish, America with its millions of fertile acres of corn, soy, and wheat, its lakes of dairy, its year-round gushers of fruits and vegetables”); against our class-based military, our lazy political discourse, our hypersexualized yet puritanical culture.
Fountain trains his eye like an anthropologist on the strange world that is the United States. What emerges is a hilarious, disturbing picture of a country that lauds self-sacrifice but refuses to practice it, that pays lip service to the tragedy of war but actually longs for the certainty it provides its nonparticipants. Billy Lynn reminds us both of “the state of pure sin toward which war inclines” and of the lengths we go to in denying this fact.
If Fountain is primarily interested in what war says about our country, then Kevin Powers, an Iraq veteran and author of The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown and Company, $24.99, 240 pp.), is interested in what war does to our soldiers.
The Yellow Birds, narrated by the twenty-one-year-old Private John Bartle, shifts back and forth between Bartle’s time fighting in Al Tafar, Iraq, and his time trying to understand those experiences once he’s back home. Early on, we discover that Bartle had something to do with the death of his platoon mate Daniel Murphy. The rest of the novel is devoted to figuring out what exactly happened and what it might mean. Tormented by what he did and what he failed to do, feeling guilty about his own survival, Bartle ponders the imponderables: Is war pure contingency, a concatenation of accident and aftermath? Or is there some “pattern in all the strange things that occurred”? How can we trust our memory of past trauma when “half of memory is imagination anyway”?
Despite what some reviewers have claimed, The Yellow Birds is not a story about the deep bonds forged by war. Bartle and Murphy are linked by the place from which they came (Virginia, where they’ve both “had small lives, populated by a longing for something more substantial than dirt roads and small dreams”) and by the hell in which they find themselves. But that’s about it: the two may like each other, but they certainly don’t love each other. In fact, Murphy often seems more a plot function—we continue reading to find out what happened to him—than a fully realized character.
The most distinctive feature of The Yellow Birds isn’t its plot or characters but its strange prose style. Powers, who has an MFA in poetry from the University of Texas at Austin, attempts a delicate balancing act, trying to wed unsparing realism (think Hemingway) to an intense, almost vatic lyricism (think Faulkner). The result can be inspired, as in the novel’s opening:
The war tried to kill us in the spring.… While we slept, the war rubbed its thousand ribs against the ground in prayer. While we pressed onward through exhaustion, its eyes were white and open in the dark. While we ate, the war fasted, fed by its own deprivation. It made love and gave birth and spread through fire.
But the writing can also be flabby and overwrought, straining after poetry when prose would do. Too often Powers sounds like a poor man’s Cormac McCarthy—not quite as powerful and not quite as weird. At one point, we see a tower rise “out of the dirt and dead flora like some kind of ancient exclamation”; elsewhere, we hear “the old and childless hovel dwellers who wailed some Eastern dirges in their warbling language, all of them sounding like punishments specifically for our ears.” Such details don’t tell us what war is actually like, nor do they tell us, I suspect, what war would feel like to Private Bartle. Rather, they seem to exist in order to call attention to themselves: “Pay attention!” they shout, “Aren’t I striking?” Striking? Perhaps. Convincing? Rarely.
For obvious reasons, I’m uncomfortable with criticizing a veteran for aestheticizing war. But this complaint is important to register because, when Powers reins himself in, he is a gifted writer, capable of aphoristic formulations (“War is the great maker of solip-sists: how are you going to save my life today?”) and powerful music (“We curled ourselves into absurd shapes and huddled below the whitewashed walls of our position. We stayed awake on amphetamines and fear”). At its worst, The Yellow Birds reads like a parody of an MFA project. At its best, though, it reminds us that war has its own peculiar, painful beauties.
Billy Lynn and The Yellow Birds place themselves within a specifically American tradition of war literature. In its absurdist humor, Billy Lynn recalls Joseph Heller’s Catch- 22; in its spare but occasionally lyrical realism, The Yellow Birds echoes Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles looks back further, to the ur-text of war literature: The Iliad.
In writing The Song of Achilles (Ecco, $14.99, 416 pp.), Miller, a classicist trying her hand at fiction for the first time, asks two central questions. First, what would the Trojan War look like if it were approached obliquely, not through the perspective of Achilles or Hector but through the eyes of someone who lived mostly on the sidelines? And second, what would happen if we reimagined The Iliad as a romance—not, as Simone Weil described it, as “the poem of force” but rather as the poem of love?
Miller’s narrator is Patroclus, Achilles’ beloved friend and brother-in-arms. Scholars have long debated the precise nature of the two men’s relationship—was it erotic or not?—but Miller is no milquetoast. For her, Patroclus and Achilles were lovers, and, in her vision, The Iliad is a poem that examines not just the violence brought about by war but also the violence brought about by romantic loss.
Miller paints Patroclus’s childhood as filled with mishap (he accidentally kills a bully and is banished) and misery (his father despises Patroclus’s lack of courage and physical prowess). But then, while in exile, Patroclus meets, befriends, and falls in love with Achilles. We follow the two through their short-lived but passionate love affair, staying with them as they encounter frightening prophecies, angry goddesses, and kindly centaurs. But all of these adventures pale in comparison to their love for one another. Even when we arrive at Troy, we’re still in the land of pure romance, where to be young and in love is to be “like gods at the dawning of the world,” where the carnage Achilles leaves in his wake can’t distract from his loveliness: “All I saw was his beauty, his singing limbs, the quick flickering of his feet.”
The pleasures of The Song of Achilles are real: a quick pace, a fluid if occasionally treacly style, a cast of well-known characters. But they are also shallow, and the enjoyment we get from the tale doesn’t quite make up for the cloying nature of the telling. Hardly a page goes by without our hearing about the “rosy gleam of [Achilles’] lip” or how he “moves easily, his heels flashing pink as licking tongues.”
War novels rarely end happily. As a war romance, though, The Song of Achilles proves an exception. In a conclusion that is more Wuthering Heights than The Iliad, Achilles and Patroclus, parted on the fields of Troy, are reunited forever in the afterlife: “In the darkness, two shadows, reaching through the hopeless, heavy dusk. Their hands meet, and light spills in a flood like a hundred golden urns pouring out of the sun.” This is a far cry from the endings of Billy Lynn and The Yellow Birds, both of which tell us that, at least for the combatants, the horrors of war can’t be escaped, let alone transfigured into golden sunlight.
How to reconcile war’s poetry with its pain, the golden urn with the dead ash it contains? That’s the task of all great war literature. None of the current crop of war novels fully succeeds in pulling this off—even Billy Lynn, the best of the bunch, focuses so incessantly on how the war is understood at home that it loses sight of how it’s experienced at the front. But at least these writers are taking up the challenge. They remind us that, if American literature is to be taken seriously, it must consider the violence that is done in America’s name.