What’s the point of a war story? Ask Tim O’Brien, someone who would know. There is no point, he’ll say—not if it’s a good, true war story. “For a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head,” he writes in The Things They Carried. “You listen to your wife’s breathing. The war’s over.”
The war’s over. Sure, wars have endings: World War I ended with a treaty. World War II ended with a mushroom cloud. Even Vietnam ended when the last Huey was tipped into the South China Sea, and Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City.
But this doesn’t work for war stories, does it? The heroes of the new war literature get no such closure. They fight a war without frontlines, and come home only to fight a different struggle: reintegration, and reconciliation with a country they no longer understand. Theirs is a story without catharsis, a war without end.
No book captures this tension better than Redeployment, a collection of short stories by Marine veteran Phil Klay that won the National Book Award for Fiction last night. It’s right there on the jacket: If these characters come home, they don’t stay for long.
Redeployment has its roots in The Things They Carried, perhaps the Vietnam War’s defining work of fiction. So too does the Iraq War have its narrative roots in that other strategically scatterbrained slog. Both wars were fought over ideas masquerading as existential threats; both ended in something much less than victory.
In Redeployment’s titular story, Marine Sgt. Price comes home from Fallujah, where he and his men shot dogs. “We did it on purpose, and we called it Operation Scooby,” he says. “I’m a dog person, so I thought about that a lot.”
In the shopping malls and civilian scenes of Jacksonville, North Carolina, Price’s tachometer is stuck at “orange,” a state of perpetual hyper vigilance that gives him panic attacks in malls, where he cannot possibly track and assess so many potential threats at once. He’s “orange” in a world at “white,” a world that, of course, is thankful for his service.
What would catharsis look like to Price? Being content with the society he supposedly fought to preserve? A rush of vindication, realizing it was a good fight, necessary and worthwhile? Instead, he and his wife “took my combat pay and did a lot of shopping. Which is how America fights back against the terrorists.” Instead, he sits on his couch watching pre-recorded baseball games, thinking: “And as glad as I was to be in the States, and even though I hated the past seven months and the only thing that kept me going was the Marines I served with and the thought of coming home, I started feeling like I wanted to go back. Because fuck all this.”
When he decides to euthanize his tumor-ridden dog, Vicar, he shoulders his AR-15—the civilian version of the rifle he used in Iraq—and, instead of bidding farewell to an animal he loves, numbly explains what bullets do to flesh.
In a broader sense, the anxiety that hums through Klay’s prose mirrors the state of American security, post-September 11. Security wonks call it “new normal”—a hundred small wars running concurrently, rather than a big one every other generation. See Africa, where American commandos advise foreign governments in their fight against extremists. See the drone campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan. See Libya, where American air and sea power helped topple a dictator—and give way to a government so shaky, Special Forces continue to aid its internal defense. If the war on terror ever had a plot, it seems to have lost it.
Can narrative organize this disorganized “new normal”? Klay’s Marines swap stories when dead-drunk, as in “Unless It’s A Sucking Chest Wound,” tearing off scabs in their unresolved lives; they relate them to clueless civilians, who seek to coopt them for political ends, as in “War Stories.” If there’s such a thing as a true war story, one character says, it goes something like this: a kid grows up, falls in love, starts a family, and deploys to Korea, where he lands at Inchon. “He’s shot in the water and drowns in three feet of surf,” she says, “and the movie doesn’t even give him a close-up, it just ends.”
So how do we write war stories for a war without narrative? Do we simply lean on the axiom offered by O’Brien in The Things They Carried: “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”
O’Brien broke his own rule. The Things They Carried, though brimming with horror and tragedy, found redemption in fiction’s power to resurrect. War, for all its horror, cannot defeat art. You cannot find better catharsis.