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All That Was Left of Them

Luke Mogelson's 'These Heroic, Happy Dead' illustrates the perils of writing war fiction.

Nikolay Doychinov/Getty

This is the fifteenth year of the War on Terror, which began with the ill-advised American invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001—an improbable response to the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by a group of overwhelmingly Saudi jihadists (albeit trained by Al Qaeda). In 2003 the war expanded to Iraq; over the years it’s come to refer to a variety of mass murder attacks around the world, along with several civil wars and other power struggles around the Middle East.

The body of literature generated by this conflict is substantial enough now that it can be surveyed as a genre, as indeed Sam Sacks did in Harper’s last year. Writing about a half dozen books by veterans published since 2012—including Phil Klay’s National Book Award-winning Redeployment and Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds—Sacks argued that contemporary Vet Lit suffers from “self-involvement,” i.e., the privileging of individual experience and pain over national responsibility and historical significance. Bizarrely, he blamed “the hothouse of creative writing programs” for the proliferation of the personal-confessional war story.

Tim Duggan Books, 192 pp., $24.00

Could it go without saying that privileging subjectivity—and the rendering of interior psychic space—is one of the primary functions of literature, and a defining feature of modernity? Maybe not. But even if we grant Sacks his feat of pattern-recognition, it seems to me that this valuation of the micro over the macro, and the experiential over the historical, has less to do with where a given writer studied than it does with the nature of this particular war. Ill-defined and apparently endless, the War on Terror and its affiliated global conflicts—as concepts and events—have become a black hole for meaning. Neither was this an unpredictable development. Nearly all the major War Lit of the past half-century, from Catch-22 to The Things They Carried to Tree of Smoke, has painted the same grim picture. Nations may wage war, and soldiers may feel deep allegiance to their army and each other, but after the battle or the tour or the war is over, each survivor is left to do his remembering, regretting, repressing, and recovering all alone.

For the past few generations, the Vietnam War—which lasted a decade—set the standard for grinding, pointless quagmire. As with most sequels, for the War on Terror the only thing that hasn’t changed is the plot. In any case, contemporary War Lit by vets and civilians alike (Ben Fountain’s profoundly empathetic Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Mark Doten’s hallucinatory The Infernal) focuses on individual rather than collective experience because it is an arena where finding meaning, however fragmentary or damning, remains a possibility.

Luke Mogelson, author of the collection These Heroic, Happy Dead, served with the 69th Infantry of the New York Army National Guard from 2007 to 2010. Mogelson was a medic, and was not deployed overseas. As soon as his contract was up, however, he moved to Afghanistan and started working as a freelance journalist, reporting for such publications as The New York Times Magazine and The New Yorker. In an interview conducted to accompany the publication of his story “Peacetime,” New Yorker fiction editor Willing Davidson asked Mogelson why he joined the Guard. He replied, “Well, at the time I told people that I was enlisting in order to serve in Afghanistan because I believed our war there was just and necessary. Maybe there was some truth to that.”

That “maybe” leaves a hole large enough to drive a tank through, and Mogelson has. These Heroic, Happy Dead, his fiction debut (and first book), takes its title from e.e. cummings’s “next of course to god america i”—as cynical a war poem as exists, unless you’re one of those people who reads “The Charge of the Light Brigade” as high irony. It’s a commanding and resonant collection, deeply felt and rich in visceral detail. If some of the specifics are overly familiar—“You know what happens next. It happens the instant they hit the door. Blast nearly brings the building down,” Mogelson writes in “Kids”—well, as I mentioned earlier, it’s been a long couple of wars.

These Heroic, Happy Dead owes a good deal to Redeployment and to The Things They Carried, but if Mogelson is not precisely an original, he is at least an innovator—the best stories in this collection (“Kids,” “Visitors”) are arguably among the finest the genre has produced. Unlike Klay, who was content with “thematic” links between his stories, Mogelson (like O’Brien) makes his connections explicit, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with them, and there are no meta-fictional interludes. Places, characters, and events overlap, calling back to each other across a suite of stories confident enough in their status as discrete narratives to avoid reaching for some big takeaway. Which is fitting, because this is a book—and this is a war—in which the parts do not add up to a coherent whole.

Tom Mayeaux, for example, the protagonist of “A Human Cry,” is the unnamed meth-mouthed grunt who only appears for a paragraph in “New Guidance,” a story that details the breakdown of relations between U.S. and Afghan military forces through the point of view of an Afghan-American translator. It’s mentioned in passing that Mayeaux “enlisted for the dental plans, so that he could get a set of teeth.” In “A Human Cry,” we find Mayeaux sporting a set of dentures.

Mayeaux served in the same unit as Lee Boyle, the double amputee in “To the Lake.” The narrator of that story, McPherson, meets Boyle in county lockup when he’s brought in on a DUI. Boyle, in for having thrown a hammer at his wife (“Because I didn’t have an axe handy,” he explains) posts bail for both of them, after learning that McPherson was present at “the debacle at the mosque,” an event so horrific it is never detailed.

In “Kids” we find McPherson serving in Afghanistan in the same unit as a guy named Rob Dupree, who in “Visitors” is in prison for a manslaughter committed after he came home. “Visitors,” however, takes Dupree’s mother as its protagonist, and is perhaps the most sensitive, compelling, and sad story in a book that hardly lacks for them. It offers a welcome break from the blinkered and often self-deluding meathead logic of the men who feature in all of the other stories.

When Mogelson hits on a plot device that works for him, his tendency is to turn it into a formula. In a book that was less mindfully composed, this would be less obvious, or at least less grating. All writers have their tics, and every war, after all, generates its own body of cliché. But five out of these ten stories have a moment where a guy is knocked out or passes out in the middle of a scene: “I woke to a stranger Velcroing a device around my neck,” says the drunk driver in “To the Lake.” “A wailing brought me back. When I opened my eyes I was mortified to discover that it was me,” says the young narrator of “Sea Bass,” who has just run his hand into a table saw. And so on.

Mogelson uses last names to evoke a range of nationalities and ethnicities—Karzowsky, Papadopolous, Kahananui, Sanchez—though showcasing seems to be enough for him, as they don’t really get backstories and their ethnicities don’t have much bearing on their senses of themselves or each other. (The translator in “New Guidance” is one of a couple exceptions that prove this rule.) Five stories feature a woman who swore her heart to the protagonist, only to bail in favor of some other, safer—which is to say more economically and/or emotionally stable—man. That other man’s name (“Hank Rubin,” “Frank Boswell,” etc.) is uttered as if merely saying it aloud telegraphs everything worth knowing about such a sniveling dickless wonder. (Dupree’s mother is the only female protagonist in the collection, and if there was a second instance in which a woman is portrayed as something other than a cheater or a shrew, I didn’t catch it.) Mogelson would have done well to save some pity for the women who have had hammers thrown at them by deranged alcoholics, instead of spending it all on men too drunk to find a good axe when they need one.

Most of these guys are luckless fuckups, but it’s not clear whether their time in the service is to blame for their predicaments. In fact, you could edit the war out of several of these stories and be left with fairly seamless tales of self-destructive masculinity in the tradition of Andre Dubus, Tobias Wolff, and David Gates.

But you can’t edit the wars out, first of all because they’re still being waged, and second of all because self-destructive masculinity is the stock-in-trade of all armed conflict. It is war’s eternal motivating force. Mogelson’s men are scarred by their service, in some cases ruined by it, but they were mostly ruined before they went overseas—for reasons that have less to do with topics covered in Lawrence Wright’s Looming Tower than with topics covered in George Packer’s The Unwinding and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed. It is, for the most part, American poverty and not American patriotism that sealed their fates.

These Heroic, Happy Dead left me wondering what it means to be on the right side of a conflict that ought never to have been instigated in the first place; a conflict fought mostly by men press-ganged by circumstance (another perennial wartime truth), whose progress can be charted on a graph whose axes are strategic blunder and moral evil. What does—what can—“heroic” even mean that context? Indeed, the word appears in both the title and the epigraph, but nowhere in the text itself. Happiness, needless to say, is also in short supply here. Death, however, is omnipresent and attended by its emissary dumb luck, which is as likely to save a life as take one. Luck, like war, is fundamentally amoral; it does not know whether it is good or bad, and if it did, it wouldn’t care.