Friday, November 16, 2012

Book Review: Two Iraq War Novels

Last month I posted a review of Kevin Powers' novel on the US war in Iraq, The Yellow Birds, and wondered if this novel might be an indicator of the kind of literature we might expect from the wars of the last decade.
Since then I've finished two more novels on the Iraq War, both by American writers. Both could be described as satire, which isn't a surprise really, when you consider that the Iraq War has already generated books with titles like Fiasco ( Tom Ricks). Journalists like Ricks and David Finkel (The Good Soldiers) have already documented the futility of the US Army's task in Iraq, blundering around like a well-meaning, tormented and destructive giant. It's not surprising that the novelists would mine the veins of absurdity and dark humour in that terrible story.


Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk ( new York, Harper Collins, 2012) is about the war on the home front, or US Homeland as it became after 9/11. A squad of US Army soldiers, the Bravos, were documented by an embedded news crew in a firefight and have been turned into overnight heroes and media stars, giving the folks at home, finally, something to feel good about in a confusing war.
The highlight of a nationwide media tour for Billy Lynn and his fellow Bravos is an appearance in a half-time extravaganza at a Dallas Cowboys football game. In a recent post here I included a few paragraphs from that scene as an example of Fountain's prose, which is often virtuosic. Fountain amps up his writing to capture his subject, the sheer excess of American culture, it's material abundance and the often childlike attitudes of its citizens. In shooting at such a big and obvious target, Fountain manages to avoid the trite and obvious. His tone is angry and comic, but he manages to create a sympathetic and self-aware character, a young soldier smart enough to realize that he is caught up in something huge and rich and even terrifying, so that going back to war seems like a relief at the end.


David Abrams' Fobbit (New York: Grove Atlantic, 2012) is not as literary as Billy Lynn's. Whereas Fountain is an accomplished writer, Abrams is a former US Army officer who kept journals while serving in public affairs in Baghdad in 2005. Fobbit is the novel he wrote from those journals, and the title comes from a satiric name used by combat troops for their comrades who never leave the comforts and security of FOBs (Forward Operating Bases).
Abrams's characters are fobbits working at a variety of tasks, including public affairs, in a bureaucratic and surreal system far removed from the exploding IEDs and ambushes of Baghdad. Among this less than heroic cast is Sgt. Gooding (With his neat-pressed uniform, his lavender-vanilla body wash, and the dust collected around the barrel of his M16 rifle, he was the poster child for the stay-back-safe soldier"), a public affairs peon tasked with writing meaningless and sanitized press releases according to the whims of his superiors. Abrams main point, that rigid, timid and mendacious military bureaucrats will always be outmatched and outwitted by the 24/7 news cycle, is his own signature contribution to the rich vein of military satire.
There were times when I thought Abrams overplayed his hand in signaling the kind of book he wanted to write. It is not a coincidence that while on leave in a dismal R&R facility in Qatar, Sgt Gooding reads Joseph Heller's Catch 22 poolside. That is not to say that Abrams has not written a smart, funny and perceptive novel. Anyone who has languished in a modern military headquarters will find something to laugh at it shake their head at.
Both are novels are rich in dark humour and irony, and both show writers capturing modern war, which remains, as Great War poet Gilbert Frankau once called it, a "loathsome, servile murder job", only now with more creature comforts.
When someone finally edits an anthology or teaches a course on the literature of 21st Century War, I predict that Fountain and Abrams will both be mentioned (as will Kevin Powers). Fountain may get more mention for his stunning and angry poetry/prose, which reminds me of Allen Ginsberg's outrage from a previous generation, but both books will be remembered.
MP+
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

2 comments:

Sean McLachlan said...

Interesting stuff! I'll have to pick one of these up. For nonfiction I recommend My War by Buzzel and The Baghdad Blog by Salam Pax. They were both very informative to read before my recent trip to Iraq.

mad padre said...

Hey Sean! Are you back from Iraq? I must read your blog and catch up on your time there
Thanks for following and for posting here.
Mike

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.

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