I think it was Anthony Swofford, author of the memoir Jarhead, who said there is no such thing as an anti-war war movie. Any film that portrays combat, however horrifically, he averred, still inevitably whets the appetite for it of young men who have never experienced it.
Literary fiction is in a different category, particularly when you can probably just about guarantee that few budding recruits will read any more of it than the rest of the US population does – maybe one book a year. It’s unlikely that any literary portrayal of war (possibly excluding comics and graphic novels), positive or critical, will be much of a factor in anybody’s decision to participate or not in our imperial adventures abroad.
But some writers write books because they have to, not because it is of great importance to them how many people will read them, or because they expect any dramatic real world effects from writing them. And that’s my impression of These Heroic, Happy Dead, a collection of ten excellent short stories by Luke Mogelson. It was written because it had to be, by someone who had both the talent and experience to do it.
Warriors and war correspondents who have been in or near actual fighting have a literary godfather in the US: Ernest Hemingway, who created a distinctive prose style apt for depicting the modern warrior’s experience. Mogelson, who trained as a combat medic in the New York National Guard from 2007 – 2010 and has been a journalist in warzones and hotspots since then, is definitely a Hemingway descendent.
In these stories, he has mastered what Hemingway called the “iceberg” principle of fiction: careful surface detail, clipped dialogue, little extended internality, and a sense of unplumbable depths lurking below the words and outside the frame of the described scenes. Unlike Hemingway, Mogelson somehow manages this in the chattier first person stories (the majority) as well as those told in the more distant third. Most of the inevitable killing, maiming, and dying occurs in brief recollection, or discreetly offstage; it’s the experience of damaged living that is explored in quotidian but never bland or generic detail. And perceived from a constellation of viewpoints, several of which are unobtrusively interlinked from one story to the next. (You can read the whole collection without noticing the links, and it’s still powerful.) Like Michael Herr’s work to which it’s been compared, or Robert Stone’s without the tortured metaphysics, it’s mostly a grunt’s eye-view of imperial war and its aftermaths.
Here’s what the flap copy says:
Troubled veterans first introduced as criminals in “To the Lake” and “Visitors” are shown later in “New Guidance” and “Kids” during the deployments that shaped their futures. A seemingly minor soldier in “New Guidance” becomes the protagonist of “A Human Cry,” where his alienation from society leads to a shocking confrontation. Shifting in time from the home front to active combat, between infantrymen, a mother, an Afghan-American translator, and a foreign correspondent – these stories offer a multifaceted examination of the unexpected costs of war.
“Unexpected” is the one wrong note in that description. Since the Vietnam War at least, US authors have been dealing with the fact that in contemporary armed conflicts, the old equations have been flipped, and by far the largest-scale, longest-lasting damage is so-called collateral damage. When the best estimate of recent drone casualties, for example, says that 90% of them were not the intended targets – what clearer sign can there be that this is the way we fight now? But, as is also known, the collateral effects ripple out far beyond the killed and wounded.
Thus there is nothing surprising in these stories about who is damaged, how, and why, at least to anyone who has been paying attention to the military escapades in which we’ve engaged for the last fifteen years. But really good literary fiction like this is supremely and possibly uniquely capable of showing the minute subtlety with which large-scale events play out in individual human lives. Not, for the most part, like tsunamis washing away everything in their paths, but like contaminated water infiltrating every cell of an organism – be it an individual, family, or a community of people. In the words of poet and critic William Empson:
Slowly with poison the whole bloodstream fills
The waste remains, the waste remains and kills
In a non-fiction work it would be possible to sweep the catalogue of behaviors here: substance abuse, domestic violence, assault, petty larceny, extreme social isolation, homicide, suicide – into the dull corner of PTSD and sigh and beg for better psychological intervention. But the eternal conundrum we’re meant to reflect on as we read this book, precisely because no answer is offered to it, is Why We Fight.
You can speculate from now till Armageddon whether there’s a genetic (hormonal?) human predisposition to organized violence – Sebastian Junger goes about touting that suspect thesis while still doing some useful reportorial work about the human realities of today’s wars – or “just” a socio-cultural one. But however many angels you get to dance on the head of those pins, there’s no sign of any society today eliminating the propensity for organized violence. This despite the blithe pronouncements and damned statistical approach of Panglossians like linguist Steven Pinker. Although classically defined warfare may now (for the time being) be less deadly in absolute terms than it has been in the past, organized violence is the many-headed hydra: in today’s world it’s perpetrated by paramilitary death squads, terrorists, factional forces, special forces, perennial insurgencies, private security contractors, robotic flying machines, militarized police forces, street gangs, and organized crime – it’s all war, it’s everywhere, and its unofficial soldiers openly describe their activities as such, unless their bosses order them not to. Death of direct combatants is only one of the devastating consequences and not even the worst, of the everywhere-war.
It was disturbing to see some of the first archaeological evidence emerge recently that group violence in humans may pre-date settled societies. I suppose the progressive view is to see specific types of social formation as the culprit, because then the cure, however difficult, becomes evident. And yet perhaps the best that any human society can do in the foreseeable future is what has already been done in the past: to reduce extreme inequities of wealth or power, but also sublimate organized violence, ritualize it, re-direct it, and observe extremely strict and mostly non-lethal rules of conduct for bloodletting (although my feeling is that kidnapping and raping women would have to be torn out of the playbook). One can resist the reductionism of Junger basically saying “boys will be boys” forever, and at the same time see that our tendency to collective intraspecial violence may cut deeper than the development of surplus value or hierarchical social structures.
But if war is still a force that gives us meaning, the ironic thrust of these stories is that it mostly seems to deprive meaning from the warriors themselves. Or, imperial war does, anyway. If you are fighting a war for what you understand as your own historic land – an experience no US American living today has ever had, and one outside the scope of this book– there tends to be quite a different self-understanding on the part of the warrior, at least for as long as the conflict persists. As someone who witnessed the Central American revolutionary wars and their immediate aftermath close-up, I can tell you that for a fact.
It is this difference that makes the tenaciousness of the Afghans, Palestinian guerrillas, Kurds, et al., so baffling to most US observers, even some anti-imperialists. And yet the reason is so evident that once you’ve seen it anywhere, you realize that no analysis of any conflict is complete without assessing the degree to which this factor is present in its fighters. Ideological fervor provides some amount of strength; opportunism, machismo, and desperation always play a role, but over the long haul nothing compares to physical attachment to place.
Meantime, for those on the imperial side, the irony is that the lives of the warriors post-combat become in effect just so much more collateral damage, as if they were death camp survivors, not valiant defenders of a civilization. The book’s title, a quote from e.e. cummings, is not exactly appropriate to its theme, but it is true in a way cummings probably never intended. Death is not the most dreadful thing a warrior – or any individual – can experience. Irrecoverable loss of meaning or purpose is an ongoing death-in-life. The waste remains and kills… slowly, and for a long time.
A society that cannot recognize those who are sacrificed in its name cannot recognize itself. Luke Mogelson stoically holds the mirror up in these deft stories, and waits for any of us who will turn from the distracted crowd to come and see.
These Heroic, Happy Dead by Luke Mogelson is due out from Tim Duggan Books (a Crown imprint) in April.