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Review: Roy Scranton’s “War Porn”

Let’s admit that there’s an increasing creepiness in novels that depict American soldiers who have fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. War novels, historically, have been anti-war, either showing the futility of the individual engagement or the emotional results on the participants (PTSD). Even the good wars (if there are any) wreck havoc on soldiers, often making it impossible for them to fold back into the environments they left. Thus, Roy Scranton’s War Porn is no surprise—especially the novel’s premise that some returned soldiers get sexually aroused by recalling the despicable acts they committed in battle. War is a turn-on for them but for others (especially the women back home), well, the author’s implication is that they can be treaded as violently as victims in a battle zone.

So, yes, this is what we get near the end of Scranton’s story, i.e., how these acts began: “Yeah. That’s basically ‘cause we were bored. I mean one of our OGA dudes came from Abu G, and he gave us guidance on a bunch of shit he said worked really well over there. Naked Dog-Pile, Electric Wire Box, Fake Menstrual Wipe, shit like that. But a lot of shit we did ‘cause we were bored. I mean, plus all the normal shit—sleep deprivation, hostile environment, loud music, stress positions, beatings, immersion—you know, the basics,” stated matter-of-factly as if these events warpornare perfectly obvious and appropriate.

For Aaron Wilson (who considered himself cultured and sophisticated before the war, reading Whitman and Joyce), the torture began innocently enough—though also out of boredom—with insects. Huge camel spiders and scorpions were matched against one another. “When we got a scorpion we fought him against camel spider after camel spider until he died in captivity or was killed by another scorpion. The winner was named Saddam.” Cute.

Charged with clearing the undetonated IEDs, Wilson and his cohorts delight in abusing their Iraqi workers. No surprise, since they have nothing more than contempt for the Iraqis, and this is still very early in the war when there’s a high amount of rah-rah propaganda to keep them focused. Daily briefings with statements such as these: “We are soldiers, the fighting men who man the ramparts protecting America from the insidious evils of terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism that now threaten our way of life. We’re here because Saddam Hussein was a threat to America, his nuclear weapons and biological programs poised to be handed over to terrorists who hate us because of our freedom, who hate our way of life, and who have no compunction about murdering your wives, mothers, sons, and daughters in cold blood.”  It’s easy to forget how sick the rhetoric from the neo-cons was, even for those of us watching helplessly at home.

Ginned up with such rhetoric, Wilson and his buddies delight in running over innocent Arabs with their Humvees, including children; and after they return home, since they can’t fit back into the lives they led before, they redeploy. And redeploy. But multiple redeployments make them even less likely to adapt to life après la guerre. Wilson himself likes to show others the photos he took of the victims he and his pals tortured, using Abu Grebe as their model. Nor is there any way to forget, to escape the conditioning of the war arena: “All the long ride home while girls talked to me and each other, I scanned overpasses for snipers and watched the shoulder for IEDs. I kept reaching back for my rifle, startled that I’d lost it, and eyeballing cars passing on 205, feeling spooked, thinking I need a drink, I need a smoke, how the fuck long do I have to do this alone?”

There’s one Iraqi character in the story who acts as a kind of counterpoint to the violent American soldiers. The sections of the novel devoted to him also show the same distortions that Americans had been fed about the war’s success. “We have to get rid of Saddam and his goatcunt sons. Donald Rumsfeld says it’ll be short. Just a few weeks of insanity, just a few weeks of war, then the Americans will give us peace and democracy. We’ll be a great nation again, like Germany or Japan. We have the oil, we have the drive, we have the brains and dedication, all we need is freedom and we’ll be as great a Baghdad ever was.”

Roy Scranton’s War Porn is one more pathetic account of America’s worst foreign affairs decision ever. With hundreds of thousands of Vets in our midst, we’ve got problems that will be with us until the end of this century.

Roy Scranton: War Porn
Soho, 343 pp., $26

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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