Soldiers who set out to write the story of their war also have to navigate a minefield of clichés: all of them more or less true but open to qualification; many sowed long before the soldiers were ever deployed, because every war is like every other war. That’s one of them. War is hell is another. War begins in illusion and ends in blood and tears. Soldiers go to war for their country’s cause and wind up fighting for one another. Soldiers are dreamers (Sassoon said that). No one returns from war the same person who went. War opens an unbridgeable gap between soldiers and civilians. There’s no truth in war—just each soldier’s experience. “You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (from “How to Tell a True War Story,” in O’Brien’s story collection “The Things They Carried”).
Irony in modern American war literature takes many forms, and all risk the overfamiliarity that transforms style into cliché. They begin with Hemingway’s rejection, in “A Farewell to Arms,” of the high, old language, his insistence on concreteness: “I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity.”
The sermon fails to move the marines. It’s too soon, and Ramadi is too terrible. There will be more combat deaths, and then, after redeployment, a rash of suicides. The story can end only in irony: the chaplain alludes to Christ’s Passion, and Rodriguez spits in the grass. Some of the menwill remain alone for years, perhaps their whole lives. But some will begin to recognize their own suffering in the stories of others. That’s what literature does.♦
Well done, George Packer. But fail not to realize war is not merely a gender (i.e. male) specific event.
Women have always been ultra-present & our narratives (books!) are also a necessity in understanding the magnitude of this devastation.