If there is any anger for an American like myself about the human costs of the US’s involvement in two simultaneous, languishing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it manifests as a kind of helpless frustration toward an administration that’s conveniently retired from government service: to occasional punditry on fox news (Dick Cheney and Karl Rove), to painting portraits of world leaders (George W. Bush) and to writing memoirs (all of the above). But in the curious case of former US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld, retirement meant subjecting himself to over 30 hours of interviews for Errol Morris’s newest documentary, The Unknown Known (2013).
Morris’s film focuses on Rumsfeld’s explanations of just a few of the estimated ‘millions’ of memos he wrote to members of the administration, elaborating his theories and strategies. Rumsfeld appears to answer Morris’s off-screen questions about them candidly, without hesitation, but seems incapable of reflecting on his writing or his actions in any real depth. (After a long-winded defence of the so-called torture memos, Rumsfeld declares: ‘I’ve never read them,’ with a triumphant smile.) In a recent appearance on the talk show The Colbert Report, Morris admitted to host Stephen Colbert that he emerged from those 30 hours of interviews with Rumsfeld knowing less about why the US went to war in Iraq, rather than more. ‘Is there any chance that someday we won’t know anything about why we went in?’ Colbert asked.
He was only half-joking. If Rumsfeld’s memos have created a negative void of knowledge, how can we create a positive sum? If historians, journalists, filmmakers, writers and artists fail to interpret or reflect on the images, data, reports, leaks and stories about Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s possible that we’ll have no coherent account of why we went to war or what happened there. We could, in fact, as memory fades and narratives are rewritten, know less than we do now. In a recent roundtable about war writing, veteran and writer Donald Anderson put it this way: ‘If we don’t create our personal versions of the past, someone else will do it for us. This is a frightening and political fact.’
Phil Klay, a writer and a marine who served as a public affairs officer in Anbar Province, recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times titled ‘After War, A Failure of the Imagination’, arguing for the necessity of writing about war. ‘Believing war is beyond words is an abrogation of responsibility – it lets civilians off the hook from trying to understand, and veterans off the hook from needing to explain,’ writes Klay. ‘We can do better.’
The success of Redeployment, Klay’s collection of short stories that was published in March, has meant that a small group of acclaimed books of war fiction about Iraq and Afghanistan – including Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, David Abrams’s Fobbit and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch (all published in 2012) – are gaining momentum. These stories and novels ask us to suspend our disbelief about their factual truth, but for me they have been some of the most illuminating accounts of the US’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.
If anything unites these fictions it is their inner questioning of how – and whether – to tell war stories. To do so, these authors embed other kinds of writing – journal entries, field reports, emails, memos, press releases, letters home – within their own, as metaphors for war fiction. Even the titles of Klay’s stories in Redeployment try out different modes of retelling: ‘After Action Report’ employs the acronyms and jargon of the military; in ‘War Stories’, a wounded soldier jokes about using his injuries to ‘get laid’ by an interested playwright in a New York bar. Powers’s The Yellow Birds hinges on a letter a solider writes to his dead friend’s mother, pretending to be her son. One of the many narrators of Fobbit is a military bureaucrat whose job it is to write and re-write press releases about incidents in the war and, thereby, the history of the war. At one point he receives an email from a general that reads: ‘Gentlemen, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: there is “sad news”, there is “tragic news”, but there is no “bad news” coming out of Iraq.’
Today’s war writers are inheritors of Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien’s seminal short story, ‘How to Tell a True War Story’ (1990), in which he wrote: ‘To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.’ In the fictional tales written by former soldiers, it is their struggles to write their stories that I understand as being truthful if not ‘true’. In Fountain’s novel, the solider Billy Lynn is approached by a Texas oil tycoon who says he can ‘imagine the violence’ that Lynn’s troop, Bravo Company, experienced in Afghanistan: ‘Don’t talk about shit you don’t know, Billy thinks, and therein lies the dynamic of all such encounters, the Bravos speak from the high ground of experience. They are authentic. They are the Real.’ Rather than generalizations, like Rumsfeld’s characterizations of his warehouse full of archived memos, war stories written by veterans like Klay or Powers contain details so surreal or dizzyingly absurd – a story about a mid-western philanthropist who insists on sending baseball uniforms to Iraqi children who don’t play baseball – that we can’t dismiss them as merely ironic. But heartbreaking details and indisputable truths also emerge – accidentally killing Iraqi civilians, scraping up human remains after a battle, shooting dogs. These details, their specificity, stick with me.
So, how to judge what makes a true war story when veterans telling fictional stories and politicians like Rumsfeld have the same tools at their disposal? O’Brien writes, ‘It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.’ The new novels and stories now emerging from Iraq and Afghanistan give us the (admittedly fictionalized) ambivalent, kaleidoscopic, sometimes satirical accounts of those who were there. But compared to Rumsfeld’s bemused, unreflective, self-assured narrative – they ring far truer.