There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.
I’ve found it true in personal experience that being a target of life-threatening violence strips away everything that isn’t a core value or an innermost desire. Near the eastern Afghan village of Shkin in 2004, I huddled in a mud brick house with other soldiers as insurgent fighters fired Chinese-made 102mm rockets at us from a point of origin just over the mostly-imaginary Pakistani border, a high, rocky ridge overlooking the American forward operating base. The few words we exchanged during the attack—shouted over the crunch of explosions—consisted of false bravado and standard-issue black humor. Somebody asked whose brilliant idea it was to plant the base within easy range of a Pakistani mountain. Another swore he would choke a certain local national who worked on the base for spilling the beans to the bad guys that the counter-fire radar system had broken down earlier in the day. I laughed along with the others as expected, but the thoughts that raced in my mind were of my family and plans for the future.
Was it so impossible that the people on that high ridge lobbing explosives might be willing to come down and talk things over with us? Couldn’t we forgive each other and move on? Flying bricks, ringing ears, and a mouthful of dust eclipsed every worry, leaving only the knowledge that there were men on a mountain trying to kill me, and I wasn’t ready to die.
Like Flannery O’Connor’s Grandmother character in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” whether I had survived that day or not, I was changed. We don’t necessarily have to face life-threatening violence to get us to the point of asking who we are and what would matter most to us in the face of imminent, violent death. Literature serves as the most realistic substitute available.
As a relatively new writer, a retired U.S. Army officer, and veteran of two Middle Eastern armed conflicts, I am drawn to writers who have explored the nature of violence. This isn’t because I enjoy violence—quite the opposite. I have spent more than two decades observing human behavior in life-threatening situations, and what baffles me is why we human beings continue to engage in behavior universally recognized as the worst possible way to spend our time and resources. As I reach the point in my life when I feel ready to write about my own experiences with violence, I look to masters of the art of fiction to learn how they treat violence and its effects on people in their work.
The stories of Flannery O’Connor, Tim O’Brien, Cormac McCarthy, Josip Novakovich, and Phil Klay depict violence and its effects in the most realistic terms. O’Connor, the only author I’ll discuss who does not write about war, brings the point of view of not only a woman, but of a person experiencing the deep tensions and conflicts of the American South of the mid-twentieth century. Her collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find, and its title story show how a master of the short story uses violence as deftly as a surgeon uses a scalpel to achieve a specific effect.
I identify with Tim O’Brien because of our shared experiences. His book, The Things They Carried, which straddles the line between memoir and fiction, directs how I go about transforming my memories into stories and novels. His writing comes across as almost too real for me, which is why I trust him as a storyteller. His war stories convey the hideous and obscene reality of war, yet they also serve as a window into the hearts and thoughts of the real people that inhabit them. There can be no more effective warning against the horrors of war than reading the true stories of those who suffer most, the common infantrymen in the field.
Cormac McCarthy created a work of fiction like no other in Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West. This novel uses pervasive violence as setting. The important events of the story occur in the presence of continuous bloodshed, yet the book manages to be a story of redemption rather than a book about mass slaughter, and it tracks the progress of its characters while uncovering one of the darkest chapters of American history.
In Josip Novakovich’s collection, Infidelities, we find tenderly told stories in which the characters are each not only the victims of war violence, but also the perpetrators. The book shows how violence changes us and makes us into the thing we fear. More importantly, Infidelities allows the reader to empathize with people who are both criminals and victims and showing us that nothing about the morality of war is clear-cut.
Phil Klay’s Redeployment acquaints us with the combat veteran portion of the roughly one percent of Americans who have served on active duty in the military. With so many veterans coming home from America’s wars, it makes good sense to read fiction that reveals as much as possible what coming home means to them. Reading honestly written war fiction such as The Things They Carried and Redeployment are imperfect but effective tools for the uninitiated to understand war.
Fiction writers either depict realistic violence in an honest effort to reveal its monstrous nature and the conditions that lead to it, or they—either intentionally or not—depict violence in a way that sensationalizes abuse, bloodshed, and violent brutal death. One example of this is J.G. Ballard’s novel Crash, in which characters with a fetish for death and maiming by automobile experience over-the-top, graphic violence presented in a sexualized manner: violence for its own sake that serves no greater purpose. This distinction may mean the difference between the creation of literature and a much less noble result. Writers of fiction bear the responsibility of capturing human experience with as much accuracy and honesty as possible. Exposing readers to realistic acts of violence that serve to illuminate characters and move the story forward can affect popular thinking on the largely unseen details of real-world violence in a positive way. Conversely, the creation of characters and situations designed specifically to set the conditions for violence may sell a lot of mass-market fiction, but is unlikely to be mistaken for respectable literature.
The more realistically violent situations are depicted in literature, the more likely readers will be to consider the real-life consequences of violence. By making literary violence into something of a different quality than the real thing, writers create an absurd version of reality—a Warner Brothers cartoon version of violence that may not result in injury or death. Worse, creation of fictional fantasy violence without consequences may actually propagate a tolerance to violent behavior in popular culture. My father, a Vietnam veteran with a 30-year career in law enforcement, taught me that no one wins in a knife fight. He knew the dangers of failing to consider the consequences of violence and wanted his son never to make the mistake of believing the bloodless mayhem on television had any basis in reality. These days, I remind my teenaged son that in life, unlike the games he plays on his X-Box, only rarely is one lucky enough to return to a gunfight after being shot, and then only after a long, painful, and probably less than full recovery.
O’Connor brings the point of view of a woman and of a person experiencing the deep tensions and conflicts of the American South of the mid-twentieth century in A Good Man is Hard to Find. Its title story shows how a master of the short story uses violence as deftly as a surgeon uses a scalpel to achieve a specific effect. In effective depictions of violence, the characters’ actions tell the story more effectively than the writer could accomplish through indirect methods, and the voice of a fictional character can be more effective than the voice of the author. The Misfit, the criminal gang leader and pseudo-prophet in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” is the best example of this. In the voice of the shirtless, sober Misfit, a hardened criminal and the most intelligent and insightful character in the story, the reader readily accepts dire spiritual assertions and justifications for murder.
“Jesus was the only one that ever raised the dead,” the Misfit continued, “and He shouldn’t have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it’s nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but to enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness,” he said and his voice had become almost a snarl. (O’Connor, A Good Man, 132)
Why should writers show the brutality to the reader? Why not simply say that the Misfit had his henchmen take the family into the woods and shoot them, that one of his henchmen brought him the dead man’s shirt because he needed one? O’Connor explained her reasons at a reading of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” at Hollins College, in Virginia, in 1963.
“I suppose the reasons for the use of so much violence in modern fiction will differ with each writer who uses it, but in my own stories I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will do the work. This idea, that reality is something to which we must be returned at considered cost, is one which is seldom understood by the casual reader, but it is one which is implicit in the Christian view of the world…And in this story you should be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for the dead bodies.” (O’Connor, Reading at Hollins College)
O’Connor leads up to the violence with the suspicious behavior of the Misfit gang’s car on the hill, approaching slowly, passing, and returning like a predator stalking a rafter of turkeys. The car is ‘hearse-like’ (A Good Man 126) with 3 three men inside, which, considering O’Connor’s Christian predisposition, this is likely an allusion to the three horsemen of the apocalypse.
The Grandmother’s death (132) is the only murder O’Connor shows us up close. The killing of the rest of the family is implied or heard, as in the Grandmother’s failure or decision not to recognize the shirt taken from her dead son’s body, in the scream of the mother or daughter, presumably caused by one witnessing the murder of the other before meeting her own doom fate in the deserted woods. When the time comes for the Grandmother to die, after she has offered money and renounced her Christian faith, it is only after she has had her first selfless thought. She suddenly expresses compassion for the Misfit by telling him he is one of her own children, and once she has had her moment of grace, the Misfit releases her from mortal existence by giving her a quick three rounds to the chest. The Grandmother became a good woman only when she accepted she was going to die, hence the Misfit’s statement near the end of the story that she would have been a good woman, had she had someone to “shoot her every day of her life.” The violence of her death comes across almost as a religious event, almost as if the Misfit were there to release her from her self-centered, sinful life. In missing the brutality of the murder of the Grandmother, we would also miss the exact moment of her redemption. My interpretation of the old woman’s murder is that O’Connor is showing us that, according to the Christian point of view, living in a state of selfishness and hypocrisy is worse than dying in grace. To indicate the murder of the Grandmother in any way other than showing the Misfit firing the bullets into her body as she reached for him to offer comfort would have been to miss the point of the story.
I am sick and tired of war. Its glory is all moonshine. It is only those who have neither fired a shot nor heard the shrieks and groans of the wounded who cry aloud for blood, for vengeance, for desolation. War is hell. —William Tecumseh Sherman (qtd. in Grossman On Killing 74)
Tim O’Brien, a veteran of the Vietnam War, presents his book, The Things They Carried, as a work of fiction. I think of his writing style as ‘up close and personal.’ Efficiently, he ticks off the details of violence, emotion, and setting without euphemisms. When O’Brien writes in “Speaking of Courage” of Norman Bowker’s night spent submerged to the eyeballs in a flooded sewage field during a mortar barrage, he provides us with the sights and sounds of the attack, as well as the smell and taste of the contents of the flooded field latrine where his platoon is pinned down.
Everything was black and wet. The field just exploded. Rain and slop and shrapnel, nowhere to run, and all they could do was worm down into the slime and cover up and wait.
O’Brien uses only the barest description of events, but the facts are enough. Bowker mentions the taste of the filth and hearing the sound of his own heartbeat as he submerges himself to avoid shrapnel, and the experience is as unforgettable as it is impossible to adequately describe to anyone who was not there with him.
In O’Brien’s work, war really is hell, and instead of a groovy 1960s soundtrack, it comes with third-world stench. Perhaps it is because war is so incessantly loud that it seems that most soldiers remember smells more than sounds. O’Brien captures the simple, everyday horror of deadly violence in compact language that omits nothing, no matter how awkward or disturbing. Bowker recalls,
Two rounds hit close by. Then a third, even closer, and immediately, off to his left, he heard somebody screaming. It was Kiowa—he knew that. (O’Brien 128)
O’Brien uses pacing to good effect here. Two mortar rounds impact in a five-word sentence. In the next sentence, the third round lands, and Bowker hears someone screaming in agony and terror. I get the feeling that time is stretching for Bowker in the way the pace of seconds seems to slow when the adrenaline flows, and giving him long enough to realize it is his close friend who has been hit.
Bowker searches and finds his friend, and we see that Kiowa has not died a heroic death. By showing us the fear and excrement and maiming, O’Brien illustrates the pointless, tragic, and obscene nature of war. Like Flannery O’Connor’s Grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” Bowker perceives minute details that lend truth to the scene and ground us in place. O’Connor’s Grandmother notes the mileage on the car as the family departs Atlanta. Bowker notes the state of his friend’s body as it disappears into the muck. In each case, these are details the characters are likely to remember, and the reader does, as well.
There were bubbles where Kiowa’s head should’ve been. The left hand was curled open; the fingernails were filthy; the wrist-watch gave off a green phosphorescent shine as it slipped beneath the thick waters. (O’Brien 130)
In the book’s title story, “The Things They Carried,” O’Brien captures one of the strange details life sometimes uses to season memories of tragedy.
Lee Strunk made a funny ghost sound, a kind of moaning, yet dry happy, and right then, when Strunk made that high happy moaning sound, when he went Ahhooooo, right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing. He lay with his mouth open. The teeth were broken. There was a swollen black bruise under his left eye. The cheekbone was gone. Oh chit, Rat Kiley said, the guy’s dead. The guy’s dead, he kept saying, which seemed profound—the guy’s dead. I mean really. (O’Brien 10)
Tim O’Brien differs from Flannery O’Connor in his frank depiction of violence. Whereas O’Connor keeps murder in the distance in “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by allowing the reader only to hear screams and gunshots until the final three shots to the Grandmother’s chest that underscores the point of the story, Tim O’Brien hides nothing, and for good reason. In an October 1991 conversation during his residency as a Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Writing Fellow at The College of Wooster, O’Brien tells Debra Shostak,
One of the objects among many in writing about violence has to do with reaffirming the truth of the cliché that “war is hell,” or “death is horrible,” something we all so often tend to forget….My object is not to wallow in blood and gore. The object is to display it in terms so that you want to stay away from it if possible. (O’Brien, interview)
The men in O’Brien’s stories are not the lantern-jawed heroes of the Army’s “Be All You Can Be” television ads. No—these are regular, red-blooded American boys, out in the woods trying not to think about the war festering around them, most of them have been drafted against their will. They send a few bucks home to their families and sometimes die on the way back from taking a leak. O’Brien does literature a service by showing the reality of war. The matter-of-fact depiction of violence in The Things They Carried is absolutely necessary to convey the clear message that war is something to be avoided. O’Brien’s characters do not discuss the Communist threat to western society. They talk about girlfriends, booze, and cars. Because we learn something about each soldier in the platoon, it hurts the reader when they die and when they return to the United States and fail to successfully transition back to civilian life. If we can’t imagine what it’s like to be one of them, maybe we can empathize with them for having become victims of bickering governments.
In “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien does the best job I have ever heard of explaining why it is nearly impossible for veterans to talk about what happened on the battlefield. He asserts that unless a war story is terrifying, embarrassing, and disgusting, if at the end of a war story the reader feels at ease with how things turned out, then that story is carrying on the traditional, nationalistic lie that justified violence is in some way righteous or glorious.
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.
The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must. —Thucydides
Reclusive genius Cormac McCarthy’s writing is so different from anything else I have read that based on his novel, Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, I think of him as the sole inhabitant of his own literary planet. Blood Meridian encompasses what would have been one of the most difficult reading experiences of my life if not for the simple yet unconventional beauty of the language within. McCarthy delivers government-sponsored genocide in one long irresistible draught that burns going down and packs a not entirely pleasant kick. Blood Meridian’s unrelenting realism stands in a category of its own for its unflinching focus on the physical details of the atrocities committed by the Glanton Gang in the Texas-Mexico borderlands of the mid-nineteenth century. In the midst of some of the best writing produced by an American author, the reader encounters scenes of the most repugnant brutality and obscenity. This historical-fictional account of the organized extermination of Native American civilians revives a bit of the nastier history European-Americans had kept hidden in the attic for more than a century. It is essential reading.
Tim O’Brien and Cormac McCarthy share the characteristic of describing events in simple, straightforward language. Each lays out the facts of violence without allowing the reader to look away. In this way, fiction becomes like a reality in which horror is strangely compelling, like an imminent air show crash or the immediate aftermath of a horrific disaster on the roadside. We cannot turn away. In this passage, we see Glanton acting as an example for the men he leads.
Glanton pushed the horse back and took one of the heavy saddle pistols from its scabbard and cocked it.
Watch yourself there.
Several of the men stepped back.
The woman looked up. Neither courage nor heartsick in those old eyes. He pointed with his left hand and she turned to follow his and with her age and he put the pistol to her head and fired…
A fist sized hole erupted out of the far side of the woman’s head in a great vomit of gore and she pitched over and lay slain in her blood without remedy. (McCarthy 98)
Following this simple bit of business, Glanton orders one of his men, “Get that receipt for us,” by which he means the man should take murdered woman’s scalp to present to a certain local government paying the gang for every Native American killed. McCarthy never elaborates, never gives an opinion on the bloody events he depicts, nor do his characters, save for the erudite and supernaturally evil Judge Holden.
McCarthy differs from O’Brien in the relentlessness of his narrative. In The Things They Carried, mayhem happens in the form of measured incidents. Blood Meridian moves from brawl to murder to massacre without a pause in the tension. McCarthy pushes us as we read the way Glanton pushes his horses through the desert, leaving the beasts lying spent on the burning ground. Only a psychopath could finish Blood Meridian without feeling emotionally drained, morally exhausted. After a grueling sleepless trek during which Glanton threatens the lives of his own scouts, in constant danger of ambush while tracking a tribe called the Gileños, the gang of hired killers spots the encampment of their chosen prey. There is no rest.
Glanton rode his horse completely through the first wickiup trampling the occupants underfoot. Figures were scrambling out of the low doorways. The raiders went through the village at full gallop and turned and came back. A warrior stepped into their path and leveled a lance and Glanton shot him dead. Three others ran and he shot the first two with shots so closely executed that they fell together and the third one seemed to be coming apart as he ran, hit by half a dozen pistolballs. (154)
What follows is a general slaughter involving women, children, and dogs, followed by a close examination of the dismembered head of a man who may be worth a large bounty. In the hands of a lesser writer, the amount and pace of the havoc would be unendurable. As it is, Blood Meridian is certainly not a book I recommend for casual summer reading on the beach, and I’ll never leave my worn copy lying where my mother, known to read Louis L’amour westerns, might find it and start reading.
Regarding the First Gulf War, Kenneth Jarecke wrote in American Photo in 1991 “If we’re big enough to fight a war, we should be big enough to look at it.” This should apply to our ancestors’ wars as well, even if they were relatively small wars carried out by bands of mercenary killers. That way, when we start killing, we do it with the understanding that our descendants will have the opportunity to judge our actions. The realistic depiction of violence in literature is essential for carrying the memory of horrific events such as the crimes of the Glanton Gang forward to future generations. Those who have experienced war first-hand need no warnings about the horror and waste of it all. But if a time comes, and I pray it does, when no one alive remembers what it is to either to make just war or commit government-legitimized mass murder, only literature will serve as the collective experience of humanity. We’ll need McCarthy’s red-handed brand of historical fiction to remind us that genocide carries moral consequences even for those in a position to oversee the writing of history books for the next few generations.
In the fiction of Josip Novakovich, we see violence from a more disturbing point of view, that of deep inside the head of one person harming another. The people in Novakovich’s collection, Infidelities, are desperate victims of the vicious spasms of late Twentieth Century Balkan violence, damaged or soon to be damaged and doing what they believe they must to survive or protect those they love. This is another aspect of war to which only a direct interpretation of violence can do justice—the never-ending fear of death, injury, or the sort of violation that leaves behind permanent psychological scars. That kind of fear can motivate people to behave contrary to values they may have held all their lives. When someone witnesses the death of a loved one or survives an attack against themselves, the fear can turn into a kind of lifelong resolve to never again allow such a thing to happen. Violence changes everyone involved—the person who commits the act as well as the victim.
In the story “Spleen,” Novakovich places the reader in a scene from the point of view of a young woman who is about to be raped by a soldier. It’s an honest and realistic depiction of the situation, and the male author writes with deep empathy, from the point of view of the woman in trouble, as she defends herself with a pre-positioned knife and admirable courage.
I sat up sideways, felt on the floor for the knife, grabbed its handle, and without hesitation stuck the knife into him. I wanted to get him in the middle of his abdomen but I missed and stuck it to the side, the left side. I did not think it went deep.
He shrieked and didn’t react when I leaped to the side and ran straight out of doors. And so I ran into the hills, naked, in the cold November night. (Novakovich 3)
Glossing over the repugnant exchange preceding this passage between the would-be rapist and the victim would not do justice to the desperation of the woman who reaches for the knife. She is clearly justified in her counter-attack on a person who is beyond listening to reason and beyond redemption. Having reached the sanctuary of a monastery and bursting into the midst of a group of monks in prayer, the freezing, naked woman, whose name we never learn, hears the Latin word misericordia spoken by one of the brothers, which she says she likes. With the utterance of the Latin word for mercy, literally “wretched heart,” the girl begins her journey to a new life in America. Having been stripped of absolutely everything she had, it would seem she could make a new start in the New World, but as this story illustrates, some wounds aren’t visible and stay with a person, affecting future behavior and shaping future relationships. The story continues to build empathy for this character as a victim of a horrible experience.
Novakovich’s violence lacks the subtlety of Flannery O’Connor. His characters, rather than ruminating over the implications of recent events as Mrs. Turpin does in O’Connor’s story “Revelation,” show us their changes through the choices they make and through the physical sensations of the narrator. Novakovich plays out the motivations for the harm people do to one another. Like Cormac McCarthy, Novakovich moves from one human offense to another, but where McCarthy’s violence comes down incessantly like precipitation leaving the reader to interpret its effects, Novakovich clearly shows the source of characters’ motives through experience, followed by what those motivations lead them to do. In comparison to Tim O’Brien’s accounts of war violence, Novakovich delves less into character’s inner thoughts about their own emotional states during and after traumatic events. I read “Spleen” with the sense that the narrator is telling me her story, perhaps face to face over a few drinks, embellishing where she likes and leaving certain things out.
Later, after our anonymous protagonist has arrived in Ohio, she meets a Bosnian man by the name of Dragan. Though the two become intimate, the man refuses to remove his shirt when they have sex. The woman grows suspicious, and Novakovich reveals why in a dream the woman has in which the man with whom she is involved has an unhealed knife wound in his side, exactly where she had stabbed the soldier in the old country.
Now, in my dream, Dragan appeared in a black T-shirt. I asked him, why don’t you take it off?
I will make love to you only if you take it off.
I’d rather not.
So I undressed and teased him, and when he took off his T-shirt, I saw a brown scar on his left side, under the ribs, in the spleen area. The scar paled, then blushed, and became angry red. Drops of blood slid out of it and went down his flank. (13)
Because of the visceral scene at the story’s beginning, I felt the horror of this dream as though I were experiencing it, and when the woman goes to lengths to persuade her new lover to take off his shirt, I understand why she must see his naked torso. Novakovich has put me into the girl’s head. I feel her fear, irrational as it may be, and I understand. The fear has an almost supernatural quality to it, and I was as convinced as the protagonist that Dragan would turn out to be the one who had tried to rape her.
In the next scene of the story, they drink Guinness at a bar, and the woman invites Dragan into her apartment. She has to know whether her dream is true. What she reveals next would be completely shocking under other circumstances, but in the case of this narrator, it is expected.
Under the pillow I had a kitchen knife, just in case. I know, that sounds like some praying mantis kind of thing, and if so, maybe the man should have his last wish, without knowing it was his last, to make love. I didn’t mind the idea; in a way, I almost wanted him to become aggressive and dangerous so I could do it. Not that I wanted to do it, but the temptation flashed in my mind. (17)
Novakovich has created sufficient empathy for this character that my reaction is not one of horror, but one of sympathy for what she has endured. I know this woman is no monster, but she has been shaped by the events of her life. Without experiencing the horror of her past experience, I would never be able to understand her behavior in this scene. A summary of the attempted rape would not have prepared me for the apparently psychopathic thoughts she has of murdering the unsuspecting Dragan in bed. After seeing violence on the page, as the character lives it, we not only are able to understand her later behavior but feel amazed that she is able to pursue intimate relations with another Bosnian man at all. There is hope that she can recover from the fear that has followed her to a new continent.
In the case of Novakovich’s stories, the depiction of graphic violence creates deep empathy for the victims and shows how the cycle of violence is perpetuated in places like the Balkans. Once someone becomes a victim, their worldview is forever altered into one in which they feel always vigilant and prepared to commit violence to defend themselves. Worse, they may hold themselves in a constant state of readiness to exact vengeance for the wrongs done to them. Fiction that illustrates these human tendencies educates those of us who haven’t experienced anything like the chaos of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, hard as it may be to read, and allows readers to transcend the ignorance of the commonly heard American opinion about people in war-torn regions that, “those people over there are crazy.”
Nations customarily measure the “costs of war” in dollars, lost production, or the number of soldiers killed or wounded. Rarely do military establishments attempt to measure the costs of war in terms of individual human suffering. Psychiatric breakdown remains one of the most costly items of war when expressed in human terms. —Richard Gabriel, No More Heroes (qtd. in Grossman 41)
Phil Klay’s Redeployment is the first book on the Iraq War I have read since before spending 15 months in Baghdad in 2008 and 2009. I’ve sheltered myself from war fiction for a while, uncertain whether I would be prepared to go back in my mind to the kind of emotions that would certainly arise while reading about that recent conflict. Someone whose opinion I respect recommended Redeployment, a short story collection similar in form to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. This essay is a small part of my journey back to “normal” following multiple military deployments to Southwest Asia, and Phil Klay belongs here perhaps more than any of the writers I’ve discussed because of his stories’ relationship to my own experiences.
Klay’s fiction matters for at least two reasons. Like Tim O’Brien’s fiction, it allows civilians to see into the lives of ordinary Marines as they deal with the daily traumas of modern counterinsurgency operations. This is a point of view very few people fully understand, and Klay’s fiction may help Americans understand what has happened to the veterans they welcome home, people who come back changed by war. Kay’s fiction is also important for veterans struggling with the things we bring home—images, sounds, smells lodged in our heads that can steal our sleep at night. Reading Klay’s fictional accounts of the type of experiences many veterans share in common is a counterintuitive sort of comfort. Klay’s fiction elucidates the mental sacrifices made in wartime–the types of wounds people carry silently and invisibly.
The Things They Carried depicts the U.S. Army’s efforts to fight the insurgency in Vietnam from the point of view of ordinary soldiers, but when a conflict fades so many decades into the past, it begins to take on the patina of history. O’Brien’s work, as valuable as it is, takes its place among fictional depictions of soldiers in earlier wars. Phil Klay’s work, though strikingly similar to O’Brien’s, feels new and raw, because it is. These stories haven’t been home from the combat zone long enough for the scar tissue to harden.
Klay’s strength is in his adept sharing of unique points of view. One such example is the story called “Psychological Operations,” in which a young former U.S. Army soldier of Coptic Egyptian origin discusses his experiences while attached to a Marine Corps battalion in Iraq. His job was broadcasting propaganda to the enemy through loudspeakers in the western Iraqi city of Fallujah, a city densely populated by civilians trying to carry on their lives in the midst of daily urban combat between U.S. Forces and various insurgent groups.
“It was horrible. There was gunfire and explosions and the mosques blaring messages and Arabic music and we were blaring Drowning Pol and Eminem. The Marines started calling it Lalafallujah. A music festival from hell.”
“In a city,” she said, “filled with people.”
“But it wasn’t just music,” I said. “The Marines, they’d compete to find the dirtiest insults they could think of. And then we’d go scream over the loudspeakers, taunting holed-up insurgents until they’d come running out of the mosques, all mad, and we’d mow them down.” (201)
The beauty of this story is that is shows a man talking about his experiences with a young woman who seems to be against everything he stands for. Not only does he experience some degree of healing of the guilt he carries for his actions during the war, the woman, a newly-converted Muslim, gains some understanding of what he has been through. The story consists mainly of two people with differing opinions having a conversation, something it seems the world needs to see more often. The two gain a better understanding of one another that the story’s ending suggests may develop into a friendship.
In “After Action Report,” Klay depicts an incident on a city street in Iraq in which an untrained Iraqi youth appears after an improvised explosive device disables an American armored vehicle and directs unaimed, automatic fire at a young American soldier named Timhead.
Instinct took over. He shot the kid three times before he hit the ground. Can’t miss at that range. The kid’s mother ran out to try to pull her son back into the house. She came just in time to see bits of him blow out of his shoulders. (32)
When vets say things like, “If you weren’t there, you can’t understand,” this is the sort of thing they’re talking about. We have to see this in literary form, at this level of graphic detail, to get an inkling of what the experience is like for a person whose training is so deeply ingrained that they will act in self-defense automatically, using the weapons and the legitimacy issued to them by their government. It is only upon reflection, minutes and years later, that the reality of what they have done sinks in.
Dave Grossman, in his non-fiction book, On Killing, writes of an a conversation between Richard Holmes and an elderly veteran seventy years after his combat experiences,
Often you can keep these things out of your mind when you are young and active, but they come back to haunt your nights in your old age. “We thought we had managed all right,” he told Holmes, “kept the awful things out of our minds, but now I’m an old man and they come out from where I hid them. Every night.” (Grossman 75)
Citizens in a democracy from which volunteers are sent to kill those judged to be enemies have a responsibility to know the human results of the policies their political representatives choose to implement. Fiction helps us to do that, and though violence is often difficult to read, I see no other way to begin to understand the costs of preserving the “way of life” I suspect many of us take for granted in the West.
Realistic depictions of violence in literature are indispensable to creating fiction capable of teaching empathy for other human beings, not only victims but also those who inflict violence on others. Whether the act of harming someone is done with the approval of the state or as a crime, understanding the motivations for committing violence and the psychological damage to both perpetrators and victims seems essential to preventing violence and treating its disastrous effects.
Reading violence in fiction can have a cathartic effect, much like seeing tragedy in a play or listening to particularly harsh music. By purging ourselves of violent emotions, a certain segment of humanity can avoid committing violence in the real world. By experiencing the horror of a literary work such as Blood Meridian, we may take away from the experience a heightened sense of repugnance for state-sponsored violence. Creating empathy by allowing readers to feel what victims feel seems an effective deterrent to violent crime, at least for anyone able to imagine themselves in the place of another. This is why violent criminals are introduced to the victims of their crimes in courtrooms—as part of their sentencing as well as a step toward rehabilitation.
With so many veterans returning from foreign wars, there will be an increasing need for civilians to gain an understanding of what makes those returning from war tick. With so many combat veterans entering the civilian workforce, fiction may be the best tool for employers to learn something about veterans and alleviate fears born of misunderstanding the sometimes unusual behavior of someone who has done harm at the government’s bidding, but has maybe also been a victim. Fiction is the best way I know for a person to live outside of their daily experience and to empathize with a type of person they may otherwise never meet. If we can tolerate experiencing the ugliness of a life less safe and pleasant than our own, we may learn something valuable about ourselves as well as the other.
Violence is generally seen as a social ill, a flaw in the human race, a result of crime and war, and a thing to be avoided. Violence is taboo in civilized society, yet despite our natural aversion to having violence committed against us or those we care about, authors of fiction continue to supply the high demand for literature containing varying types and degrees of violence. Violence appears on bookshelves everywhere, with debatable results as to what qualifies as art. Once we make a distinction is between violence written in pursuit of higher literary goals versus that which is designed to sell mass market books based on its appeal to base human desires, the question arises as to whether violence should be desirable or acceptable in literature, and if so, in what form and what sort of presentation? Realistic depictions of violence in literature are indispensable to creating fiction capable of teaching empathy for other human beings.
Depicting violence is as necessary in literature as depicting dialogue, sex, or any other natural human interaction. Fiction frees the reader to experience violence, like other taboo subjects, as openly and graphically as the writer chooses to interpret it. To gloss over the harm people inflict on one another would be to ignore one of the unfortunate but defining characteristics of humanity. Violence can be masked or alluded to in a way similar to how writers often deal with sex, but for writers to create an ostensibly realistic world in which violence plays no part is to deal falsely with readers about the world in which we live. Creating literature that serves as the conscience of civilization requires that writers bring to bear all the truth they possibly can.
Gabriel, R.A. No More Heroes: Madness and Psychiatry in War. Hill and Wang, 1987
Grossman, Dave. On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Back Bay Books, 1995. Print.
McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, Or the Evening Redness in the West. Modern Library, 2001. Print.
Novakovich, Josip. Infidelities. Harper Perennial, 2005. Print.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton-Mifflin, 1990. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find, The Complete Stories. Noonday Press, 42nd Edition, 1997. Print.
O’Connor, Flannery. Speech at Hollins College, Virginia. 14 October 1963. Online Source: http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/lewiss/Oconnor.htm