For most wars in our history there has been great literature produced. We can all name one or two definitive novels of wars past, such as The Red Badge of Courage for the Civil War, All Quiet on the Western Front for World War I, War and Remembrance or The Naked and the Dead for World War II, and The Things They Carried for the Vietnam War.
For a few years now we have been seeing fiction about the Iraq War experience. The question is, have we yet found the definitive novel? What do we look for in defining a war’s experience? Stories of the war? Stories about the people who fought that war? Stories of what it is like to come home, having fought such a war? In the case of the Irag war, we are offered a variety of fiction from which to choose.
Fives and Twenty-fives, by Michael Pitre, tells the story of three soldiers from a construction battalion that spent its time filling potholes in the roads in Iraq. The title is based on the technique used to ensure you keep your distance from the bombs that may be lurking in those potholes. A New York Times notable book for 2012, it was cited for its careful character studies, especially of an Iraqi soldier working for the Americans and his somewhat divided loyalties.
Fobbit, by David Abrams, tells the story of soldiers who spend all of their time in the relative comfort and safety of a forward operating base (FOB), rather than the front lines of the war. His unusual, but likely realistic interpretation, is that not everyone in uniform is a hero. More darkly humorous than most of the current books on the Iraq war, some have compared its satire to the formidable Catch-22.
The novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain, offers yet another view of the war. Fountain takes the country as a whole to task for its all-too-easy celebration of the war’s heroes (walking them out at the halftimes of football games), while having little at stake in the war. Only one half of one-percent of Americans ever served.
One of the best Iraq War novels so far has been The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers. It is the beautifully written story of two very young soldiers who become friends during their first deployment in Iraq, and the tragedies that ensue. A story that moves back and forth almost jarringly between scenes of horrifying and ill-defined battles in Iraq and moments spent back home, it leaves the reader with a deep sense of how hard it is to shake the war experience and just go on living.
Finally there is Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, Redeployment, which won the 2014 National Book Award for fiction. While the writing does not perhaps rise to the level of The Yellow Birds, the stories are nonetheless grittier, and filled with an even deeper sense of the war’s—of any war’s—horrors and effects on its participants.
Doubtless there will be much more fiction produced about the Iraq War. What have you read? What do you think are the best works so far, the ones you would recommend?