My grenadier, Specialist Taylor, did not attend our welcome home ceremony at the Marriott Hotel and Convention Center in Coralville, Iowa, because in the hour preceding the event, as we waited outside the hotel and as our families gathered in the big hall, his appendix burst.
The day was a nice one, warm and sunny, mid-July 2011. Our company stood outside the hotel—except Taylor, who was bent over in the grassy area between the building and the parking lot, clutching his stomach, almost in tears. It was annoying. He had been in this position since we arrived, but he couldn’t tell me what was wrong. I kept asking, how’s it feel, and he kept saying, it’s terrible. His pain was inexplicable, so I didn’t know what to do about it, which was getting in the way of me having the best day of my life, which had been my intent when I woke up that morning.
“How’s it feel?”
His jaw was clenched tight, as if he was trying to communicate that the pain was almost too much, but also that he could handle it, but also that the pain he was handling was very bad and difficult to handle.
The rest of us stood there a while. We could hear excited voices on the other side of the wall, but it wasn’t time to go in yet, so we stood there, all except Taylor.
A patriotic country song began playing inside, and the families cheered louder. Taylor said he was just going to stay there, call his family on his phone, and they could come to him. I said that was fine with me, and I left him there. The rest of us went in. Tons of people were going berserk inside, clapping, shouting, a few jumping up and down. We marched to the middle of the room and stood in formation there, our families on the sides. From the stage in the front our lieutenant spoke briefly, then dismissed us, and the crowd cheered some more, and I hugged my fiancée and my mom and my grandma and my brother and my dad and my aunt, and I shook my grandpa’s big firm hand.
After all the hugging, a young reporter came over. She asked politely if she could interview me for a local newspaper. She was holding a very small notepad.
I said no, thank you, I didn’t want to.
I didn’t like journalists. It seemed to me they always got it wrong. Once, back in high school, when I was running track, I got tendonitis in my foot. An article in the local sports section, about the big district track meet that week, said I wasn’t running because I had arthritis in my foot, and so that week I answered some bizarre questions from my teachers and my friends’ parents, all suddenly concerned about my bone density. That was just a silly, mundane thing, but since then I’d been wary of journalists. My family knew this about me, but they were all having such a nice day at the ceremony, were so happy to see me, and a bunch of them said, oh come on, just this once.
I said no thanks, I didn’t want to.
But they said oh come on, just this once. So I said all right, fine.
The reporter said great!, and she wrote down my name.
Her first question was this: “So, are you happy to be home?”
That was the question.
I was either surprised or confused, or I just didn’t how to answer it. At the very least, I considered it a complicated question. Probably it wasn’t meant to be. I said it was good be back, which was partly true.
Dislodging ourselves from the Valley had been a mess.
First, a unit from the Oklahoma National Guard was supposed to replace us but never showed up. They just never showed; no one knew why. We kept living on our outpost, until finally a unit of army scouts was found to come in and take our place. The problem was that an administrative technicality prevented us from simply handing over our vehicles and equipment to them. We were National Guard and they were regular Army, so we couldn’t give them our stuff. Instead, we convoyed our trucks down the Nature Trail, through the mountains to another Guard unit in the province, turned over our vehicles to them, and then we flew back to the outpost by helicopter and waited for the scouts to bring in their own trucks.
But the scouts were unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies of the Nature Trail, and as they convoyed into the Valley one of their trucks slid off the path, down a steep grade. The scouts were also unfamiliar with recovering trucks that had slid down steep grades, so recovering the truck took them a long time, and the sun went down, and they were stuck out there in the mountains for the night with one vehicle immobilized. The rest, unable to form a good perimeter because of the terrain, were exposed.
That night I lay on my cot. Sergeant Bryce was on the next cot over, reading a months-old copy of People magazine. His head was shaved, gleaming. His boots were on the floor; his sweaty, green-socked feet were crossed at the ankles. By then, we couldn’t smell each other. We had adjusted. We were just waiting to go home and start adjusting back. I wondered what Bryce was reading in the magazine. He knew all the articles by then. What was he doing? Studying them? He was engrossed. I envied the way he could just turn off, or turn away into himself or the magazines. Find some calm. I felt keyed up all the time. I was thinking about the replacements we were promised.
I asked the sergeant, “Hey, so, where’re the scouts? Aren’t they coming tonight?”
He looked up and said, “Oh, man. Those guys. Still out there. I think they had a problem recovering a truck. Slid off a cliff or something. LT said they’re hunkering down for the night.”
He went back to reading. I just laid there. Hunkering down? Fucking Christ. It took so much effort just to deal with the problems we invented for ourselves, let alone whatever was supposed to come after.
I was happy for that year of my life to be over. I was happy to be home. Of course I was—seeing my family and friends and all that. But part of why I was so happy to see them was because of how shitty and stupid and difficult the last year had been, and it seemed impossible to try to pull apart the being happy from how I arrived to it.
I was happy to be home, but didn’t want to admit it. I was actually mad she had asked the question in the first place. It was the rudest fucking question she could have asked. I could see the story she wanted to write, and I hated it. I always hated the depiction of smiling soldiers, whether in the news or on television or anywhere. And I especially hated it when civilians depicted them that way—smiling or happy or even content. My happiness was no one else’s business, especially not this journalist’s. It was wrong to talk about, and I should keep it to myself.
Most of this I probably knew only subconsciously, but still I think I knew. My feeling was just a hard thing to explain, or I wasn’t supposed to explain it.
I worried that civilians took their cues from soldiers about how to feel toward these things. I worried that soldiers reflected back to the people of a democracy what that democracy was choosing to do in other countries on their behalf, and I didn’t want any civilians exerting control over that reflection. I worried the reporter was trying to tease out a cozier image, and I hated that. I didn’t want civilians permitting each other to feel any cozier whatsoever about the things being done on their behalf. The reporter’s story was going to talk about us coming home, but it wasn’t going to talk about those South Carolina scouts stranded on a shitty trail in the mountains of Laghman Province due to a technicality, even though the two moments were connected. I was only able to stand in this big room because those scouts had replaced us and were in the Valley now, probably getting mortared and shot at and going on convoys to no place in particular.
I remembered their faces when they arrived on the outpost. You should’ve seen them. It wasn’t their first fucked-up mission in Afghanistan, and they had taken casualties, so for them it must’ve seemed like It’s just never over, because when they arrived at the outpost they looked impossibly tired with their bleak, hollowed-out faces. I remembered that look, as everyone around me kept talking about resolution.
My anxiety over this matter is absolutely the fault of Joan Didion.
Didion was essentially the first essayist I ever read. My junior year of college I applied to take an undergraduate fiction workshop. The person reading applications decided my story was “realistic” and that I should be in nonfiction, which had a lower enrollment and needed a boost. This seemed like an ultimatum, so I said sure. I had no idea what an essay was, but I showed up. The instructor assigned The White Album, and from its famous first line onward Didion’s prose leveled me. I don’t know what struck me about it back then, but what strikes me now is her skepticism about narratives and the sentimentality they often rely on. For instance, in her essay “Sentimental Journeys,” which follows and deconstructs two criminal trials in late-eighties New York City, she writes:
The imposition of a sentimental, or false, narrative on the disparate and often random experience that constitutes the life of a city or a country means, necessarily, that much of what happens in that city or country will be rendered merely illustrative, a series of set pieces, or performance opportunities.
This was published in 1990. I first read it in 2008, and I’m just now starting to get the hang of it. Mostly I appreciate its coldness: how the subject of the sentence, its main character, is the abstract noun “imposition.” No people are present in the sentence for us to love or ridicule or shame—only the idea, so the sentence can only work to bring us closer to that idea. And I’m impressed not just by the coldness of “imposition,” but also the long phrases trailing off it—how the clause following “sentimental” cuts back, hard, to qualify that word as “false.” I like how the sentence keeps changing direction, qualifying itself, until finally happening upon what it means, and upon what it means necessarily: that “much of what happens . . . will be rendered merely illustrative.”
George Orwell, in his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” attacks this kind of writing, specifically the verb construction, which he calls the “elimination of simple verbs.” Indeed he uses “render” as an example: the ugly phrase “render inoperative,” which could’ve been simply “break.” Something like “break” is clearer and more direct, while “render inoperative” is clunky and administrative and false. But this falseness is exactly what Didion has not just embraced but exploited; the act of rendering is where she focused her attention. Rendering: the movement between experience and narrative, between the immediate (often private) moment and the public one—the story. This was the movement that concerned her.
The statement is about sentimentality, but is written without any. It is detached, analytical. The subject is decidedly not “imposing” but instead “imposition,” which makes it feel even less like a mind in action and more like the cooled product of it. Didion, here, is modeling her idea at the level of the sentence.
After reading Didion, I became increasingly hesitant, if not directly afraid, to tell anyone what it was like to be in Afghanistan. I learned from her the consequences of how we render, and that the rendering happens not just in ways that are obvious, such as loading sentiment into imagery, but in ways that are often difficult to detect, such as loading it into the architecture, into the design of a sentence or paragraph.
Although this concern sometimes scared me away from saying anything about my experience, Didion also created a language that helped me through it. Whether she was commenting on Washington DC or New York City, California or El Salvador, she often told stories about the way we tell stories. This can be a damning loop to try to explore, but it’s also perfectly necessary, especially in writing about the military. The genre has an ethical problem of valorizing or beautifying violence, a problem rooted in the telling of the story—because telling a story about war in any way, no matter how brutal its violence is made to seem, will make that violence look desirable to someone. Therefore, such storytelling may be intrinsically incapable of making any damning critique of war.
A famous instance of the paradox comes from Anthony Swofford’s 2003 memoir Jarhead, in which he writes about his fellow marines watching war movies, many of which are often thought of as anti-war movies: Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, and Apocalypse Now. (Jarhead’s 2005 film adaptation shows them watching the latter’s notorious “Ride of the Valkyrie” scene.) The marines shout and cheer at the grotesquery, getting psyched up for war by watching stories that were almost certainly designed to oppose it. The writer Lawrence Weschler gave this film sequence a careful study in his 2005 essay, “Valkyries over Iraq.” He takes war movies as his ostensible topic, but his inquiry is more particular: he is interested in the loop between depiction and inspiration. He quotes Jarhead’s screenwriter, who calls this loop “an endless cycle,” as well as Swofford himself, who says, “That’s just how it is”—which Weschler takes as more or less the final word. About this paradox he concludes that, both metaphorically and literally, “We are still in that desert.”
It is both fitting and disturbing that Weschler concludes by sentimentalizing the problem.
Former poet-laureate Robert Hass takes up the same issue in his 2007 essay “Study War No More: Violence, Literature, and Immanuel Kant.” He too writes of Swofford’s Valkyrie scene, and though his study is primarily concerned with philosophy and poetry, he doesn’t ignore popular cinema. Hass puts it this way: “Even if the heroes of those films came to a solitary understanding of the horror of war, what made the films so attractive finally was that the soldiers had to go through the war to acquire that understanding” [emphasis mine]. We should not lose sight of how bizarre this assertion is. Another way of putting it might be this: with a modern war story especially—i.e., one that unfolds without the conflicting issue of a draft, or of compulsion, one where the characters have mostly volunteered for the experience—that story often follows a character like those surrounding Swofford, who trust narrative enough to be influenced by it but not enough to internalize its intended meaning.
This, for art, is a rather specific kind of failure.
The failure persists in curious ways. Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien considered the issue during a conversation-style lecture at Stanford University in 2011. (The video is online.) Both men are seated in red leather armchairs, with the stage decorated to evoke an intellectual parlor. O’Brien, the more longwinded of the two, offers that in writing about war, perhaps it is the artist’s job to “make the horror float” or to “elevate” suffering. You can watch him stumbling for the right language, trying to decide why we talk about war at all, or what the point might be of doing so: “Human beings, say, unlike the gophers or the chipmunks, we’re aware of tragedy.” He goes on to suggest that our awareness of tragedy prompts our reflection on tragedy, so that a person might, as he puts it, “dive into that wreck, as a writer, and try to salvage something beautiful.” But notice that even the act of rendering violence is made a kind of adventure, a pursuit into the oceanic depth. The act itself is a rescue—presumably of the self.
Wolff goes on to admit that he, personally, was seduced by violent storytelling: “The truth of the matter is that in reading, even books that leave nothing out about this experience, it creates this kind of flame to which some of us are drawn, and I confess that I was one of them.” In his memoir In Pharaoh’s Army Wolff confesses similarly, though he takes up different metaphors: “I turned into a predator, and one of the things I became predatory about was experience. . . . Experience was the clapper in the bell, the money in the bank, and of all experiences the most bankable was military service.” His concern, if only implied by these sentiments, is that he is both victim and perpetrator of the loop. He was seduced and knows he was, and now is seducing others with his book—the experience was money in the bank—so the loop continues, regardless of the way he tells the story or the way he forms his art.
At the Marriott Hotel and Convention Center, the reporter had asked a question. The question gave me a problem. The question supposed that my being in that big room marked the conclusion of another sentimental journey. The problem, perhaps obvious by now, was that the reporter was partly correct. My being there was illustrative of the narrative she imagined. But the problem was not that she imagined it. The problem, rather, was that she sought to impose her imagination onto the moment, sought to confirm the narrative she already believed in. This is not just a matter of sentimentality, but a matter of violence.
Ultimately, sentimentality isn’t what concerns Didion. What concerns her, I think, is the imposition, the act of imposing story onto the disparate. She writes of it often. In the opening paragraph of The White Album, which she began in 1968, she says, “We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images . . .” And in her 1976 essay “Why I Write,” she states that “setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.” She churned the idea for decades. In 1976, the imposition was a violence—tactic, bully, invasion—between the writer and the reader. In 1990, the imposition was between the writer and experience itself. Both, though, are concerned with all the myriad forms of insistence—that is, narrative—that connect a set of experiences to another distant person.
I think I was uncomfortable with the journalist’s question, Are you happy to be home?, not because it supposed the journey was sentimental, but because it imposed a structure, preconceived a narrative—and the narrative it conceived did not include, for example, Specialist Taylor in the parking lot with his burst appendix. It began with an idea and ordered the events to serve it, instead of moving the other way.
Didion has called this problem “that between the empirical and the theoretical.”
She has called it “the last true conflict of cultures in America.”
I wonder if maybe the problem isn’t narratives about war, in and of themselves, but narratives about futility: a futile experience, having prompted a narrative—even if the narrative’s only insight about the experience was of its futility—stops being futile by having prompted the artful expression of it. Perhaps a narrative about futility always self-annihilates. I wonder if this is more precisely what’s at stake.
And if it is, what can we, as writers and readers, do?
The United States lingered in Afghanistan for all of my young adulthood. We were there for such a long time, we can’t not talk about it. We are, in at least one sense, still there. Maybe that was part of it. Maybe the documentation of a “coming home” ceremony felt wrong to me because it implied a situation that was untrue: the public could watch their soldiers come home, and maybe in a secret, subconscious way they could feel that the war was over, at least for someone: for this company, it was over. The ceremony implied a sense of resolution I didn’t feel, and still don’t.
When might the sense of imposition end? Is some stray, false notion of narrative always bearing down? I think these questions are what Wolff is talking about in his memoir when he writes, “Isn’t it just like an American boy, to want you to admire his sorrow at tearing other people’s houses apart?” He interrogates his own impulse for confession, and the rest of the paragraph proceeds in a kind of collapse. He asks question after question, about what we’re doing when we tell stories and what might really be the point. It’s an incredible moment for the reader, seeing the text undo itself. I think there is beauty in that technique of questioning, in how questions can disrupt both the possibility of imposition and the conceit of seeming to know. Notice, also, the American boy. The evocation of childhood. In the context of a war story, perhaps this offers a kind of critique of the self, an admission of having gotten nowhere.
We moved to the Valley in March 2011. For the previous six months we had worked at a border crossing with Pakistan. Our platoons took turns on the crossing, running base defense on the Forward Operating Base, and having days off. Base defense meant working the front gate of the FOB, which meant overseeing the Afghan guards as they searched the civilian trucks and people who came in and out. The work was intensely boring.
But the guards, and our interpreter Shabir, were good people to spend time with. Usually there were the same three guards: Abdullah, Farzad, and the old man. I don’t remember the old man’s name. He was sixty, maybe older, had a thick, dark-gray beard. He was inquisitive. He wanted to know about the United States, so I routinely transferred pictures from my laptop onto my iPod and showed them to him during our shifts: images of my fiancée, my friends, Iowa City in the winter, Kinnick Stadium on game day, a road trip to San Francisco. I showed him the Golden Gate Bridge, which he’d never heard of. I explained that it was called the Golden Gate Bridge though actually it looked red, though the name of the red paint was Millennium Orange. Shabir translated everything about the different colors.
The old man gazed at the pictures, then passed the iPod to Abdullah, who was a middle-aged guy with big round cheeks, always smiling and offering to bring more chai. Farzad was the youngest, twenty or so. He was often stoned on hash, but he was a nice guy and a hard worker. He had a small, crude cellular phone, with just enough memory to store two MP3s, which were “Barbie Girl” and “Thriller,” apparently his favorite songs. I was the one who informed Farzad that Michael Jackson had died almost two years earlier. Farzad looked not so much sad as confused, like he had assumed that Michael had been dead for a long time, so he had to resurrect him in his mind in order to kill him.
My team usually sat near the search area on a cot under some shade. When a truck approached I stood up, put on my helmet, slung my rifle, and followed Abdullah as he used the wheely-mirror to look under the truck, as he opened the glove box, the hood, as he dug through the little crevices around the seat. Abdullah never liked that I followed him. He explained to me, via Shabir, that he could do his job. I countered that it was my job to watch him do his job. I had to. And this he accepted reluctantly. Then he’d wave on the truck and ask if my team would like more chai. Whenever we did, he went back to a guard shack set away from the road, then reappeared. We’d drink, and he’d say, “Chai is good yes?”
He pronounced is with a soft s, as in amiss, not with the z sound we used.
I nodded, yes, the chai was fucking spectacular.
I don’t know how this came up, but one day as we sat on the cot under the shade by the road, it became clear that neither Shabir, Abdullah, Farzad, or the old man had ever heard of World War II. Shabir had translated something for them, and came back saying, “What do you mean by that?” I said, “It was in World War II.” He said, “But what do you mean by that?” I said, “Y’all don’t know World War II?” Shabir shook his head.
The guards came from remote villages in the province, so maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Now they were curious and wanted to know more. Because I was the team leader, and I had a college education, it fell to me to explain it to them. I figured I’d start in Europe in the late 1930s or so, and work my way out and forward. If they didn’t know about the second World War they probably didn’t know the first one either, but we could get to that later.
I told Shabir, “Well, there was this guy named Adolf Hitler. He was totally fucking evil.”
I paused so Shabir could translate.
We had our task for the rest of the afternoon.
Around that time, a new movie had started circulating around the FOB. It was a documentary called Restrepo, about an army platoon in the Korengal Valley in 2007. By 2011, the Korengal had been evacuated of American troops, but it was the nearest thing we had to a glimpse of Afghanistan other than the one directly in front of us. One day Taylor brought his laptop down to the guard shack behind the road. We let the guards do the searches themselves—let the Afghan troops take the lead in securing their country—and we sat inside and watched the movie. Shabir watched it with us. As we watched, Shabir pointed to the interpreters in the film. He knew many of their names. They had worked together before, with another regiment in another part of the country.
In Restrepo the platoon was almost constantly under attack. Several of the soldiers were killed, and the body of one fell on a hillside. His buddy approached, and the buddy was told that his friend was dead. The scene was gruesome and awful and hard to watch. Then Shabir was telling me he knew the interpreters’ names. He knew them as people, and the realness was uncanny and frightening. I didn’t know what kind of distance to treat the movie with. I knew it was real, but I also knew it was a kind of art. It was a story, and it was a document, and it was history, and it was far away in years and miles—but not that many years, not that many miles.
Soon after, we learned we were moving away from the border area into a remote valley to the northwest. The new FOB would be smaller. It didn’t have walls yet, or running water, or a chow hall. It didn’t even have a name. It wasn’t even really a FOB, but a COP, a combat outpost. I had trouble picturing what that meant.
One night we gathered up by our living area to get briefed on the new conditions. Staff Sergeant Miller stood along a row of barriers. He wore a red-lens headlamp, which cast his face in a creepy red glow. I could not decide if he orchestrated the lighting to make himself seem menacing, but either way he was menacing.
He told us that one platoon of infantry was currently holding the outpost while a smaller group of engineers built up the defenses around them. They were getting mortared or shot at most nights and sometimes during the day. They lived in bunkers along the perimeter. In their bunkers, they covered a machine gun for a few hours, then traded with a battle buddy, slept a few hours, and started over. Miller paused to drag on his cigarette. He held up a laminated topographical map of the valley.
“I dunno if you can see these marks, fellas, but the marks all represent impact sites of mortars and rockets, and I dunno if you guys in the back can tell, but they’ve got dates on ’em, and the oldest marks are here at the edges, and the more recent ones are all in the center, so you can see the Taliban are zeroing in, closer and closer.”
Miller angled his head at the map so the red lens would illuminate it for us. The map had red marks all over it.
“I dunno how many of you guys have seen that movie Restrepo yet,” he said, “but you should watch it. From what I understand, our valley’s gonna be kinda like that.”
A week later our convoy loaded up. Our duffels and rucksacks were piled on the trucks and tied down with ratchet straps. Shabir and the other interpreters stood in the motor pool shaking everyone’s hands—they weren’t coming with us. The interpreters worked on a system where the guys with the best language skills were awarded the safest assignments, so coming with us would’ve been like a demotion. New interpreters awaited us in the valley.
Shabir shook my hand. “Be careful, Sergeant Moore. I know about that valley, and I will pray to Allah for your safety.”
I thanked him. We left.
Twenty minutes into our convoy, we were driving on a paved two-lane road that curved along the Kabul River. We saw a group of American trucks a hundred meters off the road, along an unpaved route, in a defensive perimeter. A truck in the center had its front end blown off, the fiberglass jagged and blackened. We identified the unit and our lieutenant switched to their frequency to offer help. He flipped back and reported that they’d hit an IED a minute or two earlier. They were still clearing the area of secondary explosives. They said they could recover their own truck, they didn’t need our help. We kept moving.
This was the same route where 2nd platoon would later strike a bomb in the road and our company would suffer its first injuries.
About a year earlier, in June 2010, the Guardian ran Geoff Dyer’s essay “The Human Heart of the Matter.”1 In it, Dyer makes a case for nonfiction as a uniquely essential genre to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, a book of reportage from Iraq, and Sebastian Junger’s War, reportage from Afghanistan, had just been released. Dyer uses their almost simultaneous publication to consider whether the books signal, perhaps, that these wars have somehow transcended representation by novel.2 Dyer, whose writing is famously ornery about genre, believes the moment of the war novel “has passed.” He suggests that it’s “difficult to see what the novelist might bring to the table except stylistic panache . . . and the burden of unnecessary conventions.” I’m unclear what he means exactly by “stylistic panache”—a skill which is apparently unavailable to a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer like David Finkel—and further, he may be straw-manning the entire tradition of fiction by assuming a novelist would, for some reason, lean on conventions that are unnecessary. But in making his case, Dyer implies an interesting concern: not the difference between genres necessarily, or whether nonfiction is somehow especially capable of representing contemporary warfare, but how, precisely, the treatment of war in nonfiction becomes a problem of morality.
One thing that fascinates Dyer about nonfiction is the opportunity for historical overlap. Finkel’s main character, a generously written lieutenant-colonel, Ralph Kauzlarich, who’s desperately trying to fulfill his mission and do right by his troops, also appears in Jon Krakauer’s Where Men Win Glory, where Kauzlarich callously informs the grieving family of Pat Tillman they would’ve gotten over his death sooner if they had a religion. These characters are all real people, which results in a unique sort of intertextuality. Dyer has a name for this intertextuality. He calls it “history.”
I, too, am intrigued by that intertextuality, the way these writers’ representations interact—but not just by how they interact with each other. I am equally interested in how they interact with the wars they represent, which were still unfolding. Junger’s War was published two months before I deployed; the grenadier on my squad’s Bravo Team read it in his room and said it was really good. Junger also directed Restrepo, which premiered at Sundance in January of 2010. Months after its premiere, we watched Junger’s film. Soon after, we were instructed to watch his film. Then we moved into a valley fifty-odd miles from the Korengal, expecting to live an experience similar to the one he captured. Maybe that overlap of narrative is interesting and maybe it’s not. Certainly, though, this close proximity between art and violence is a moral issue. Likely it’s a moral problem.
The stories are affecting people in real time, and in situations that parallel the stories themselves, just as Swofford described, except this: I wasn’t trying to get amped up on Restrepo. The Bravo Team grenadier wasn’t getting off on Junger’s War. We weren’t exciting ourselves with the stories. We were studying them, trying to learn what to expect. In a way, I think that’s equally troubling, because it’s not so obviously fucked up. The scene in Jarhead is bizarre, but what we were doing—studying a story for the sake of understanding—is what you’re supposed to do. Still, doing so seems problematic. Journalism, both written and filmed, is useful and important because of its timeliness, for its quick response to a situation. It is, or must purport to be, information. And we were seeking information. But undoubtedly the information was made story, was made art. And what I’m trying to say is, I still don’t know what we are asking art to do, or for whom, or when.
Dyer asserts that Finkel and Junger both practice a “moral art.” They tell stories that make a moral point about war without being didactic or heavy-handed, so the stories feel at once artful and poignant. But my concern is that the poignancy can’t be pulled out. Art is intrinsically moral—in the sense that it’s always on a scale, not that it’s always on the “good” side of the scale—because it affects people who look at it, and affecting other people is a moral act. Maybe that’s reductive, or maybe it’s self-evident, but if Dyer wants to take the aggregated collection of nonfiction about war and call it “history,” what exactly should we be asking of our nonfiction in order for that history to be responsibly presented? For instance, what’s the difference between forming an understanding of war partly from Apocalypse Now, and forming an understanding of war partly from Restrepo? Is the only difference the depth with which certain people understand those works? Or that the marines were missing the point, or not digesting that art in the way Coppola wanted? If so, whose fault is that?
With all due respect to the intentional fallacy, here I think we ought to throw it out the window. Here, the artist’s intent matters. Possibly, it is all that matters. If writers and artists intend to dissuade people from going to war, but keep failing to actually do so, we should examine that distance between the intent and the effect. We shouldn’t pretend the intent does not exist, or is irrelevant. For instance, in the discussion between O’Brien and Wolff, O’Brien talks about people who come up to him during book signings, “inevitably, wherever I go,” and say things like, “I didn’t really much want to join the army or the marines, but when I read your book it made me do it.” People tell O’Brien this kind of thing, apparently, to flatter him. O’Brien, of course, is appalled. He realizes that he’s kindling the flame he was trying to extinguish. Not coincidentally, what prompts O’Brien to tell the story is that Wolff mentions Swofford’s Valkyrie scene, calling it “an extreme example” of how stories influence people. But what exactly is the difference between that scene and O’Brien’s anecdote? What makes Swofford’s example “extreme”? That they’re in a war, watching a war? What’s extreme about that? To me O’Brien’s situation seems more heinous. Swofford’s marines, after all, were already enlisted and deployed, so it should be no surprise they’re getting pumped up for a moment of violence by watching violence. But O’Brien specifies that he’s changed someone’s mind about war, someone who “didn’t really much want to join.” And isn’t that worse? Hasn’t literature, in that moment, failed more seriously?
Though maybe the problem is not failure, or even futility, or even war necessarily. I wonder if the problem is disillusionment itself. A story of disillusionment must first describe its illusion, its hope or belief or longing, which means the story must get sentimental before anything else, must convince the reader that this hope or belief is real and appropriate—which the writer may already know to be untrue. The second act of the story is deconstructing the illusion, refuting it, but always in the second act: a war story must first endorse what it wants only to condemn, cannot leave out the wanting, or the belief. Without act one, the story would not only be difficult to understand, or be very boring, it would describe a character essentially without hope. The story would merely trade one desert for another, taking us very close to despair.
One problem with ceremony, with coming home and with the awkward glitz of celebration, is that it tries to cover up this disillusionment as it’s happening, tries to treat the experience as though it all worked out. As though whatever the soldiers hoped for, whatever they believed in, they achieved. Whatever they went to the war to do, they resolved. The next problem: this is partly true. The soldiers went to the war with the hope of coming back, and now they have, and this achievement is worth celebrating, effusively. Yet the Coralville ceremony, to me, was an occasion for dissonance—all the sentimentality that got burned up, refuted over the last year, was back. The moment was strange for me, but at the same time none of it was for me. The event wasn’t for any of us coming home. When the journalist asked, Are you happy to be home? she wasn’t asking me, per se. She was asking a soldier. The ceremony was for the families, and the article for the public. Sentimentality was the whole point, a kind of first act.
According to the article that was printed, I replied to the question this way: “It’s just good to be back.”
And then: “Everything looks familiar again. I get to see my family again.”
Then the article describes my family’s big, bright smiles and tears of joy. How soldiers were grabbed up in hugs and kisses, and cameras captured the moment. Then, perhaps most revealingly, my mom is quoted saying this: “Take all the good words and put them together, because that’s what this day is.” And I think Mom, in a way, nailed it. She didn’t commit to those words herself—maybe they felt beyond her, impossible to choose—so she gave a kind of instruction: tell the story you came here for. The story we were promised all this time, through all this waiting.
At best, it was a fulfilled hope. At worst, a bright return of the illusion. Perhaps both.
The company had demobilized a week earlier at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. We turned in our rifles, then sat in waiting rooms to see dentists and doctors. We moved between various identical administrative buildings and experienced miniature bouts of panic when we couldn’t find our rifles. Then we laughed about the panic.
We slept in a long barracks with clean white sheets on all the bunks. One night in the barracks, I lay on my bunk, watching a movie on my laptop and eating Chinese food delivered from Sparta, a small town a few miles outside the base. I was halfway through my orange chicken when Taylor approached my bunk and sat at my feet. I tugged out my earbuds. Taylor stared down at the floor between his boots.
“Sar’n Moore,” he said, “I think I need to see a doctor. I’ve got this stomachache, and it’s really bad. It feels like my guts are really fucked up. Like they’re all torn up or something. It started this morning and it’s been getting worse and worse all day. I just think, at this point, I need to see a doctor.”
His comments sounded rehearsed. He’d been sure to include a timeline. He’d tried a simile. So I figured this was probably quite serious, and initiated the chain-of-command: Taylor and I walked over to Sergeant Bryce’s bunk. I explained the problem. Taylor nodded along, still looking at the floor. He seemed embarrassed.
Bryce said, “All righty brother, let’s go,” and the three of us drove to the nearest hospital in Sparta, in a blue government pickup. By then it was nine or ten o’ clock. We went to the reception desk at the ER, and Taylor followed a nurse down a hallway. Bryce and I sat in the waiting room and filled Styrofoam cups with the free coffee in the pot by the wall. A flat-screen television in the corner was showing Hoarders, a reality program about people who compulsively save all their material stuff, which overflows their homes and living spaces and disrupts their lives and their kids’ lives, which the show then made available for us to gawk at. We gawked. I crossed my tan boots at the ankle, slouched in the chair, and drank from the Styrofoam cup. We watched the entire episode and part of the next one before Taylor, alone, emerged from the hallway. He clutched both arms over his stomach and walked slowly toward us.
“Hey brother,” Bryce said, “What’s the deal?”
“Well,” Taylor said, “the doctor told me it’s probably nothing to worry about, and just to take some aspirin, at this point. He says it should go away in a few days. Says to follow up if it doesn’t.”
As Taylor spoke, he stared over our shoulders at the wall behind us. He looked severely disappointed by the prescription. As though an important role of the hospital was to validate his decision to come here, and at this the hospital had failed him. Bryce told him not to worry about it, that he’d be home in no time.
We got back in the truck and returned to the base and to the barracks. Taylor went inside, got an aspirin from the medic, and curled up on his bunk. Two days later, in the hour before our coming-home ceremony, his appendix burst. Or maybe it already had. Apparently no one knew. The institution designed to understand his pain had failed to do so.
My contract with the National Guard ended six months later, unceremoniously. I piled my uniforms into a black garbage bag and drove them to the new armory just outside of town.
I pulled into the parking lot. The building was huge. I had drilled there a couple of times since being home, but I’d never noticed the sign out front. It didn’t say ARMORY like the old one did. It said READINESS CENTER. Apparently the armory was not an armory at all, as though soldiers no longer armed themselves—merely readied themselves. Which meant they trained. Which meant they fucking armed themselves, and learned to commit acts of extreme violence as strangers drove past on the highway, which it seemed to me was a long goddamn way from Readiness. But fuck it, whatever, I was done.
I parked my car, popped the trunk, and took out the bag of uniforms. I carried the bag in both arms so the uniforms’ weight wouldn’t tear a hole.
The building was very clean and mostly empty. It was arranged like a high school: the drill floor, a gymnasium just inside the double doors, and two long corridors branching off it. I carried the bag upstairs and waited in the admin room while a supply sergeant found the right form so I could officially turn in the uniforms.
As I waited, a couple of the NCOs across the office were talking about news that’d just come back from the Valley—what was happening there since we left it. Apparently the scouts who replaced us kept getting ambushed while on patrol in the villages, and kept getting mortared at the outpost. The NCOs talked about this for a while, reminding each other of what the place had been like.
Then their voices got low and grim. One of them said that also, apparently, an interpreter had gone home on some kind of leave, back to his village to see his family. He was abducted and beheaded by the local insurgents. One of the NCOs said the man’s name. I tried to picture him. I had never gotten close to the interpreters in the Valley, so I wasn’t sure if I was picturing the right one. I just sat there thinking about how much I hated the army, as an organization generally, and for getting these people’s lives ruined. It seemed obvious to me that the army was to blame for everything.
Then the supply sergeant came over and started checking off my uniforms. He went through the bag and checked them off and said, “Thanks, you’re all set.”
I drove home and never went there again.
1. Later collected as “The Moral Art of War.”
2. He allows that this trend, as he sees it, began much earlier, in the era of Vietnam: he makes a point of putting Michael Herr’s nonfictional Dispatches in a higher tier of quality than the fiction of Tim O’Brien or Robert Stone, a move that may be self-justifying, and is at least arguable.