Veteran Authors Look To Reclaim The Story Of War

Aug 8, 2016
Originally published on August 8, 2016 5:21 pm
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Less than 1 percent of American families include a veteran. Those who did serve feel like they are constantly being asked to explain the past 15 years of war, and some of those vets are now doing that through fiction. NPR's Quil Lawrence spoke to several new authors who are trying to find the balance between being spokespeople for their wars and simply writing good novels.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: For the majority of veterans, there were no big Hollywood gun fights. Not even the graphic novels about these wars are action thrillers.

MAX URIARTE: I think you can get a lot more nuance, a lot more meaning out of a story that isn't based in some kind of, like, grand battle. And also, like, my deployment to Iraq wasn't like that.

LAWRENCE: Max Uriarte is the author and illustrator of the graphic novel "The White Donkey." It follows a young Marine's journey to and from Iraq. It's mostly downtime at checkpoints and on patrols, which leaves him unprepared for it when the violence of the war intrudes.

URIARTE: It's like the less action there is going on in the combat zone, the more kind of stupid things get - like, just the more rules there are, the more petty things become.

LAWRENCE: Uriarte also writes a comic strip with a cult-like following among Marines. It's called "Terminal Lance." Writing two comics a week for years has been an education for him which he wants to share.

URIARTE: What I wanted for Marines to read this book is to read it and sort of gain a better insight to themselves because I've been able to have the privilege of taking the time to examine my own experience.

LAWRENCE: Uriarte says civilians can also learn plenty about military culture from "The White Donkey," but he's not keen on being the voice of all veterans. That's the problem for this new generation of vet writers. The weight of explaining these wars to America could crush any good novel. And it's not why these guys write, but that weight falls to them anyhow. Phil Klay won the National Book Award in 2014 for his collection of stories "Redeployment."

LAWRENCE: But I wanted to do was hopefully complicate the image of veterans of the Iraq war. I met Klay - where else? - at a bar in New York City.

PHIL KLAY: And you know, at no point did I think that I would be defining the veteran experience, but I was pretty skeptical of anybody who thought they could.

LAWRENCE: We were drinking with two other veteran novelists, but they didn't talk about war as much as they talked about writing.

ELLIOT ACKERMAN: I don't think anyone is probably particularly interested in writing that, you know, that offers a bunch of platitudes on the war.

LAWRENCE: Elliot Ackerman saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he's since covered the war in Syria as a journalist.

ACKERMAN: I think the best writing kind of leaves space for the reader to come to their own conclusions because if you introduce too much of yourself, you're going to crowd out the reader.

LAWRENCE: Ackerman takes that to heart. His upcoming novel, "Dark At The Crossing," is about an Arab-American determined to go fight in Syria. His previous book, "Green On Blue," is about a young Afghan caught up in the American-backed counter insurgency.

ACKERMAN: I remember I first gave Phil my novel "Green On Blue," and when he read it, he sort of looked at me and said, hey, Man, like, you wrote a really cynical book. And I almost took offense to it. I was like, I don't think I wrote a cynical book, but parts of the Afghan war - it can be pretty cynical I guess.

MATT GALLAGHER: You know, there's a broken idealism there.

KLAY: That's Matt Gallagher, author of the novel "Youngblood."

GALLAGHER: The people who joined the military after 9/11 that I remember, that I served with were more often than not coming from a place of idealism. It seems quaint now to say that given how the last 15 years played out. Yeah, that crookedness, the darkness is going to come out given the messy corners of the American empire we've been sent to and served in.

LAWRENCE: "Youngblood" is set in Iraq where Gallagher led a platoon in 2007. The book manages to be funny at times despite the tangle of human failings and betrayals among and between the Iraqi and American characters, not just good guys and bad guys.

GALLAGHER: A large segment of the population still interacts with these wars like its "Star Wars." And these aren't movies. This is real life. These are real people being heroes, being villains, being cowards, sometimes all three of those things in the same day - right? - 'cause that's real life.

LAWRENCE: One more Iraq vet is joining their ranks with a novel this summer. "War Porn" by Roy Scranton paints a bleak picture. Any idealism is replaced by indifference by amorality. Scranton says he wanted to write about complicity in what he calls an unjust war.

ROY SCRANTON: We cannot just keep worshipping veterans. They're just people. They're people who did a job. It's a dirty, nasty, demanding job, you know?

LAWRENCE: Scranton says he's deeply suspicious of the moral authority bestowed on veterans. Of course he sees the paradox. Many of his readers and anyone listening to this story is hearing it because Scranton is a veteran, so he does use that authority without mercy to expose readers to the evil of war.

SCRANTON: It worries me that we have this worship of military strength. I don't think that's good for America. I don't think that's the kind of America that we can be or should be.

LAWRENCE: Quil Lawrence, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.