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Every war has its literature. Usually the books come years after the guns go silent, but the post-Sept. 11 wars are now the longest in U.S. history, and with no clear end in sight, a growing cadre of veterans is writing fiction about them. Their stories about Iraq and Afghanistan don't have Hollywood gunfights, and they aren't action thrillers.
"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 grand battle," says writer Maximilian Uriarte. "And also, my deployment to Iraq wasn't like that." Uriarte wrote and illustrated The White Donkey, a graphic novel that follows a young Marine's journey to and from Iraq. It's mostly downtime at checkpoints and on patrols, which leaves him unprepared when the violence of the war does intrude. Uriarte says, "It's like the less action there is going on in a combat zone, the more stupid things get — the more rules there are, the more petty things become."
Uriarte also writes Terminal Lance, a comic strip that has a cult-like following among Marines. He says writing two comics a week for years has been an education for him — one he wants to share. "What I wanted for Marines [who] read this book is to read it and sort of gain a better insight to themselves, because I've been able ... to examine my own experience," he says.
Uriarte thinks civilians can also learn a lot about military culture from The White Donkey — but that's not who he wrote it for. And that's a problem for this new generation of veteran writers: Less than 1 percent of American families include a veteran, which puts the weight of explaining these wars on writers like Uriarte. That weight could crush any good novel — and it's not why these guys are writing.
Writer and veteran Phil Klay won the National Book Award in 2014 for his short story collection, Redeployment. "What I wanted to do was hopefully complicate the image of veterans of the Iraq War," he says. "... At no point did I think that I would be defining the veteran experience. ... I was pretty skeptical of anybody who thought they could."
Klay is one of a group of veteran novelists who keep in touch and review each other's work. When they go out for drinks, as they did on a recent summer day in New York, they're much more likely to talk about writing than about war.
"I don't think anyone is probably particularly interested in writing that offers a bunch of platitudes on the war," says Elliot Ackerman, who saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. "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."
Ackerman takes that to heart: His upcoming novel, Dark at the Crossing, is about an Arab-American determined to go fight in Syria, and his previous book, Green on Blue, follows a young Afghan caught up in the American-backed counter-insurgency.
"I first gave Phil my novel Green on Blue, and when he read it he said, 'Hey man, you wrote a really cynical book,' " Ackerman recalls. "And I almost took offense. ... But parts of the Afghan War can be pretty cynical, I guess."
"There's a broken idealism there," says Matt Gallagher, author of the novel Youngblood. "The people who joined the military after Sept. 11 that I remember, that I served with, were more often than not coming from a place of idealism. It seems quant 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."
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. "These are real people being heroes, being villains, being cowards," Gallagher says, "sometimes all three of those things in the same day, because that's real life."
When asked whether he's anti-war, Gallagher defers to Michael Pitre, an Iraq veteran and author of the novel Fives and Twenty-Fives. "Saying you're anti-war is like saying you're anti-suffering," Pitre tells NPR. "It's a simple thing to say in a complicated world."
The most recent novelist to join their ranks is Iraq veteran Roy Scranton. His book, War Porn, takes more of a clear stance: Scranton says he wanted to write about complicity in what he calls an unjust war. The book paints a bleak picture, with any idealism replaced by indifference and amorality.
"We cannot just keep worshipping veterans," Scranton says. "They're just people. They're people who did a job. It's a dirty, nasty, demanding job."
Scranton is deeply suspicious of the moral authority bestowed on veterans. "It worries me that we have this worship of military strength," he says. "I don't think that's good for America. I don't think that's the kind of American that ...we can be or should be."
Of course he sees the paradox: Many of his readers will find him because he's a veteran. So he does use that authority, without mercy, to expose his readers to the evil of war.
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