Brian Van Reet

The Red and the Blue: Writing War in a Divided America

american library in paris

Adapted from a speech given at the American Library in Paris, 14 November 2018

To talk about America as a divided nation implies a period of greater unity in our past, which is, at best, an incomplete perception of history. One doesn’t even need to get into the profound racial divisions that have shaped our country to find a history that’s often vicious, dismal, and rife with violent struggle, including in the dominant culture’s narrative that has, as one possible starting point, colonial rebellion and revolutionary war. The Revolution was a kind of civil conflict, pitting Anglo-Americans against their fellow Anglo-Americans as well as Anglo-Americans against professional British soldiers. Fast forward past that messy birth about a century to the Civil War proper, and we find the worst of all our wars, by far, in terms of the number of American lives lost. Given the exact wrong conditions, we will not shy away from slaughtering each other on a massive scale. All large groups of humans, regardless of nationality, can probably say the same. Not all are so well-armed and proud as Americans. It’s worth keeping that in mind.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not here forecasting an imminent second civil war (or a third, if we count the Revolution). I am somewhat hopeful we aren’t approaching anything close to that. I don’t want to overstate things but let’s not understate them either. As it stands, our body politic is troublingly divided, probably more so than at any time since the late 1960’s and early 70’s. As is the case today, fifty years ago, we were a nation at war. As is the case today, it was a lengthy war, embarked upon for ideological reasons, and the fight continued long after credible insiders deemed it unwinnable and not worth the cost.

As is the case today, while this war raged on abroad, at home the nation was embroiled in a period of intense social and political change, with issues of race, gender, and sexuality at the forefront of the domestic culture war. Some sought peaceful change; others were willing to use violence. Police forces and national guardsmen brutalized protestors. The Klan burned and bombed churches. There were riots in Northern and Southern cities. College students chanted hyperbolic slogans and occupied buildings on campus. The U.S. president faced a special prosecutor and possible impeachment. Politically motivated terrorism was on the rise around the world. National leaders were assassinated by madmen and bigots. Charles Manson walked the earth, dreaming of a race war. As Twain said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

Detecting these rhymes can yield fruit, but the lessons learned are usually somewhat similar and non-specific. That’s because the thing that rhymes is human nature, which manifests in different ways over time but under essential conditions that change only as slowly (or sometimes as fast) as evolution allows. The interesting thing about history is that, even as human nature endures immutable in the timescale of individual lives, every era brings with it particular and unique problems that shape and define humanity anew and sometimes suddenly. 2005 was not 1965, as much as some of the Baby Boomers would have wanted it to be. Iraq was not Vietnam. Afghanistan is not Vietnam. There are big differences, starting with scale. Vietnam involved more troops, more bombs and more bloodshed than contemporary American conflicts (so far), which were once lumped together under the banner of “the Global War on Terror.” That was its official name for many years; for my overseas service I was awarded a War on Terror Campaign Ribbon. It always struck me as absurd. Terrorism is a tactic, a word that represents a tactic that is somewhat difficult to define and never self-applied. “Terrorism” is always used disparagingly to describe someone else’s actions. It’s a tactic, used by relatively small and powerless forces against larger, more conventionally powerful forces. In any case, how can we wage war on a tactic? How can that not be a self-defeating proposition? Tactics (cavalry charges and the like) are typically rendered obsolete by new technologies (machine guns, armored vehicles) and certainly aren’t defeated by occupying territory.

But if we’re not going to call it the War on Terror, what do we call it? For precision’s sake we might use the phrase “post-9-11 wars” to indicate the timeframe and precipitating event. Nowadays, many veterans and commentators have taken to lumping the various conflicts together as “the Forever War,” which obviously and sardonically refers to the fact that we’ve been at it for a generation. Another major difference between then and now: the Vietnam War ended. The war in Afghanistan continues and is now the longest in our nation’s history. The son or daughter of a soldier who fathered that child just prior to his deployment in 2002 soon will be old enough, at age seventeen in 2019, to enlist to fight in the same war, perhaps the same Afghan valley, as Dad did. The war is old enough to drive. Soon it’ll be old enough to vote. Odds are it won’t in a midterm. Sad, pathetic, Forever War it is.

On the American side the force is all-volunteer, including civilian contractors, also sometimes known as mercenaries, whom I resented while I was in, because they were doing basically the same job as I was but getting three or more times the pay. “All-volunteer” could not exist without these contractors. Many of them are doing work that uniformed soldiers should be the only ones to do for the good of our national moral and legal accounting. No offense if you were a contractor; it’s possible for a good Marxist to smoke cigarettes made by capitalists and vice versa, so I don’t hold it against you personally. But any big enough war will typically require conscript or slave armies, including slaves to the dollar, and this American war is different in that respect only insofar as war-profiteering and the privatization of international conflict are more tolerated, and make up a larger percentage of the overall military effort, than ever before in our history. “All-volunteer” is self-limiting. “All-volunteer” is entirely contingent on what you might call temporal legal realities.

For example, I did not feel so voluntary during the year I spent in Baghdad on stop-loss orders that held me in the army a year-and-a-half past my initial separation date. During that window I deployed with the First Cavalry Division as one of a tank crew, though we rode around in an unarmored truck for the first part of 2004, doing light infantry and police-type missions, including IED sweeps and a lot of guard duty, until we finally got our tanks in July. Whoever had planned our deployment had assumed our brigade wouldn’t need more than a few companies’ worth of tanks, since the war was won, after all, with Bush proclaiming mission accomplished. Things changed a few months later, which speaks to war’s essential unpredictability, its tendency to increase, to burn out, rather than fade away.

At times I was uncertain about my chances of ever getting out of the army, let alone on the day or even the year I’d thought I would. Un-volunteering—in other words, quitting—had occurred to me, as it did to others, but like most, I never seriously considered it as an option. For one, those pesky temporal legal realities. And human nature. Fear, shame, and pride. As a sergeant I would’ve felt, and I’d say rightly, that I had abandoned my soldiers, the two that actually belonged to me. More than that, I would’ve felt like I was letting all the guys in the company down. Many of them had become close friends over the couple years I had spent on active duty. Others I couldn’t stand and would have gladly left.

There are all kinds of people in the military, roughly the entire American demographic, including non-citizen immigrants, racial minorities, and all strata of the socioeconomic ladder. The composition of the military reflects the wider society’s in its various diversities, not perfectly, but it is closer to a reflection of America than some people assume. It’s not just poor kids fighting, though they are. The military does skew conservative and Southern. And the biggest difference from broader society is gendered: the military is overwhelmingly male, around 85%. Overall, it is a politically engaged group, or at least produces political engagement in its alumni; volunteer hours, voting rates, and other measures of civic engagement are higher among veterans than civilians, and historically, veterans have been substantially overrepresented as members of Congress and as presidents.

It’s something of a self-selecting group, and never more so than in modern times. The lack of a draft is a key, perhaps the key, to understanding the modern military and its perception and function in wider society, including when it comes to representations of the military in popular culture. At one point everyone who enlists ostensibly volunteers, is brought to, visited by, or comes in to see a recruiter, talks it over, and says, okay, I’ll do it.

I was a walk-in. I did not have to be convinced to join. I was the where-do-I-sign type, my mind already made up, mostly because I was more wild, impulsive and romantic than patriotic, but I had enough of that feeling to take pride of ownership. At one point in the fall of 2001 I raised my right hand of my own free will and swore the oath of enlistment. I truly was a volunteer, failing in some ways as a young adult at age 20, but definitely with the sense that I had options other than the army. I was the kind of person who would not have volunteered for military service in peacetime—not to say I would never have pursued service of some kind, though probably not such a serious form of it at twenty years old, if it hadn’t involved the allure of blowing stuff up. To discount this particular allure is to fail completely to understand why most kids join combat arms. I was like a lot of the ones I became friends with. Somewhat destructive and reckless. Wanting glory. Wanting to prove myself. Wanting to fight. I thought the fight was justifiable enough to meet my moral standards. Clearly, we could not coexist in the world with people who would hijack jet airliners and use them to murder thousands of innocents with religion as justification. I didn’t believe in any religion, though I was interested in the subject and had taken a couple classes in Islam at the University of Virginia from Professor Abdulaziz Sachedina, a fascinating and charismatic man who I only recently learned had once been summoned to a tense meeting in Najaf with Ayatollah Sistani, a prominent Iraqi cleric who would have some degree of power over my life or death, given his importance to the Shia community in Iraq and my proximity to the same. The world is small. I didn’t know how small it was back when I dropped out of college and enlisted. And I’m not sure now whether its smallness gives me more hope or less.

War scares me because it’s such a human thing to do, not because it’s particularly monstrous or aberrant. There are all kinds of ways people end up in wars, and varying degrees of choice in it. I’m the odd duck. Conscripts and impressed soldiers, not volunteers, have likely been the more common kind by proportion over the course of human history, certainly in the period we know of, after cities arose and large armies began marching on each other. If the battle lines are long enough, an all-volunteer force usually doesn’t cut it.

Issues related to the draft or lack of one (i.e., sublimated civilian adoration and guilt over the ab/use of the all-volunteer force) are to a large degree responsible for the period of bizarre cultural schizophrenia that we find ourselves in when it comes to the military. At the same time that there’s a striking lack of public engagement with our use of lethal force around the globe, we nevertheless see ideologues on both sides (but the right is perniciously guilty of) using the very same disregarded military and veterans as straw men and women in tired culture-war debates that very seldom even take the war as their subject, instead revolving around shows of protest or patriotism: national anthems and fighter jets over football stadiums, yellow ribbon bumper stickers, thank-you-for-your-service platitudes, free meals for vets at strip mall chain restaurants one day a year: and some of that is welcome, I’m not completely ungrateful, but on the other hand, I’d rather see my countrymen save their elaborate displays of gratitude and instead support efficient charities, veteran-owned small businesses, or buy and read a few books by veterans, educate themselves on issues of war and peace, and—most of all—vote. Veterans only get one vote, same as everybody else. Patriotic talk falls flat for me in a country where one party is actively suppressing the vote, and only around half the eligible population, regardless of party, votes in national elections. Voting and extending the franchise are infinitely more patriotic activities than waving the flag. Once upon a time, young people shamed the old into passing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing their right to vote at the same age that they were seen as fit to die for their country. Some would say it’s hard to imagine something similar happening these days. I’d say, maybe so, but big changes could be sooner in coming than you think.

We are reaching constitutional inflection points. The U.S. Constitution, the oldest such written document still in use anywhere in the world, is creaking under the weight of all those years. Nothing in it that I know of specifically prohibits the politicization of the military, other than the supermajority required to declare war (a rule we politely disregard nowadays). With this said, DOD regulations restrict the military’s political activities because the military has rightly judged itself to be dangerous and potentially undemocratic. Among other things, these regulations prohibit military personnel from campaigning for office for themselves or others while literally in uniform. The regs do not so constrain the commander in chief, and Trump’s use of the army as a show of force on the Southern border in an operation that neatly overlapped the 2018 midterms can only be interpreted by a rational observer as a political stunt.

The men and women who deployed as part of this sham mission are said to be “citizen soldiers.” I would argue that after seventeen years of war with no draft, they represent something closer to a professional samurai caste that one enters due to his or her circumstances, including, as in the case of actual samurai, one’s heredity. The Pentagon found that 77% to 86% of 2012-13 military recruits (with the percentage depending on service branch) had a close relative who had already served. Compared to previous eras of American history, even the enlisted ranks of the military increasingly constitute a family trade, not a civic duty. Retired army general David Barno told Time magazine in 2011, “It’s an ever-decreasing circle of folks on these isolated military posts who raise their own kids and send them into the force.”

The glaringly obvious corrective to this moral problem is a draft. Or, perhaps, a retrenchment and end to hostilities. Both are political third-rails. The draft may seem farfetched, as if we would never be so barbaric as to go back to it, but during most modern wars the U.S. government has had to rely on conscription to fill out its ranks. The draft will not return because the United States finally finds its sense of collective duty, but out of necessity. If we stumble into a big enough war, we’ll get a draft. Until then, one shouldn’t advocate for it out of some desired political outcome, but because of a desired moral and societal outcome: what is the most just and equitable way to share the burden of war?

Such a reckoning might start with Congress reclaiming its war-making powers. War is a constitutionally specified state that we never enter into anymore, but which we are also, nevertheless, always somehow in. When polled, Americans don’t want war, but we keep getting it. Some of the most successful politicians on the national level in the past few decades have at least paid lip service to the idea of bringing home troops, but when it comes to realities on the ground, the overriding sentiment is one of resignation. It is what it is; it goes on, no matter what we do. Some months back, the Washington Post ran a piece about more American kids being killed in school shootings than at war. In 2018, this is where we’re at. We use the steady state waste of the Forever War to draw attention to the even more horrific waste of younger children. Our misadventures in Southwest Asia haven’t been majorly politically relevant for a decade. Healthcare matters more to the average voter. Taxes matter. Jobs. Immigration. Abortion. Standing or kneeling on the gridiron—even that seems to matter more, mostly for the wrong reasons. Kids in Yemen killed by American-made munitions matter much less, sadly.

Contemporary American indifference to its wars is due to several factors. Despite the extraordinary lengths of these wars, they have been fought by relatively few Americans. During World War II, about 12% of the population served in some military capacity, not all overseas. During Vietnam it was about 4%. Today, less than 1% have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Those who have, average around two deployments each. Over 200,000 army soldiers have deployed three or more times, and it’s not uncommon to hear, especially in the Special Forces community, of five, six, seven tours of combat duty or more. In September 2018, an army sergeant major was killed in Afghanistan on his 13th combat deployment. It’s shameful for us to ask so much of any one person, even if they’re willing. It breeds the he-knew-what-he-signed-up-for shrug of indifference that greets the news of servicemembers’ deaths when people hear about them at all.

We live in our bubbles, our secure echo chambers, some more impermeable than others. The military is no different. Most soldiers live in somewhat remote communities on bases where constant rotation in and out of warzones has become the new normal. Most Americans have little firsthand knowledge of that lifestyle. A miniscule proportion have any firsthand experience of combat. The war is “burning” far away and at a low enough rate to make it forgettable in a media landscape saturated with scandal and spectacle. As a result of all these factors and more, the present degree of disconnection between the military and civilian populations, often referred to as the civil-military divide, is unprecedented in modern times.


One way you might expect knowledge of the military and war to be imparted to civilians is through books. Generically, we make meaning out of our lives by telling and receiving stories; historically, war literature has functioned in this way, as an outlet for a culture to express a sense of how and why it fought, what values it thought it was fighting for, who the heroes and villains were said to be. Pretty much every empire we know of has done it like this; the theme of war has persisted in literature going back to the earliest texts in the Western canon, the epic poetry and tragedies of ancient Greece, and so on.

Cable news now holds more cultural sway than poetry or novels, and what it dispenses may be as much mesmerizing effect as knowledge. Yet the art of war does endure—both onscreen and off. A couple people have told me my book reminded them of a TV show, Homeland. I’m not sure why, maybe it’s just that there are hostages in both stories; I have to say I haven’t seen Homeland. I’ve read a lot of books on these wars, seen many movies, but haven’t yet scratched the surface with the TV shows, nor with contemporary visual art about war, contemporary theater, and I’ve even heard of an all-veteran dance troupe but haven’t seen them in action.

The point is that no one art form can lay claim to the truth, including when it comes to the U.S. military. But as books are my thing, that’s what I can use to best illustrate some of the divisions in America today as they relate to the culture and politics of war. I don’t necessarily mean partisan politics, but the entire apparatus, what the Greeks called the polis, the decision-making body that a democratic society envisions itself to be.

War literature is inherently political, even when it’s not self-awarely political. Because I believe this is true, I also believe it can be useful to talk about war literature in political terms. A friend of mine, the writer Brian Castner, once told me something that I liked along these lines. He said there are essentially two kinds of books being published on contemporary war: red books and blue books, with these colors corresponding to the competing portions of the American electorate.

Categorization, especially through dichotomies, is to some degree a fungible and artificial thing to do, and the red-blue divide, including when it comes to war books, is no different. Take it with a grain of salt, as an expression of something that exists, rather than the thing itself. It should also be said that in this scheme, the color of a given book does not necessarily correspond to the personal political affiliation, if any, of its author. Nor is it simply a red-is-bad, blue-is-good value judgment. Though, if forced, I would color myself blue, there are red war books I respect. In any case, what makes one red or blue is not so much who wrote it and what that person believes, but who tends to read their work, and, most crucially, how it is sold.

In determining a book’s color, one cannot avoid questions about the market. Would the author be featured on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, or would s/he be more likely to appear on Fox News? Not to say one couldn’t do both spots, but it would be unprecedented for a contemporary war writer, as far as I know. [Note: after I posted this essay, I was made aware that at least a few war writers have been featured on both NPR and Fox, including Jason Hartley, the aforementioned Castner, and Kayla Williams, author of the acclaimed memoir Love My Rifle More Than You. On Twitter both Williams and Castner expressed agreement with my argument here and felt they were exceptions that proved the rule: these media outlets, generally, are mutually exclusive.] The answer to the publicist’s perennial question—Where do we pitch this book?—says a lot about its intended audience as well as media gatekeepers themselves, what they think is important and interesting in a war story.

Here are some other questions to illustrate the market for war literature.

If the book were turned into a movie, would it be more of a bang-bang summer blockbuster or possible best-picture Oscar bait?

Is the book getting lots of buzz from high profile critics, or could you buy it in a supermarket?

Is the book mostly about veterans who return to the United States with issues, or is it set totally in war, a tale of heroes and bad guys more than postwar trauma?

Has the book won a literary prize?

Is it about or written by a commando?

Would its readership be more likely to assume war is a foolish waste or a necessary evil?

Those are some essential questions to ponder. Here are some concrete examples. Contemporary red war books include American Sniper, Lone Survivor, No Easy Day, Carnivore, most of the books written by generals, many of the popular military histories, especially tales of specific campaigns or extraordinary missions, and many genre war books in the vein of writers like Tom Clancy.

Contemporary blue war books include Redeployment, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, The Yellow Birds, Cherry, basically all of the other literary novels written by Americans about post-9-11 war, and also many works by combat journalists, including Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, Sebastien Junger’s War, and others.

Are there are cross-over “purple” books that appeal to both red and blue readers? Sure, and some of the ones I’ve mentioned may be closer to purple than a pure primary color. Categories are fungible; classification is a matter of degree. Even if we think of the red-blue divide as two poles on a color spectrum, it’s still evident that modern war writing is a more highly charged genre than most, when it comes to politics.

To get a better sense of how and why, it might be helpful to look more closely at two books that typify the red and the blue in contemporary American war literature. I’ve chosen these two, not because they are the best, biggest, or even the most representative, but because they in some way exemplify their type.

On the red side is Carnivore by Dillard Johnson, a retired Army sergeant who commanded a Bradley fighting vehicle during the invasion of Iraq. Carnivore was published in 2013, and in the marketing material accompanying the book, its publisher, William Morrow, claimed Mr. Johnson was responsible for killing 2,746 enemy combatants.

That was a major selling point, and it was widely questioned, including by me in an article for the New York Times: “A problematic genre, the ‘kill memoir.’” The Times put ‘kill memoir’ in quotes because I guess I coined the term. It seemed a natural one to define this publishing phenomenon. In my article about it I defined kill memoirs as those that primarily trade, not upon skill or depth in writing, but on the heroic trials of an extraordinary warrior, as well as his readers’ morbid curiosity for the intimate details of him taking human life.

In Dillard Johnson’s case, it doesn’t take military expertise to realize that the sergeant, fierce as he must have been, did not kill thousands of people in the Iraq War. This claim is bogus, and common sense and access to the internet are enough to make that clear. If he had actually killed the number of people attributed to him by his publisher, it would make him personally responsible for the deaths of about one in seven enemy combatants that the American government reported killed in action during the first four years of the Iraq war, never mind the initial phase that Mr. Johnson served in.

If Carnivore was marketed as the story of how much punishment one man can dole out in war, Nico Walker’s Cherry—an exemplary blue book—has been sold to readers as nearly the inverse kind of war story: an account of how much misery, including the self-inflicted kind, one man can absorb before he snaps and brings the war home, so to speak.

The first thing to know about Cherry is that unlike Carnivore, which is most charitably a kind of ghost-written testimonial, Cherry is artfully done. Not everyone will like it, but it is a work of literature in that it strives to do something more with language than merely tell a tale. It is a dark story, but it’s important to reiterate that the description I just gave of the book is not the one Nico Walker actually wrote. The whole “bringing the war home” thing is less a real theme in the book, and more of an accurate description of the idea of the book as it is being sold to readers.

Mr. Walker, its author, is presently serving time in a federal prison for a string of bank robberies. That his novel (in part about bank robbery) was written behind bars on a typewriter has been one of its chief selling points, Walker’s equivalent to 2,746 dead bodies. Except, here on the blue side, the most factually sensationalistic selling point—the book’s grasp on absolute authenticity and authority, the imprisoned author—really is true.

The thing that makes Cherry an exemplary blue book is not that it happens to be well written or widely and positively reviewed, but that it contains a potent mixture of themes that would lead many heavyweight blue critics to become interested in reviewing it in the first place. These include the brutality and pointlessness of war, broken veterans running amok at home, the opioid epidemic, violent crime, blighted Midwestern cities, soulless youth: the abject failure of American imperialism.

The critical buzz around Cherry helped to move enough hardbacks in a week to make it the rare veteran-authored work of literature—the third such Iraq war novel that I know of in fifteen years—to chart in the New York Times fiction bestseller list. The other two have been Redeployment and The Yellow Birds, both of which won or were finalists for the National Book Award. No Iraq War fiction has been a mega-bestseller or Pulitzer Prize winner. There have been multiple veteran-authored Iraq and Afghanistan books to chart on the non-fiction side without gathering much if any critical acclaim. I would guess several more vet books have charted on that side, but I don’t track war nonfiction as closely as I do fiction of any kind. In general, nonfiction sells better. American Sniper has sold more copies, perhaps by orders of magnitude, than even the best-selling work of Iraq war fiction, and the movie inspired by Chris Kyle’s book is now the top-grossing war film of all time, surpassing Saving Private Ryan.

So why does a red book like American Sniper do so much better in the American marketplace than the blue war books, even when the blue books happen to be better written and more widely reviewed at the time of publication? Put another way, the question is: Who most wants to read about war nowadays? In a country like the United States, where relatively few people have experienced war firsthand or believe they are likely to experience it, those people who do want to read about war will probably either be A) the 1% who have been touched by it, mostly current or former military or their families; or B) those without firsthand experience but who, for whatever reason, have an abstract fascination with the subject: military history buffs, activists, weapons aficionados, survivalists, clinicians, academics, reenactors, policy wonks, war gamers, et cetera.

Red war books do better in the marketplace because they offer the type of war story that most appeals to red demographic groups that tend to outnumber the blue readers who are specifically and highly interested in war. Will your average military history buff pick up a book of somewhat oblique literary fiction about veterans failing to re-acclimate to civilian life, or will he be more interested in a straightforward book offering incredible real-life heroics during World War II? I’d say for that type of reader, it’ll be the book of heroes, most times. Additionally, there is some evidence that the red/blue political divide in America correlates to levels of empathy, which is relevant to the selection of war literature. Red war readers generally don’t want to feel your pain: they want to feel the pain as it is doled out on the battlefield to terrorist enemies who, by the end of the story, will be found twitching on the floor. Meanwhile, for sensitive blue readers, ongoing real wars may be too painful a subject to want to sit with for the length of a book, fictional or not. They may feel like the nightly news is enough, and they can barely stand to watch that anymore.

Enthusiastic red war readers outnumber the blue, thus the red books typically sell better. I can’t prove it yet but I have a strong sense that is the case. There are also other cultural headwinds working against the blue war books. Women typically buy more books of any kind than men, and this is especially true of literary fiction. I have heard much anecdotal evidence that women are turned off by the misogyny in war literature. It’s a real problem: the U.S. military is to a degree trying to reform itself, but it remains a macho, oftentimes misogynistic culture. Honest literature about it should reflect this reality. The problem is: how to do it without turning off female readers.

Another drag on blue books is a jaded idea floating around some corners of the literary zeitgeist, an effete tendency to think of war and especially combat as a retrograde, brutish, and ultimately uninteresting theme for a novel. In a recent review for the Wall Street Journal, Matt Gallagher talks about this problem:

Irish book critic Edna Longley once labeled war writing a “ghetto” of literature. She was mocking its stigma, of course, but also identifying it. I myself confronted it last summer at a writers’ conference in Vermont. Over dinner, upon learning that I was a veteran who sometimes writes about combat, a famous American writer confessed that he was bored by the subject and asked, “What new can be said?” I didn’t feel frustration so much as relief. Here, finally, was a man of letters willing to say it. If nothing else, I appreciated his candor.

Beyond the late-empire impulse to think of our wars as passé, there is also a reluctance, even at times a hostility on the part of some American leftists, including leftist writers and book critics, to engage with any literary product of the so-called all-volunteer force. This hostility comes out, like everything else, through social media, in comments sections, and even in the New York Times. In an article about a former border patrol agent’s memoir that had ignited controversy, Javier Zamorra, a poet and one of the memoir’s critics, was quoted as saying: “The book resembles veteran writing and the dilemma that poses. Would you rather read a book by an Iraqi or something by an Iraq War veteran? I go for the Iraqi writer.”

This thought is not original or unique to Zamorra. I’ve seen it elsewhere but not usually put so bluntly. The accusation implicit against Iraq veteran war writers, and against Francisco Cantu, the author of the border patrol memoir in question—which is deeply critical of the border patrol, by the way—is that Cantu and the vets are profiting off their complicity in past injustices by writing and publishing works that, whatever their specific content or achievements, are thought to be fundamentally exploitative, a way of plundering Iraq a second time over. Once in Baghdad, once again on the page.

Is there merit to this accusation? By publishing my novel, did I profit off the war that I fought in? Yes, literally, I did. I called my book Spoils. But to Mr. Zamorra and those who think like him, I would say this: If I really wanted to profit off war, I would have become, not a writer, but a banker, or a military contractor, or a politician. My novel’s publication represents a decade of striving and, on a per-diem basis, we’re not talking lawyer money, not even public defender money. I would not advise anyone to turn to literary fiction as a get-rich-quick scheme. I would say, if you really want to understand the subject of the Iraq War through reading, and aren’t simply trying to signal your own moral purity, why not read widely and without prejudice, including titles penned by Iraqis and those by American veterans. That’s what I do. There’s no rule that says you can’t. Unless it’s a self-imposed, small-minded and exclusionary rule.

One of my tank commanders once told me that military officers eat their own young. In matters literary and political, the American left sometimes does that, too. The far right is ascendant and will eat us all, if we let them.


It’s useful to consider the political aspect of modern war writing. It’s also useful to think about the common traits shared by the most successful books in this genre, regardless of what side of the red-blue divide they fall on. American Sniper, Lone Survivor, No Easy Day, Redeployment, Cherry, and The Yellow Birds together represent six of the top-selling post-9-11 war narratives of the last decade. Three of these are fiction, and three are memoir. Three red, three blue. Three have been adapted into major motion pictures, with a fourth on the way. All six were written by combat veterans, who are also all white men. Phil Klay is a modest person and doesn’t claim to be a combat vet because he didn’t fire his weapon, but he was deployed and saw the carnage in Iraq, so I say he is one. Even when it comes to the fiction titles, and Klay’s Redeployment is one of those, all of the narratives hew relatively close to the author’s own identity and experience. For example, the stories in Redeployment are told from a variety of perspectives, but every narrator is male and American. The Yellow Birds is narrated entirely in the first person by a character who bears many similarities to the author, Kevin Powers. The correspondences between the narrator and author of Cherry are even more strikingly close.

Other than the elements of timing and luck that are involved in making any hit, why have these six books sold well? It can’t just be that they are all well written, because some of them aren’t, and many books that are, don’t sell. What else is being affirmed here? Authenticity, for one. Whether in fiction or in memoir, red or blue, people seem to want their modern war stories told by those who were really there, in a voice very much like the author’s own. Exceptions can be found: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a notable one, a masterly war story, mostly set stateside, but with a few scenes of combat and impeccably accurate military detail, all written by a civilian who did his research. For the most part, however, authenticity of identity rules the day when it comes to in-the-ranks war fiction. The based-on-a-true-story quality is a big part of the success of both red and blue books.

Seemingly, being a white male is, too. Writer and Air Force officer Matthew Komatsu considers this problem in an interesting article for The Millions called, “The Uncomfortable Whiteness of War Literature.” Komatsu arrives at several conclusions. One: while black and brown people make up a minority of combat arms soldiers, even as a minority they are under-represented as authors of major works of American war literature. Two: this under-representation is a complex problem and not simply the result of racism within publishing. Three: when biases in publishing do exist, they may work in counterintuitive ways to discourage black authors. As an example, Komatsu quotes an African-American veteran named Mary Doyle, who has co-authored two memoirs and is the author of a mystery series featuring a black protagonist who’s a master sergeant. As an MFA student, Doyle was urged by her white workshop cohorts to “reflect the angst of being black”. “I couldn’t relate,” she said. Komatsu reports that trying to adopt the feedback given to her in this MFA program left Doyle with an inauthentic feeling, and that she ended up leaving her MFA for financial reasons but with a new awareness of how she fit into white expectations of a black author. She gave up on mainstream publishing after being pushed by agents and editors to better reflect “The Black Experience” in her writing. Now, she self-publishes.

I am interested in questions raised by a case like Doyle’s: What happens when a black writer wants to write about something other than blackness, mainly? Do white people still pay attention to that? Or conversely, what happens when a white writer wants to write about something other than whiteness? In the case of my own novel, it’s a white male veteran writing about a woman soldier and an Egyptian veteran of jihad, in addition to one other main character who is much more like me on the surface, though less so in spirit. Writing a book like this, should I expect to be called out, regardless of my work’s merits, for appropriating identities that aren’t mine to tell about? What is up with our obsession with authenticity, anyway? Is our culture so fake and skin deep as to make it the aesthetic value to celebrate and defend above all?

Beyond trends in publishing, audience expectations, and the pressure to play to them, Komatsu identifies other structural factors working against minority war writers. One is a problem of perception. Writing a book requires a firm sense of ego and belief. To write a book, one has to believe firmly that it’s possible. Since most successful war writers are (and have been) white men, people who aren’t may be wrongly discouraged from even trying to write a war book. And those who do try will have to be in the right position to see the project through, in possession of a good education or with ready access to one, and with enough freedom or outside financial support to buy time to produce the many failed efforts that inevitably accumulate on the road to literary success. It takes years, a decade, to get good at writing. A lot of people just coming out of the military can’t afford to take a chance on a decade. Those who can, tend to be wealthier and whiter than the rest. Not always, but that is the statistical reality of our military and of the broader society that feeds it.

Some of that is changing, and the future of war literature and how it is critically considered will continue to better reflect America in its enormous size and diversity. As part of this broadening, we should refine and complicate our ideas of what a war book is and who war writers are. Toni Morrison has written about the world wars and the Civil War—why is she so seldom considered as a war writer? Ditto with Philip Roth, who served briefly in the army, wrote one of the 20th century’s best military-themed short stories, “Defender of the Faith,” and who often set his novels during wartime: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, using these overseas conflicts as an ironic backdrop for the main plot that unfolds at home. Roth never wrote combat fiction, but that is only one type of war story; we should broaden our idea of what war literature is and who produces it. It’s certainly not a genre limited to writers who are also war veterans. Many of the best books I’ve read on war were written by civilians.

Another thing that is surely true about the future of post-9-11 war writing is that, more than a decade in, the genre is still nascent, with more standout works yet to come. Two of my favorite Vietnam War novels, Tree of Smoke and Matterhorn, were published more than thirty years after the U.S. withdrawal from Saigon. Several major World War II novels came out in the 1940’s; others, like Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, and Gravity’s Rainbow, were decades slower to germinate. And those are just the veteran-authored works. To this day, World War II continues to function as the setting for any number of big books and high budget war movies, to the point that more take that war as their subject than recent or ongoing U.S. wars, which, because they are happening now, affecting real people who are still living, would seem somewhat more urgent for Hollywood to dramatize. Then again, war art can be escapist fantasy just like any other art can, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing; to escape is a fine reason for art.

The World War II narratives are far enough removed in both time and space to be relatively politically innocuous territory for most Americans to inhabit. Shed of politics, war can therefore be comfortably experienced as historical fantasy. Any relevance to our own time must be interpreted on the level of symbol: whether we should have fought World War II is not commonly in dispute. This degree of remove and the existential stakes of that war arguably make it easier for mass numbers of readers and viewers to identify with its American participants, to slip into the story, to experience the satisfaction of imagining themselves on the front lines in a time of great national trial, but finally, triumph, unity, moral clarity—the perception of those things, at least. We’re talking about war stories, not the war itself. The latter is mostly unknown, and when it comes to the stories, American audiences of all stripes are politically reeling to an extent we haven’t seen for generations. Paradoxically, in these dangerous and uncertain times, Americans would seem to prefer a politically clarified backdrop for their war stories. Having lived for a generation under the shadow of a conflict that’s been longer, more ill-defined, and also smaller than World War II, audiences are attracted to that past war’s sense of uniformity, its epic scale and definite national boundaries. In a morally grey age, they want superheroes more than murky dramas about the occupation of Iraq. In all places, everywhere, people want a good beginning, middle, and clarifying end—and especially the sense of an ending. That is one thing the Forever War most definitely lacks. I wonder, then, about such an unsatisfying structure. Who can really blame us for wanting to escape it?


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The Guardian’s Best Fiction of 2017
30 November 2017, 14:53
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Spoils makes the list, compiled by Justine Jordan:

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Italian cover for SPOILS (SPOGLIE)
19 November 2017, 16:07
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Coming from Guanda:


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SPOILS U.S. Paperback Cover
31 October 2017, 13:18
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Look for it next April:

Spoils paperback cover


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“Eat the Spoil” Named a Distinguished Story in The Best American Short Stories 2015

The story first appeared in The Missouri Review Vol. 37.1.


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“Communications Blackout” is published in the Antioch Review
22 July 2015, 18:02
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Antioch Review Volume 73 Number 3

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“The Chaff” is published in the Iowa Review

the Iowa Review Volume 45 Issue 1

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