By THOMAS MOODY
The war in Afghanistan is entering its 18th year, putting it on course to be the longest war in America’s history. For almost a decade of this stretch, American troops were also engaged in a war in Iraq, meaning that the beginning of the 21st century will be remembered as one of the most-active periods for the U.S. military on record.
Astonishingly, less than 1 percent of the nation’s population has served in these conflicts. Compare this to the 12 percent of Americans who actively served in World War II. Most Americans today are not even acquainted with someone who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan, let alone are veterans themselves.
This gap is known as the military-civilian divide. It has been attributed in large part to the ending of the tradition of the “citizen-soldier” by the termination of conscription after the Vietnam War, and the establishment of a large, professional and all-volunteer standing force. It has allowed American society to continue on almost unburdened and undistracted by two of its longest-ever wars.
Closing this gap over the past decade or so, however, are a number of brilliant books written by Iraq and Afghanistan veterans upon their return home to the United States. Bringing with them their often harrowing, sometimes absurd and always revealing experiences, these veterans allow the civilian population to better comprehend the horrors, challenges and spectacles of war.
In 2014, Redeployment by Phil Klay won the National Book Award. A collection of 12 short stories, the book chronicles the experiences of soldiers and veterans who served in the Iraq war, with a particular focus on Operation Iraqi Freedom, which was fought between 2003 and 2010. Klay, who served in the Marine Corps from 2005 to 2009 and was deployed in Anbar Province, said that when he shared his plan to enter the military upon graduation from Dartmouth College, his teacher and mentor, the poet Tom Sleigh, “made sure…I’d read Tolstoy, Hemingway, Isaac Babel and David Jones. He thought it important to study what the greatest minds had to say about war.” Sleigh’s advice paid dividends for Klay, whose nuanced stories oscillate between the stoic and the vulnerable, the brutality of combat and the violence of its aftermath.
FOBBIT (Grove/Atlantic, 2012) by Dave Abrams is a wry, satirical look at the absurdities of the modern war machine. A “fobbit” is a soldier stationed at a forward operating base (FOB), a relatively safe rear area located in the middle of the action. Some FOBs are known to have Burger Kings, internet access and telephones. All this exists just yards away from the brutalities of active combat. Abrams, who is a former fobbit assigned to a public-affairs team in Iraq, uses the incongruity of realities to recreate a war of utter ridiculousness.
Abram’s protagonist, Staff Sgt. Chance Gooding Jr., is stationed at FOB Triumph, located in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces. Gooding is himself a public-affairs officer, responsible for turning the “sucking chest wounds and the dismemberments into something palatable—ideally, something patriotic.” While the fobbits are easy targets in their oasis of comfort, we should also never forget that these men and women volunteered for service during a period when the nation was engaged in two deadly wars. FOBBIT, therefore, is equal parts hilarious and harrowing.
Other books of note that help nonveterans get a clearer picture of the wars to which we are sending our young men and women are The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, War Porn by Roy Scranton, The Long Walk by Brian Castner, Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish (reviewed in the July 26, 2018, issue of the Queens Tribune), and Young Blood by Matt Gallagher.
These books represent a trend to accurately portray the experience of war in all its manifold facets—an experience that is becoming less common but no less important to understand.